It is more than 15 years since Professor Sonia Jackson brought to our attention the parlous academic performance of young people in care. Long before the national curriculum, standard assessment tests or league tables, she revealed that "looked-after" children (in the current unlovely jargon) were being let down by the education system.
In spite of a spate of reports since 1994, their lot has in many ways worsened as schools have come under competitive pressure. But the Labour Government, as part of its effort to reduce social exclusion, has now zeroed in on the fact that large numbers of under-achieving and excluded pupils are in care. As a result, local authorities have been asked to set achievement targets for 2001. These are very modest. The aim is for half our looked-after teenagers to get one grade G at GCSE - compared with 93.4 per cent across the country.
Most councils did set their target by January 31. But this week's survey by The TES reveals that two-thirds have done so without knowing what sort of base they are starting from. Most have no information on what qualifications are currently gained by the young people they are parenting. And the data kept by the virtuous 67 show that results are shockingly low. Only 23 local authorities can say with certainty that more than half of the 16-year-olds in their care get even one bottom-grade GCSE.
As the parental role in education becomes increasingly important, children parented by a bureaucracy risk falling further behind. Last summer, the House of Commons Health Committee report (which rightly described the plight of these young people as "scandalous") recommended that care-workers should take their parental role more seriously. This means everyday activities such as nagging about homework, watching television programmes and discussing them afterwards, going to school parents' evenings, and generally batting for "their" children within the education system. Yet many of these workers are themselves under-educated and poorly trained.
Local authorities need to train their staff, and make every effort to bridge the gap between social services and schools. But individual teachers can also help, by focusing on looked-after children and involving their care-worker as they might a parent, in a shared endeavour to equip these young people with the skills and knowledge they so desperately need.