The majority of state boarding schools are in danger of being left to "wither on the vine" if the government does not devise a national strategy to fund essential building projects, a headmaster has warned.
Melvyn Roffe, head of Wymondham College in Norfolk, said that two-thirds of the country's 38 state boarding schools had not received funding for building projects for at least two decades and risked becoming "at best behind the times, at worst inadequate".
Boarding schools could miss out on a new system of locally distributed funding - introduced following the demise of Building Schools for the Future - as councils can regard them as a luxury, said Mr Roffe. He is also concerned that money that could be spent improving established boarding schools will go to untested organisations looking to set up free schools with boarding facilities.
Mr Roffe, who is policy director for capital funding at the State Boarding Schools' Association, said the organisation had received calls for advice from at least 12 free school groups aiming to set up boarding, including one that hoped to use an old pub to house pupils.
Under the last government, 12 state boarding schools benefited from investment and two new state boarding schools were built, but Mr Roffe said there were 23 that had not received any money in recent years.
"Two-thirds of our schools have not had government funding for 20 to 25 years. While some have been well funded for specific projects, others have received nothing at all. It is a job a third done," he said. "We are in danger of state boarding schools getting at best behind the times, at worst inadequate."
Mr Roffe said that as time went by boarding schools had to live up to the increasing expectations of parents - and risked losing pupils and eventually closing if they were no longer attractive and became unviable. "This is not something that can be allowed to wither on the vine," he said.
Hilary Moriarty, director of the Boarding Schools' Association, which also represents independent schools, said there was still hope as there seemed to be an "appetite" among ministers for boarding in general. Ministers have already voiced their support for the Assisted Boarding Network, launched earlier this year by the Royal National Children's Foundation, to encourage local authorities to use boarding as a solution for children at risk of going into care.
Academies in deprived areas are also seeing the potential of boarding as a way of filtering out the worst effects of chaotic home lives on pupils. Academy operator The Aldridge Foundation said it was in talks with officials about establishing boarding accommodation at its Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy in Dorset, using a former Ministry of Defence building that was converted into accommodation for Paralympic athletes this summer.
The government has also contributed towards ambitious plans by Durand Academy in Stockwell, South London, to create a state boarding school for inner-city teenagers in the South Downs National Park.
"We see signs of high-level approval of the principle of state boarding in the government's apparent intention to invest in schools, new or existing, which intend to start state boarding from scratch," Mrs Moriarty said. "If this is the case, why would the government be happy to starve great existing schools with a long history of boarding of vital investment?"
She added that small boarding houses with a lack of investment became "vulnerable to vultures" as they became less attractive to parents, pupil numbers fell, and schools and local authorities converted them into classrooms or primary schools, for example. She highlighted the example of Westgate School in Winchester, which is to lose its state boarding house after more than 60 years in July 2013 to make way for a primary school.
Reaching out to the vulnerable
A charity has called on Britain's 600 boarding schools to adopt quotas for the number of places they offer to vulnerable young people.
The Royal National Children's Foundation, which held its annual conference this week, wants the schools to work with local authorities and charities to provide places for children at risk of being put into care. And chairman Colin Morrison called for the issue of boarding to have its own government minister.
A new charity, the SpringBoard Bursary Foundation, was launched this week with the aim of providing free places at UK boarding schools to 2,000 disadvantaged pupils by 2023. Places will be funded by the schools and by a range of individual donors, trusts and foundations, including the Garfield Weston Foundation. Sixty leading state and independent boarding schools have already pledged their support for the scheme.