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Schools: Children in Care

Volume 739: debated on Wednesday 18 July 2012

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to enable more children in care to secure places at boarding schools in both the maintained and independent sectors.

My Lords, we believe that in the right circumstances, boarding school can be a very good option for children in care and vulnerable children. Last month saw the launch of the Assisted Boarding Network by RNCF and Buttle UK, and also the National Foundation for Boarding Bursaries, which involves independent and maintained boarding schools. Both schemes aim to increase access to boarding for vulnerable and disadvantaged children. We very much support both initiatives and would urge local authorities to consider boarding as an option.

I am extremely grateful to my noble friend, with whom I have worked on educational issues in the past, for that reply—particularly as regards the new National Foundation for Boarding Bursaries and the Assisted Boarding Network. Will my noble friend confirm that the state spends annually more than £37,000 on each looked-after child, while the average cost of a private boarding school place is now some £24,000, and that assisted boarders achieve significantly better examination results than look-after children? While, as my noble friend said, boarding education will not be suitable for all children in care, is it not extremely heartening that the Assisted Boarding Network, backed by highly successful charitable organisations, is planning a significant increase in numbers over the years ahead? It is sad that some local authorities have in recent decades been firm opponents of assisted boarding. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who has been so determined a proponent of it, recently called for an end to what he called outdated thinking.

Will the Government give local authorities their full support to assist the progress of what the Princess Royal recently described as a really key partnership?

Yes, my Lords, we would certainly encourage all local authorities to think carefully about boarding as an option. Local authorities such as Norfolk are already doing it, and others are as well. As I said, boarding schools can play a role—I agree with my noble friend. I am grateful for the initiatives taken by RNCF/Buttle and by the independent and maintained schools.

My Lords, can the Minister give an indicative figure on the number of children in care, and the number of children on the edge of care, who are currently benefitting from this policy each year? Have the Government commissioned research into this area? I detect considerable interest among my Cross-Bench colleagues on the subject. Will the Minister consider a briefing for interested Members of the Lords and of the Commons on this interesting policy?

I would very much welcome further discussion with the noble Earl and any other Members of this House who are interested. I think that there is interest across the House in the potential of this initiative. As my noble friend mentioned, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was very keen on trying to make progress in this area, and the previous Government did some interesting trials. The numbers are currently very low but I think that, properly handled, there should be potential for the numbers to increase. The two initiatives which I have talked to perhaps have the potential to go up to, say, 1,000 places. That might involve children at the edge of care, in care or otherwise disadvantaged. However, I would very much welcome the chance to discuss it further with the noble Earl and anyone else who is interested.

My Lords, in 2008, under the previous Government, we had the Boarding School Provision for Vulnerable Children pathfinder. Since we should be in favour of evidence-based policy, can my noble friend tell me whether that pathfinder has been evaluated, what the results were and whether the Government will take action along those lines?

As I was saying, the numbers involved in the pathfinder under the previous Government were small—I think that only 76 children were considered for places, 17 of whom were placed; and of those, 11 stayed the course. So, the number was small. However, I do not think that that is a reason for us not to explore this further as a possibility, taking into account the fact that it clearly will not be the right option for everyone and that we should consider the interests of the child first and not look for a single solution.

Does the Minister accept that, in general, the tale of children who have been in care is a gloomy and miserable one; that they are overrepresented in all the categories of failure and underrepresented in the categories of achievement; that the public school scheme seems to reverse that trend completely; and that, therefore, it deserves the most practical and committed support on the part of government?

I agree with both parts of the noble Lord’s point. It is a gloomy tale, and therefore it is incumbent on us to look at everything that can make a contribution to making it better.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that although, as has been said, boarding schools may be the answer for the minority of pupils in care, the much bigger challenge is to address the disproportionate number of children in care who attend failing schools? What action are the Government prepared to take to ensure that these children are given greater access to schools rated as outstanding by Ofsted?

I agree with the noble Baroness’s basic point—that the contribution that independent or maintained boarding schools are likely to make will, proportionately, be a relatively modest one; and that, therefore, the Government’s reforms to try to improve educational performance will play an important part. It is the case that looked-after children, obviously, have priority for admissions, and that includes admission to the kinds of schools the noble Baroness described. I hope that other initiatives that we are taking—such as bursary support after the age of 16, the pupil premium and so on—will help. However, the key challenge for us in all schools is to raise those standards, bearing in mind that we need to focus on the particular group she described and shine a spotlight on their educational achievement and the gaps that there are.

My Lords, on a more general point, does my noble friend agree that there are considerable educational advantages and benefits that come from the closest possible working relationship between the maintained and the independent sectors? To that end, will he do all that he can in discussions with interested parties on both sides and with teachers’ union to ensure that such developments flourish?

My noble friend makes an extremely good point. The more that we can encourage the independent and the maintained sectors to work together and learn from each other, the better it will be. I am certainly keen to do everything that I can to take that forward.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us how many of the places identified in the independent sector are allocated according to ability and entrance criteria and how many are awarded on the basis of need alone?

I do not have detailed information on all the schemes that are currently running. The new scheme that I was talking about is being run by the independent schools and the maintained schools together. They are expressly clear that selection and attainment are not part of what they want to do. They want to make it available to disadvantaged children of all abilities.