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Treat us like anybody else

Teachers can have little understanding of the problems facing children in care. Sarah Nelson reports on developments in Scotland.

There must be something exceptional about Gillian Vinesky. The 19-year-old information and training officer from the pressure group Who Cares? Scotland has three Highers and an HND in business administration - yet only a quarter of residential care leavers gain any school certificates at all. By public perception she should be screwed-up, and drifting: not articulate, confident and demanding change.

The awkward problem is that Ms Vinesky is typical of the young women and men who have created a group that speaks for those children in care. It is one of Scotland's most impressive voluntary organisations. The question is: why does it need to campaign for such basic kinds of human respect?

"I dream of a time," Ms Vinesky told an international conference on residential care this year, "when the public treat young people in care like everybody else, and do normal everyday things like talking to them while walking down the streets, instead of avoiding them at every opportunity. "

The former chair of Who Cares? Scotland, now in a paid post as information officer, spent her teenage years in a succession of Lanarkshire foster homes, children's homes and supported accommodation because of family problems. She did well at school from being motivated to keep her education going. "Children knew, and avoided you because they didn't know what to say - nobody wanted to know you . . . but perhaps I was scared of what the reaction would be. At parents' nights I had no-one, I felt as if I didn't exist.

"Often I sat and daydreamed all day. Because school is a release, time out when you want to get out of the home, where you can't get a minute to yourself. It's so hard to do schoolwork with kids running around and constant noise . . . so at school, people find it really hard to concentrate. Teachers need to accept that this will happen."

Recent research shows young people in care are likely to be very disadvantaged in educational achievement, through their experiences before going into care; their disrupted schooling; their low self-esteem; the low expectations of others; and the lack of continuity in their lives. Ms Vinesky, who cut her activist teeth in her local Who Cares? group, says: "Most teachers don't understand why people are coming to school with behavioural problems - such as the reason they were taken into care in the first place, or the effects of constantly fighting for attention and a sense of identity in children's homes.

"Teachers tend either to dismiss them as troublemakers and no-hopers or to single them out for sympathy, which embarrasses them and makes them feel different. Schools need to take time to sit down and listen to these children, but to provide that time for everyone if they need it, so children from care won't be singled out.

"I really appreciated two or three of my guidance teachers who gave me that time and weren't afraid to let me talk about things like how I felt about my own family - I still miss them. Teachers also have to be aware that young people may not want to talk, and do not want staff to know everything about them."

This summer, Who Cares? Scotland ran a special Scottish conference on education. Ms Vinesky says: "We had strong feedback on several points. Young people felt it was far too easy to be excluded from mainstream schools and felt they were automatic targets for exclusion."

These are children who have no family to fight on their behalf. That issue was spotlighted by Meg Lindsay, director of the Centre for Residential Child Care, at the "Realities and Dreams" conference in September. Her centre's survey found 87 per cent of homes had young people in the house as a result of exclusion from school either most or some of the time. Yet most reported this was not a great problem. This complacency and low expectation concerned her a lot when "the young people are clearly losing out on education, which will be of vital importance to them in their adult life".

"Another big concern," says Ms Vinesky, "is the lack of tutors available for young people with special needs." It has been estimated that at any one time, more than a quarter of Scottish children and young people in residential care have learning disabilities andor physical disabilities.

"Again, young people felt teachers should understand how much their education suffers as a direct result of being placed in care. For instance, it may take up to four months to get a place in a mainstream school," she says.

"Bullying and stigma were big issues - getting slagged by other pupils, being told their families don't love them which is very hurtful . . . then young people were disappointed with themselves for retaliating through hurt and anger - more often than not, this simply got them into more trouble.

"They also felt some basic things were not happening. Their teachers should obviously be present at care reviews where their own education was being discussed. Teachers and care staff have to work in partnership."

Who Cares? Scotland is now campaigning for education authorities to put these conference points high on their agenda. Ms Vinesky will see progress when young people like her are not feted as unusual or exceptional: when teenagers throughout Scotland achieve the qualifications and the self-respect their abilities deserve.

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