Up to 1,000 vulnerable children are to be offered free boarding school places after councils performed a U-turn over subsidising places at top private schools.
Three in five local authorities across the country have agreed to back a scheme whereby children from broken homes or whose parents are on the verge of splitting up are offered free places at either private or state boarding schools.
Under the scheme, they can win places at schools such as Wellington College and Rugby, whose head teachers – Dr Anthony Seldon and Patrick Derham – support the project.
Its biggest supporter, however, is King Edward's School in Witley, which offers 40 places. Head teacher John Attwater said: "Fundamentally, boarding creates an environment where the obstacles, the disadvantage, the stunting factors in a child's development can be removed or replaced and room for a childhood created again."
In all, 88 local authorities have pledged their support for the scheme – a far cry from a decade ago, when many closed the door on such initiatives because they opposed sending children to the private sector to be educated.
Former Labour Schools minister Andrew Adonis, who won a bursary to a private boarding school in Oxford after spending part of his early life in a children's home, told a conference yesterday: "It was an ideological thing. They didn't like the idea of placing children in private schools. I hope we will all accept that is outdated thinking."
Lord Adonis, who initiated a "pathfinder" project aimed at securing boarding school places for vulnerable children while he was in power, admitted he had been disappointed with the results.
"I didn't think we did nearly enough," he said. "We know how it can be done. We just need to make it happen."
At present about 325 children from vulnerable homes have been offered places at 100 independent and state boarding schools. The aim is to raise this to 1,000 by 2018.
A report by the Royal National Children's Foundation and the charity Buttle UK, who are jointly pioneering the initiative, said: "Assisted boarding may have helped prevent the need for many of these young people eventually to be taken into local authority care."
The children will either be taken into temporary foster care during the school holidays or in some cases, the offer of a boarding school place may be enough to shore up threatened relationships.
One pupil who benefited from the scheme said: "My childhood was spent in a home where there was serious domestic violence, resulting in the near loss of my mother's life.
"It provided me with a second family. I've started to play basketball. With the help of my coaches, and, if things go well, I might hopefully represent England in the future."
"We need to get a head of steam behind this," said Lord Adonis. "What we need to do is scale up provision. I think we could see this turn into quite a big initiative over the next few years."
Tim Loughton, Children and Families minister, added: "We're trying to overhaul the whole of the care system."