Looked-after Children (Education)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 11:04 am on 26 February 2003.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 11:04, 26 February 2003

The next item of business is the debate on motion S1M-3943, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, on the educational attainment of looked-after children.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 11:05, 26 February 2003

In January last year, I made a statement to the Parliament on the education of our looked-after children in Scotland. I am pleased to have the opportunity to report to the Parliament on progress and to discuss again this important subject.

In March 2001, we published "Learning with Care", which was the report of a joint inspection by the social work services inspectorate and Her Majesty's inspectors of schools on the educational experiences of looked-after young people. As a result of concerns, Jack McConnell wrote to ask each council leader about their efforts to improve the education of looked-after children. Last year, I reported wide variation in local authorities' performance. Examples of good practice existed, but some authorities could not meet any of the recommendations in full.

Therefore, I set local authorities the challenge of achieving, by the end of last year, three of the recommendations that are fundamental to improving the position of looked-after children. The recommendations were that all looked-after children should receive full-time education; that all looked-after children should have a care plan that adequately addresses their educational needs; and that all schools should designate a teacher to champion the interests of such children.

I have received reports from local authorities on their implementation of those recommendations and the progress that they have made, and I am placing a summary of those responses in the Scottish Parliament information centre today. Overall, all local authorities have improved on their position last year, which is encouraging, but the reports show that authorities could still do better on implementing the recommendations.

Most authorities reported that more than 90 per cent of looked-after children are in full-time education and that alternatives to mainstream schooling are used when needed. Local authorities have also begun to tackle the disproportionate exclusion of looked-after children, but concerns remain. Some authorities have not included children who are looked after at home, as well as those whom they accommodate. It is unacceptable that some still have difficulty in tracking all their looked-after children.

Concerns about children who are looked after at home and about tracking children also apply to care planning for education. Progress on that has been more disappointing, although it is clear that the looked-after children materials have provided a framework that ensures that education is routinely considered in the care planning process. The authorities' responses also raise questions about communication among schools, education departments and social work departments.

All authorities reported that teachers have been designated in their schools, but the role of such teachers and whether they perform it effectively is not always clear. The responses describe good examples of authorities looking beyond the recommendations to make further improvements. For example, Dumfries and Galloway Council has produced comprehensive guidance on the role of the designated teacher, which enables school staff to engage better with the issues and ensures that young people get the most from their education.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

I am interested to hear the news that the minister conveys to the chamber. She said that she would leave copies of the information that has been gathered from local authorities in SPICe. Is that information available from the SPICe desk now, so that we can see it while we listen to her speech?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

The information should be available. Several local authorities provided updated information at the last minute, which will be available from SPICe as the day goes on. The information is a result of self-reporting by local authorities and is not in a Parliament publication. I have pulled the responses together and they have been placed in SPICe for information. Later, I will talk about what we will do with that information.

Western Isles Council's education and social work departments jointly started a new project to provide full-time education for children who do not attend mainstream schools. Several local authorities, including Argyll and Bute Council, North Lanarkshire Council and Renfrewshire Council, have said that they are improving data links between the management information systems of social work departments and of education departments. That should ensure that schools are aware of all looked-after children and that the progress of their educational attainment can be followed.

I confirm for Mr Monteith that the Executive will follow up on the returns with local authorities. I want to be able to pick up on the good practice that is out there and share it with others. I will also follow up on those local authorities about which we have concerns. The authorities will be asked to prepare an action plan to progress the issues that require to be addressed.

Last year, I identified a number of other actions that the Executive would take as a result of the "Learning with Care" report. Three seminars, which were held in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness, were attended by more than 200 practitioners and education and social work managers. As a result of the seminars, we have collated material and will produce a range of materials to assist us in developing the agenda. We will consider training materials, a looked-after children education report, and booklets for teachers, social workers and carers. The intention is for those materials to be produced by May of this year.

It is also important to note that the social work services inspectorate has checked on progress in each authority. Inspection teams have found that progress has been achieved on joint policies, audits and training, as well as on children's services plans, particularly on how authorities set targets for educational attainment.

This year, for the first time, we have collected information nationally on the educational attainment of looked-after young people. The information shows that six out of 10 of the 16 and 17-year-olds who leave care do not achieve any qualifications. By contrast, only 5 per cent of all other 16 and 17-years-olds failed to achieve qualifications. The social justice milestone that we have set is that, eventually, all looked-after children should achieve at least standard grade English and maths. At the moment, some 30 per cent achieve that goal.

