An interesting paper from Policy Exchange calls for a big increase in the number of children in care attending boarding school. At present only 1% of "Looked After Children" attend boarding school. Most of those are with a disability in a specialist school (560 out of the 970 children.) There are 14 local authorities that don't place any children in boarding schools and a further 58 that place less than five. The report recommends that the "aim" should be an increase of 1,000 by 2015/16. Pretty modest.
The report says:
There are a range of potential advantages to using residential schooling as part of a care package. Not least is the fact that it can provide children with two types of stability – that of home and that of school. Importantly, by providing respite and the opportunity of support for foster carers or birth parents, these approaches provide the opportunity of more families staying together, potentially reducing the need for the care system and the likelihood of placement breakdown for those moving into care.
The approach may also be notably cheaper than foster care. Whereas the cost of fostering a child is approximately £400 a week or £20,800 a year, the annual cost of sending a young person in foster care to boarding school would be about £14,800 in a state boarding school. Even in an independent boarding school, the cost might not exceed £25,000.
Furthermore, assistance from the SpringBoard Bursary Foundation makes the finances even more attractive.
The report adds:
Research from the Royal National Children’s Foundation showed that, in the sample of 11-17 year olds who had spent three or more years as boarders, 85% were achieving better grades than the
average for a child of their age. This was despite the fact that 70% of the sample had been diagnosed with severe emotional problems before they started at their school.
As I have noted before the problem is ideological prejudice which is widespread in the social work profession. Sonia Jackson, emeritus professor at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, who has analysed previous efforts of the Labour Government Pathfinder project, which only resulted in 17 placements, says:
"In the current system, it's down to the social workers to convince the child that boarding school would be a good move for them. But local authorities were not putting children forward for consideration for boarding schools because social workers took the view that boarding schools were for the privileged few and were opposed to them in principle."
What can be done about this? The report says:
For this reason a new approach is needed. This would involve giving foster carers and families on the edge of care the authority and encouragement to seek placements in residential schooling for their children.
It's tricky. How do you alert foster carers to this opportunity? The people with their names and addresses are the social workers. If a foster carer did suggest it, they would be doing themselves out of a job (apart from holiday cover). In any event, all they can do is pass on the suggestion to the social workers.
I think this is an area where councillors need to make clear they have an expectation that there should be a substantial number of placements. The Government should issue some guidance with criteria of the type of children that should be prioritised and hold local authorities to account where such children are not being given this opportunity. The children should be given the chance to speak to a teacher at one of the boarding schools and be allowed to visit and have a look around.
I don't think the problem is the supply. More boarding schools could open if the demand was there. Nor do I accept that there would be a shortage of children keen to take the chance if it was honestly presented to them. The problem is having gatekeepers for a scheme for boarding school placements – those with a fanatical contempt for boarding schools. If that can be circumvented, then the Policy Exchange aim of 1,000 more placements looks feeble. But if the blockage remains, then the target looks hopelessly ambitious.