We Need to Care About Children in Care

One in four people in Britain will experience a mental health problem during their lifetime. But while so many people brave these painful experiences, they remain one of the most difficult things to talk about in public.

Yet, mental health issues are at the heart of social mobility and democracy, because they cause so many people to become disenfranchised from life and democratic process. Many still feel an overpowering social obligation to suffer in silence, keeping mental health issues confined to a corridor-whisper. As with dyslexia, we must break this taboo and do everything we can to ensure that people can talk openly about their problems. Only then can we provide the right treatment and support.

That's why I'm so glad the government has brought forward the Care Bill which will, for the first time, codify 'individual well-being' in UK law. This marks a radical departure from how we used to think about our health. It moves beyond thinking about illness in terms of broken bones, stomach bugs and colds to something much broader. Health is complicated and many people can suffer severe, debilitating pain and misery without showing any outward signs.

Mental health problems start very early

For children in care, mental health problems are sadly endemic. Nearly half of children in care have a diagnosable disorder and 70-80% have recognisable problems. As adults these mental health issues will lead many of them into troubled and chaotic lives. Currently, a third of all care leavers are thought to be living on the street; half of all active sex workers are said to have been in care at some point, and nearly a third of current prisoners are thought to be in care when they were growing up.

The NSPCC estimates that there are around 91,000 children in care in the UK. Many of these children have already suffered at the hands of their family. In 2012, six in ten children were taken into care because of abuse or neglect, and these children will carry the emotional and physical scars for the rest of their lives.

More than any other group in society, I believe the State has a special responsibility for looked-after and vulnerable children. It has a general duty to house and protect them. And it has a particular responsibility to give them a good quality education so they have the opportunity to go on and succeed in life.

Boarding school education could be the answer

Education is the best way to lift these children up out of poverty and despair; to give them a new, brighter future. If these were our own children, we would want - and expect - nothing less than the government's total commitment. Education is not a 'cure' for mental health issues - nor can it stop them from occurring in the first place. But the environment and support a young person is given can help mitigate the symptoms and aid recovery.

A top-quality education not only offers looked-after children a rare chance to learn new skills but also an opportunity to make friends - sometimes their first real friends - and build their own self-confidence.

That's why I am calling on the government to consider supporting looked-after and vulnerable children to enter boarding schools.

Boarding schools help looked-after children succeed

Boarding school provide these children with stability and structure. This isn't revolutionary. There are already some pioneering charities doing this work, like the Royal National Children's Foundation (RNCF) and Buttle UK who provide looked-after children with bursaries to study.

Thankfully, the results of these schemes are already in: The educational attainment of the vulnerable children who took part in RNCF's schemes increased 28% and their self-esteem and morale increased 50%. Their overall performance increased a whopping 80%. And, what's more, 39% of vulnerable children who went to boarding schools became top performers within a couple of years. It is striking that when given the chance to turn their lives around these children seize that opportunity with both hands.

Boarding school placements are a viable and well-tested alternative to the status quo. They are supported by the three major party leaders as well as the schools involved. Nine in ten head teachers say they would be likely to increase the number of assisted boarders at their schools if the government gave them more support.

Why are these schemes not being delivered already? Funding? No. Securing a place at boarding school costs less than placing them in a care home or full-time foster care. It costs £150,000 to place a child in a children's home and between £20-25,000 to place them in foster care. But it only costs £14,800 to support them in a state boarding school and £25-30,000 in 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.

We must overcome our own prejudice

The challenge is to overcome our historic prejudices against boarding schools, especially when the benefits are so clear. We must put aside any preconceived ideas about who goes to which school and suspend any judgements about the boarding school system. For the sake of vulnerable, looked-after children we must boost the number of these children getting the stability of structured and consistent education at boarding school. Let's enlarge the schemes, increase the school places and give many more of these children the chance to turn around their lives - before they start to suffer from almost insurmountable problems.

This is the not only the right thing for a moral and responsible society to do, but it is the first step toward creating a healthier, fitter and happier society; a socially mobile society where everyone has an opportunity to succeed.