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Looked after with warmth

HMI's report on Learning with Care is a challenge to come up with a system that works for both school and vulnerable child, says Jim Towers

IT is refreshing to come across a document which, in spirit at least, few if any political parties could seriously disagree with. I am referring to the recent publication of Learning with Care: the Education of Children Looked After Away from Home by Local Authorities.

We are talking here of a small but vulnerable group of children who, for a variety of reasons, have to be taken into care. They are either in foster homes or in those residential units formerly known as children's homes. The HMIs who prepared the report were seriously concerned that care plans, assessment procedures and placement agreements were not being met in the way originally intended.

Furthermore, they found that these children do not do so well at school and were more at risk of being excluded. Statistical evidence indicates that only 1 per cent of the school population in Scotland are in care, yet they account for 13 per cent of all exclusions. In essence, the report recommends that all such children should not only have proper care plans and placement agreements, but full-time education with realistic and challenging educational goals as well. It suggests that a dedicated member of staff should be appointed in each school to monitor their progress towards these targets.

At first glance, in fact, the only fault with the publication in my opinion is the renaming of the group from "children in care" to "looked after children". Whoever devised the title has about as much linguistic sensitivity as a plate of alphabet soup.

The phrase has connotations which suggests that somehow it is the children who are at fault; that they need looking after and at best this is a tedious duty which has befallen the local authority. It fails completely to convey the idea that we are a warm and caring society which will give of its best to help those in need to cope with their difficulties until they can stand once again on their own two feet.

One of the strongest recommendations in the report is that there should be an integrated policy, something which is already in place in many parts of Scotland, particularly in ne community schools such as Peterhead Academy, where pupils' needs are evaluated when required by the joint assessment team.

The report also points to the need to cater for those young people who wish to progress into further and higher education, and states specifically that there should be financial arrangements in place to encourage those who so wish to complete their chosen course of study.

But equality of opportunity must be matched by equality of treatment. How often have we read or heard of children's homes where the children are given carte blanche almost to do what they like.

Because they have been made fully aware of their "rights" they can blatantly defy those in charge, often using four-word expletives. In some establishments, under-16s smoke openly in front of the staff. Such confusion for the child can lead to chaos in the classroom.

The overall aim must be self-discipline; but this can only come after they have been used to a system of control from the outside.

The idea of a children's rights officer to protect the most vulnerable in our society is, certainly, a most laudable concept; but the information they give to the child requires monitoring of the strictest kind. Too much power can be every bit as dangerous for a child - particularly a socially and emotionally immature child - as too little.

The emphasis in the report on a partnership between education and social work must mean exactly what it says. Social workers and education officers both are concerned with the welfare of the child, but they come from different angles. A teacher has to consider the effect of the placement on the class or indeed the school.

In certain circumstances, placing an emotionally damaged child in a particular school might appear, superficially, to be in that child's best interests; but if the result is the inevitable disruption of the class to the extent that learning ceases to take place, everyone loses out.

The HMI document puts forward a number of sensible recommendations but there is a long way to go. It will only be through careful management and monitoring that those worthwhile goals will be achieved.

Jim Towers is SNP spokesperson on education in Aberdeenshire.

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