When boarding school headteachers gathered for their annual conference at the start of this month the main item of discussion was not the decline in lacrosse-playing, how to improve league table positions or even the impact the recession was having on fee-paying parents.
Melvyn Roffe, chairman of the Boarding Schools' Association, wanted to discuss how boarding schools "could transform the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of vulnerable children across the UK".
Mr Roffe is far from the only one to argue that children at risk of being placed in care should have more opportunities to board. It is an argument that has been made repeatedly in recent years by senior figures across the political spectrum. The former junior schools minister Andrew Adonis, for example, received state funding himself to board at an independent school after growing up in a children's home.
Vulnerable children in difficult homes would benefit from the calmer, more supportive environment a boarding school can provide, they argue. Without such support, the chances of a child in care achieving a good education are depressingly low. Only 14 per cent of children in care gained the target five A* to C grades, including English and maths, at GCSE last year, and half that small proportion went on to do A-level.
A cold financial argument can be made as well. The potential costs of supporting a young person who drops out of mainstream education - or, worse, enters the criminal justice system - can make boarding school fees look good value for taxpayers' money, even those at the most expensive independent schools.
Despite these arguments, Mr Roffe and others say local authorities are reluctant to consider it as an option, sometimes because of the bureaucracy they can face. Sir Cyril Taylor, former chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, has gone further, condemning the lack of progress in getting vulnerable pupils into boarding schools as "a national scandal". Earlier this year he told the Daily Telegraph that left-wing social workers in local authorities were to blame because they harboured "anti-boarding school prejudice".
For most children in the UK the closest they will come to a boarding school is reading about Harry Potter's adventures. The Royal Alexandra amp; Albert School (pictured left) is reminiscent of Hogwarts in its stunning location in rural Surrey. It may be lacking a Quidditch pitch, but the school overlooks the grounds of Gatton Park and is a world away from many inner-city comprehensives. Yet it is one of 34 maintained boarding schools in England, where parents pay only for boarding accommodation - not the education.
Like many state boarding schools, the school was originally an orphanage - or two in this case - and it has its own dedicated charitable foundation to help fund places for children whose family circumstances are detrimental to their education. Grants are also available from charities such as the Royal Wanstead Children's Foundation, JET (Joint Educational Trust), The Frank Buttle Trust and The Reedham Trust.
Paul Spencer Ellis, principal of Royal Alexandra, says that the school has provided support and education for many vulnerable children over the years. "My youngest foundationer was seven when she arrived. I know it has worked for her and that she's very well," he says. "We all know that many children's problems come from the family. A day school cannot replace the boundaries that are lacking, but a boarding school can do that. Not all parents have good parenting skills. Is it cruel to leave a child in a family that is dysfunctional? I would say it is."
The number of places for pupils funded by foundations has risen from 30 to 60 in the past five to six years and in September of this year, the school will have nine pupils enrolled who were referred from local authorities. The school population is currently at 644 pupils, 420 of which are boarders.
Jonny (not his real name) is now in Year 11 at Royal Alexandra, and was referred because of difficult family circumstances. After a few weeks of feeling homesick at the start, he has not looked back. "I had no idea what to expect. It wasn't really spoken about that much where I was from," he says. "You live in a completely different environment here, and you become a lot more independent. It's up to us to do our work and stay in the routine. From being homesick at first, it's switched on itself: now I feel like I'm missing something when I go home."
At 16, Jonny is planning to do science, maths and psychology at A-level. "I think I'll carry on with education. Since I was two, I wanted to be a surgeon. And I think I'll stick with that. Definitely."
Evidently, pupils' backgrounds are no limit on their aspirations at Royal Alexandra. In fact, according to Mr Spencer Ellis, children whose places are funded by local authorities or charities actually outperform their peers.
Mr Roffe is also principal of Wymondham College, a state boarding school. He says that the culture and ethos of the boarding community provide an excellent grounding for any child, including those in care.
"You've got children who are learning, not just through simple interaction with a teacher at any time; they're learning in an environment where they see their teacher in many different guises and that more complex and layered relationship is the hallmark," says Mr Roffe. "Pupils are also provided with positive role models from teachers and from other pupils, usually older ones, who have strong leadership roles. That is an extraordinarily powerful thing for creating successful schools."
