State boarding schools could have their image and income boosted under proposals in last week's education White Paper.
The plan is to allow state boarding schools to charge tuition fees to pupils from outside the European Union, to free grant-maintained schools from VAT incurred on boarding fees and to let them provide boarding accommodation without ministerial approval. At present, 50 per cent of state boarding schools have opted out of local authority control.
According to their headteachers, who welcomed the Government initiative, the 40 state boarding schools, which educate around 4,000 boarders, provide an essential social service, breed independence and boast impressive academic records.
The number of schools in the State Boarding School Information Service (STABIS) has almost halved in recent years, from around 70 schools to 37. Parents' ignorance of state boarding as an option is to blame, the White Paper says, announcing a Government-sponsored information campaign which will circulate leaflets to all state primaries and independent preparatory schools publicising state boarding.
"It's a milestone," said Chris Potter, chairman of STABIS and head of Old Swinford Hospital School in Stourbridge, Dudley, where fees for the 400 boarders at the 550-pupil school amount to Pounds 1,400 per term.
"The Government has produced a policy of positive encouragement for state boarding schools. It fits well with the picture of diversity and choice. This puts us on a level playing field with independent schools, but we are within the reach of a greater number of people."
According to Mr Potter, state boarding schools attract a healthy social mix, provide a stable environment for children whose parents live or work abroad and are a cheap alternative to independent boarding. "But we need more state boarding schools, particularly for girls," he said.
Skegness grammar, the first school to opt out of local authority control in 1988, has offered a boarding option for the past five years. Its headteacher, John Webster, said that the clause which seeks to reduce the VAT burden on GM schools would make a considerable difference to the Lincolnshire school's finances.
"At the moment we feel disadvantaged. We would welcome the chance to claw back the VAT."
John Haden, principal of Wymondham College in Norfolk, the largest state boarding school in the country with 500 boarders out of 880 pupils, said that the White Paper was splendid news. "For the first time, there is clear support from the Department for Education and Employment for the development of boarding in state schools, which is an enormously important national resource. "
He expected increased interest from non-European countries. "We already have about 40 enquiries a year. There are 17 different nationalities represented in the college and we have connections with schools in America and Egypt. " David Woodhead, director of the Independent Schools' Information Service, was also supportive. "At the moment, parents have got the choice of independent boarding or state boarding. It's possible that this information campaign will plant the idea of boarding in the minds of parents and this might benefit boarding as a whole."