Research Report No dcsf-rr070

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Research Report No DCSF-RR070

Boarding School Provision for Vulnerable Children

Pathfinder Evaluation

Claire Maxwell, Elaine Chase, June Statham and Sonia Jackson
Thomas Coram Research Unit,

Institute of Education, University of London

Views expressed in this report are not necessarily those of the Department for Children, Schools and Families or any other Government department.
© Institute of Education, University of London 2009

ISBN 978 1 84775 330 4

The evaluation team would like to thank Denise Eacher and David Kirkham at the Department for Children, Schools and Families for their support and encouragement and for allowing us flexibility to shape the evaluation around the Pathfinder as it developed.
We are indebted to the Pathfinder leads within each of the ten participating local authorities and to the educational trusts (Royal Wanstead Children’s Foundation, Frank Buttle Trust and Joint Educational Trust) who have willingly made themselves available to the evaluation team to share their experience and expertise. We would also like to express our thanks to the Boarding Schools’ Association and the State Boarding Schools’ Association for providing us with contact details of all participating boarding schools and for supporting the evaluation as a whole.
We would like especially to extend our thanks to the young people, their families/carers and key workers who participated in the study and shared their stories.
Special thanks also go to Michelle Cage at TCRU who provided administrative support throughout the duration of the Pathfinder evaluation.



Tables 2

Executive summary 3

1. Introduction 9

1.1. Background 9

1.2. The Pathfinder 10

1.3. Methodology 12

2. Children and young people who took part in the Pathfinder 16

2.1. Numbers in the Pathfinder 16

2.2. Two case studies 19

2.3. Young people’s experiences of boarding school 24

2.4. Why did some placements fail, and what happened afterwards? 35

2.5. Summary 38

3. Perspectives from the Local Authorities 40

3.1. The journey so far… 40

3.2. Reasons for joining the Pathfinder 41

3.3. Ways in which the boarding school option has become systematised into local authority processes 42

3.4. Drivers and barriers for the Pathfinder scheme 43

3.5. Plans for the future 47

3.6. Summary 51

4. Perspectives from the boarding schools: survey findings 52

4.1 Schools’ experience of working with vulnerable young people before the Boarding Pathfinder began 52

4.2 Schools and the Pathfinder 54

4.3. Summary 60

5. Perspectives from the Educational Trusts 62

6. Conclusions and recommendations 64

References 68

Appendix 1: Boarding Pathfinder for vulnerable children: steering group members 70


Table 2.1: Overview of placements ‘considered’ and made by each of the ten Pathfinder authorities between December 2006 and September 2008

Table 2.2: Young people placed at boarding school


Executive summary


A Boarding Provision for Vulnerable Children Pathfinder (the Boarding Pathfinder) was announced by the Department for Education and Skills (now the Department for Children, Schools and Families - DCSF) in the White Paper Higher Standards, Better Schools for All (2005), and formally launched in November 2006. The Pathfinder was intended to explore whether boarding school provision might be used by more local authorities to provide support and stability for, and help improve the life chances of, larger numbers of vulnerable children and young people. In particular, it was felt that the scheme might allow vulnerable children to benefit from a strong ethos of personal and social development and access to many extra-curricular activities, as well as opportunities for educational success. At the beginning of the scheme, ten local authorities and just over 50 boarding schools (state maintained and independent) were signed up to the Pathfinder. At the end of the evaluation period, 80 boarding schools (state and independent) were participating in the scheme and the number of local authorities involved had increased to eighteen.

