Minister says raising achievement is top goal for looked-after children. Felicity Waters reports
The educational achievement of looked-after children remained "unacceptably low" in Wales but tackling it is a priority, according to Jane Davidson, education, lifelong learning and skills minister.
At a meeting of the Welsh Assembly's education committee, which raised the issue last week as a result of TES Cymru's Time to Care campaign, she said the Assembly government was committed to improving access to education and training as well as providing support for those in care.
Improving the educational attainment of looked-after children is a complex problem of long standing for which there are no simple remedies, she said.
"Educational attainment is the most reliable escape from disadvantage in later life," she told members. "This is not something that can be turned around overnight but I can assure you this remains a priority."
Janet Ryder, Plaid Cymru's shadow education minister, who requested the committee look at children in care, called for more co-operation between education and social services departments to ensure better outcomes for looked-after children.
"The needs of young people cross over between these departments, and there needs to be a champion for these children in every council," she said.
"Councils are not understanding the importance of their role as corporate parents, and there is still a lot of work to be done among councillors."
Ms Davidson told Assembly members that a training conference held last year for elected members, to promote better understanding of children's services, proved successful and that more training would be made available for councillors, potentially every four years.
Over the next year, the government will also be developing guidance on education for looked-after children for schools, local education authorities and governors.
Assembly officials are due to establish a task group made up of key stakeholders to develop a programme of work to promote the educational attainment of looked-after children.
Educating foster carers and social workers, as well as widening access to further education for care-leavers, will be part of its remit.
Ms Davidson said she was also working with the health and social services minister on a package of measures to encourage more care-leavers to take up higher education. In addition, major reform of the 14-19 curriculum will provide better opportunities for looked-after children.
"From September 2006 pupils will have access to a wider range of programmes, leading to a much greater choice of qualifications which should recognise the different ways of learning and provide greater motivation,"
Deborah Jones, director of Voices from Care Cymru, said the promises now needed to be acted upon and a clear strategic plan put in place. "So far looked-after children have been a low priority," she said.
"Education is an essential part of a child's life. It needs to be regarded as a priority by local and national government. All looked-after children should be supported emotionally so that they are able to achieve in school.
"Young people need to be empowered and supported through the education system, and resources put in place so they don't have to fight for their rights to access it."