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New attack on care placements

Ministers are coming under increasing pressure to fund local options to avoid secure units, reports David Henderson.

THE costs and educational return of places in independent residential schools and secure units have been challenged yet again, this time by Perth and Kinross. The move comes as local authorities step up their battle against inflation-busting fee hikes.

The use of residential schools for troubled youngsters has also come under fire from a group of independent experts who suggest schools are often chosen for placements because of a lack of suitable alternatives (see below).

Perth and Kinross, reinvigorated by its newly formed education and children's service, wants to slash the number sent to independent schools after children's hearings increased placements from six in 1996 to 21 this year.

The council points out: "The financial implications, at an average cost of approximately pound;40,000 per year for each placement, are obvious. Just as importantly, the policy objective of maintaining children within their own families, schools, homes and communities may not be met as effectively as possible."

The authority has taken up the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities' hardline refusal to countenance fee rises of more than 2.5 per cent. The 22 members of the Scottish Independent Special Schools Group want rises of between 2 and 26 per cent, although most increases are in single figures.

Perth and Kinross also notes that the number of secure unit placements is rising, at a cost of pound;125,000 a year, despite conerns that the regime in the units is failing young people.

Councillors were told: "While secure unit placements can largely be seen to be the result of a child's inability to manage in an independent residential school setting, research findings now show that outcomes are generally poorer for those who have been accommodated in independent residential schools, with greater likelihood of future homelessness and unemployment."

An audit three years ago found a number of children need not have been placed in independent schools if suitable local alternatives had been available.

A common factor of the 11-15 age-range with care and education problems and known to children's hearings is their inability or unwillingness to follow their school's education programme.

"By the time they appear before a children's hearing this position is often entrenched. Children's panel members realising the importance of an educational input, and often seeing their care situation deteriorate while they are not engaged in an educational programme, feel it incumbent on themselves to instruct that a residential placement is sought," the council states.

The trend towards more residential school placements also conflicts with Perth and Kinross's best value targets on reduced percentages of looked-after hildren in residential care. Twelve placements out of 21 will have to go.

The council's pound;1.4 million budget for residential schools will be reduced if it sticks to its 2.5 per cent fee increases and returns pupils to community settings.

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