In 2006, a Government Green Paper recommended boarding schools as a cost- effective and successful option for children in care. A pathfinder scheme was launched that year and 10 local authorities and 50 boarding schools signed up.
An independent evaluation of the scheme published in February by the Thomas Coram Research Unit was generally positive. However, the numbers were small: 76 young people were considered, but after two years, only 17 children were placed and 11 were still at school by the end of the two- year scheme. Which begs the question: if it is a successful model, why didn't it work for more children?
O ut of the 76 young people who were originally deemed suitable for boarding, schools and children's services realised that many required specialist care that couldn't be provided by boarding schools. Advocates of boarding school for vulnerable children are insistent that it will work as a preventative solution, not as an alternative to children's homes.
"A major element in (boarding school) education is that the child joins a community in which their peers are happy, well-adjusted children interested in their own education and their future lives," says Hilary Moriarty, director of the BSA. "What works is a child arriving with difficulties and recognising that despite the difficulties, he or she could also have a life like theirs . based on a whole new set of possibilities and the expectations of everyone around them."
Boarding schools want to ensure that they don't become used as care homes and argue that they wouldn't be nearly as effective if this was to happen. "Boarding schools are not heavily staffed like residential homes and can't cope with children who have real behaviour issues," says Mr Spencer Ellis. "We need to be used proactively to prevent there being a problem."
According to the Thomas Coram report, local authorities did realise that boarding schools would be put to best use to help children who were considered at risk and not necessarily for those who were already having severe problems at home. However, as Mr Roffe mentioned in his speech to the BSA, existing bureaucracy means that fitting it into the current social care services is more difficult. "Some children that we have tentatively thought about are not children that the council would normally have been providing for unless the situation deteriorates further," said one local authority.
"So if intervention is very early, it means that money needs to be found that the local authority would not normally have been spending. So it's a difficult call - the intervention line is a very difficult one to walk."
Most parents take choosing the right school for their child highly seriously. Many will go to great lengths, even taking up a religion or moving house to improve their child's chances of being admitted. But children whose parents aren't capable of making that decision have to rely on social services to make it. Ideally, just as much thought should be given to placing them in the right school - be that boarding or otherwise. However, the National Teaching and Advisory Service (NTamp;AS), which specialises in education for children in care, believes that quality education is a low priority for social services.
Tim Walker, NTamp;AS chief executive, is tentatively positive about the prospect of state boarding schools. "The social work system thinks their job's done if a child goes into school - no parent does that," he says. "Children in care should have the same considerations about a school's curriculum, ethos and activities. But a blanket approach for political reasons, or because it's cheaper, isn't the answer.
"Most kids in care feel some kind of rejection - from parents, carers or other schools. Those feelings of rejection may be exacerbated if we make the wrong decisions."
The perception of an isolated, elitist culture in boarding schools remains a major obstacle. One local authority pulled out of the pathfinder scheme because of the lack of boarding schools in the area and the "deep-seated cultural ambivalence in the local population about independent schooling and the value of education".
The community aspect of boarding schools may be regarded as one of their chief benefits for vulnerable pupils - yet a child's family or guardian may worry about them being moved out of their local area to somewhere completely different, particularly if they regard such schools as elitist.
Mr Roffe insists that removing pupils from their own area is not detrimental, particularly if they are having difficulties at home. "It's not that they're losing anything - they're gaining something else," he says. "This is often the case with children from more vulnerable backgrounds, who find that being at boarding school is a release from being at home. They have something that is theirs and gain a great deal of personal strength from the experience."
It will take time to change perceptions that can be embedded in our culture. And, for now, boarding schools remain a rarely-used option for children in care, despite all the support from politicians. But since the evaluation last year, numbers have risen; 80 boarding schools and 23 local authorities have now pledged to work with children's trusts and the Department for Children, Schools and Families as part of the pathfinder scheme.
Jonny says he "had no idea what to expect" before he went to an open day at Royal Alexandra amp; Albert School. "It wasn't really spoken about that much and no one else from my year went to one," he says.
But Jonny and hundreds of other children who were having problems in their home life have reaped enormous benefits. "I still talk to a few friends from primary school and they're quite interested in what goes on." He pauses. "I feel quite special."