The Scottish Executive is stepping up efforts to improve the attainment of youngsters in care, following the latest figures which show that the gap with the rest of the school population is as wide as ever.
Euan Robson, Deputy Education Minister, announced on Tuesday a cash injection of pound;6 million over the next two years in an attempt to close that gap for the 11,700 under-18s looked after by local authorities.
Visiting Lothian and Borders Police to discuss child protection issues, Mr Robson said: "We are determined that any suggestion that children in care have second-class status will end."
The latest cash advance comes on top of pound;10 million the Executive committed to work in this field in 2001-02, allowing pound;500 to pound;2,500 to go to each child for books, equipment and homework materials.
But research also published this week on the experiences of youngsters in care, commissioned from Who Cares? Scotland by the Executive, shows that "they feel little benefit from recent investments".
Mr Robson's officials will press ahead, however, and hold talks with local authorities to agree on ways of spending the new money, which is intended to focus on what Mr Robson called "new ways of boosting educational attainment for children in care".
The cash will also be used to spread good practice more widely, and Mr Robson called on local authorities to "ensure children in care receive the same educational opportunities as their peers".
The Who Cares? report states: "Looked after young people sit in classrooms around the country, in schools the length and breadth of Scotland, yet for all intents and purposes they are in a different class.
"They are asking for help, for a say, for a chance to succeed and they must be answered. Our schools must become a classless society where there is equal opportunity for all young people."
The latest figures show little improvement over the years. Six out of 10 of the 16 and 17-year-olds who left care in 2003-04 did not achieve any qualifications at Standard grades 5-6 at Foundation level or above - compared to less than 10 per cent for Scotland as a whole. Some 27 per cent did, however, leave care with Standard grade awards in English and maths.
The gaps are relatively small in the early years but widen dramatically with each school stage. English reading 5-14 results show around 70 per cent of looked-after youngsters achieve their level in P3 compared with 90 per cent of others. By P6, the respective figures grow to 60 per cent and 90 per cent, and by S2 it becomes 10 per cent and 60 per cent.
Similar trends are reported in 5-14 results for writing and maths.
The figures also show that around 60 per cent of young people leaving care were not in any kind of education, employment or training, compared to just 14 per cent of all 16-19s. "There has been little change in these proportions since the previous year," the statistical bulletin reports.
It also notes another familiar feature of these figures, that children in care are more likely to be excluded from school - there were 227 cases for every 1,000 pupils, compared with just 50 per 1,000 pupils overall.
While there is a strong link between deprivation and the numbers in care, it is not consistent. Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Midlothian have a higher number being looked after relative to their levels of deprivation, while North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire, Fife and Falkirk have relatively low numbers.
The bulletin comments: "A number of indicators suggest an increasing number of children being looked after for their own care and protection; a continuing trend of increasing numbers of child protection referrals; the average age of a child in care falling and higher numbers of looked-after children being placed away from their parental home."
The number of child protection referrals, case conferences and registrations has increased over the past five years. But the numbers on child protection registers are almost static, because children are now spending less time on the register. Cases of physical neglect and emotional abuse are rising, while those registered for sexual abuse and physical injury have fallen.
The Executive is concerned that significant numbers of local authorities are unable to provide figures on what happens to children in their care, and says it is taking steps to improve the quality of reporting in previous years.
NOT GOOD ENOUGH
The Who Cares? report, which canvassed the views of 170 youngsters being looked after by 29 authorities, found that:
* 37 per cent were not receiving full-time education.
* The majority who are out of school have been so between six months and a year.
* Some seven-year-olds were without education.
* Young people who are looked after do not feel involved in decisions on key areas of their lives.
* Only 11 aspired to college or university, and none of the males had university in their sights.
The report concludes: "It is not good enough."