Organisations providing alternative education for challenging youngsters outside school should be inspected by HMIE to ensure they are delivering what they promise.
Tom McGhee, director of Spark of Genius, a company providing education and residential care for youngsters often on the verge of being placed in secure accommodation, has criticised what he called "bouncy castle" projects which took youngsters with social, emotional and behavioural problems out of school but taught them very little.
These projects were often billed as having curricula that were "motivating and different", but frequently of "questionable educational worth. "There are too many motorbike projects where they tinker with machines or bouncy castle projects, where they get several hours off every day, and it's called education," Mr McGhee told a conference in Edinburgh on youngsters in care.
"Sometimes they go to the local sports centre for a sports experience but they refuse to take part and sit in the cafe for two hours. Sometimes they may take them up a hill and they end up just sitting in the minibus. These youngsters can be very difficult to motivate.
"Some projects claim great success when all they offer is woodwork or car mechanics. They report that young people love it but some also love stealing cars and taking drugs."
Mr McGhee called for these providers to be inspected "in the way every school is." All Spark of Genius programmes are subject to scrutiny by HMIE and the Care Commission. He said there was a vocational programme but this was provided as part of a balanced curriculum.
Spark of Genius has seven small, rural homes and six schools, or learning centres. The average class size is four in primary and eight in secondary. Almost a quarter of looked-after children fail to gain qualifications at SCQF level 3 (Access 3Standard grade Foundation); at Spark of Genius, it is 2 per cent.
When it came to vocational education, the organisation was moving away from construction skills towards hospitality and health care, because of the downturn in the building trade, he said. "We don't like to talk about difficult, high tariff or problematic youngsters. We regard them as future voters, doctors and lawyers who are going to add value to Scotland in the long term."
Day pupils cost authorities from Pounds 350 a week. For residential care and education, the cost is around Pounds 3,750 a week but could be higher, depending on the child's needs.