Children at home most in need
Massive increases in the number of children in care could compromise the Scottish Government's key early intervention programmes, according to directors of education.
The number of looked-after children has doubled in most Scottish local authorities over the past four years, and even quadrupled in a few.
Experts predict the steep rise, which started in the early 2000s, will continue for at least another few years. A similar upward trend in the 1970s lasted around 15 years.
Councils are already feeling the financial strain, according to the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland.
"This includes a strain on local services, pressure on foster placements and a squeeze on council budgets because of increased commissioning of expensive residential placements," said Julia Swan, Falkirk Council's director of education and ADES's spokesperson on looked-after children.
"You have got to respond to vulnerable children, but at the same time try and do something about the causes. When pressure is on a budget, it is difficult to do both. The focus will inevitably be on responding to crises."
Only five of Scotland's 32 local authorities - the Borders, West Lothian, Shetland, Moray and Western Isles - did not experience at least a 100 per cent rise in the number of looked-after children in their care between 2004 and 2008. Some authorities - North Lanarkshire, Orkney and East Renfrewshire - have seen the number increase fourfold.
Schools often provided a place of stability for vulnerable young people, said Ms Swan.
Graham Connelly, an expert in the education of looked-after children and a senior lecturer in education at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, called for greater consistency in schools' approaches to their responsibilities as corporate parents.
During a recent piece of research, a foster carer had said to him: "Exclusions are absolutely necessary for the safety of other children, but the recent exclusion that we had was, I felt, using a sledgehammer and was way, way over the top."
Dr Connelly said: "A school simply cannot say its job is to interact with a child at the level only of a course. They should know the children who are looked-after and try and support them."
This was particularly vital in the case of the 43 per cent of children who are looked after and supervised at home. "Being looked after at home is a category a lot of teachers don't understand," he said. "But these are probably the children most in need of support. If you are lucky enough to get a residential or foster place, your educational outcomes are likely to be much better."
Ms Swan felt the rising number of children in care could be attributed to an increase in alcohol and drug use, leading to domestic abuse.
Dr Connelly, however, challenged this assumption and pointed to research conducted by Neil McKeganey, head of the centre for drug misuse research at Glasgow University, which found no relationship between an individual's drug use and the likelihood of their having a child taken into care.
Poverty was the most likely reason for children being taken into local authority care, Professor McKeganey's research suggested.