Charity's plan for assisted boarding is just the start

16th December 2011 at 00:00
But reluctant elites give their support 'in principle' only

A charity that plans to place 1,000 vulnerable children in top UK boarding schools for free by 2018 has said it expects to achieve this target three years early, despite lead players' reluctance to get on board.

The Royal National Children's Foundation (RNCF) currently supports 340 assisted boarders aged seven to 18 in 90 state and independent boarding schools across the country. Last month the charity announced its plan to work alongside local authorities to pay for 1,000 vulnerable and disadvantaged children to attend top UK boarding schools.

The pressure is on for the charity to meet this target, after a previous initiative set up by the Labour government in 2007 saw disappointing results, with only 15 out of the supposed 40 vulnerable or looked-after children being placed in state and independent boarding schools.

Despite the project's infancy, RNCF chairman Colin Morrison has told TES he is not only adamant they will meet their target early, but expects to see these figures triple in the near future. "In some ways our targets are quite modest. I think it is very achievable and I would be amazed if we didn't do this two to three years before 2018," he said.

"Our research shows that boarding schools feel they could take up to 10 per cent with vulnerable children. If we place 1,000 children in boarding schools, this would only be 5 per cent of the current boarding school population, so why wouldn't it be 2,000 or 3,000?"

However, the charity's optimism has been met with a lukewarm response from many of the country's leading boarding schools. Only Stowe School and Queen Ethelburga's College have confirmed they will actively support the scheme, with Eton College supporting it "in principle".

"In principle I am in favour of using the highly effective tradition of British boarding to the full," Eton College headmaster Tony Little (pictured, left) told TES. "It is very important, however, that real care is taken to match children to the school environment that will work best for them. There is no template solution."

Schools including Harrow, Abingdon, Winchester, Rugby and Westminster have either decided not to back the scheme or to only consider children on an individual basis. Some said they have their own bursary schemes, and are therefore not considering the RNCF's proposal.

Stowe School, which has recently awarded a fully funded scholarship to a boy from Helmand in Afghanistan, states it is approaching the scheme with "cautious enthusiasm".

"I find it odd for a school to say, categorically, they wouldn't look at a child when finance is coming from external sources," headmaster Dr Anthony Wallersteiner said. "There isn't a downside to the scheme, but there are obstacles. We are only open 40 weeks of the year. We have got to make sure when children go home they will be supported like they are at school, otherwise it would be very disruptive for them. They need continuity and wrap-around care.

"We recently awarded a place to a boy from Afghanistan. Why not do that with kids in England who do not have these opportunities?"

Hilary Moriarty, national director of the Boarding Schools Association, said boarding schools' reluctance to support the scheme in practice, and not just in principle, could be a result of their misunderstanding the role of assisted boarding.

"Boarding schools must understand that this is not a children's home - it is not open all year round," she said. "The scheme is not for difficult children, but for children with difficulties.

"A halfway house offers children the chance to get a great education - and that is why it should be done."

The disappointing result from the Labour government's Pathfinder project in 2007 has put pressure on the RNCF to avoid a repeat of history. But lessons have been learnt, insists Mr Morrison. He said his organisation would "avoid the pitfalls of the Pathfinder", which he believes were down to a lack of communication and relevant knowledge of assisted boarding on the part of local authorities.

"We believe that it was set up with good intentions and with the right objectives, but failed to talk on a consistent basis to local authorities across boards," he said. "We have spent the best part of a year talking to local authorities - many have an appetite for assisted boarding now.

"We need to make sure we have a clear agenda by establishing best practice guidelines and continuous research so we can prove where it works and where it doesn't, and work hard on central government to show this is valuable for society as a whole."

To meet its target, RNCF will need to increase its fundraising by #163;500,000 a year, compared with local authorities, which will have to set aside a substantial lump sum of #163;7 million to #163;10 million a year to support 500 assisted boarders.

Although local authorities have a history of providing assisted boarding for thousands of vulnerable children, they now support fewer than 75. RNCF believes placing vulnerable children in boarding schools is cost-effective and helps prevent children from eventually being put into local authority care.

According to the charity's own numbers, boarding schools could be the cheaper option. Rather than paying #163;40,000-#163;120,000 per year to place a child in care, it argues, local authorities could instead pay #163;10,000-#163;30,000 per year through assisted boarding.

This argument has long been made, yet the number of at-risk children placed in boarding schools remains miniscule.

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