Schools minister Lord Nash has written to directors of children’s services asking for their views on the move and to assess the extent of its use by councils.
He said: “We all understand that boarding school will never be appropriate for most young people, whether vulnerable or not. But we also see increasing evidence that for the right young person at the right time a well chosen boarding school really can transform the life chances of a vulnerable, disadvantaged young person.”
It is the latest attempt by government to increase the number of vulnerable children educated at boarding schools – in November 2014, the Department for Education published a paper urging councils and social workers to use them more.
Lord Nash has also announced that a working party has been set up to investigate potential expansion as well as ways the charity sector can support councils to place children in boarding schools.
This is chaired by Colin Morrison, the chair of the charity Royal National Children’s Foundation (RNCF), which acts as a broker between councils and the independent school sector to support vulnerable children. Its working party’s first meeting was earlier this month with another scheduled for January.
Chris Hughes, RNCF director of operations, said it is currently working with around 15 councils involving the placement of around 20 children. In total the charity is involved in the placement of 400 children in independent schools, with around 80 per cent boarding and the rest day pupils, but that many more could benefit from it.
“We believe we are only hitting the edge of the iceberg,” Hughes said.
“The majority of children we focus on are on the edge of care so we primarily want to prevent children going into care and maintain and support fragile family units,” she added
An example she gives is a parent who is not able to care for their child permanently but may be able to support them during the time they are home from boarding school.
RNCF said funding for each placement differs, with some councils meeting the full cost of fees. In some cases independent schools offer a discount, while for some children with complex needs charity sector grants are available.
Andrew Christie, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services health, care and additional needs policy committee, said that state or independent boarding schools can provide a strong foundation for life "for some children, perhaps as an alternative to care", but that many older children in care will have complex needs “which boarding schools may just not be designed to meet”.
“For the majority of those that enter care when young, a return home, adoption or permanent placement with a family member is likely to be the best option,” he added.
Last year, the Centre for Social Justice think-tank called for the expansion of the use of boarding schools for disadvantaged children, but research conducted by the University of Warwick in February found that doing so did not automatically lead to better outcomes.