We have known for decades that looked-after children do worse in school. In more recent times, there has been a real will to do something about it. The result has been some improvement but the pace of change has been glacial and there’s a long way to go before the results of looked-after children are on a par with their peers.
The latest statistics, for instance, show that 39 per cent of looked-after children gain one or more National 5 or equivalent, against 86 per cent of all school leavers.
It’s no mystery why this gulf exists – the Independent Care Review, published earlier this month, found that the current care system was “fractured, bureaucratic and unfeeling”; it called for Scotland to start parenting, not processing, looked-after children.
The stats: The attainment gap for looked-after children
In other words, the challenge schools face is that when you have lived through the trauma of being taken from your family – irrespective of how dysfunctional that family was – and having multiple placements and schools, qualifications can take a back seat.
But a report – published just ahead of the Care Review – indicates big gains are possible for looked-after children over short periods of time. It was published by MCR pathways mentoring programme, which is now established in 10 Scottish councils.
What the figures show is that around nine in 10 (87.8 per cent) care-experienced mentored pupils achieved at least one National 5 qualification or equivalent, compared with 6 in 10 (61.0 per cent) care-experienced pupils with similar characteristics who received no mentoring. The MCR Pathways pupils were also more likely to stay on in school when they were no longer legally obliged to do so (70.7 per cent versus 58.8 per cent) and to end up in a college, university or a job – 81.6 per cent versus 62 per cent.
So how does MCR Pathways do it? The charity – set up by entrepreneur Iain MacRitchie – carefully matches looked-after children and disadvantaged pupils with volunteer mentors who come into school once a week and meet with the child for an hour.
I spoke to a mentor and mentee a few years ago. The mentor, Mary Hunter Toner, was a retired primary headteacher and the mentee, Billy McMillan, was formerly an “unambitious, scared wee boy” from Easterhouse, who had gone on to blossom into a first-year student studying society, politics and social policy at the University of the West of Scotland.
Billy didn’t think he would have got there if it hadn’t been for his meetings with Mary, which took place over the course of three years. Mary helped to build his confidence and ambition, he said. For him, the power of the programme lay in the volunteer mentor having no agenda other than to “help you do what you want”.
Many other heartwarming stories and some other impressive statistics have been published by MCR Pathways but this latest report answers an important question: was it the mentoring that made the difference?
We know that looked-after young people have worse attainment but they are, of course, an amorphous group. Children who are living in foster care are around four times more likely than children looked-after at home to gain at least one National 5, or equivalent. So was it these looked-after children – the ones who were destined to get better results anyway – who were ending up on the programme?
This latest research checked that “the impact was not the result of differences in characteristics between those pupils who decided to take part in MCR Pathways and those who have not taken part”.
It found that the young people who took part in MCR Pathways from 2015 to 2018 were, if anything, “among the most deprived groups”.
They were more likely to live in the most deprived areas of Scotland than the non-mentored care experienced youngsters (60 per cent versus 51 per cent) and to be claiming free school meals (38 per cent versus 30 per cent).
The researchers – ScotCen Social Research – cautioned the sample size was small but ultimately concluded: “These findings clearly indicate that MCR Pathways participants were more likely to stay on at school, achieve at least one SCQF Level 5 qualification and move on to a positive destination after leaving school.”
It would seem therefore something powerful is happening and as of earlier this week (Monday) Glasgow City Council announced it was going to permanently embed MCR Pathways mentoring into its education system. The independent care review also advocated mentoring as a means of improving educational attainment.
Interestingly, though, the ScotCen research also found one of the main barriers to mentoring meetings taking place was arranging suitable meeting times; part of the problem was convincing classroom teachers the mentoring was worth missing their lesson for.
French, English, maths, history and music are all important, but so is having a reliable, supportive adult in your life, motivated by nothing more than a desire to see you do well. Many have the luxury of taking those adults for granted – but if you don’t, surely that’s something worth skipping class for?