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Stately home haven fosters troubled pupils

They flourish as boarders at a fee-paying school under a scheme that the head believes should be spread nationwide, reports David Marley.

Nestling in the rolling Surrey hills, the grand estate of the Royal Alexandra and Albert School is far away from the image of a troubled children's home.

Yet among the 400 boarders, the school accommodates children desperately in need of refuge.

Living alongside the fee-paying children of London lawyers and accountants, are pupils being given a haven from domestic violence and gang bullying. Others are here because their parents have died and elderly relatives can no longer cope.

A charity attached to the state boarding school pays for 49 places for children at risk of going into care, with a further eight pupils funded by local authorities.

Paul Spencer Ellis, the school's head, believes this is a successful model that should be replicated nationwide. Sir Cyril Smith, the former chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, has championed the idea of academies providing boarding opportunities for look-after children. And Andrew Adonis, the junior minister for schools, has said that the expansion of the academies programme could lead to a significant increase in state boarding places. He has first hand experience of the benefits of boarding schools because as a child he won a state sponsored place at Kingham Hill School in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire

Royal Alexandra and Albert's successful results for vulnerable children will be welcomed by ministers, who are carrying out a pilot scheme into placing at-risk children in both state and independent boarding schools.

But progress of the pathfinder has been slower than hoped. Up to 40 children were supposed to be placed in boarding schools last September, but only abut a quarter were given places.

The successful TES Time to Care campaign encourages the Government to do more to help the 60,000 children in care in England who achieve among the worst GCSE results in the country - just 12 per cent of them gained five good grades last year. Ministers published the Children and Young Persons Bill last November, promising to do more, including giving all looked-after children a specific teacher responsible for their needs.

At the Royal Alexandra and Albert, the children given free places consistently outperform their year group. Last year, 72 per cent of pupils there hit the GCSE benchmark, 49 per cent with English and maths. Mr Spencer Ellis said children given free places achieved marginally higher than their peers, repeating a pattern established over the past seven years.

"These children understand what is being offered and the vast majority grab it with both hands," he said. "It's giving them the best chance in life to develop personal skills and academic ability, which children's homes cannot do."

There is no academic selection, but children are assessed to see if they will be able to cope with the school's structure and rules before being given a place.

Mr Spencer Ellis, who is chairman of the State Boarding Schools' Association, has two of the pilot-scheme's pathfinder children at his school. "There is growing interest from local authorities, but it is right that they are cautious," he said. "Otherwise you are talking about taking children with poor life chances and hurling them into boarding schools without the proper safeguards. I would not want any part of that.

"The programme has to be painstaking. The last thing you want is for that child to discover that boarding is not for them and then have a failure in their lives."

One 16-year-old pupil who was at risk of going into foster care told The TES: "It was hard coming here and adjusting to a new way of life, but there is nothing else like it. If you are finding it hard to get an education at home, it can screw up your life. When you come to a place like this, there are always people to help you."

Wellington College in Berkshire is sponsoring an academy in Tidworth, Wiltshire, offering 100 boarding places, mainly for children from military families. Harefield Academy, in Uxbridge, west London, also hopes to offer boarding for up to 100 pupils.

But schools keen to offer boarding specifically for children at risk are finding it hard to raise the funds. Jenny Wilkins, head of Skinners' Company's School for Girls in Hackney, east London, wants to offer boarding when her school becomes an academy in 2010. She would like it to offer respite care for up to 25 girls to use as they need. "The impact boarding can have on their education would be enormous," said Ms Wilkins. "The council and the Government both seem keen but are not able to commit any money yet. We will have to press ahead with opening as an academy and then see what we can do."


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