Skip to main content

Who cares?

The number of children in care is the highest it has been for 30 years, and despite politicians' pledges to improve their life chances, they still fall behind their peers in school. But the picture is not altogether bleak.

News article image

The number of children in care is the highest it has been for 30 years, and despite politicians' pledges to improve their life chances, they still fall behind their peers in school. But the picture is not altogether bleak.

Not long after devolution, Scotland's education minister opened a centre which he said would help improve the life chances of children in care.

Just over a decade on, there is another new Government with a new education minister - and another new centre for improving the life chances of children in care.

In the interim, vast amounts of time, energy and money have been spent trying to achieve that aim.

Although progress has been made, the latest official statistics suggest that, in education, far too little has been achieved.

With the number of looked-after children now at its highest for nearly 30 years - up 41 per cent in the past decade from 11,309 in 2000 to 15,892 by 2010 - and looked-after children's attainment still far below their peers, the need for action is greater than ever.

Back in 2007, the Scottish Executive published a report unequivocally entitled We Can and Must Do Better, acknowledging that, despite an extra pound;16 million in resources, their efforts "had yet to show results".

They stressed that while "deep rooted and difficult", the problems were "not impossible".

Yet the latest figures, for 2009-10, reveal that although looked-after children's attainment is improving, the average tariff score for all looked-after school leavers was 67, less than a fifth of the national average of 372.

The Scottish Parliament's education and culture committee is conducting a new inquiry to find out why Scotland's children in care are still lagging behind - and how to change that.

The 2009-10 statistics show that looked-after children also generally have poorer school attendance, higher exclusion rates and are less likely to go into employment, education or training.

But look a little closer and the picture is not so black and white.

School leavers who stayed in the same council-provided foster home for the entire academic year did more than twice as well as those in any other form of care, with average tariff scores of 160.

As most looked-after children leave school aged 16 or under, it is arguably fairer to compare their results to those of all school leavers aged 16 or under, whose average score was just 141.

On that basis, children in single foster care placements performed better than all their peers.

Their success is less surprising considering foster carers take the least troubled children and are particularly supportive of education.

Living in the same, safe place away from abusive or neglectful parents and attending the same school makes it easier for children to do better - though their chances of not moving school or home at least once are low, which is part of the problem.

At the other end of the scale, children who are looked after in their own homes, for example by a struggling lone parent, repeatedly do worst (scoring just 32 in 2009-10.)

Youngsters left in a traumatic home environment, deprived of nutrition, sleep and affection and forced to do housework instead of their homework will understandably do badly.

Such trauma in early life can also have an extreme impact on brain development.

Former social worker Colin Robb, now a quality development officer for looked-after children at Edinburgh City Council, says: "They learn from their parents about what the world is going to be like. That gives them a very skewed outlook.

"They are used to parents who respond irregularly, violently or not at all, so when they get to school they find it really quite strange."

Mr Robb believes looked-after children at home have always been "second class citizens" in the system.

He welcomes the new Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland (CELCIS), which aims to treat them as a priority group for research, providing new approaches and training for professionals.

Graham McCann, its specialist training and events lead and chair of the government's Looked After Children Education Forum, says: "They have the poorest educational outcomes. There's a general lack of research in that area. Hopefully that's something that at the new centre we will be doing something about."

Based at Strathclyde University, CELSIS expands on the remit of the former Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care to cover all looked-after children. But it is doing that in the context of less, not more, funding as the Government slashes its budget by 25 per cent over three years (from pound;3.3m last financial year).

Mr McCann admits it is a "significant challenge", due to the current financial environment, but he is keen to stress the positives, saying: "The gap is shortening. Year on year the statistics have been improving.

"If a young person's attainment was 60 per cent you might say that's not great, but if they started at 10 per cent it's actually good."

He believes it is still too soon to expect children in care to achieve as well as their peers, though he is adamant that "second best is not good enough".

