By Fiona Macleod
A SCHEME that would see vulnerable children sent to boarding schools could help to transform the lives of Scottish youngsters, school leaders claim.
Scottish boarding headteachers supported the call of the chairman of the Boarding Schools Association (BSA), who said that such a programme – now taking place in England – should be expanded. The initiative south of the Border has sought to encourage youngsters from difficult backgrounds to attend boarding school.
Andrew Hunter, headmaster at the Scottish boys-only boarding school Merchiston Castle in Edinburgh, backed the idea for Scotland.
"It's very interesting, as long as there is funding available from local councils," he said. "It's another way of helping some children. It's not right for every child, but it is an option. I'm certain that already in Scotland there may be some councils that have already looked at this concept."
He also called for the creation of state boarding schools in Scotland. "In England there are some really good state boarding schools, which are over- subscribed," he said.
"Scotland is a wonderful place, which values its education tremendously, but I think not having state boarding schools north of the Border is a problem because it limits parents' options.
"Scotland's education would be even better with the provision of state boarding schools."
Peter Hogan, headmaster of Loretto in Musselburgh, which mostly caters for boarders, was involved in the scheme at his previous school in Wales.
He said: "It's a great idea for a certain kind of individual and I think it also works out cheaper than keeping them in care.
"A lot of headteachers at boarding schools are willing to work with local authorities and say during term time we can provide accommodation, education, full welfare and pastoral care for certain children, and possibly respite care for those who look after them.
"We are open to negotiate with local authorities on this. It's not going to work for every child, but for some, if the circumstances are right, it would be a great opportunity."
Melvyn Roffe, BSA chairman, said that thousands of youngsters could see their lives transformed if they were given the chance to board.
An independent evaluation of a project in England, called the Boarding Pathfinder Scheme, found that while 76 young people were identified in the ten local authorities that took part, most were ruled out as unsuitable.
Seventeen were originally given a place, but only 11 were still there at the beginning of September last year.
Mr Roffe said the low take-up was due to a culture of "ignorance and prejudice" in many councils south of the Border. In his speech to the BSA's annual conference in Thame, Oxfordshire, today, Mr Roffe will call on ministers to ensure that local authorities take up boarding school places for vulnerable children.
"There remain too many people in the system who reject, on the basis of ignorance or prejudice, the very idea that a child might thrive at a boarding school," he will say.
"And too many others who mean well but find themselves incapable of doing the right thing for a child because of time- served bureaucratic procedures which, while purporting to serve children's interests, too often condemn them to an ever-diminishing circle of failure."
Mr Roffe, who is principal of Wymondham College, a state day and boarding school in Norfolk, said that more boarding schools would take part if the scheme were developed.
He will tell delegates: "We know that boarding school isn't the answer for every vulnerable child, of course not. But it could be the answer for a whole lot more."
Speaking ahead of the conference, Mr Roffe said that children at risk of being taken into care were among those who were the most likely to benefit from attending boarding school.
'It's been a huge benefit to me – it's made me much more independent'
FERGUS Donaldson, 17, from Dumfries, starts his day at 7:30am and heads to Merchiston Castle School's dining hall for breakfast before roll call.
Depending on what day of the week it is, Fergus may have an assembly to attend.
Lessons begin at 8:50am at the Edinburgh boarding school. During the winter, however, lessons stop after lunch three days a week to allow pupils to play sport.
On a Wednesday Fergus, who is in the lower sixth form at the school, helps to coach children at a nearby primary school in cricket and rugby as part of a scheme where Merchiston pupils help out in the local community.
After that, lessons begin again from 4:30pm to 6pm and then senior pupils will have two hours of homework, which they call "prep", for the next day. The day normally ends at 9pm with free time for pupils.
To make up for half days of lessons lost during the week to allow time for for sport, pupils have lessons on a Saturday. They then usually play sport on Saturday afternoons.
Fergus started at the school only this year, after attending a state day secondary, and wishes he had also studied for his GCSEs at Merchiston Castle.
He said: "It's been a huge benefit to me – it's made me much more independent."
His parents went to boarding school themselves and when they brought home brochures for Fergus's older brother to consider, he knew it was the right option for him also. "I had a look through them and knew I wanted to go as well," said Fergus.
"I would have liked to have come two years earlier, but I don't think I've missed out too much.
"I have my own shower, my own room and kitchen, so it's pretty good preparation for university life."