The social justice milestone is an important continuing test of progress. As we collect better information on educational achievement in the years ahead, I believe that we will be better able to measure improvements, including those that result from the initiatives we have taken following the "Learning with Care" report; from the £10 million that the Executive invested in educational attainment last year and, indeed, the further money that was allocated in the spending review; and from the inspection of schools and local authorities by the social work services inspectorate and Her Majesty's inspectors of schools. However, we must be clear that we are talking not only about inspections, bureaucracies or money but about young people's lives. We must look ahead from the "Learning with Care" report to the practical actions that will continue to improve educational attainment.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

Does the minister agree that Ballikinrain School in my constituency is not only a model school but one in which an integrated approach to outreach work helps children to get back into mainstream education?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I visited Ballikinrain School and was impressed with the way in which the school adapts its work to the continuing agenda for change. The school is particularly interested in raising young people's aspirations. That is very important: we must demand such a change of culture and ambition for our looked-after young people—we should not settle for second best on their behalf.

Most important, we need to continue to seek the views of the young people themselves. It is for that reason that we commissioned Who Cares? Scotland to undertake a survey on the educational attainment of looked-after children. We will receive its findings within the next few months and they will tell us about the ambitions of young people. The findings will also tell us where, why and when young people become disengaged from the education system. Crucially, they will also tell us what young people believe will make a difference.

Photo of Lyndsay McIntosh Lyndsay McIntosh Conservative

On what we can do to help children, I am interested in the progress and the achievements that are being made in certain areas, but does the minister agree that the one thing that looked-after children desperately miss out on is the support of a family? They miss having somebody who is there for them, to supervise their homework for example. Every parent in the chamber will have sat down with their children, read with them, gone over their homework, helped them to forward plan and so forth. Sadly, the system lacks someone who takes a continuing interest in the children and helps them to plan for the future.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I agree with Lyndsay McIntosh on that point. I will talk about that important area in a couple of minutes.

It is important to recognise that, as a result of previous work by Who Cares? and the Scottish Throughcare and Aftercare Forum, we know about some of the factors that cause problems for young people. First, frequent placement moves can have a damaging effect on young people, especially if a change of school is also involved. The stability that school can give can be enormously important. Secondly, we know that young people should not leave care at too young an age. At the moment, many young people do so at 16 or 17, which is precisely the time that they need the most support to help them to concentrate on their exams. If we are serious about wanting more young people to move on to higher and further education, we need to get the whole support package right.

We must encourage young people to see education as something that is relevant to them and which will benefit them in future. In response to Lyndsay McIntosh's question, I agree that looked-after children deserve to have somebody who is interested in their education, in the same way that other young people have such a person. Social workers or carers need to attend parents evenings, read their report cards and take a real interest in their education.

I have many memories of young people who might have moaned at me at the time, but who in later years said that they were grateful to me and others for caring enough to get them out of bed in the morning so that they would go to school. We nagged them about their homework and pushed them to aim for more in exactly the same way as we did and do for our own children. Lyndsay McIntosh recognises the nagging that parents do.

Photo of Lyndsay McIntosh Lyndsay McIntosh Conservative

I am familiar with the concept.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

We should also recognise that young people in the care system might need extra support. Study support groups in schools, for example, are a welcome resource and, for many looked-after young people, a quiet place in the children's home and access to a computer can make all the difference. Art materials or sports equipment, which some other young people take for granted, can motivate young people to stay involved in education, and additional support to help them to catch up if necessary can give confidence. Those are the kinds of things that are made possible by our allocation of £10 million.

I want to mention one innovative new scheme that provides a young person with a personal webspace for study and the storage of personal documents. It is important that looked-after young people have such provision. I recently attended the launch of the virtual schoolbag project, a pilot that is supported by the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and Microsoft. I look forward to seeing how the pilot develops, as the young people involved are very positive about it.

I spoke earlier about the low number of looked-after young people who move on from school into university. I know that those young people have the capability to move on. I have seen young people who were brought up in the care system successfully make that transition. However, at the moment, less than 1 per cent of looked-after young people go on to university. We must do more to address that.

We are introducing education maintenance allowances across Scotland to help young people to stay on at school or college. Support is also being offered through the Executive's enterprise and lifelong learning department. As part of the lifelong learning strategy, Iain Gray recently announced his commitment to improving access to lifelong learning for particular groups of people whose education has been disrupted. Young people leaving care will be the first group to benefit. That move is very welcome.

