State boarding schools set for expansion

With good exam results and pastoral care, the once unfashionable state boarding sector is poised for a comeback, says Amy McLellan
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"Boarding is not the answer in all cases but we are exploring the potential of how it can support vulnerable children where appropriate, perhaps those that are excluded from mainstream education or in foster or local authority care," says a spokesman from the Department for Education and Skills. The idea made it into the Labour Party manifesto this year and proposals to expand the sector are expected in the White Paper on school reform.

It's certainly a persuasive argument. The creaking care system cannot compete with boarding schools, which can offer continuity of care, a wide array of horizon-widening activities, highly developed pastoral care systems and good academic standards.

It helps that Lord Adonis, a former Downing Street policy adviser and now an influential junior education minister, has experience of how boarding can help children in difficult situations. Brought up by his father in a council flat in north London, Adonis was funded by charitable trusts to go to Kingham Hill independent boarding school in Oxfordshire. His trajectory from there - Oxford, the Financial Times and now the heart of New Labour - tells its own tale.

Boarding schools in the state sector are equally adept at transforming the prospects of their charges.

"Our schools are all high performing with 75.5 per cent of pupils gaining A*-C grades at GCSE," says Melvyn Roffe, chair of the State Boarding Schools Association, which represents the 35 state boarding schools in England and Wales. "Only 9 per cent of children in local authority care get five good GCSEs. It would be difficult for us to do a worse job."

Boarding schools are not seeking to undermine the commitment of social services to keeping families together. They see their role more as preventative, providing support for vulnerable children on the edge of care. Schools could take the term-time pressure off families struggling to patch together an unstable domestic situation.

Adrian Underwood, director of the Boarding Schools Association, an umbrella organisation for the state and independent sectors, says boarding isn't a panacea that suits all children but that for some, in certain circumstances, it might be the best solution.

"Where it's appropriate, it's a good idea to widen access to boarding," says Underwood. "It costs £40,000 a year to keep a pupil with a foster family using an LEA school. That money would buy a few boarding places and free up money for the more difficult cases."

The schools, both in the state and independent sectors, are generally in favour of widening access. But, cautions Underwood, the schools must not be seen as a dumping ground for problem cases nor the children used as guinea pigs in a social experiment.

Jim Richardson, head of Adams' Grammar School in Shropshire, is talking to the local authority about how his state-funded school, which has places for 100 boarders, can satisfy more pupil needs. But, he adds, "Because we are selective it's very important that the children have the ability to be here and that they want to be here. It's important that the school gets the final say on who goes."

At the moment there are only 50 boarders in the country who have their boarding fees paid for by the state. There used to be many times this number before boarding became politically unfashionable. Within the state boarding sector, it will be difficult to increase numbers: there simply isn't the capacity. There are 3,000 boarders at state boarding schools (whose parents pay the boarding fees), most of which are oversubscribed.

For the first time in 20-odd years, however, the Government has made funds available to help schools improve facilities and build new boarding houses.

"We put it to ministers that if they wanted state boarding in 10 to 15 years time, then we needed funding," says Melvyn Roffe of the SBSA and head of Old Swinford Hospital School in Stourbridge. Schools can now bid for funds from a £5m central pot, due for release in 2006. A second funding round is expected to at least match this.

The Government isn't alone in finding plenty to recommend in this low-profile sector. Parents are also waking up to its attractions (though many, many more have never even heard of the apparent oxymoron of a state boarding school).

For time-pressed parents, juggling demanding jobs and long commutes, boarding is an attractive and practical solution but one that is usually beyond the family budget. At a state boarding school, education is free but there is a fee to cover boarding costs. This ranges from £4,000 to £9,000 per year (compared with a similar sum per term in the independent sector), making it a viable option for many families.

David Brown, head of boarding at Keswick School, a comprehensive in Cumbria, which takes just under 50 boarders out of 1,000 pupils, says parents, who may live hundreds of miles outside the catchment area, are attracted by the school's academic performance.

"There's so much more information for parents now, in terms of league tables, Ofsted reports and the internet," says Brown. "Ten years ago, how would a parent in London get to know about a state boarding school in Keswick?"

Even parents who live near a school are opting to board their children. At Wymondham College in Norfolk more than 50 per cent of the 1,037 pupils are boarders. The school's acting director Andrew Boorman says that boarding is flourishing, with many of the boarders coming from a far closer geographical area than they did even a decade ago.

This isn't just busy parents being practical: many believe boarding offers a life-enriching experience. "Our calendar lists 90 different clubs and activities held during a normal week at lunchtime and after school," says Boorman. Education standards are also very high. "This year our Year 11s achieved a 100 per cent five A*-C GCSE pass rate. Boarders performed on a par with day students. And at A-level both male and female boarders outperformed their day student counterparts."

The school plans a major expansion of boarding facilities with the building of a discrete Year 12 boarding house, which will expand boarding availability throughout the years.

There is something for everyone in the state boarding sector: primary and secondary provision, single sex and co-ed schools, comprehensives and grammar schools. Peter Symonds College in Winchester, for example, is the only sixth-form college to offer boarding (the college is also unique in that it is the official sixth form of the Falkland Islands). It has 80 boarders in a student population of 2,700 and is always oversubscribed for boarding places.