Children in care to get places at public schools

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Children in care will be offered places at some of Britain's top independent boarding schools as part of a plan being negotiated by leaders of the country's local education authorities.

Discussions on the scheme began in earnest this week between representatives of the Independent Schools Council and the Local Government Association. The plan will revive the practice of local education authorities paying for places at independent schools, commonplace in the Sixties but which grew increasingly rare after cuts in public spending during the past 20 years.

Co-operation between the sectors could be expanded to allow state school pupils to have lessons at their local independent school if they want to study a minority subject such as Russian or Latin.

The initiative comes from the ISC, which represents almost all of the leading independent schools, and has been enthusiastically embraced by local authority leaders.

Alistair Cooke, the general secretary of the ISC, said: "The way in which boarding schools could contribute to the Government's social inclusion agenda merits consideration. We are exploring seriously with the LGA the possibility of independent schools having a part to play."

The ISC believes it could be cheaper for local education authorities to send some of their pupils to private schools rather than house them in social services residential homes. "Such a scheme could identify children who are at risk and have difficult home circumstances who would benefit from a residential education," said David Woodhead, ISC's director of information.

Graham Lane, chairman of the LGA's education committee, said: "We have underestimated the need for boarding in the state sector. There are many children who might benefit from some residential boarding. We ought to explore ways in which they could benefit. It is early days but this is an interesting development." He added that any scheme that emerged should also include teaching exchanges between the sectors.

Both sides could benefit from greater co-operation. Boarding school numbers have been in decline for nearly two decades and research has shown that three-quarters of children in social services residential care are likely to leave without any formal qualifications despite most being academically capable.

When the Boarding Schools Association was set up in the Sixties, one in three of the local education authorities was represented on its council and regularly took up places at independent schools. Now there are none on the council and only a handful of pupils have subsidised places at private schools through their local education authority.

A Mori poll of 2,000 parents for the ISC showed the number of parents who thought education standards were better in independent schools than state ones was at its highest for five years. A total of 52 per cent thought standards were lower in state schools compared with just 45 per cent last year.

Mr Woodhead said the Government's stated aim of raising standards in secondary schools during its second term of office could be the reason. "Once the Government identifies a problem, I think the tendency is for people viewing that sector to say all is not well otherwise the Government would not be identifying it as a problem area."