My time is now up. I finish by restating my belief that for too long our ambitions for looked-after young people have been far too low. I want to see that culture change. We must ensure that such a change is the responsibility not only of the few people who are directly involved in working with looked-after children, but of everyone involved in education and social work. We must also ensure that everyone in the chamber works alongside local authorities to deliver such change.

I am committed to the partnership approach, which is why I am not in a position to accept the Scottish National Party's amendment. It misses the point about all of us working together, which is where I am coming from. This is not about giving local authorities a hard time, but about working alongside authorities to ensure that we all deliver collectively for our looked-after young people.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises that young people looked after by local authorities require support to enable them to have the best possible educational opportunity; welcomes the use made of the £10 million allocated to local authorities to support educational attainment of looked after children, and notes that, while progress has been made on implementing the recommendations made in Learning With Care, continued effort must be made to ensure that every looked after child has an appropriate care plan, including a plan for education, and is in full time education provision appropriate to need and that staff in social work and education work together to support all looked after children to reach their full potential.

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party 11:19, 26 February 2003

As the minister reminded the chamber, it was more than a year ago that she made a statement to Parliament announcing plans and setting out the minimal requirement that all looked-after children should receive full-time education and have a care plan that addresses their educational needs. Those are the same plans and requirement that are reiterated in the Executive motion today.

The deadline for delivering the targets passed two months ago, but they have not been met. The educational situation of looked-after children remains grim. The most recent statistics confirm the severity of the problem: the majority of young people who leave care—60 per cent—do so without qualifications. Of 16 and 17-year-old care leavers, six out of 10 do not achieve qualifications and only 27 per cent get English and maths at standard grade.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

Will the member tell me how those statistics compare with the previous statistics?

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party

To the best of my knowledge, they have not improved.

Most 16 and 17-year-old care leavers have experience of truancy and exclusion. Less than 1 per cent of them go to university.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I remind the chamber of the comments I made in my statement: this is the first time that we have collected such statistics.

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party

But one year later, are they satisfactory? We must focus on the problem. We heard almost the same thing a year ago—we discussed the same issues and the same problems that looked-after children face. Why do we need to hear the minister restating plans with add-on bits and new initiatives that have so little result?

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party

I would like to move on a little bit.

The minister made it fairly clear in her contribution that she places at least some responsibility for the situation on local authorities. Last year, local authorities were offered no new resources to implement the plans.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

Surely even Irene McGugan accepts that the £10 million was an additional resource for looked-after children.

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party

The £10 million was specifically about providing materials and resources to help with homework; it was not specifically about helping children to receive full-time education or to have a care plan that addresses their educational needs. There were entirely separate announcements about entirely separate issues.

It seems that the minister does not accept that local authorities—especially social workers—are understaffed and under-resourced. They are struggling to deliver services.

If members do not believe anything that I have said, I suggest that the "Learning with Care" report to which the minister referred and which was announced in March 2001, has the answer. It stated:

"The majority of social workers said that they did not have sufficient time to address fully the educational needs of looked after children."

They were too busy dealing with other pressures that impact on family life—education was not their priority. With social work under greater staffing pressure than ever before, how can the situation have improved?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

Does the member accept that, as I outlined in my speech, the issue is not simply for social work departments? Looked-after children are the responsibility of the local authority. Therefore, does she accept that they are also the responsibility of the education department and that there is a role for people other than qualified social workers?

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party

Absolutely. I have no difficulty with that. However, it remains the case that social workers are generally the lead workers in any group of workers who support looked-after children.

I remind members that local authorities reported to us last year vacancy rates of 50 per cent in child care teams. There are very few applicants for jobs and posts remain unfilled for 18 months. That is not good. Initiatives cannot be delivered if adequately qualified staff are not in place to carry them out.

We also need foster carers. Foster carers look after 4,500 children in Scotland, which might seem a lot, but it is widely accepted that there is an urgent shortage of carers. There are things that the Executive could do to help recruitment and to attract more people to become foster carers. In fact, the Fostering Network suggested in a recent paper 11 action points to bring about those improvements, the most pressing of which was a national allowance scheme to end the variation in payments. In her responses to parliamentary questions on the specifics of those points, the minister has made absolutely no commitment to implementing any of the suggestions, even though one of the points makes specific reference to helping carers to support children better in their education.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

Does the member accept that foster carers were among the people who received additional support through the looked-after children money? Does she also accept that I have already met representatives of the Fostering Network and have asked them to continue to work with us on some of the points they raised so that we can make progress? It is not the case that nothing has happened.