Poor data is another problem which is now being addressed. The latest statistics are the first to combine social work and educational data.

"Being looked-after should not be detrimental to a young person's education; it should be beneficial," McCann concludes.

Yet too often it is not. The most common age to be taken into care is surprisingly high, at 14 or 15.

Often foster carers won't take teenagers and there is a growing shortage of foster homes at a time when the overall rise in looked-after children is being driven by record numbers of youngsters living with foster or kinship families, or still with their parents.

In 2005, 3,493 children lived with 2,200 foster carers. By 2010, 4,697 lived with 3,300 carers.

Fostering Network Scotland believes an extra 1,700 foster carers in Scotland are needed.

Director Sara Lurie says: "On the face of it there are enough beds for heads.

"But there may be no places in some areas, so a child from Aberdeenshire may be placed in Dumfries and Galloway, which creates much more disruption."

There is growing pressure on existing foster carers, with one telling a recent conference on looked-after children in Perth that she had been asked to take in seven children at once.

Meanwhile existing measures to help children in care are not being implemented fully. Every looked-after child should have a comprehensive care plan detailing their care, education and health needs and the responsibilities of authorities, carers, parents and child.

However, the 2009-10 statistics revealed that care plans for nearly 1,000 looked-after children had not been produced or reviewed for at least a year.

School exclusions are another serious issue. In 2009-10 the exclusion rate for looked-after children was 365 per 1,000 - eight times that for all pupils.

Amanda Knani, an Edinburgh outreach teacher seconded to the role of quality development officer, says: "Some teachers will do what they need to do because it's what they need to do, to tick a box.

"(But) there are some schools that just claim their looked-after children and take that corporate responsibility in its true sense, and you know that these kids feel they have been claimed (in the sense of being really cared for)."

Corporate parenting - encouraging authorities to treat looked-after children like their own - now has a "groundswell of goodwill" and designated teachers co-ordinating work with looked-after children have reduced incidents where staff punish pupils for poor work, instead of offering them help.

Efforts to ensure that all professionals work together in the child's best interests are also "improving but patchy".

"It's still very much about the relationship you have with headteachers," says Mr Robb. "We know the schools we can phone up who will say yes (we can take an excluded child) and the ones which will say no . we need to get away from the `us and them' attitude."

The investment of so much money and time has identified effective programmes for looked-after children.

In 2004 the Scottish Executive announced pound;6m for 18 two-year pilot schemes including one-to-one tuition, storytelling sessions and football projects to support and engage pupils.

Experts found that young people derived significant benefit from the projects, which could probably have achieved "far more" if they had continued.

At South Lanarkshire residential unit staff still use storytelling training received in their pilot scheme.

But although some councils incorporated features from the pilots longer term, generally schemes ended when Government funding stopped.

Dr Graham Connelly, strategic research and qualifying courses manager at CELCIS, who analysed the pilots, warns: "Each of these projects is a good thing to do but . they are unlikely to be sustained because the key people move on and the special money runs out.

"Some would argue that they are even damaging because enthusiasm and expectation has been built up and when it can't be sustained, the people involved get frustrated."

He believes the main focus should be on poor attendance of children who are "looked after" at home or in residential care.

One reason residential units get a bad reputation is that they tend to take those who have suffered the most disruption to their schooling, who often have conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

At the Kibble Education and Care Centre in Paisley, however, exam results are better than the national average for looked-after children.

Kay Gibson, service manager, says: "It's not untypical for us to get young people aged 11 or 12 who are at P3 or P4 level of education but within about 18 months we have got them to maybe P4 or P5."

She credits Kibble's unique position as a centre combining educational and care services.

Meanwhile, new research reveals that looked-after children who return to education as adults do equally well, whether they were cared for in foster homes or residential settings.

The 2010 UK study, by CELCIS research fellow Zachari Duncalf, found that 55.5 per cent (111) of adults who had been in residential homes gained qualifications ranging from Standard grades or equivalents to Highers or equivalents, and 54.8 per cent (23) of those from foster homes.

