It is gratifying that the case for improving social mobility through education is shared right across the political spectrum and is being espoused in the current government by a former Labour minister, Alan Milburn.
It is important, however, not to lose sight of the disadvantaged young people who need (and deserve) not only a good school but also a safe, secure, and supportive home.
For many vulnerable young people, that is a school-home combination which only boarding schools can offer. The Royal National Children's Foundation is a low-cost, independent charity which has, during the past 40 years, supported almost 3,000 vulnerable young people at state and independent boarding schools across the country. This "Assisted Boarding" has, for many of these needy young people, proved to be a positive alternative to needing eventually to be taken into local authority care. The RNCF has seen, time and again, how boarding school has enabled vulnerable young people - and also their pressured single-parents - to rebuild their lives and prospects. This is life-changing work.
Indeed, many Assisted Boarding beneficiaries become outstanding achievers, perhaps partly because they know that their new-found security, structure, pastoral care, education and social opportunity would only be available to them at boarding school. RNCF and partner charities are currently providing long-term (six-seven years) support for more than 300 vulnerable young assisted boarders in 120 state and independent boarding schools. We are also involved in promoting the social benefits of boarding school to local authorities through our Assisted Boarding Network.
These hundreds of vulnerable young people are, though, only a fraction of the 1.6million impoverished lone-parent families from whom most of our beneficiaries are drawn. While boarding school would never suit all young people (whether vulnerable or not), many of those in the sights of Mr Milburn and his commission might indeed benefit from becoming Assisted Boarders. And it is believed that up to 3,000 Assisted Boarders could be accommodated in existing boarding school facilities.
So, the Royal National Children's Foundation is now calling for the consensus on social mobility to be extended to require the UK's 550 boarding schools to sign up to the following:
- They should adopt a publicly-stated 'mission statements' on bursary targets for Assisted Boarders, with criteria that are explicitly more social than academic. While a selective school should not choose pupils for whom it is unsuitable, boarding schools should have an explicit commitment to providing additional mentoring and support for young people from 'broken' homes.
- They should develop formal, consultative relationships with neighbouring local authority young people's services (and charities like RNCF) on Assisted Boarding and would-be beneficiaries.
This inclusive approach (which is implicitly supported by some 40% of all boarding schools) should become the norm - in the way that major public companies are expected to have a policy for "Corporate and Social Responsibility". This CSR approach might also influence any future government funding incentives to ensure that the longtime decline of UK boarding school capacity is eventually reversed.
The 100-200 boarding schools with which RNCF works most closely testify to the effectiveness of Assisted Boarding for beneficiaries but also for the schools themselves. Everybody now accepts the importance of social mobility for the longterm health and wealth of the country. They should also realise that the same goes for schools, especially the 'home from home' boarding schools which have so much to offer. It's time for action.
Colin Morrison is chairman (and a former Assisted Boarding beneficiary) of the Royal National Children's Foundation (www.rncf.org.uk).