Now is the time to make a difference
Children who are looked after by local authorities tend to have low attainment and generally poor outcomes beyond school. This is the depressing message of research over many years. Yet, I am optimistic that we will improve this shameful situation.
I base my optimism in part on the findings of a study which researchers at the University of Strathclyde recently completed for the Scottish Government. As part of a study of 18 local authority pilot projects, we examined attendance, exclusion and attainment data for more than 600 looked after children and young people. We found that attendance at school improved in all age groups, significantly among nine to 10-year-olds and those over 15 - almost half of the study population - and exclusions reduced significantly among the over 15s.
Attainment in reading, writing and mathematics improved by one 5-14 level in one year for 40 per cent of those in this age range, a rate of improvement better than the average for looked after children in Scotland and similar to those who are not looked after.
We also found a relationship between high involvement in pilot activities and progress in reading and writing, though not in maths (perhaps because literacy featured highly in many projects). The attitudes and values of professionals working with these young people and their families were crucial components of success.
Collecting the data required persistence, and we confirmed the findings of previous research highlighting the inadequacies of systems for recording and tracking the achievements of looked after children. There is also a lack of clarity about how to record data for some looked after children, a critical issue for older young people who attend off-site education or are in part-time education. Their attendance and achievements may be recorded incorrectly or not recorded at all by the mainstream school in which they are enrolled.
The case histories typically show a point when normal progress was affected, often due to a move caused by a traumatic event in the family. Sadly, while effective social and emotional supports are usually provided without delay, the effects on education are more likely to be overlooked.
There is a simple message: one person, or committee, in an authority needs to have responsibility for reviewing the educational progress of all looked after children. This needs to happen regularly. The review group needs to have a degree of clout, to ensure that when concerns are raised, the necessary supports can be provided without delay.
Detailed guidance for local authorities on being a corporate parent is provided in a new Scottish Government publication, These are our Bairns. It says that education services will know they have made a difference when they can give a positive answer to the question: "Would this be good enough for my child?"
There is greater awareness of the need to improve education for looked after children and, though there are many challenges, our research highlighted innovative approaches by professionals. I remain optimistic.