In among all the policy and pathways, it’s easy to forget the real reasons why children are in care. When a child is taken into care it’s not because there is some minor issue at home. They have often suffered unimaginable abuse, horrific neglect or unspeakable violence. Many have lived under conditions that are so appalling that the only option is to remove them for their own safety. Children in care have seen and experienced things that we cannot even start to imagine.
Our duty to vulnerable children
These children don’t choose their parents or their family circumstances. They don’t have a say in the physical or mental health of their parents. They can’t avert family tragedy or breakdown. They can’t avoid abuse or neglect. They have no choice as to whether they will end up in care.
To say that we have a duty to these children is a huge understatement. They are some of the most disadvantaged people in society. These children miss out on the love and support of a family, the consistency of a safe, stable home and good academic role models. The state has a responsibility to ensure these children get everything they need to build successful lives.
I came into politics because I wanted to make sure that everyone, regardless of their background, got a good chance at life. But without a stable environment and good education, how are these children supposed to succeed? The truth is, at present, the vast majority won’t.
A national crisis in children’s care
The statistics are devastating. A third of all care leavers are thought to be living on the street, half of all sex workers were in care at some point and nearly a third of people in prison were in care at some point. Many of these kids’ parents have been sent to prison, gone missing or have died. Many are addicts. Horrifically, more than 6 in 10 of these children have been taken into care because of parental neglect or abuse. These kids should not have to bear responsibility for their parents’ actions. A bad start in life means that they become tangled up in crime and drugs early, and that less than 15% end up achieving 5 A* to C grades including English and mathematics at GCSE.
This is a damning state of affairs. We cannot let these children fail, through no fault of their own, because of where and when they were born. The state must fulfil its responsibility to these disadvantaged children if it wants to create a true meritocracy.
The state has a rich history of looking after society’s most disadvantaged and that’s why it’s right for the Conservative-led coalition to place renewed focus on social mobility in the UK. Everyone, regardless of their background, ethnicity and upbringing, should be able to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’. The government has made great progress but, unfortunately, children in care are not always given that chance.
How boarding schools can help vulnerable children
That is why I think the state, with the help of charities, schools, philanthropists and businesses, should pay for these children to go to the best boarding schools in the country. Boarding schools could provide these children with their first experience of proper stability and structure. At the moment these neglected children are often shuttled between foster carers and children’s homes. They’re lucky if they see the same person twice. They can end up switching schools and teachers every other month. Why work hard when you might change schools in a couple of weeks? You’ll just start at bottom of the class again.
These children also don’t have the opportunity to build up strong friendships with other children or adults. This is not because foster carers or the people who work in children’s homes don’t do a great job, but because these children are shifted from place to place undermining their stability and wellbeing. The think-tank Policy Exchange found that it wasn’t unusual for a child to change schools more than three times in a year.
Boarding schools give these children a chance to get a proper education, make real friends and aspire after proper role models. This isn’t revolutionary. There are already some fantastic charities doing some brilliant work. Charities like the Royal National Children’s Foundation (RNCF) and Buttle UK that provide vulnerable children with bursaries to study at boarding schools.
What boarding schools can achieve
The results of these schemes open up your eyes and take your breath away. Education, alongside business, is the best way out of poverty. They are the engine of social mobility because they let people stand on their own two feet.
The educational attainment of the vulnerable children who took part in RNCF’s schemes shot up 28%; their self-esteem and morale soared 50% and their overall performance rocketed 80%. Half of those kids who were considered ‘at risk of failing’ had caught up with – or exceeded – their peers within three years and 39% of children who are enrolled in boarding schools by RNCF become star performers.
Staggeringly, the cost of sending these children to top boarding schools is cheaper than what the government does now. While it costs an eye-watering £150,000 to care for a child in a children’s home and between £20-25,000 to look after a children in foster care, it costs only £14,800 to enrol a child in a state boarding school and between £25-30,000 at an independent school, including the cost of care during school holidays. And the actual amount the government pays will be much lower after charities, philanthropists, schools and businesses get involved.
I know that these bursaries won’t work for all children. Some children suffer from difficult emotional problems that cannot be properly managed in a school environment. I’m the first to admit there’s no fix-all solution to difficult problems. But we need to start somewhere. And we need to remember why these children are in care. Don’t we owe them the chance at a bright future after such an appalling start in life?
We can’t wait any longer. We need to act now. And we need to act early. Let’s overcome our prejudice about boarding schools and give these children the chance to turn around their lives.