Boarding School Partnerships - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:15 am on 28th June 2018.

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Photo of Lord Farmer Lord Farmer Conservative 11:15 am, 28th June 2018

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the Boarding School Partnership information service; and how many children who would otherwise have been taken into local authority care have been given places in state boarding schools as a result of the service.

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, Boarding School Partnerships launched last July and it is independent of government. The service provides information to local authorities on how to make placements in boarding schools. Statistics on referrals into boarding are not collected centrally, but I can report that this year the web portal averaged 700 regular users, 44% up on 2017. Between May and June this year, there was a 50% increase in unique visitors to the website.

Photo of Lord Farmer Lord Farmer Conservative

I thank my noble friend the Minister for that encouraging reply. What plans do the Government have to stimulate further the use of boarding schools as an alternative to local authority care?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, Boarding School Partnerships, working with Norfolk County Council, has recently published its findings on the outcomes achieved by vulnerable children following boarding placements. This showed benefits including improved educational outcomes and a reduction in risk of children going into care. Earlier this month, we organised a conference to bring boarding schools and local authorities together to publicise these research findings. Over 50 local authorities were represented at this conference and, while it is not suitable for all children, we strongly urge local authorities to consider boarding as an option.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

My Lords, I commend the Minister and his predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Nash, who I see in his place, for their excellent work in promoting state boarding schools. They offer outstanding opportunities, particularly to children from vulnerable backgrounds or from military families or other mobile occupations to have a high-quality and stable education. Does he have any proposals to increase the number of state boarding schools? There are 40 at the moment. It would be great if the country had at least twice that number. Would it be a good idea to increase that number, with an emphasis on providing places for children from vulnerable families or whose parents have highly mobile occupations?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I thank the noble Lord for his question. It is extremely important. Indeed, in the study that was recently carried out by Norfolk County Council, a third of the children were placed in state boarding schools. Boarding schools can offer a holistic environment in which to grow and develop, and it is this stability that can have long-lasting, positive effects on children’s outcomes. We are open to proposals from the state system to consider more boarding facilities. From my own experience in a boarding school, I can say they are very important, particularly if one comes from a broken family.

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash Conservative

My Lords, can my noble friend say how many of the 52 young people funded in boarding schools by Norfolk County Council were able to be taken off the local authority’s risk register completely, as a result of their experience and the benefits of attending a boarding school?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I thank my noble friend for this question and pay tribute to the important role that he played in setting up Boarding School Partnerships last year. Almost three-quarters, 37 of the children, showed a reduced level of risk and nearly two-thirds moved out of a high-risk category into universal services. Overall, 33 children were taken off the council’s risk register. These outcomes can only be described as very encouraging. For the right child, at the right time and in the right school, boarding can present an excellent opportunity.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that many local authorities had their own boarding facilities in the 1970s and 1980s, and sadly they were closed down over cases of safeguarding concerns. This scheme and the effect it can have on young people in care can be transformational—there is no doubt about that—but the numbers taking up the provision are very small. The Minister suggested how we might increase them. Local authorities have concerns and the Norfolk study, good as it is, followed only 50-odd young people. Do we not need to have a proper look at the cost benefit and the change it makes to young people, and then crusade about this and sell the idea to local authorities?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, I very much take on board what the noble Lord has to say, and I respect his great experience in this area in particular. I believe my role in the Department for Education is that of exhorting local authorities to encourage them to consider this option. That is why we had the conference the other day. What was so uplifting about that conference was that, after the address from the panel members from Norfolk council, questions were asked for and a forest of hands went up. None of those questions was directed to me; they were all directed to the council representatives, who could speak of their experiences and show how they have overcome a lot of the problems the noble Lord mentioned—safeguarding has moved on enormously in the last 20 years. My role will be to continue to promote, and if there are blockages in the system that I or the Government can sort out, I will do my best to unblock them.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, I met last year with the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation and acknowledge the good work it does with Boarding School Partnerships. In many cases, there are positive social, care, educational and financial outcomes, but most children in care will have experienced some kind of trauma, and many have unmet mental health needs. The question needs to be asked: are boarding schools equipped to provide the sort of wraparound support that these children may need? Many boarding schools have an established culture of bullying, and the arrival of a pupil who is demonstrably different may play into that. What assurances can the Minister give that he will insist that all care placements are based on the best interests of the child, not the cost to the local authority, and certainly that they should happen only following a full assessment of the child’s needs?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The noble Lord is quite right that this is not a catch-all solution for some of the most vulnerable children in our society; I completely agree with him. That is why this cannot be a centrally directed government initiative. The decisions lie with the directors of children’s services in individual local authorities. That is what I am saying and why I am encouraging them to talk to one another and ensure that they understand both the advantages and the challenges that they face. I will finish on a quote given by a young person to my noble friend Lord Nash last year, when we launched Boarding School Partnerships:

“What is clear from my experience is that the placement at a boarding school, away from all familiarity was, arguably, a gamble. But this gamble became the most successful move of my 20 years in care. It changed me forever”.