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Whose department is it anyway?

The climate for co-operation between state and independent schools has never been so favourable. Education Secretary David Blunkett has indicated he would like to see independent schools offering services that the maintained sector finds difficult to provide, such as boarding education.

But, as the adverse experience of a Dorset school shows, government departments must nurture, not stifle, such initiatives if the new links are to succeed.

After an eight-month long "bureaucratic nightmare", Beaminster School, near Bridport, Dorset, was forced to close its boarding facilities when the school was unable to obtain registration for new residential places at Hooke Court, an independent education centre three miles away. Having twice approved the arrangements, the Department for Education and Employment withdrew its consent seven weeks before the boarders were due to move in. As a result Beaminster is no longer a state boarding school and 200 years of tradition have been lost.

"The horror of it was that it happened in the last week of the summer term and at the eleventh hour, 26 children who were expecting to board at Hooke Court had to be found places elsewhere, " says Sue Collard, head of Beaminster School - an 11-18 voluntary controlled comprehensive with 635 children on roll.

At first, the partnership with Hooke Court had seemed ideal, as Beaminster's governors had decided that the school's own two boarding houses in the town were no longer financially viable. Under the new arrangements, Beaminster boarders would be still be able to attend the school and would live in a magnificent Tudor manor house set in 14 acres of parkland.

During their leisure time, students would be able to use the tennis courts, gymnasium and playing fields and go fishing in the moat. A carefully-structured programme of extra-curricular activities was being planned by the four residential staff, three of whom were qualified teachers. "There would have been plenty of educational opportunit ies for boarders at Hooke Court. The pupils wouldn't just have been watching TV and doing their homework," says Mandy Cooper, who is Hooke Court's director.

Hooke Court is well-respected; it is widely used by schools from all over Britain for its residential and day-long environmental studies and history courses. "We are not a tin-pot organisation," insists Mandy Cooper, an experienced teacher who is the former head of an international school in Nigeria.

When Mrs Collard and Mrs Cooper first began discussions on boarding provision at Hooke Court, they were advised that the best route for registration and inspection lay through the Department of Health. The Children Act requires that any home which provides care and accommodation for more than three children must be registered as a children's home with the DOH unless the accommodation is being provided by a school. All boarding schools are regularly inspected by social services under Section 87 of the Act, but they are actually registered with the DFEE.

The DOH recommended that Hooke should register as a children's home for the purpose of taking Beaminster boarders. But when an official from the social services inspectorate visited Hooke Court to discuss registration, Mandy Cooper was appalled by his advice.

"He seemed totally obsessed with the sexual abuse of children and viewed the pupils as potential delinquents," she recalls. "All pupils would have to be medically examined every six months. I was advised to remove all noticeboards and pictures from the walls to prevent the children ripping them off. The fact that the children weren't to be allowed to come and go as they wished, nor to have flexible breakfast times, was seen as oppressive."

She was incredulous to be asked if she would like information on portable toilet systems "which could be placed in the pupils' bedrooms whenever we found it necessary to lock them in. The inspector also reminded me that I would not be allowed to search the pupils' orifices for drugs!"

It was obvious to Mandy Cooper and Sue Collard that guidelines designed for children's homes were totally inappropriate for a boarding school. "No parent would want to pay for a regime like that," says Sue Collard. They then decided to seek registration through the DFEE. Hooke Court was about to open a day prep school so, according to the Children Act, any boarding facilities would come under the remit of the DFEE.

A DFEE official wrote to confirm that, as it would shortly be an independent school, there would be no problem with Hooke Court providing boarding accommodation for pupils from Beaminster.

"We were delighted," recalls Sue Collard. "As a school, rather than a children's home, Hooke would undergo the kind of inspection appropriate to boarding." Mandy Cooper issued boarding contracts to parents and took on residential staff. The boarders were to include several new recruits, attracted by what Beaminster and Hooke Court had to offer.

Suddenly, six days before the end of the summer term, the school received a letter from the DFEE completely reversing its original advice. It was now saying that, because Hooke Court would be providing accommodation for children who were pupils at another school, Beaminster, it would have to register as a children's home with the DOH.

