The Department for Education has announced that it is launching “a new service designed to give more vulnerable children the chance to attend some of the country’s highest quality independent and state boarding schools”.
The Boarding School Partnerships Information Service will provide a link between local authorities, boarding schools, and various charities offering bursaries. It is aimed not only at children in care but those “on the edge” of care.
Lord Agnew, Under Secretary of State for the School System, says:
“Children who have previously been in care or are at risk of care have often gone through difficult, challenging experiences that can have a lasting impact throughout their lives. These placements won’t be right for every child, but the pastoral care and educational support provided by our top boarding schools can have profound benefits for some young people.”
John Attwater, King Edward’s Witley Headmaster, has already seen the success it can bring. He says:
“We know from long experience that boarding can provide a life-transforming opportunity for vulnerable children and their families, and it is core to our founding mission as a school. I am delighted that this service will give local authorities and others the information they need to consider boarding as an option for children who need it, and put them in touch with schools such as King Edward’s and charities that can make it happen.”
I am sure that many of the 72,670 children in care would be delighted to have this chance and would thrive as a result. It is hard to underestimate the potential difference to their lives that it could mean. At present they are more likely to go to prison than university.
Cost is not really the issue. Even without bursaries it would represent a saving for local authorities.
Support from the Government for the idea is not new. Michael Gove has long been an enthusiast. For that matter so was Lord Adonis when he was an Education Minister during the Labour Government. Five years ago they both backed a charity to provide more places. Five years ago Policy Exchange proposed that a thousand children in care should attend boarding school. Even that very modest target has been missed.
The reason, of course, is that both Labour and Conservative councils overwhelmingly allow the social workers to decide the policy. Thus for ideological reasons the option is not contemplated.
Cllr Richard Watts, the Leader of Islington Council and chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People board, declares:
“This initiative provides another option for social workers considering what would work best for individual children and families.
“While a boarding school placement will not be right for every child, making this opportunity available for those who would benefit is a positive move.”
Hmmm. So let us take Islington Council as an example. It currently has 340 “Looked After Children”. Three years ago I asked the Council:
“1. How many of your Looked After Children, in both number and percentage, are currently in boarding school placements.
2. What estimate is there of any increase in this number in view of the new statutory guidance from the DFE which says:”Where a looked-after child would benefit from attending a boarding school, either in the state or independent sector, VSHs and social workers should be proactive in considering this option.”
Their response was :
“1. We have no young people in boarding school.
“2. I do not anticipate any of our children attending boarding school in the near future.”
I rather doubt much has changed – or will change if social workers retain a veto. It is not the lack of places, refusal of children to take them, or the cost. It is certainly not an absence of an “Information Service.” It is the bigotry of the social workers – their implacable hostility to independent schools.
This blockage could be cleared if council leaders (and “Cabinet Members for Children Services”) make clear that the opportunity is to be taken, that children in care are aware of it and the option is given genuine consideration for each individual. I used to hope that would come about but the derisory progress has left me discouraged.
It seems that some mechanism is needed to end the social workers’ veto. Perhaps there could be some sort of appeal panel. It could allow a child themselves (when above a certain age), or their foster carer, or state primary school head teacher, or parents (if they are still involved) to decide that an application should be made. No doubt there would be technical difficulties but I suspect they would not be insurmountable. The prize would immense. Providing, as Cllr Watts puts it, “another option for social workers”, is virtually useless. It is time the option was given to the children in care.