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Hope for a new golden age of boarding August 23, 2010

Posted by Alex, Managing Director in Independent Education.
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Around 65,000 pupils across the UK will be in their final days of preparation for a new year of boarding at independent schools. According to the ISC Cenus, this figure represents fewer than 10% of pupils at UK independent schools – and the ratio has been falling steadily for a number of years.

In this article, first published in the spring 2010 issue of Boarding School magazine, Colin Morrison, chairman of the Royal Wanstead Children’s Foundation, makes the social case for a new boarding school policy.

In recent years, Royal Wanstead has been campaigning for government help to reverse the decades-long decline in the number of boarding school places, not least for vulnerable young people.

Our research into assisted boarding “outcomes” has shown that, after a settle-down period, these young people are more likely than their peers to become above-average performers in boarding school, measured not just academically but also by their sporting, social and relationship skills. The research shows also that their family relationships are improved too. We believe this out-performance by assisted boarders is at least partly explained by the fact that these young people recognise the golden opportunity to transform their lives – and seize it with both hands.

Crucially, assisted boarding can help prevent more young people needing eventually to be taken into local authority care with all that means for their development, education and family relationships. Royal Wanstead has used its research to encourage the take-up of assisted boarding by local authorities as part of the DCSF’s Pathfinder project, for which we have been working since it was a twinkle in the eye of former Education Secretary Charles Clarke back in 2003.

The stark reality is that there are now some 40% fewer boarding school places than 20 years ago. So, at a time when so many young people (whether vulnerable or not) might benefit from the pastoral care of boarding school, there are many fewer opportunities to do so. The current total of 70,000 boarding school places is a very low point indeed. Boarding, which once accounted for the majority of independent school places, now comprises just 7% of them. This alarming decline may have been spurred on by two factors.

The first is the loss of revenue from local authorities which, until the mid-1980s funded and part-funded boarding school places for many vulnerable young people, most of them not ‘in care’. In 1971, the year of the closure of our own Royal Wanstead School, there were 216 children wholly or partly funded by local authorities at this school alone and that was a pattern repeated all over the country. Nationally, at that time, there were an estimated 10,000 boarders supported by local authorities. By 1988, that total had fallen to perhaps 3,000 (including those children supported by independent charities like Royal Wanstead). In 2010, local authorities are helping fund a mere 40 boarders, with charities making up an estimated total of perhaps 600 assisted boarding places.

The inexplicable 1980s collapse in local authority support represented a dramatic loss of total “demand” for boarding. Put another way, if local authorities were today supporting 3,000 young people in assisted boarding (as they did 20 years ago), schools would have additional revenue of £70m – equivalent to perhaps four additional boarding schools.

The second factor accelerating the decline in boarding is the swing in popular attitudes against boarding (perhaps reversed in recent times, courtesy of Harry Potter) and towards independent day school places. This trend may have been encouraged by a boarding fee “premium” that, at most independent schools, is only about 20% (or some £5,000). This relative diseconomy of boarding may just have had some influence on cost-conscious governors.

Click here to read the rest of this article and view archives from previous issues of Boarding School magazine.

The Royal Wanstead Children’s Foundation started life as an orphanage in London’s East End more than 180 years ago and developed into a charity operating two boarding schools, largely for children with one or no active parents.

Since the closure of its own schools in 1971, Royal Wanstead has been instrumental in the development of what we call ‘assisted boarding’ in which charities work together to fund boarding education for vulnerable children at schools of their choice. During the past 39 years, Royal Wanstead has helped support 2000 vulnerable children at 150 independent and maintained boarding schools throughout the UK. Currently, it is supporting some 250 young people at 90 boarding schools.

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