1 April 2022

Private school places are going empty – why not give them to children in care?


Radical education uniform was once the leitmotif of education ministers full of social justice vigour. These days, though, the puff rather seems to have gone out of that effort. Where are the big ideas about how to give all our children the best possible start in life?

One obvious way to rediscover some of that reforming vim would be to turn our attention to children in the care system. There are few more deserving groups – and few who leave school with so few GCSEs.

There is a simple solution, once enthusiastically endorsed by Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi: instead of nationalising private schools – as some on the left would like – or taxing them out of existence, we should be paying for some of our most disadvantaged children to attend them. 

Britain’s once-booming boarding school sector now has plenty of places going. In fact, more than 9,000 free spots at our top schools went unfilled last year. We could offer those places to children in care and completely change their prospects at a stroke.

There’s nothing new about this idea, in the 15th century Henry VI established 70 scholarships for ‘poor boys’ when he set up Eton College. Today the Government sets aside just £500,000 a year to help their modern day counterparts attend boarding schools, enough to fund about 13 boarding places. It would seem an odd form of progress if we can’t be more ambitious than we were in the 15th century. 

With a government review of the care system due to report back in the coming weeks, now is the time to be much more ambitious, especially given the number of kids in care is rising year on year. The answer needn’t be entirely down to the taxpayer. A scheme of national scholarships for some of our brightest but most disadvantaged pupils could be backed by a mixture of philanthropy and public money.  Doing so would save the state money too: the average cost for children in residential care comes in at well over £50,000 per child – easily more than the annual fees of even the most expensive private schools.

There’s plenty of evidence to show this works, especially for children growing up in our care system. Children supported by the state to attend a fee-paying boarding school receive significantly higher grades than their disadvantaged peers, benefit from the stability of boarding against the lottery of a life in the care system and develop a confidence and independence that will set them up for life.

Some years ago the Department for Education teamed up with Norfolk County Council to conduct a ten year study of children from care backgrounds placed in boarding schools across the county. The results were remarkable, the official metrics of ‘vulnerability’ reduced significantly, exam success shot up and the council saved money. Most importantly, the children themselves told researchers that the experience ‘changed their lives for the better’.

For the schools themselves taking on more disadvantaged children would be a return to their roots. Many of our leading institutions are now global in their outlook, despite being founded to educate poor local children. Winchester College, for example, was founded to educate boys underneath the 14th century equivalent of the poverty line. These days, however, even the professional middle classes are largely priced out thanks to rampant fee inflation, and schools look to students from overseas to fill the gaps.

For some on the left the solution is simply to tax and regulate these establishments out of existence, rather than learn from why they have been so consistently successful. Rather than indulge counter-productive class war politics, we should be looking at what we can do to help the worst off children access the best education. You could even call it ‘levelling up’, if you must.

Nor would this require a huge feat of invention or planning for ministers. There’s a ready-made template to pick up and deliver. The Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation is an innovative charity that has helped hundreds of disadvantaged children take up places at our most prestigious schools. It’s backed by the Princess Royal, who hands out awards each year to young people who have had their lives transformed by attending these schools. It wouldn’t take much to extend this programme with a new scholarship for both day and boarding schools. And doing so would return many such schools to their original purpose, as educators of the poor rather than exam factories for the rich.

Henry VI got it right when he set up a scholarship scheme for poor boys. A more modern version building on the work of this 15th century reformer would be to stuff our most exclusive schools with children from our most disadvantaged backgrounds. Nadhim Zahawi should channel his inner Plantagenet and get on with the job.

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Frank Young is head of children and families at the Civitas think tank

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.