Is boarding the right choice for a child's development and overall well-being? When is it right for a child to spend most of the week at a school instead of at home? These are questions that often come up when discussing whether or not boarding is the right option for a child.
For some people, the idea of boarding is baffling. People such as the broadcaster, TV critic and columnist, Caitlin Moran, who recently said, "The idea of outsourcing almost the entire raising of your child never fails to blow my mind". Or author and psychotherapist, Professor Joy Schaverien, who says, "Prep school is pretty much bad for everyone; it is not loving to send a young child away".
There are many comment pieces within the media with similar opinions that dismiss the idea of boarding based on negative connotations, but I'm not writing this to dispute their reasons or battle their attitudes. I am writing this, however, to show how, for some people, "outsourcing" is the best possible option and, for them, it is "loving" to send their young child away.
Take the case of Sam and Michael: two children we supported recently whose mother sadly passed away from a brain tumour. Their grandparents kindly offered to take them in to their home to prevent them from being placed for adoption or in care.
However, suddenly having to look after two children in your elder years is not only a massive physical drain but a financial one too--not to mention the huge emotional drain they felt from dealing with their daughter's death. They wanted to do the best for the children, but simply didn't have the energy or money to look after them at home.
Part of the mother's legacy paid towards the tuition fees for them to go to boarding school but they were still a fair bit short. Buttle's funding allowed Sam and Michael to go to a boarding school where they could get around-the-clock support to help with their grieving and allow them to move forward. It also meant that they could see their grandparents at the weekends and holidays so they still have a loving home to go back to.
This is just one case that we have funded. There are over 200 similar cases that Buttle funds every year! We have been investing in families like these since 1953.
Why do we do this? Why is boarding the chosen option in these extreme cases? For three main reasons:
Firstly, boarding schools can provide individual pastoral care and support to help address a child's complex developmental needs. For children who are struggling with living with chaotic or disruptive home lives it offers stability, security and a level of aspiration that is missing at home.
Secondly, we find that a little time apart can actually strengthen relationships between the child and family that were otherwise declining. One mother wrote to us recently to say that "[her son] and his brothers actually miss each other during the week and have now started to rebuild and repair their relationships...I couldn't put a price on this". This is just one case and there are many more like it.
Finally, the combination of these changes can positively impact academic achievement. Every year, only 15% of children in formal care receive 5 or more GCSEs, leaving the majority without the academic skills needed to help them with their further development. In contrast, of the Year 11 students we support, typically 60-70% get 5 GCSEs grade A*to C (or equivalent).
So what do I mean when I talk about boarding? I mean a safe environment for vulnerable children where they can start to deal with their emotional and behavioural issues. And I mean a little space from a crisis that allows both them and their family time to deal with their situations and improve their relationships.
I mean the opportunity that will eventually provide a ladder out of poverty for the children who need it most. I am not alone in thinking this either. Duncan Sinclair, Headmaster of Taunton Prep School, said recently in The Telegraph, "Children in care do well in a residential school environment, it's sad this approach is not readily taken by local authorities...the transformation we have witnessed in the confidence and abilities of the two children who have joined our prep school from care has been such that I am keen to expand it to other young people".
We have lots of anecdotal evidence over many years of our beneficiaries' experience of boarding being overwhelmingly positive, but the data we receive from our reports has been largely qualitative and ad hoc. Therefore, we lack the thorough empirical evidence from a study that would fairly demonstrate what opportunities these places could mean to more children in need.
The Boarding Chances for Children study is the first-of-its-kind that will monitor a group of beneficiaries' holistic progresses and measure their outcomes in comparison to a control group of children who do not receive such support.
Through this study we aim to empirically show what we have already known for 62 years and present boarding as a viable option that local authorities should consider for some children as an alternative to public care.
I am myself a beneficiary of a free school place. With the death of my mother, displacement from a country and friends, and the chaos and uncertainty that prevailed for years as a result of inconsistent care, a free place at a small boarding school was a haven compared to living within these circumstances. The place gave me protection and provided for me in a way that would not have happened if I had lived permanently with my carers.