The evaluation

The DCSF commissioned the Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London to evaluate the scheme. The evaluation was conducted between December 2006 and October 2008, focusing on the original 10 Pathfinder local authorities. The study aimed to:

  • Describe the processes by which vulnerable children suitable for boarding provision are identified and schools selected and how the model protocols are contributing to these processes;

  • Examine the views, experiences and outcomes for children placed in boarding schools, as well as the views of their parents/carers;

  • Examine the views of local authority staff working with vulnerable children about the Pathfinder;

  • Assess the progress of the local authorities in identifying and placing children who could benefit;

  • Assess the appropriateness of the placements, the impact of placement on wider children’s services and the cost effectiveness of boarding provision for vulnerable children; and

  • Record examples of good practice and the lessons to be learned for embedding such practice in local authorities not involved in the Pathfinder exercise.

The slower than anticipated rate of development meant that it was not possible to evaluate fully the use of the model protocols, the impact of placement on wider children’s services or the cost effectiveness of boarding placements in relation to other options.

The research design consisted of a multi-method approach which included:

  • Maintaining regular contact with all ten senior local authority managers with responsibility for the Pathfinder in order to gather information on progress and on young people considered for a boarding school place;

  • Collecting information on all 17 young people placed through the Pathfinder during the evaluation period;

  • Case studies of seven young people placed at boarding school under the Pathfinder scheme, based on interviews with young people, family members/carers, key workers from the local authority and the relevant boarding school;

  • An electronically administered questionnaire survey sent to all eighty boarding schools participating in the Pathfinder scheme in summer 2008 with a response rate of 52%;

  • Interviews with representatives from three educational trusts and a review of monitoring data gathered by the trusts on the numbers of children they supported to attend boarding school.

Key findings

Reasons for joining the Pathfinder

Ten local authorities initially signed up to the Pathfinder in November 2006. They had various reasons for joining the Pathfinder, including wanting to explore boarding school as a new form of placement and an opportunity for earlier intervention with vulnerable children and young people; hoping that it might offer a way of reducing the number of looked after children; embedding and expanding their previous experience of placing children with special educational needs in residential boarding schools; and responding to enthusiasm for the Pathfinder from elected council members.

From the perspective of the boarding schools that chose to sign up to the Pathfinder, the most common reason given was a commitment to offer children and young people from more difficult circumstances educational opportunities which they might not otherwise have had. Additionally, many schools felt the Pathfinder fitted well the ethos and principles of their school, and that they had the knowledge and expertise to work with vulnerable children and young people.

Boarding school placements made under the Pathfinder

Over the twenty-two months of the Boarding Pathfinder, the ten pilot authorities had considered the suitability of a boarding school placement for up to 76 young people. In many cases, however, boarding school was just one of a range of options being considered and was ruled out at an early stage. This was usually because the young person’s behavioural and educational needs were judged incompatible with what the identified schools were able to offer, or because the young person or their family did not want to pursue this option.

Progress in placing children in boarding school was initially slow, largely because of the need first to raise awareness of the option within the local authority and its partners, build relationships with schools and educational trusts, and develop procedures for identifying children who might benefit. Over the evaluation period, 17 young people actually started at a boarding school, and eleven were still in their boarding school placement at the beginning of September 2008. Three of these placements were in one state boarding school, the rest were in boarding schools in the independent sector.

Identifying potential young people for boarding school placements

The best time to identify and place a child or young person in boarding school presented a challenge to local authorities and schools. Although early intervention and placement was considered preferable, and schools thought this offered the best chance of a placement being successful, local authorities had to consider boarding school alongside other forms of support which might enable a young person to continue to live with his or her family. As the Pathfinder progressed, a number of local authorities were attempting to introduce the option of a boarding school placement to some vulnerable young people and their families at the point of transition from primary to secondary school education.

Vulnerable young people who might benefit from a boarding school place could potentially be identified through a diverse range of agencies and settings, although this had yet to happen to any great extent. Local authority managers with responsibility for the Pathfinder felt that more needed to be done to encourage referrals through professionals working in education, the primary care trust, the youth offending team and voluntary organisations working with vulnerable young people and their families.

