THE BLOG
01/08/2018 08:37 BST | Updated 01/08/2018 08:37 BST

How Boarding Schools Can 'Save' Vulnerable Young People Like Me

To say boarding school was a culture shock would not be the half of it. Those first few weeks were a real test for a young boy who had never before spent even a single night away from home

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In 1958, the first trans-Atlantic jet flights began on the new Comet, Brazil won the World Cup in Sweden, Elvis Presley joined the US army, and BBC TV launched Blue Peter.

It was quite a year also for me. I was a seven-year-old waiting nervously to be sent away to boarding school.

That was the start of my 11 years at a boarding school in Wanstead, East London. It was an imposing 1840s building designed by celebrated architect Sir George Gilbert Scott on his way to building the Albert Memorial and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The grandeur of the school entrance and also the rowdiness of dormitory and dining room were worlds away from the one-bedroom flat that I shared with my mother and elder brother. My parents had separated three years earlier and I never saw my father again. I was a little boy lost.

To say boarding school was a culture shock would not be the half of it. Those first few weeks were a real test for a young boy who had never before spent even a single night away from home. But, soon enough, school became the warm, welcoming home for my growing-up years. In school holidays, I rushed for the train home but quickly realised I had more friends and fun at school, and looked forward to getting back.

By the time I left school at the end of the 1960s to pursue my dreams of journalism and media, I had come to understand how fortunate I had been. The Royal Wanstead School had been founded in 1827 by a celebrated congregational minister Dr Andrew Reed, who also founded what became Reed’s School, in Cobham, and the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability, in Putney. My school had a succession of Royal patrons (starting with Queen Victoria) and the local MP Winston Churchill was a long-time governor.

It was an amazing boarding school charity which supported hundreds of vulnerable, disadvantaged young people. Most had one or no active parents. Many had much more deprived backgrounds than me. But, only in 1971, when the school collapsed in a pile of debt, did I come to understand its true significance. Boarding schools were the very picture of privilege in 20th century Britain. But behind the insistent images of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, posh kids and bullying, was the secret world of charity-funded boarders like me.

At the end of the 1960s, when there was a total of 150,000 boarding school pupils in the UK, no fewer than 10,000 were being paid-for by local authorities. Essex County Council, which (with the Royal National Children’s Foundation) paid my school fees for 10 years, was itself supporting 100 other vulnerable children across England.

The 1971 closure of the Royal Wanstead School (and the change of RNCF to a grant-making charity) coincided with a change in the attitude of local authorities to boarding schools. During the 1970s and 1980s, social workers increasingly chose to place young people in children’s homes or with foster carers.

In 2002 (in a “look mum!” moment), I became chair of the RNCF charity that had supported me almost 45 years before. But, by then, all the local authorities in England added together were supporting only 100 young people at boarding schools. The collapse of their support for boarding schools in the intervening years had its impact on the number of boarding places across the UK, which fell to 114,000 by 1974 and 70,000 today.

During my 15 years as chair of RNCF, we provided long-term support for more than 1,000 vulnerable young people at mainstream boarding schools. Our research and the stream of grateful letters confirmed what I had always known: that the structure, security and pastoral care of boarding school can play a unique role in helping to transform the lives of vulnerable young people after a difficult and unpromising start in life. I knew how valuable our work was.

In July 2017, Lord Nash, then Schools Minister, supported my proposal for Boarding School Partnerships (BSP). We aimed to give local authorities access to the expertise of specialist charities and boarding schools on behalf of young people in and on the edge of care. It has been hard work but, truly, a labour of love.

Now, with the passionate support of Schools Minister Lord Agnew, the BSP service is regularly used by some 50% of all local authorities. In June, we reported on research into the stunning success of 52 vulnerable young people funded by Norwich County Council at 11 boarding schools. We have now launched “Partnership Bursaries” with at least 45 boarding schools which will offer 40% bursaries to local authorities. It has been a fantastic response by so many of the country’s leading independent schools.

Sixty years after Essex County Council whisked me off to boarding school and helped to change my life, there is a real prospect that many hundreds more young people will now get the same opportunity from their local authorities.

Colin Morrison OBE is Chair of Boarding School Partnerships. He was Chair of the Royal National Children’s Foundation 2001-2016. He is a former journalist who has been CEO of media companies in Europe and the AsiaPacific and is an international media consultant.