Schools and education authorities often have low expectations of children in care, even though "miraculous" results can be achieved in a short space of time.
New Scottish Government guidance paints a picture of children drifting through school without anyone keeping track of their progress, based on a Strathclyde University analysis of pilot projects in 18 Scottish local authorities carried out between 2006 and 2008.
Difficulties in collecting robust data about looked-after children have meant that missing information and errors are "commonplace". There were discrepancies between records for the same child on social work and education databases, as well as incorrect attendance and attainment data. Sometimes information had not been recorded at all, particularly when care and school placements had changed.
Such shortcomings were compounded by low expectations. A pupil's attendance could be recorded as 100 per cent, even if they only attended part-time and sometimes for as little as two hours a week. This gave a "very misleading impression" of the amount of education a pupil was receiving, a project co-ordinator said. It might easily go unnoticed by those not in direct contact with the pupil.
Schools did not always fully appreciate the needs of looked-after children and sometimes failed to persevere when a difficult pupil was struggling. One foster carer said: "I've sat in meetings with teachers and you can see that the teachers have no understanding of the child."
In most cases where young people fell behind in education, the report states: "The signs should have been evident to professionals much sooner". The guidance underlines that it is crucial to resolve "the tendency for looked-after children and young people to become lost in the education system".
Giving children "high but realistic" expectations was important, although this had to be done in a way that was not perceived as nagging. Dramatic progress could be made with individually tailored sports and cultural activities.
About 40 per cent of the young people in the pilot projects advanced by one 5-14 national assessment level, similar to the average child's progress. One pupil, who previously had nothing in an English folio, now had three or four pieces, which an education support team co-ordinator said was "a miracle". Younger children who were highly involved in the pilots made "appreciably more progress" in reading and writing.
"Looked-after children and young people can improve in both school attendance and attainment in a relatively short period of time," the report concludes.
The guidance stresses that schools sometimes fall short through no fault of their own, as they can only establish support systems if they know which pupils are looked after. It calls for "very clear arrangements" within a local authority for informing schools when a pupil becomes looked after, or when a looked-after child joins the school.
Many children leaving the care system still get inadequate support even after the introduction of new local authority procedures, according to a new report.
Sweet 16? One Year On - Is life any sweeter? sees the office for Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People reassess a previous report which showed that looked-after children were eight times more likely to leave care at 16 than 18, and could find themselves in inappropriate housing and without the right support.
The report shows that lack of resources is a major issue, and it is feared the situation will get worse. Children's Commissioner Kathleen Marshall said she had heard anecdotally that services for care-leavers were being reduced to save money.