Most of Scotland's 11,000 looked-after children get a raw deal from education and deserve better to help them escape the problems that saw them placed in care in the first place, the Scottish Executive said this week.
A two-year joint study by education and social work inspectors was given extra muscle by the intervention of Jack McConnell, Education Minister, who ordered local authorities to report back within six months on plans to tackle one of the most neglected areas of education.
Many children in the study did not have care plans in place, a legal obligation since 1997. Schools often did not receive a copy.
Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector of schools, who has turned the issue into something of a personal crusade, said: "This is a group of young people who don't need just the same education as others. They need better than others get because of their particular vulnerability, because they start behind the process and because there is research evidence that they are not attaining as well as other people."
Mr Osler continued: "There is sometimes a feeling that the education of looked-after young people is seen as a less important issue because they have other more important issues to be resolved. But that is a misguided way of looking at things. The fact is that education might provide an element of continuity within these young people's lives when instability in other areas is often the problem.
"It's also education that will help them leave behind for good, and perhaps help their families to leave behind for good, the problems which lead to them being looked-after children. This is a group who need better educational provision, not lessgood provision. Just now they are getting considerably less good educational provision across Scotland."
Statistics show that 75 per cent of looked-after children leave school with no qualifications. They make up 1 per cent of the school population but last year accounted for 8 per cent of exclusions, a fall of 5 per cent from the previous year.
A 1998 review revealed that many have frequent changes of school and find themselves in care environments where education is not greatly valued. A lack of clarity between professionals adds to the confusion.
Children themselves complain of being stigmatised.
The inspectors' inquiry included questionnaires to all authorities and focus studies in Aberdeen, Stirling, South Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and Highland. They also examined the files of 10 children in each authority and selected five for individual interview.
Leader, page 16
"Learning with Care: The education of children looked after away from home by local authorities." By HM Inspectors of Schools and the Social Work Services Inspectorate.
CHECKLIST FOR ACTION
* Authorities to carry out a full assessment, including education plans.
* Quality assurance procedures in place to ensure all children have care plans.
* All children to have full-time education, "however that may be organised".
* Schools to set challenging but realistic targets and monitor progress. Senior member of staff should be responsible.
* Parents to be given regular information about progress, unless there are compelling reasons not to.
* Authorities to carry out audits of residential units to assess their educational richness.