Boarding is booming, thanks to bursaries for poor pupils

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The Independent Online

The biggest increase in the number of boarding pupils for 40 years has been recorded as more schools offer places to vulnerable children from broken homes.

A survey revealed a 3 per cent rise in the number of boarding places. This follows an estimated 40 per cent decrease in the past 25 years, when many independent schools cut back on boarding in favour of day places.

The research was conducted by the Royal Wanstead Children's Foundation at 18 independent and state boarding schools, where it offers support to youngsters in danger of being taken into care.

The are two reasons for the increase. First, more schools now operate their own bursary schemes for the disadvantaged as a result of the Charity Commission's attempts to get them to justify their charitable status. Second, the Government has launched its own Pathfinder scheme to help vulnerable pupils in danger of being taken into care by allowing local authorities to use government grants to subsidise places.

Colin Morrison, chairman of the foundation and himself a beneficiary of such a scheme, said: "At a time of concern over impoverished one-parent families with literally millions of children at risk, there is a clear need for boarding schools to play a major role in education and social policy.

"These figures show the start of a reversal of decades of decline in places but there is still a long way to go."

Nationally, there are 70,000 boarding places, so a 3 per cent increase means an extra 2,100 pupils.

The research also revealed there were still 2,000 empty boarding places throughout the country which could be made available to vulnerable children.

"If only the money can be found to pay the fees, boarding schools can transform the lives and prospects of so many vulnerable children. We need the Government to help accelerate this process," said Mr Morrison.

The foundation said that evidence showed that deprived youngsters at boarding schools often rose above their peers in tests. Within three years of admission, 85 per cent scored average or above-average.

The scheme was the brainchild of the Schools minister, Lord Adonis, who benefited from a subsidised boarding place as a child.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "As of last December, around 10 children had been placed [on the Pathfinder scheme] and a further eight were under consideration. We will evaluate this pilot to see if this project should be implemented nationally. A full report will be published in November."

The Children's minister, Kevin Brennan, said: "Boarding enables vulnerable children to retain links to significant adults who are unable to care for them full time. Boarding is a good option for these children as it can provide stability during the teenage years – helping them achieve qualifications and skills that will help them succeed in later life."

'It gave me confidence ... the teachers were great': Becky Soltysiak, 21

At the age of 10, Becky Soltysiak was in imminent danger of being taken into care. Her mother was suffering depression and needed hospital treatment; her father was a transsexual.

But social services staff got her a place at an independent boarding school, subsidised by the Royal Wanstead Children's Foundation.

Eleven years on, Ms Soltysiak is in the final year of a classical studies degree at Bristol University after getting an A grade and two Bs in her A-levels, and plans to do a law degree.

She says she would never have achieved this without boarding school."I think the thing it gave me was confidence," she says. "The teachers were fantastic and you could talk to them if you needed to."