Private doors are open

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
Independent boarding school takes moral lead by offering places to children in care. Shafik Meghji reports

The plight of children in care has been embraced by a private boarding school for pupils with speech, language and communication difficulties, which is to offer eight looked-after children year-round places.

Veronica Jenkins, headteacher of Alderwasley Hall in Belper, Derbyshire, which specialises in teaching children diagnosed with autism and Asperger's syndrome, said: "We have residential provision for 38 weeks, but from September we will extend that to 52 weeks so that we can take children from care."

The school, which provides primary, secondary and post-16 education for day pupils and boarders, felt morally obliged to help children in care, said Ms Jenkins. "Last year I attended the National Children's Bureau's conference in Birmingham," she said. "I saw a whole series of speakers talking about how children in care had been completely let down.

"Many are placed in mainstream schools but often have problems the schools cannot deal with. They end up having around two hours of teaching a week in their care homes. That will not get them through their GCSEs or solve their underlying problems."

The TES's Time to Care campaign also persuaded the school to act. "It really reaffirmed the feelings we had," said Ms Jenkins. "I am just totally bewildered that a supposedly advanced society like ours is failing this group of children. It seemed sensible to me that because I can provide children in care with our education, facilities and support, then I should.

I felt morally obliged to."

Local authorities will refer children to the school and pay the fees. "The fees for a child at an average independent care home are about pound;2,000 a week," said Ms Jenkins.

"We'll charge around pound;110,000 a year, but also provide a proper education and specialist speech and language therapy, as well as occupational therapy when they need it."

"A lot of the pupils at our school are only here because their parents have taken their local education authority to court (to get them to pay the fees). Children in care do not have anyone to fight for them," she said.

Adrian Underwood, national director of the Boarding Schools Association, welcomed Alderwasley's move. "I don't know of any other independent boarding school that is doing this," he said. "I very much applaud it."

The Government believes boarding schools can help children in care and it is in discussions with LEAs to test the idea.

Earlier this year, Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, said that boarding school places would be far less expensive than either foster care or residential homes for at-risk children.

* newsdesk@tes.co.uk

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