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party

I am pleased to know that the minister will continue to meet foster carers, but I know some foster carers who were insulted to receive, as their share of the £10 million, a little pack with pencils and colouring paper. There was wide variation in how the money was used. Some of the carers did not feel that they received the best support they could have received to help the educational attainment of the children in their care.

We know the kind of measures that have a positive impact—the minister alluded to some of them. Children need to live in a care environment where learning is valued, where they have space and quiet and where they get loads of praise and encouragement to motivate them. They need to know that their social worker and their teacher are focused not only on the problems, but have an expectation that the children will achieve and that they can and will go on to higher and further education if they want to. When things go wrong, they need strategies to help to re-engage them.

We know that those simple yet effective measures work. They have been tried and tested and form the basis of delivering progress.

We welcome the specific funding and, indeed, any initiative to improve the attainment of looked-after children. We fully support integrated working.

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party

I am in my final seconds.

We recognise that if social workers and teachers work together, they will deliver a better outcome for children. There is an implication in some of the Executive's statements that, somehow, local authorities are wilfully not complying, but I have no doubt that social workers and teachers endorse the principle individually. However, we also need a commitment to resourcing the core statutory services and to supporting fully—with no hint of criticism, bullying or decrying—the staff who deliver them.

I move amendment S1M-3943.1, to leave out from "the use" to end and insert:

"funding and other initiatives to improve attainment of looked after children; regrets, however, that progress has been so slow, particularly as the Scottish Executive has brought this and associated issues with regard to looked after children to debate in the Parliament on no less than four previous occasions; recognises that the issues cannot be resolved without adequate qualified staff in the system; supports wholeheartedly better integrated children's services but suggests that the Executive desist from blaming local authorities and local authority staff for the problems caused by its own and previous governments' policy failures, and therefore urges the Executive to acknowledge and address the financial and staffing pressures that local authorities face every day in attempting to meet their statutory duties."

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative 11:26, 26 February 2003

As sure as eggs are eggs, the minister will recall that members on the Conservative benches have supported the Executive's efforts where we have thought them to be justifiable. Today is one of those occasions.

If anything, the difficulty with the debate is that it is a tad premature—no doubt because we are moving towards an election and we are running out of time. I admit to feeling a tad uncomfortable about defending the Executive's position. Perhaps that is because of my aching feet or because the SNP amendment is so off-beam. The truth is that there is not enough evidence available for any of us in the chamber, including the Executive, to be able to measure how successful the £10 million has been.

The report, "Learning with Care", produced by Her Majesty's inspectors of schools and the social work services inspectorate, laid the foundation for progress—there is no doubt about that. However, the investment of funds still has to show the direct effect of improving attainment. One might expect it to make a difference, and we are all hopeful that it will.

The key has been the decision to start measuring the attainment of looked-after children as a group. We await the next results so that we might compare them with the horrific revelation that 60 per cent of looked-after children do not achieve any qualifications, and then try to reduce the percentage to 40 per cent or 50 per cent. That is what we are all working for. When the new figures are available, we will be able to decide whether the £10 million has worked and whether any of the other changes have been delivered. Subsequently, I hope that we will be able to move on to further recommendations.

I draw some points from the "Learning with Care" report, about assessment in particular. Paragraph 1.8 states:

"It was unusual for any form of assessment to have been carried out on the 50 sample children at the time they became looked after. It was even more unusual to find an assessment which addressed educational needs."

Although care plans have been a statutory requirement since 1997, they were in place for only a minority of children in two of the authorities that were inspected. Where there were care plans, they did not usually address educational needs and goals in any detail. Schools were not normally supplied with a copy of the care plan.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

There is a danger that consensus might break out between Brian Monteith and me, which is unusual. Does he accept that, despite the fact that we want to work in partnership with local authorities, where they do not meet their statutory requirements for care plans, it is right that I should take strong action?

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

The minister can safely predict that, if strong action is required to be taken with local authorities, she will have the backing of the Conservatives, and my backing in particular. Haud me back.

Will the minister tell me what progress has been made on assessment and on the use of care plans, and whether those are now standard practice? In summing up, will she or the Deputy Minister for Children and Young People say what impact the draft education (additional support for learning) bill will have on the educational aspect of care plans?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I am happy to reassure Mr Monteith on that issue. The draft proposals on additional support for learning will ensure that a greater number of young people are assessed for the additional support that they require to ensure that they get the best out of their education. That will be a helpful move for young people who are looked after and accommodated.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

That response is interesting. There is a worthwhile debate to be had on that topic, but I hope that it will not be rushed and that we will have adequate time to consider all the factors, particularly parents' concerns.

