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Jeannette Towey is a board member of the Tory Reform Group, and policy coordinator for South East Region Conservatives.

Boris Johnson’s old prep school, Ashdown House in Sussex, has announced it will close from the end of this academic year. About thirty other independent schools are closing too, all of them victims of a number of factors but all finished off by Covid-19 and the perfect storm of parents not able to pay fees because they are furloughed, or their businesses are close to bankruptcy and all the foreign students no longer able to travel.

This is going to leave a number of highly-equipped educational establishments empty and a lot of excellent teachers and other school staff without work. It will also lead to a lot of children needing new schools and it is highly likely that some of these will end up in the state sector which has not planned for their arrival. This will present some problems, but they are nothing compared to the problems of children at the other end of the social spectrum.

Did you know that half of all the girls and young women, and a third of all boys and young men, in young offender facilities were previously children looked after by local authorities?

Think about that. About one per cent of children are taken into care, the overwhelming majority through no fault of their own, and yet they are so overly represented in the youth justice system. Sadly, these children are failed in other ways too.

At Key Stage 2, just over a third of looked-after-children reach the expected standard compared with two thirds of the general population, and by Key Stage 4 only 17.5 per cent achieve a pass in GCSE Maths and English compared with nearly 60 per cent of non-looked after children.

So, the older they are, the worse their outcomes. This may be because they have spent longer in their dysfunctional families, or it may be because they have spent longer in the social care system. Either way, it’s not good.

Maybe, just maybe, the sudden arrival of all these empty independent schools, many with extensive boarding facilities could provide just what looked-after-children need.

Some years ago, I was part of a team, including an academy trust super-head and the Director of Social Services of a County Council, which came up with a proposal that would provide a stable educational environment and social structure for looked after children.

We presented it to Lord Adonis, who was then in charge of the academies project at the Department for education. It was turned down.

The proposal was to build a boarding house attached to one of the schools in the academy trust. This would have provided term-time accommodation, and more importantly, live-in house tutors and a dedicated local authority key worker who would be present to help and guide the children.

The whole arrangement was intended to provide them with a structure to their day with set meal times, study times and free time. This would have been backed up with a network of local people who would provide homes and structure for the children out of term, and it was hoped that some of these might be the very staff supporting the children in the boarding house.

We didn’t know if this proposal would improve outcomes, but it seemed to us that it provided a few advantages over the current system, namely:

  • Daily routine and structure, something a boarding environment is designed to produce.
  • Stable education, with no constant school change as children move from foster home to foster home or children’s home.
  • Stable social structures and friendships, since the children would be at the same school for the whole of their secondary education.
  • A small number of adults with responsibility for the well-being of the children, something that child psychologists agree is crucial for healthy emotional and psychological development.

We also thought that if it worked this would provide a blueprint that could be replicated all around the country.

That proposal was made over 15 years ago. I would have loved to present it again when the Coalition Government took over but I was no longer in the same job and had lost all those contacts. Sadly, since then the outcomes for looked after children have not improved. But I think we now have the perfect opportunity to dust off those proposals again.

We now have a small number of well-equipped schools, many with ready-made boarding facilities and staff to service them, sitting waiting to be used. Surely with a bit of imagination, and a relatively small amount of money, these could be used to deliver just such a solution where local and looked-after-children could be educated together in a stable environment for them all.

How might it work?

  • A secure agreement from the Department for Education and the local social services department, to start with – they will need to provide the funding, but this should be presented as an overall cost saving (just think how much it costs to keep a young person locked up in prison).
  • Many of these schools are already part of trusts and may co-operate. Others could potentially be taken over by academies or become free schools
  • Re-employ many of the independent school staff who would otherwise have become redundant. All those who have experience in a boarding environment will be well placed to deal with issues presented by children who have been separated from their families, deracinated, confused and angry – that’s bread and butter for them.
  • Once the school is up and running ensure that all activities include local children attending the school as day pupils and the looked-after boarders to build friendships.
  • And make sure that there are plenty of activities, all the sport, music, drama etc that independent schools are so good at and which these schools are already equipped to provide.

There will be problems, I’m sure. This idea is at an early stage of development. But it does make you wonder if maybe every cloud could have a silver lining after all.

27 comments for: Jeannette Towey: Let’s repurpose empty independent schools to support vulnerable children

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