Douglas Osler told The TES Scotland: "Looked-after children come from disrupted backgrounds. They have emotional, behavioural and social problems. They are moving from one care placement to another. Education offers them their best chance of leaving these problems behind them. In order to get a life they need to get a living and to get a living they need to get an education. Giving books to residential homes and foster carers will not ensure they get that education."
Mr Osler's remarks were made before a conference organised by London University on looked-after children which he chaired in Edinburgh on Tuesday. The Scottish Executive has given authorities pound;10 million to spend on educational resources for Scotland's estimated 10,000 looked-after children.
The cash follows a joint report by the education and social work inspectorates which both revealed major shortcomings.
Mr Osler said: "What looked-after children need is continuity in their education - to be able to stay in the same school wherever possible. And if they have to move, they need their records to be passed on so teachers can cater properly for their needs. What the inspectors found, however, was that in some secondary schools staff were not even able to identify which pupils were in care."
Many authorities had not drawn up care plans. Mr Osler said: "That kind of thing is very worrying. This procedure is required by law. If the authorities can't even do that, then we are not going to see a lot in the way of good educational practice."
Edinburgh and Glasgow, which together have more than 1,300 children in foster and residential care, could not tell the Executive how many were in permanent education. Last week they were still unable to provide the figures.
North Lanarkshire, which contains the First Minister's constituency, disclosed that 11 per cent of 200 children in care were not receiving full-time education and 5 per cent did not have an educational care plan. Ian Wallace, the council's deputy principal psychologist, said this week:
"We are set to improve these figures. It's about major services - education and social work - working together with a very challenging population."
Aberdeen reported similar shortfalls in the Executive's survey. Gladys Main, assistant social work manager, made a similar point: "This is a very challenging group of young people who may have had horrendous experiences and who have complex needs. We can buy books and resources but ensuring services can be delivered to them is another matter."
Sandra McLaughlin, a home link teacher with Inverclyde, told the conference that children in class "need someone who can take on a nurturing role so that they know someone is looking out for them".
TOO LITTLE HELP TO SPREAD THEIR WINGS
The preparation of young people for leaving care and the support they receive afterwards remains "patchy", the Education Minister conceded this week.
Cathy Jamieson said that the conclusions of a report for the Scottish Executive were "very disappointing".
"Still a Bairn", by academics from York University, found that despite the responsibilities placed on local authorities by the 1995 Children (Scotland) Act, only 39 per cent of the young people surveyed had received a "through care" programme in the run-up to leaving, although 77 per cent of authorities said they offered one.
Almost two-thirds of young people in care had no Standard grade qualifications, 83 per cent had truanted and 71 per cent had been excluded from school.
Ms Jamieson said a report from the working group on through care and after care outlining how current services should be improved would now be published. She will then convene a meeting with local authority representatives to discuss what to do next.
The survey involved 107 young people who had left care in three local authorities, backed by a follow-up study of 61 of them over two years.