Some of Scotland's most vulnerable children cannot be found a suitable school place, David Henderson reports
TROUBLED young people in foster care are being offered no schooling for months on end, despite the Scottish Executive's renewed commitment to the social inclusion of looked-after children.
Education is seen as an escape route but one 11-year-old boy in Bo'ness has given up on school after having no formal schooling for nine months. Sadly, his case is not exceptional. Officials finally hatched a deal last week to offer him education at Kibble School in Paisley, a round trip of around 70 miles a day. Without it, the boy would probably have returned to secure accommodation at a cost of pound;2,500 a week, and fall further out of society. Costs at his foster parents are pound;730 a week.
Dave and Kenny Hill, his foster parents, are relieved they will no longer have to offer 24 hour-care and teach the boy themselves. Mrs Hill said: "It's not the local authorities' fault they've got nowhere, but at the end of the day if it were a parent not educating their child, our feet would not touch the ground."
The boy's story adds piquancy to the Education Bill, now going through its committee stage, which places new duties on councils to provide for all children, regardless of their circumstances.
Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, is also consulting on a strategic framework for children's services which includes the 11,000 looked-after children in Scotland. A review of the costs of keeping children in secure units is part of it.
However, NCH Action for Children, the Glasgow-based charity, claims some of the most challenging young people in its pioneering foster care programme are unable to find suitable education placements, jeopardising their futures. Six of its 30 children, most aged 12 to 16, are without places.
Pauline McHugh, project manager of the Community Alternative Placement Scheme, said the three-year-old initiative was more effective than using secure unit.
"There's never been anything quite like it before. But it's incredibly wearing for carers to look after children 24 hours a day when there is no education placement," she said.
The project takes referrals from 17 councils in the central belt and uses special carers. Most of the children have been involved in prostitution, substance abuse or difficult family relationships.
Calum, (not his real name), the 11-year-old with no schooling for nine months, is described as "bright" but was excluded from a residential school because of his behavour. He comes from Perth, lives with his foster parents in Bo'ness and has fallen between Perth and Kinross and Falkirk councils - not uncommon, according to Ms McHugh.
She said: "Education facilities for some of these young people are so limited because they are not first choice for councils who have their own people to place."
Ms McHugh said Perth, the responsible authority, had tried to find Calum a place but Falkirk could offer nothing appropriate locally.
NCH charges councils for the service after injecting pound;180,000 to launch the scheme and is now pressing for Scottish Executive funding to provide emergency education back-up when councils cannot agree on placements. Ms McHugh estimates there are around 300 children who could benefit from the CAPS scheme.
Mrs Hill appealed for a stop-gap education base in central Scotland where pupils such as Calum could go while councils tried to find a place. Residential schools were not appropriate. "We're over the moon something's finally been identified but we did not have any further options. Obviously, it would have been better if there had been something locally. To put Calum in another residential setting would have destroyed him," she said.
A Perth spokeswoman said: "Unfortunately after a considerable period of negotiation Falkirk Council education service advised us they were unable to make appropriate provision and referred the issue back to Perth and Kinross Council."