The looked-after pupils let down by the system
The Scottish government was accused of handing colleges a real-terms cut last week, dashing any hopes of extra funding for the further education sector.
It goes without saying that education is essential in lifting people around the world out of deprivation and helping them to forge a better life. Yet, each year in Scotland, thousands of the most vulnerable children appear to be unintentionally condemned to a situation that gives them the worst possible chance of doing well at school.
Government figures show that nearly a third of all young people who need care and protection for a wide range of reasons are subject to home supervision orders under which they are legally judged to be better off staying with their parents.
The decision about whether to break up families where children may be at risk of abuse or neglect and where drugs or alcohol play a prominent role is, of course, never taken lightly. When it is decided that a child should remain at home, they are entitled to the same level of help and support they would have received had they been taken into care.
Staying in the home can provide significant benefits educationally and more generally, including maintaining key relationships and saving young people from the severe disruption of moving between different care or foster homes and schools.
But while each of these legal decisions is made in the best overall interests of the child, statistics show that at-risk children who are left in the family home consistently do far worse at school than any other category of looked-after children - a group who in turn do significantly less well than their peers.
Going straight to the source
It is not hard to imagine why a child left in a chaotic family environment instead of being placed in foster care might struggle to get their homework done or make it into class regularly.
However, until now there has been very little research exploring the reasons and even less asking young people themselves why they struggle and what could help them to succeed. A groundbreaking study carried out earlier this year by a youth worker turned researcher did just that (bit.lyYoungPeopleReport).
John Paul Fitzpatrick, who now works at the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland, interviewed 23 young people who had been placed under home supervision orders in Glasgow, Aberdeen and East Dunbartonshire.
He makes a number of recommendations, including the need for earlier intervention (particularly during the transition from primary to secondary) and for more mentoring to instil a belief in the importance of learning.
Discussing the reasons for children's poor educational outcomes, Fitzpatrick says: "One of the contributing factors was the lack of value placed on education by their parents. If in the course of the school day a teacher has the savvy to ask them how their day was, they could be the only person asking that question.
"At primary, they may be able to hold it together despite very difficult home circumstances, but when they move to secondary school with bigger classes, new peer groups and they are trying to make new friends, that transition can really tip them over the edge."
But the situation is not without hope. Good work is taking place in Scotland that could be replicated, Fitzpatrick says, such as the Enhanced Vocational Inclusion Programme (EVIP) in Glasgow.
Launched and funded by the council's social work department about a decade ago to encourage looked-after children to return to learning, EVIP was taken over by the education team, who now run it as a "virtual school" helping a broad range of vulnerable young people into training and work.
About 100 at-risk S4 pupils - including some on home supervision orders - are referred to the programme annually. Dedicated coaches spend a year working with the teenagers as they complete a range of college courses.
"The coach is really the motivator, the shoulder to cry on, the person who calls each morning to make sure they are going in," EVIP development officer Nicola McKenzie says. "The demand always outstrips supply, and although we started with traditional vocational courses like hairdressing and construction, now we also offer professional cookery, sport and engineering."
Several other local authorities have expressed an interest in the initiative, which has helped young people in Glasgow to secure apprenticeships and paid work.
But the latest statistics from the Scottish government, published at the end of last month, are a stark reminder of the disparities between looked-after children and their peers nationwide.
Of approximately 16,000 looked-after children in Scotland, about 5,000 are subject to home supervision orders.
The updated report (bit.lyEducationOutcomes) compares the attainment of the 935 school-leavers in 2012-13 who were looked after at some point during that academic year with the results of all 52,441 school-leavers. The average tariff score (a points system for comparing different qualifications) for looked-after children leaving school in 2013 was less than a third of that for all school-leavers, at 116 compared with 407.
Looked-after school-leavers were far more likely to be excluded than their peers, with around 233 per 1,000 banned from school, compared with 33 per 1,000 for school-leavers overall. But there were signs of progress, with attendance of 91 per cent for looked-after school-leavers, nearly matching the 94 per cent overall rate.
The number of looked-after children who were still in work, education, training or volunteering nine months after leaving school was 74 per cent, compared with 90 per cent overall.
However, children who were looked after at home routinely had the worst attendance, attainment and exclusion rates of all those in care. The average tariff score for at-risk young people living with their parents was just 43 - roughly a fifth of the average score of those in foster care provided by the local authority, at 206.
While projects such as EVIP may be extended if councils decide they are worth pursuing and are affordable under current financial restraints, many hope that the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act will bring lasting improvements across the board.
The government has commissioned the charity Who Cares? Scotland (WCS) to provide training for a range of staff in colleges, schools and universities, from teachers and lecturers to cleaners, in a bid to ensure that they can fulfil the "corporate parenting" role such institutions will be required to play.
Spelling out some of the "parenting" problems staff must address to help vulnerable young people to stay in education or training, WCS education officer Jamie Kinlochan says: "When you get to college you have to enrol, and you need photo ID and a copy of your birth certificate. Many young people who have been looked after won't have either.
"Some college enrolment officers are giving them the money to get a copy of their birth certificate - that's part of corporate parenting, it's about taking responsibility for someone."
In a painful irony, another cause of disruption to looked-after children's education is the timing of children's hearings, the legal procedures that decide where they will be placed to give them the best chance in life.
Mr Kinlochan, who used to be a panel member, adds: "Every single children's panel hearing happens between 9am and 4pm during the week, so young people are regularly taken out of school to go to them.
"If your hearing is at 1pm and you are at school that morning, you will be incredibly anxious because the panel can decide where you will be living. So you can't concentrate.
"If you have to come back to school afterwards, your life has just been exposed to three strangers. I didn't think of that when I was a panel member, but it is obvious."
The government, which has invested more than pound;200,000 in WCS' corporate parenting training since 2012, says it remains committed to "closing the attainment gap" between looked-after children and their peers and is reviewing the timings of hearings through the Children's Hearings Improvement Partnership.
A spokeswoman adds: "Local authorities use different approaches to encourage and support vulnerable children to achieve their very best, and we would always be interested in sharing best practice and considering successful approaches when developing future policies."
Meanwhile, education secretary Michael Russell recently agreed to meet representatives from a range of organisations - including Scottish colleges and universities, the Scottish Funding Council and the WCS - next month to discuss more ways of increasing access to further and higher education for looked-after children and care-leavers.
Some might argue that vocational courses would be more useful for many care-leavers' immediate prospects than academic qualifications, but all would no doubt agree that better education of some kind is still the key. The real challenge lies in doing something about it.