Schools have to recognise that two-thirds of children in care have behavioural problems and are 13 times more likely than other children to be excluded from school, Kirstie Maclean, director of the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care, told The TES Scotland.
Ms Maclean was commenting on reports following the ministerial task group on discipline's conclusion that schools need no longer aim to reduce exclusions by a third. Jack McConnell, Education Minister, now acknowledges that the existence of targets has not prevented exclusions from rising.
Any move that saw exclusions rise would be in conflict with the principles laid out in the Learning with Care report, the joint study by the education and social work inspectorates, Ms Maclean said. The study, in which she took part, described schools as providing "a high degree of stability" and a "haven" for Scotland's estimated 11,000 looked after children.
Ms Maclean, attending the annual conference in Stirling of the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care, said: "There does need to be affirmative action for these children and a recognition that they need special support so they can compete with other children on equal terms. They are not lacking in brains. Many have the ability to achieve.
"We don't need magic answers. It is essential that social workers and teachers combine and work out what the individual needs of a particular child are. School staff should not give up when something goes wrong. There must be those who go the extra mile to solve problems."
The conference heard from Cathy Jamieson, deputy Labour leader in the Scottish Parliament, who called for higher expectations of educational achievement among young people in care. "Many young people in the system have spent years waiting for an appropriate educational placement or support system to help them return to mainstream education."
Deirdre Watson, director of Who Cares Scotland?, welcomed the Executive's initiative but said resources were still lacking. "We get complaints from young people in care that there is nowhere for them to do their homework in peace, and that there is a lack of facilities such as computers."
Ms Maclean echoed this concern and urged residential care units to provide an "educationally rich environment" that offers books, support for homework and newspapers to read, and where staff attended parents' nights.