From social services to ... Eton?

The Government will pay for children in social services care to attend some of the best boarding schools in the country under an initiative being launched today.

Jacqui Smith, the schools minister, was preparing to announce a pilot project which will fund places for between 30 and 40 children in state and private boarding schools.

It is the first time Labour has committed funding to mainstream private education since it abolished the assisted places scheme in 1997, in which taxpayers contributed to the school fees of poor children.

Under the initiative, pupils from five local authorities who are either in the care of social services or at risk of harm will be assessed to see if a boarding education would be suitable.

The children will start at the schools in September 2007, and their progress will be monitored. If they do well, the Government will fund a larger project.

Today, representatives from 95 state and private boarding schools were due to meet in London as a government-led working party, which involves the Boarding Schools Association, councils and charities, drums up support for the plan. It is not yet known which schools will be involved.

It is one of two similar schemes being proposed. Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, wants to build boarding houses at future and existing academies to house at-risk pupils.

But that plan was condemned by Melvyn Roffe, chairman of the State Boarding Schools Association, as "hare-brained and naive".

Speaking at the association's conference at Wymondham college, Norfolk, on Sunday, Mr Roffe told The TES: "Anyone who thinks that an academy, which is a school just coming out of serious difficulties, can run a boarding house, is not living in the real world.

"You cannot just tag a boarding house on the side of a school and expect miracles - that will only result in mayhem."

A small number of councils pay for places at mainstream boarding schools, but cash does not come from a designated funding pot and provision is ad hoc.

According to a survey by the BSA, which represents 550 independent and state schools, just 52 pupils nationwide receive support from local authorities for their boarding education.

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