Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Let them go private?

The select group of people who have read my essay "Defending Families" in the Liberator Passports to Liberty series will have come across the following passage:

In February 1996 the educational psychologist Peter McParlin wrote an article for the newsletter of the British Psychological Society's Division of Education Psychology. He looked at the fortunes of children looked after by local authorities and found that only 3 per cent achieved five or more GCSE passes (the national figure for all children at the time was 42 per cent) and that on any one day up to 60 per cent of them would be absent from school.

He also reported that, of over 10,000 teenagers leaving care each year, 75 per cent had no qualifications, that 80 per cent would be unemployed 12 months later and 40 per cent homeless, and that 40 per cent of girls in the care system would have a child or be pregnant before they were 18. He also said that 38 per cent of prisoners aged between 18 and 24 had been in the care system, as had 66 per cent of male prostitutes.

Being familiar with those figures, I have considerable sympathy for Libby Purves's argument in the Times this morning:

The education of “looked-after children” is our prime national disgrace. Fewer than one in ten get five GCSE passes, and in 125 council areas the number is too low to be recorded. Half of all care leavers have one GCSE or none. They suffer from lack of continuity — some foster children report up to 33 moves — and of home support (one girl I know says that the first time she saw a parents evening was as a sixth-former, helping out.) Inmates of children’s homes report the difficulty of doing coursework with fights breaking out around them. Fewer than 1 per cent of care leavers go to university (though if they do, salute their gallant hearts, they are less likely than most to drop out).

So the department is dipping a toe in the water and asking boarding schools, even private ones, to present a case for taking on some of these children at around £12,000 a year. About 50 children nationwide are already supported in boarding schools, but many local authorities do not consider it. Some, I bet, talk the language of class-warfare bores, excoriating “toff schools” where their “kids” would be miserable. Others are more thoughtful. After all, good boarding provides not only educational stability but steady friends and mentors, routine and structure and quiet and probably more safety than some council homes. Read accounts of abuse in care and you hear how frightened, parentless children dared not complain. Compare that with the assertive readiness to complain of your modern middle-class child: in a boarding school children stick up for one another. Moreover, heads — fearing ruin — are neurotically vigilant.

She might have added that caring for children this way can also save money. A report in the Guardian three years ago suggested that:

the average annual cost of £16,500 for a private boarding school was better value than the £30,000 it costs to provide foster care - more for residential care.

That report also contains a rather clunking piece of fence sitting by the then Liberal Democrat spokesman on children. On the one hand: "It could provide a valuable new start for children who have been neglected and abused in the past." On the other: "Appropriate piloting must be conducted and fully assessed. Until that is done, the government must not implement this policy in one fell swoop."

No one is going to disagree with either half of that, but don't we have something more interesting to say on this important subject?


James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

You're right and, given that foster care is no less "private" than a private boarding school, I can see no real objection to it.

Anonymous said...

You might like to read the Patrick Gale novel "Friendly Fire" the heroine is a girl from a children's home who wins a scholarship to a posh boarding school.

Your points are well amde but lokked after children are small minority of all children. Of course we should be concerned for thier welfare and I have much sympathy for what Libby and you say. Your party needs to aslo address the care system itself - after all were there not so many (or any) children in care, this would be a non-issue. Also you need to address the education of all children and I am not sure that an argument of what might be best for samll group with very particualr needs sheds much light on how we should structure our schooling for all children

Tristan said...

That is a very good idea.

Boarding school could give stability for most of the year, and could enable more concentration on the difficulties of individual children.

There's no reason why private schools shouldn't be used except envy, class warfare and bigotry.
Even if you feel that way, surely the most important thing is the welfare of the child?

I think as a party we should support it, at least as an option. No doubt it will not be the right thing for some children, but for most it would probably be far better than the alternatives...