She also found that a third of those questioned (33 per cent of 257) had gone on to obtain degrees, masters or PhDs as adults.

She says: "Most people felt self-motivated to go back into education for the education that they did not receive when they were in care."

All had stable relationships and jobs plus the confidence and self-esteem gained through life experience.

But that doesn't mean we should expect children in care only to do well in later life. Ms Duncalf, who was herself brought up in residential care, says: "I have a degree, two post-graduate degrees and I'm just finishing a PhD, and I'm only 28.

"I had 19 moves, but I was self-motivated . For some people it's just not the right time of their life (to achieve educationally at school) but my research shows that that is not about a lack of ability. I think it's positive to have high expectations."

Others believe that improving children's belief in themselves and their social skills should be the priority at school.

Outreach teacher Amanda Knani says: "There are real difficulties in confidence and self-esteem, which is not surprising if you have been continually told you are rubbish.

"Sometimes we elevate academic attainment . Are we processing our young people through education or trying to offer them something meaningful for them? That's not always going to be an academic education."


Cheryl Leggett was 15 and about to sit her exams when officials decided one day that she would not be returning home from school.

Recalling the day she became "looked after", Cheryl, now 27, from Clydebank, says: "My dad had shouted at me that morning and I was really upset, crying on the way to school.

"When I got there my best friend took me to the guidance teacher who took me to the headteacher.

"All day I was being called out of class and everyone was looking at me. I didn't know what was happening.

"I heard that someone had said that I was refusing to go home and I thought `Is that what I have done?'.

"It was surreal. My younger brother had been talking to the guidance teacher too and that night we went into foster care.

"It was very confusing and stressful. I was about to sit my prelims and my relationship with my parents had completely broken down.

"I couldn't do my homework because of all the chores I had to do. From 13 or 14 years old, I was practically running the household."

Her new status was also stressful initially.

"It was very daunting. I'd always assumed that if you went into care you would end up in a big scary house and not get to do anything," she admits.

Happily the first foster couple were "lovely", but as they were only offering short-term placements, Cheryl and her brother were soon moved to another family.

They didn't get on, so the original foster couple took Cheryl long-term, while her brother returned to their parents.

"They encouraged me to do as well as I could," she says.

"If I hadn't left home, I think I'd have ended up working in a biscuit factory instead of going to university."

"I don't know many people from care who have been to university. I know people with absolutely no qualifications."

Cheryl works as a bank clerk but hopes to start a career through her voluntary care work.

25% - Reduction in funding over three years for the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland.

8 - In 2009-10 the exclusion rate for looked-after children was eight times that for all pupils


Charities are playing a lead role in providing programmes that help looked-after children across Scotland.

Spark of Genius was set up in 1998 by English teacher Tom McGhee, using online learning as a means of re-engaging young people across Scotland.

For Frazer Molyneux it helped him return to school, and now, aged 20, he is studying law at college.

Diagnosed with ADHD aged seven, he was increasingly out of control, passing through primary school "in a blur" of fighting and disruption.

At 11 he was sent to a residential school in Fife, where he struggled to learn in classes which were small but even more chaotic because every pupil had serious problems.

He joined Spark of Genius as a teenager and he obtained six Standard grades at C or above.

"We used computers to do the same coursework as mainstream schools, which helped," he says.

"I want to go on to university and study law.

"I don't know anyone from care who has gone on to university."

That is something which another charity is changing.

Who Cares? Scotland launched an annual Harvard Summer School scholarship last year to give care leavers a unique chance to reach their potential.

Successful applicants spend seven weeks at the prestigious US university, receiving world-class teaching to develop their skills and meeting new friends from around the world.

Who Cares? Scotland also sends looked-after children to Scottish university summer schools, which secures a degree place for the vast majority who would otherwise be rejected.

Original headline: Nurture inspires a glimmer of hope for looked-after children

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you