Factors affecting the success of a boarding school placement

For most of the young people included in the evaluation, being placed in a boarding school had alleviated strained and complicated family situations and had been a positive experience overall, both socially and educationally. This was despite some continuing difficulties, for example the lack of appropriate support during extended holiday periods. Individual young people’s personality and social skills, as well as their own socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, influenced their ability to cope with a boarding school placement. For most young people considered for a place through the Pathfinder, boarding school was not an option that had ever been considered or experienced by other members of their family. Other factors that were likely to impact on the outcome of the placement were the young person’s prior experience of, and engagement with, education; and the age at which they were considered for a boarding school placement. Young people’s interest in their education and their willingness to try and make a success of boarding school, even if they were not academically high achieving, seemed to play a role in influencing the outcome of the placement. While most professionals participating in the research felt that placing a young person at a younger age, for example at the start of secondary schooling, was likely to lead to a more successful placement, there were some examples in the evaluation where young people placed in their mid teens (Years 9 and 10) had nonetheless settled in well and were benefitting from the boarding school environment.

Embedding the Pathfinder at a local authority level

Overall, the participating local authorities saw boarding provision as important and having the potential to add value to the way they worked with vulnerable families. Six of the 10 authorities felt that offering a boarding school placement as an option for vulnerable young people had become embedded in local authority practice. Three other authorities felt that this would become an increasingly viable option in suitable cases, and only one local authority remained unconvinced that it was likely to be an appropriate option for young people in their locality.

All the local authority Pathfinder leads emphasized that the scheme had made considerable progress in the given timeframe. However, they were aware that much work remained to be done: raising awareness, developing partnerships, visiting boarding schools. In particular, further work was required to align the priorities of education and social care professionals working with young people and their families, and to challenge the view held by many social care professionals – as well as young people and parents - that boarding schools were only appropriate for those from more privileged backgrounds.

Boarding schools participating in the Pathfinder

Few boarding schools surveyed as part of the evaluation had actually accepted a young person for a place through a local authority referral under the Pathfinder scheme. However, schools still identified benefits from participating in the Pathfinder, such as developing better communication and better relationships with local authorities and/or other schools, and increased understanding within local authorities of the potential benefits of boarding school placements.

Contrary to the expectations of some local authority personnel, two thirds of the schools surveyed (24/37) considered that they had experience and expertise in providing for children from difficult backgrounds or with behavioural or emotional problems requiring extra support. This said, from the experiences of local authorities attempting to place some young people in boarding schools, it appears that schools may not always be prepared for the levels of difficulty presented by some children and young people who are in or on the margins of local authority care.

The importance of partnership working

The nature and strength of relationships between different stakeholders emerged as a major theme throughout the evaluation. Reports on the extent to which families, local authorities and boarding schools worked together varied, but in general partnerships appeared to form and strengthen over time as roles and responsibilities became clearer. Management of expectations between local authorities and boarding schools remains an area requiring careful negotiation, both with respect to individual young people already placed in schools and to developing procedures for other potential placements.

The expectations of schools and local authority Children’s Services were not always congruent. Schools’ primary motivation for participating in the Pathfinder (as indicated by responses to the survey) was to provide an educational opportunity for disadvantaged children. Children’s Services, on the other hand, were often looking for a placement option that would support vulnerable families (and pre-empt the need for a young person to come into the care system), although they also welcomed the additional benefits such as increasing a young person’s chances of achieving educationally and placing them in an environment which might support the development of future aspirations. These differences in perspective were less evident as the Pathfinder progressed, at least where boarding schools and local authorities had begun to communicate and develop a better understanding of each other’s position.

Funding arrangements

Funding arrangements to cover school and boarding fees, uniform, transport and equipment costs varied widely for each of the young people about whom information was gathered during the evaluation. In some cases, the local authority met the full cost of tuition and boarding fees and also paid for uniform and equipment. In others, the local authority paid for tuition and weekly boarding and occasional weekend boarding if required. For young people on a care order, the local authority met the cost of weekend care placements and provided additional pocket money and transports costs. Sometimes they also provided money for extra-curricular activities such as music and riding lessons. In other situations the costs of tuition and boarding fees and any additional costs were shared between various combinations of Children’s Services, the school’s charitable trust, one or more educational trusts, and a parent/carer.

