Conservatives celebrate success and particularly for those from less privileged backgrounds. I guess I came from a classically disadvantaged background, having been brought up by my mother in social housing in South London. Yet I was one of the few fortunate enough to get an education and earn enough as an entrepreneur to provide a comfortable life for my family. This should not be a one-off story; it should be commonplace.
What drove me into politics remains my guiding objective: everyone, regardless of background, should have the opportunity to make their way from tough beginnings to the top and achieve their career and life ambitions through hard work. Too often today, where you live and how you are brought up can predetermine your chances in life.
It would be wrong for the state to dictate to parents how to raise their children. But where children are brought up by state institutions, we have a moral duty to ensure these systems work as well as possible. There are almost 100,000 children who are currently in the UK’s “care” system. The statistics demonstrate what we intuitively fear: children in care are much more likely to fail their exams and end up on the borders of society, in prison, on drugs or living on the streets.
Despite the best efforts of selfless care workers, who invest time and emotions into helping these children the best they can, our creaking care system is not working well enough, often enough. It is a national tragedy that so many children, through no fault of their own, end up in a system that fails them and their potential. It allows us to feel like we are doing “something” without looking at the results. We need to find an alternative.
So here’s my simple proposal: we should boost the funding of bursaries for these vulnerable children to attend the best boarding schools in the country.
I know the instinctive reaction: that this isn’t affordable. But that’s simply not what the evidence bears out. While it costs an eye-watering £150,000 to care for a child in a children’s home, it might cost less than £10,000 to enrol a child in a state boarding school or perhaps £30,000 at an independent school. Even after taking unforeseen costs into account, the cost of the conventional care system dwarfs that of boarding schools.
We can even lower the costs by promoting charitable schemes such as the Royal National Children’s Foundation, which has been transforming the lives of vulnerable children by putting them in boarding schools. The turnaround for these children’s life chances is extraordinary. Within three years, the majority of children on these schemes reach the same academic level as their peers, and almost 40% become “star pupils”. They also gain the self-esteem and social skills that all children need to put themselves on the path to success.
It’s right that we push young people to enter work, so that they are not left helplessly on the counter-productive benefits system. But we have to recognise that many care leavers have simply not been given the skills – academic and social – to become successful members of society. This can end.
Boarding schools provide the pastoral care, social setting and academic excellence that children in the conventional care system are so desperately in need of. We can spread the excellence they provide to their current students and roll it out to those who have been failed for generations.
The State should care about children in care. So let’s change the way we approach caring for those who don’t have families to turn to. With a wholly Conservative Government in place, now is the time to show that we can once and for all enable our least fortunate children in state care to excel.
Adam Afriyie MP is the Member of Parliament for Windsor.
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