Martin Whittaker reports
Think of boarding schools and the chances are you will think of bastions of tradition such as Eton or Harrow. The sector has never managed to shake off its elitist image. A stereotype perhaps, but such schools are still associated with rugger, regattas, cricket teas and cold showers.
Boarding schools are now keen to show themselves to be carers and under new proposals they could become havens for vulnerable children who are suitable for boarding education.
The Department for Education and Skills is working with the independent and state boarding sector to find ways of offering more places to looked-after children, or those excluded from mainstream schools who are suitable candidates.
Some boarding schools already take vulnerable children. King Edward's looks like a traditional public school. Set in 100 acres near Godalming in Surrey, it has 300 boarders and charges full boarding fees of pound;6,320 a term.
The school could be a model for what the DfES is considering. Founded in 1553 to take destitute children off London's streets, today around a third of its pupils get financial support. Many are from what the head describes as "vulnerable backgrounds".
It provides means-tested bursaries. Six pupils are supported by local authorities of whom two have been in care.
So is boarding school good for them? Kerr Fulton-Peebles, the headteacher, thinks so. "Their learning outcomes are far better than otherwise would have been expected.I think they're doing well in all senses - socially, culturally, academically."
He says that while boarding school is not for everybody, those supported by local authorities have no problem fitting in at his school. The issue is not about whether such children will settle, but to do with a popular misunderstanding about the nature of many boarding schools.
"We have quite a large proportion of children from vulnerable backgrounds - some of whom have come from local authorities - so we would say that we have a very eclectic mix of pupils," he says.
Sixth-former Harriet Wilding praises the support the school has given her.
When she was eight her mother was left severely disabled by a stroke, and she and her elder brother were offered places at King Edward's.
Her mother has been receiving 24-hour-a-day care and Harriet says being away at school has given her valuable respite. "Going away from home was a little daunting but I enjoyed King Edward's from the start. The school has just got better and better," she says.
"I love my mum and I'm happy to look after her in any way that I can, but while I'm at school I can concentrate on learning, playing sport, and enjoying my musical interests."
The Government's education white paper says that boarding schools can meet the needs of some children in difficult family situations who require additional support to prevent family breakdown or a move into the care system.
This would be a small number of children but, says the document, "we believe that boarding provision should be used in more cases than at present, where a careful assessment of the child's individual needs indicates that this would be beneficial".
The DfES is planning to pilot the scheme with local authorities, with children starting at the schools in September 2007.
"We are not suggesting that boarding is the answer in all cases," said a DfES spokesman. "But it's important that where boarding can help, it should be considered. Even if only a few hundred children a year might benefit, it's still worth doing."
The push has come mainly from boarding schools both state and independent.
A recent conference on the proposal attracted around 95 schools, from both sectors.
State boarding schools have embraced the initiative. There are more than 30 in England and Wales with a much more diverse pupil intake than independent schools as parents pay only boarding fees - a fraction of the full fees at some independent schools.
Melvyn Roffe, chairman of the State Boarding Schools Association, says ignorance or confusion about the role of state boarding schools has been widespread but the sector is gaining more recognition as the joining-up of children's services makes boarding an attractive option.
"We are keen to make our schools more accessible but we are the ones who are responsible for the health and safety of the children in our school 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And we have to be convinced of every child's suitability to board."
Mr Roffe says that pupils who have charitable trust or local education-authority support are often some of the most successful pupils.
"A child who has gained a place at a boarding school feels that they have achieved something," he said. "Their self-esteem is continued on page boosted. For a child whose home background is chaotic or possibly abusive, to have another life that they can slip into in term time is an enormous support."
The Royal Alexandra and Albert school in 260 acres of parkland in Surrey is a voluntary-aided boarding school which was formed from two royal orphanages.
With 450 boarders aged seven to 18, it is one of the biggest boarding schools in the country and also allocates places to what it calls "foundationers" - pupils funded by charitable trust.
Head Paul Spencer Ellis backs plans to include more vulnerable children.
But he says: "There has been talk of building boarding schools as well, and I think that would be a disaster. So would building a boarding house attached to an existing day school.
"If they did that then everyone would know that a boarder was one of those children. In my school 50 of the boarders are foundationers and nobody knows who is who. Therefore there's no stigmatisation."
He says independent schools taking on vulnerable pupils would have to be prepared to pay for the "full package" such as skiing trips and field trips abroad to avoid singling out children paid for by local authorities.
Not everyone in the sector is convinced sending vulnerable children to boarding school is a good idea. Peter Johnson is head of Millfield school in Somerset, Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's old school.
"What do we mean by vulnerable?" he asks. "Do we mean they are at risk at home and are subject to child abuse?
"I would think very carefully before I accepted a pupil in that situation in a boarding school. We would have to be very clear that we were equipped to deal with that extreme level of vulnerability."
Mr Johnson says the cultures of social services and independent schools are very different. While he says his school has a very good relationship with social services, "there are still a lot of practitioners in social services who have never been to a boarding school and don't know what it's like".
Hertfordshire is the one authority confirmed as taking part in the pilot.
Its director of children, schools and families, John Harris, says it holds some real opportunities, but also some key challenges - one of which is how both sides work together.
He said boarding schools and local authorities may need to make changes to bring this about. "I don't think it's the same as simply saying that independent schools will carry on doing what they did before, but more local authorities will now invest in places.
"We need to have an understanding about what the needs of young people are and identify where the provision actually meets those needs and where the gaps are."
One issue he highlights comes back to the perception that some professionals working with children have about boarding schools. The two sides are going to have to get to know each other much better.
"Sometimes people have views which may be based on their own experience of 30 years ago, or may be based on no experience at all but rather on assumptions," he says. "So I think there is something for professionals in the field in understanding the potential that those schools have."