The transformative power of boarding school
by Robin Fletcher, BSA Chief Executive
Boarding school can be a lifeline for a child in or facing a life in care. Fact.
That's why as an ex newspaper editor I read with caution this week's story about the charity Buttle UK ending a part Government funded research project to offer places in boarding schools to looked after children. The official reason was that there was not enough interest from local authorities with a suggestion that social workers did not, at best, 'get' boarding.
This prompted Times columnist and former boarding parent Libby Purves to write in support of boarding for vulnerable children, a view which drew flak and praise. But let's pause a moment.
Did a laudable research project fail because of lack of local authority support? Yes.
Can boarding really be a lifeline for vulnerable children? Yes.
Is there any proof? Yes.
Are social workers working flat out and do most of them not have a first clue about boarding schools? Yes.
So where's this proof then? Well the headline said not enough local authorities were interested, which is true. But that ignores the fact some local authorities are big supporters of placing looked after children into the stable, supportive, opportunity-rich world of boarding as a better, and often cheaper alternative to the care system. And some have been doing it for years.
Norfolk County Council is a cheerleader for this idea as is Windsor and Maidenhead. And while they do not represent the majority of local authorities, they do not pursue this simply because they are fans of Mallory Towers and Harry Potter. They choose boarding school over care because they see children from sometimes terrible and dangerous family circumstances blossom, develop, stand tall and succeed. In short they watch boarding throw a lifeline to some young people, and arguably save their lives.
The research project that has been scrapped is not the end or the whole story. We have been working alongside charities, schools, local authorities and education minister Lord Nash to develop boarding places for vulnerable children for the past three years. We have helped support two one-day conferences on this issue at the Department of Education (DfE) in Whitehall. And we are currently working with the DfE and the Royal National Children's Foundation to develop a new website busy social workers can use, simply and quickly, to get the information they need about boarding.
It's about raising awareness and making something that might seem fanciful, complicated or simply out of reach, easier and more accessible.
I am also going to be writing to my opposite number at the association for directors of children's services this week to offer to speak to his members about boarding, any time, any place, anywhere.
As our chair, Leo Winkley, headmaster of St Peter's York, puts it, much better than me:
Robin Fletcher, Chief Executive, Boarding Schools' Association, London
“Whilst most children at schools up and down the country benefit from stable family backgrounds and live in supportive local communities, some children grow up in turbulent family environments or live below the poverty line, in situations where abuse, violence or substance misuse may be part of their day-to-day life.
“Boarding school communities can provide the steadiness and support that children, particularly teenagers, really need. Children thrive when they can stand on firm foundations; when they know where the boundaries are; when they are cared for and inspired. Boarding school can offer the stability and continuity of care, as well as the challenge, to ensure that vulnerable children flourish. We believe that boarding has a genuine role to play in helping children on the edge of care. For many, boarding can be a rock of stability, transforming the lives of vulnerable young children.
“Many of our schools work with Local Authorities and charities such as the SpringBoard Foundation, RNCF and Buttle UK, to provide boarding places for children ‘on the edge of care’. When you talk to children who have benefited from life in a caring boarding community, you hear loud and clear what boarding has done for them.
“Those of us working in boarding see first-hand the transformative effect boarding can have on vulnerable children. As educators it is our aim to help young people to achieve all they can. Every child has a right to feel safe and to thrive. As a sector, we are wholly committed to offering ways to help more vulnerable children enjoy the benefits of boarding.”