Children in care 'lagging behind' at Scottish schools

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Media captionThe committee plans to hold a second inquiry to look at possible solutions

Children in care are lagging behind their classmates to an "unacceptable" degree, a report has suggested.

Holyrood's education committee carried out an inquiry into support for some of Scotland's most vulnerable children.

It found they pass few exams and have poor chances of securing jobs, college or university places.

The committee plans a second inquiry to consider whether more children should be removed from persistently abusive or neglectful parents.

The committee said: "During the inquiry it became clear that there is a sensitive and difficult balance to be struck between supporting families at home and intervening to remove children from harmful situations. That is why we have agreed to hold a further detailed inquiry in this area."

The report said that all the key witnesses called to give evidence accepted the present system for supporting some of Scotland's most vulnerable children could be "significantly improved".

MSPs paid tribute to the many who work effectively with this group but called for specific reforms.

The focus was on "looked-after" children - those put in a foster or residential home after a children's hearing or those who continue to live at home but receive some visits from social work staff.

MSPs said they were especially concerned about those at home who appeared to do particularly badly at school and in later life.

Council directors of education and social work told the committee that there had been "insufficient attention paid to the needs of this group".

In 2009-10 the exclusion rate per 1,000 pupils was 427 for looked-after pupils at home, 365 for all looked-after children and 45 for all pupils.

In the same year 56% of school leavers gained five Standard Grades at general level or better - compared with 4.7% of leavers looked after away from home and 0.5% of school leavers who were looked after at home.

Struggling parents

Calling for a stronger emphasis on well-resourced early intervention with troubled families, the committee said this could prevent many children ever becoming part of the care system.

It cited evidence from Highland Council which helped struggling parents in a deprived area in Inverness establish basic routines such as getting children washed, cleaned and ready for school. The council indicated the work by children's service workers "transformed" its delivery model and had a clear link with the numbers taken into care.

Children in danger of being taken into care commonly have parents who have problems such as drugs, drink, domestic violence and mental health.

An estimated 16,000 children are classified as looked-after with nearly 5,500 of them in the family home.

The report called for measures to attract more foster carers highlighting the fact that the long-standing shortage can result in cases like a child in Aberdeen being placed as far away as Dumfries. This can cause additional trauma and eventually rupture relations a child has built up with friends and school staff.

The committee wants to see teachers and councillors receive systematic training so that they have insight into children's problems and high expectations. "Overall staff in schools do not yet have a clear understanding of their corporate parenting responsibilities," it added.

The Care Inspectorate told MSPs: "We have to get all services to share ownership and to believe that the kids are worth investing in and spending time on."

The committee also called for training for foster carers and highlighted proposals from witnesses for measures such as employment of more health visitors and teaching parenting skills to those in their mid-teens.

MSPs concluded that care plans and legislation for this group were well meaning but too complex. According to Audit Scotland there have been no less than 30 legislative, policy and guidance documents relevant to this group - just since 1995.

Calling for simplified care plans, the EIS teaching union told the committee: "Every minute that is spent duplicating paperwork in the form of a plan or report could be better spent working with the young people."

Stewart Maxwell, the Scottish Parliament education convener, said that exams were not the only measure of achievement.

He added: "But the fact remains that if you are successful at school you are more likely to go on to a college or university and more likely to have a very solid employment history as part of a successful life. It does create stable individuals and lifestyles and stable families."

A Scottish government spokesman said educational attainment among looked after children was paramount and their needs were considered within the upoming Children and Young People Bill and Curriculum for Excellence.

Local authority umbrella group Cosla said the report highlighted how crucial early intervention programmes are.

Education and young people spokeswoman said: "We must be ambitious for children in care and not accept that family background or circumstances should have a lifelong, detrimental impact on young people.

"However, the task is complex and multi-faceted and there is no one simple solution."

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