Too much kindness can be cruel;Books

17th September 1999 at 01:00
EDUCATION AND CARE AWAY FROM HOME: A Review of Research, Policy and Practice. By Moira Borland, Charlotte Pearson, Malcolm Hill, Kay Tisdall and Irene Bloomfield. Scottish Council for Research in Education pound;12.50.

Children in care have long been condemned to poor schooling. Sarah Nelson welcomes a new account of the problem

You get dumped with all the troublemakers or no-hopers because you can't do the work because the teachers won't give you a chance, so you get guilty by association."

"Sometimes they could be too caring, showing too much sympathy. In that way you still felt you weren't normal ... you still felt different."

Young people from residential care testify that a surfeit of kindness by teachers can stigmatise them as much as dismissal and rejection.

Today, educational under-achievement by "looked after" youngsters (in the new terminology) is a topic for hot conference debate, and for justifiably angry recollections by care leavers.

But, as Moira Borland and her fellow authors show, professional concern and research is very recent. Nothing more graphically reveals the lack of interest in the education of children in care than the fact that as late as 1983 there was not one book written on the topic in English.

Who saw it as a priority when traditionally these kids - among the most poverty-stricken in society - were only seen as fit for domestic service, manual work or emigration to the colonial labour force?

As the children's home population plummeted from the mid-70s, and those who remained were often more disturbed, and disturbing, there were other reasons to demote the value of education.

The unsympathetic could see these children as hopeless cases. In contrast, caring social workers felt these young people, whose lives were in turmoil, had more pressing needs than schooling. Somehow, in the process, "education" became divorced from "welfare" and the importance of school achievement to self-esteem was ignored.

Borland et al tackle the subject in a thorough and thought provoking way. The only problem is that the book betrays its origins too much as a literature review for the Scottish Office. Livelier reshaping would have increased its appeal.

The book shows how often gulfs in thinking and priorities between social work and education have contributed to the problems faced by young people in care.

Basic failure to synchronise care and education plans can be disastrous - one care-leaver wrote of being moved to a new placement 20 miles away, two weeks before taking important exams. The result was that he left school with no qualifications.

So it is fitting, and encouraging, that the Scottish Office departments responsible for education and social work collaborated to fund the literature review on which this book is based. Encouraging, too, that a few local authorities have used inter-agency collaboration imaginatively: for instance, South Lanarkshire uses link teachers to support young people in mainstream schooling.

The council tries to involve pupils in drawing up their own personal education plan, and generally aims to boost their educational achievements and self-esteem.

In the Inverclyde Children's Units Support Project, link teachers liaise between residential units and schools to provide young people with focused educational and emotional support.

But across Scotland there are still many hurdles to overcome, not least the great challenge to co-operation between education and social work posed by squeezed budgets and market pressures. However good the intentions, the needs of children easily disappear in that fraught climate.

Kendrick's 1995 study found that only four of 34 residential school placements in Scotland that year were jointly funded. Arguments over whether education or social work should pay meant children's panel members felt the interests of the child were getting lost in battles over financial responsibility.

"It remains to be seen," warn Borland and her colleagues, "whether the corporate responsibilities for children, embedded in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, will overcome some of these tensions - or whether budgetary stresses will make them worse."

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