We must not fail these young people before they've begun

29th July 2011 at 01:00
What's the best way to spend pound;135m for vulnerable children? Maybe now is the time to ask if we're doing it the right way

How would you like to share pound;135 million across Scotland's 32 local authorities to help our most vulnerable children and young people? Such a sum could be used to employ 1,000 new teachers, 1,000 new social workers and 1,900 new child and family support workers. Read on to find out how.

Let's start with some numbers: Scotland spends over pound;250m a year on providing residential care for looked-after children - a rise of 68 per cent in seven years. These are children who have been placed in the care of the local authority through voluntary arrangements with parents, or through children's hearings, a sheriff's order, or a court ruling. The reasons for placement include care orders, child protection and offending behaviour.

Around 1,600 children and young people are placed in residential care each year. This figure has remained stable over the past seven years, despite the number of children being identified as "looked after" increasing from nine in every 1,000 in 1998 to 14 in every 1,000 in 2009.

Of pound;250m total expenditure, which accounts for 30 per cent of councils' children's service budgets, pound;135m is spent on providing residential education and secure accommodation, almost all of which is provided by the independent sector, with average weekly costs varying from pound;800-pound;5,000 per child, (pound;41,000-pound;260,000 a year).

Yet, despite this investment, we know that the outcomes for children and young people in residential care are incredibly poor, with one in 10 experiencing homelessness within two years of leaving care; 25 per cent of our prison population having been in care; 45 per cent of looked-after and accommodated children having mental health problems; and half of all such young people failing to achieve a foundation award in maths or English.

The challenges facing local authorities are twofold: ensuring that they fulfil their statutory corporate parenting responsibilities for looked- after children, while ensuring that they maintain an appropriate balance between quality and cost.

As a director of education and children's services, I share the corporate parenting responsibilities with elected members and other senior officers. I would actually extend that responsibility to every employee of the council; and perhaps go even further by extending it to every member of our communities in East Lothian.

Nevertheless, from a statutory perspective I have a range of responsibilities for this group of children and young people, which are designed to ensure that we safeguard and promote their welfare and improve their life chances.

Yet there is one additional responsibility set out in the Looked After Children (Scotland) Act 2009 with particular regard to education which is, perhaps, the most difficult to fulfil. It reads: "They should also receive additional help, encouragement and support to address special educational needs or compensate for previous disadvantage and gaps in educational provision."

This last line presents a challenge and a dilemma for someone in my position. Firstly, why haven't we tackled a person's disadvantage earlier to ensure that they have had the same opportunities as all other children? And, secondly, why do they have gaps in their educational provision?

These are not rhetorical questions. These are uncomfortable truths. For the reality is that we have not addressed these questions in anything like a rigorous enough manner. We know that inadequate parenting in the first few months of a child's life has a devastating impact upon their future. We know that the subsequent gaps in children's development emerge before they start school. We know that these gaps extend and accelerate once they get into school. We know that looked-after children are more likely to be excluded. We know that they will occupy the bottom sets in subjects such as maths and English. We know that they are more likely to be known to the local police and to be causing problems in their community.

Yet when the system - not the child - has really failed, we send them off to secure accommodation at a cost of pound;260,000 a year - the equivalent to employing six teachers for a year.

I wonder how a group of headteachers and social work managers might respond to the offer of having an additional quarter of a million pounds a year on condition that no child or young person would be sent to secure accommodation from their community? Of course such a scenario would be difficult to manage, given that some secure orders can be made by a children's hearing or court, depending upon the offence or circumstances - but it does provide food for thought.

The reality is that residential care is a legitimate part of the care continuum we provide to children. However, if we are to fully address our obligation as corporate parents, it is not enough to accept that some of these children will inevitably end up in a residential school or secure accommodation. I wouldn't accept that for my own children and I don't think we should accept it for those who are placed in our care.

Children and young people belong to their communities. They belong to their schools. We should be doing everything in our power to ensure that looked-after children stay in their schools and in their communities - and experience a childhood which mirrors the opportunities, love, support and outcomes which we would expect for our own children.

Now did anyone say this was going to be easy?

Don Ledingham, Director of education and children's services.

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