Whilst it was not possible to conduct any formal cost effectiveness analysis, due to the small number of children placed and the fact that in many cases the placements occurred towards the end of the evaluation period, there were nevertheless some indications from the study that the cost of boarding school – especially if shared between different funding sources – could prove a worthwhile investment, particularly if it prevented a young person entering care and improved their educational outcomes and future life trajectory. However, this remains to be tested as more young people are placed and outcome data become available.

Policy implications

For central government

  • Making boarding school placements a viable mainstreamed educational and placement option for vulnerable children and young people would benefit from on-going guidance and leadership at a national level. Creating opportunities for local authorities to share and learn from each others’ experiences would be particularly valuable.

  • Specific areas where further guidance appears to be required are on: how best to support and monitor the progress of children and young people who are supported to attend boarding school through the local authority but for whom the local authority has no other statutory obligation; how local authorities should/could support young people post 16 years who wish to remain in boarding school provision but who are not looked after by the local authority; and on how and under what circumstances local authorities might employ the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) to support a boarding school placement for a young person.

  • In order for the scheme to develop further, emphasis should be placed on the need for a partnership approach involving social care, education, health, youth work and youth justice professionals, in order to facilitate early identification of young people who might benefit from a boarding school placement. Central government might consider guiding Children's Trusts to take responsibility for identifying vulnerable young people who might benefit from a boarding school place.

  • Although very important for those who are supported in this way, boarding school is likely to be an appropriate option for a relatively small number of vulnerable children and young people, and thus is at risk of being sidelined within local authorities by more pressing and higher profile priorities. Specific funding to assist local authorities to develop procedures, establish links with potential schools and raise awareness locally would help Pathfinder authorities to embed this option in their practice, and encourage non-Pathfinder authorities to follow their lead.

  • Educational trusts have considerable experience of placing and supporting vulnerable children in boarding schools, as well as good knowledge of the strengths and limitations of particular schools. Their support and ‘brokering’ role within the Pathfinder has been welcomed by participating local authorities and made a valuable contribution to developing the scheme. Central government support for continuing involvement by the educational trusts would help other local authorities to plan and develop partnerships with boarding schools and to identify the most appropriate placements for young people, thus making the placements more likely to be sustainable.

For local authorities

  • Boarding schools should continue to be considered by local authorities as a placement option for children and young people where their family or other care arrangements are at risk of breaking down and where it is considered that the young person could potentially benefit from such a placement.

  • Local authorities need to find ways of identifying suitable young people as early as possible to allow sufficient time for planning and preparation before the young person takes up the boarding school place. This could be achieved through working in partnership with a wide range of agencies likely to come into contact with vulnerable children and young people, including primary and secondary schools, primary care trusts, youth services, Connexions services, youth offending schemes and voluntary agencies providing support to young people. The transition from primary to secondary school may be a particularly appropriate time to consider the option of a boarding school placement.

  • Placements are more likely to be successful when the child is involved in the decision to board and choice of school and is fully informed of the advantages of boarding as well as of potential difficulties.

  • Careful consideration needs to be given to the best way of preparing children/young people and their families/carers for boarding school life. Provision of support to young people and their families during holiday times is crucial, and should be taken into consideration and budgeted for during the planning of boarding school placements.

  • There need to be agreed arrangements between the boarding school, the local authority, educational trust (where appropriate) and parents/carers with respect to responsibilities for funding/paying for different aspects of the boarding school place such as ‘extras’ which would normally be paid for by parents.

  • Boarding school appears more likely to be considered as a placement option where it has high level support and commitment from senior executives and where it is included in local strategic planning arrangements such as the authority’s placement strategy.

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