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Caught in the care trap

Looked-after children are still waiting to see the social justice they were promised by the Executive, says Graham Connelly

Michael had been excluded from school three times. On two occasions, he had climbed on to the roof, refused to come down, disobeyed the headteacher and caused mayhem among other children. Aged 11, he is in P7, has learning difficulties and has been diagnosed as suffering from ADHD. Another important detail is that he is "looked after", accommodated in a children's home. The irony is that children like Michael are almost five times more likely to be excluded from school.

So local authorities with the legal responsibility for their care are also involved in procedures to exclude these young people from school; last year there were 2,570 such exclusions. This figure includes multiple exclusions of the same children and half of exclusions are for a few days. But behind the statistics is a social problem on a massive scale.

Care leavers are over-represented in the 13 per cent of 19-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training (the NEET group). Not surprisingly, this is because they are more likely to leave school without qualifications - fewer than 30 per cent of care leavers in 2003-04 had Standard grades, or equivalent, in maths and English.

These children also tend to have health problems. A study of accommodated children in Edinburgh and the Lothians found that 82 per cent had physical health issues. Virtually all were suffering from emotional, behavioural and mental health problems.

They face the triple whammy of missing out on school due to the moves which brought them into care, the effects of ill health and the increased risk of being excluded. Many will have missed out on health education and career advice and will have gaps in the "building block" skills. While 76 per cent of S1 pupils can read at level D or above, only 41 per cent of looked-after children perform at this level. The gap in maths is even more marked, at 71 per cent and 28 per cent respectively.

One of the first documents to come out of the Scottish Executive, Social Justice - a Scotland where everyone matters, may be long forgotten, buried under the weight of many reports, memoranda and dust. Its ambitious aims, to be achieved by 2010, included a target that all young people leaving care should have at least Standard grade maths and English; and reducing by a third the number of days lost every year through exclusion and truancy.

I welcome The TES's "Time To Care" campaign because it will ensure that ambitions for looked-after children set out in the social justice strategy will remain in the spotlight. The campaign aims to start a debate about how looked-after children and young people can be helped and I would like to stick my oar in.

What should be done? Attainment statistics and research evidence suggest that the looked-after children most at risk of poor outcomes are those who remain with their families and those living in children's homes. Finding successful ways of supporting them should be a priority.

Some local authorities employ home-school link teachers who provide additional help. They can also support parents and carers who want to be more involved with homework but lack knowledge or confidence. The Who Cares? Trust has piloted with apparent success a "Right to read" programme aimed at encouraging carers to support children's reading, and there are useful messages in this work.

Gaps in building block knowledge suggest a need for targeted help for individual children in reading and maths recovery.

We must tackle the problem of exclusions. The solutions are highly individual and what is certain is that the answers will not come cheaply.

One option is to increase places in those residential schools judged to be providing a broad curriculum and high standard of education. Not all of Scotland's residential schools meet these requirements, although most are very different places to their List D predecessors.

It is estimated that only around 9 per cent of care leavers enter further and higher education. Some universities have had good results from providing summer schools and mentoring programmes for looked-after young people and the results of these experiences need to be more widely known.

This is a tough agenda, but doing nothing is not an option. Michael deserves better.

Graham Connelly is a senior lecturer in education at Strathclyde University.

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