Sue Collard was amazed by the about-turn, particularly as another Dorset state boarding school, Woodroffe, had recently received the go-ahead from the DFEE for its pupils to board at a nearby independent school, All Hallows. She was delighted when Sir James Spicer, the local MP who retired at the last election, offered to intervene and resolve the problem.

However, despite Sir James's efforts, by the end of the first week in August, Dorset social services was still insisting that Hooke Court had to register as a children's home. Desperate to find a solution before term started, Sue Collard and Mandy Cooper had several meetings with social services to explore the children's home option.

Unfortunately, although the social services department had already visited Hooke Court and written a report, they were not prepared to say that registratio n could be completed by the beginning of term. By August 22, the department had still not supplied the school with details of the registration procedure.

Mandy Cooper then received a letter from Dorset's director of social services, Robin SeQueira, refusing to give any guarantees that the regulations applying to children's homes could be relaxed for the boarders at Hooke Court. "Hooke Court is not in a position to lay down the parameters for resolution of this issue," he warned. "Whilst I and the county solicitor have been at pains to try and find a mutually acceptable and legal resolution to the problem, I find we are being expected to conform to Hooke Court's agenda. This is unacceptable."

Social services have since claimed that they were unclear whether Hooke Court would apply for registration through them or through the social services inspectorate, although Mandy Cooper is certain that she made her intentions plain. They also say that Mrs Cooper refused a registration form, although she denies this.

According to a letter later sent to Mrs Cooper's solicitors, the social services department's main concern seems to have been that they would not be able to fulfil their inspection obligations if Hooke Court registered with the DFEE, as they "would have no power to enter Beaminster School", even though Sue Collard had assured them in writing that they were welcome to visit the school whenever they liked.

David Crane, a principal officer with Dorset social services, says there would have been no "statutory remit" for the department to inspect Beaminster School, as they would have been required to do under section 87 of the Children Act. He says it would have been impossible for social services to carry out a rushed inspection to register Hooke Court, as the current stringent regulations would not have allowed it.

Reluctantly, Sue Collard and Mandy Cooper decided to cancel the arrangements when they received a letter from the county solicitor on behalf of Dorset social services, saying that Hooke Court's boarding facility would be closed if it opened before registration. Mandy Cooper was also concerned that she might be liable for prosecution if she went ahead.

"I was totally devastated and I began to feel victimised," recalls Mandy Cooper.

Information about the social services' registration procedures eventually arrived just after Beaminster and Hooke Court had decided to abandon the scheme. Meanwhile, Sue Collard had to make alternative arrangements for 26 boarders at two weeks' notice. Suggestions from Dorset's education department included proposals that the boarders should be accommodated at Shaftesbury School, a state boarding school 30 miles away, and be bussed to Beaminster for their education, or that parents could make private arrangements with local families. In the end, 19 had to leave Beaminster and attend boarding schools elsewhere, while a few are now in lodgings.

To add to the nightmarish flavour of the muddled course of events, Mandy Cooper's application for a judicial review of the DFEE's decision has now been turned down on the grounds that "no decision has been made". Five months after its original letter refusing registration, the DFEE attempted to justify its decision by saying that Hooke Court was not a boarding school because it did not provide boarding accommodation for its prep school pupils.

Dorset social services agrees that the current regulations could hamper future co-operation between the state and private sectors.

"We had sympathy for the dilemma Hooke Court and Beaminster faced, but it would have been a unique arrangement for which there was no legislative precedent," Mr Crane says.

Sue Collard believes that if the Government is serious about closer links between the independent and state sectors, the whole issue of boarding registration needs to be clarified. "The current uncertainty makes it very difficult to encourage innovatory initiatives between the two sectors," she says. "We are clear that the law does not prevent an arrangement like the one we proposed.

"Unfortunately, too many people in authority couldn't cope with something which didn't fit neatly into existing pigeonholes; they had little or no consideration for the students, whose education and expectation s were considerably disrupted."

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