My colleague Murdo Fraser will say more about how partnerships between the public sector and the independent sector, which includes private and charitable schools and voluntary sector organisations such as Barnardo's Scotland and the Church of Scotland, are crucial to improving the service. I, too, have visited Ballikinrain, which is an exemplary model; I only wish that the Church of Scotland had more schools of a similar standard. I have also visited Lecropt, the Barnardo's school in Bridge of Allan, with which I am suitably impressed—so much so that I often take shadow education ministers from down south to show them how things are done in Scotland. It is a lucky school indeed.

Without the help of the independent sector, standards of care and educational attainment would be far worse. By using the independent sector, we can lever in an additional 20 per cent to 30 per cent of resources. That message should be taken on board not only in the education sector, but in the health sector, as my colleagues suggested in the preceding debate.

There is no doubt that every child deserves a quality education and the chance of a positive future, and we commend the Executive for taking action on the issue. We see no partisan gain in disputing what is being done, but we must have the evidence before we analyse progress. There is more to do. Standards in local authorities must be improved, which might involve finance, but there must also be a rigorous inspection regime to provide quality assurance. We look forward to a fuller progress report from the two inspectorates and to a further debate on the matter.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat 11:32, 26 February 2003

"Learning with Care" is an important document. Published almost two years ago, it contains a series of recommendations on courses of action to improve the way in which looked-after children are cared for. The report outlined strategies for improving the educational opportunities for, and educational attainment of, such vulnerable youngsters.

When we debated the document previously, I was pleased that the minister picked out three targets as the benchmarks of progress. I believe that those targets are appropriate and attainable, which is not always the case with targets. I am glad to hear that progress is being made on all three, although I agree with the minister and other members that much remains to be done. I am also pleased to hear and read that local authorities are using the £10 million injection of funds in a variety of ways to enhance and enrich educational opportunities for looked-after youngsters, who face serious obstacles in their personal lives and for whom a stable and enriching experience of education is vital.

The minister outlined the benchmark targets. First, we aim to ensure that all looked-after children are in full-time education. Of course, that will be problematic in unique or special cases, but it is absolutely essential that such youngsters have a full-time place in the system. The conventional school environment might be inappropriate in some cases, but the children have a right to full-time educational opportunities. We must provide an environment in which they can grow as individuals, gain confidence and self-respect and develop their talents in the most appropriate direction. We hear about youngsters who leave school without qualifications; to remedy that problem, they must be firmly in the system.

The second aim is for local authorities to designate a teacher in every school to be the overseer of the school's work with looked-after children. Some schools might have no such pupils, but the authorities must recognise the importance of having a leader who is responsible both for the care of the youngsters and for liaison with other professional staff and agencies, such as social workers. Examples of excellent good practice should be highlighted and made available to allow them to be implemented throughout the country.

Central to the issue is the need for a care plan for each pupil, to which Brian Monteith referred and which is outlined in "Learning with Care". A core element of such plans should be consideration of the educational needs and planned provision for that individual. In some circumstances, I am wary when politicians advocate individual learning plans for pupils because I know that producing them can be more complex than it sounds and more difficult than non-teachers might realise. However, such a comprehensive overview is vital if we are to enable looked-after children to maximise their potential.

If we read the documents, we find cases in which the sensitivities surrounding young people's emotional and personal problems have not been handled sensitively. The co-ordinator, guidance teachers and school pastoral system are important in handling joint working in a way that best helps the pupil. There is a real need for training and professional development, and local authorities must continue to promote positive joint working.

The ethos in the new community schools is a good example that should be rolled out further.

The minister referred to the targets for educational attainment as a "social justice milestone". We hear that many looked-after children leave school with no qualifications and that only a tiny percentage of them go to university. I welcome the minister's illustrations of high ambitions and the extending of opportunities for such youngsters. The statistics are sad and serious—I cannot remember the word that Brian Monteith used.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat

The statistics are horrific, but I counsel ministers, and politicians in general, not to become hung up on what can be narrow, paper-based measures of achievement. We should be wary of using such statistics to berate political opponents or to make adverse judgments about particular schools and local authority education systems.

Traumatised youngsters who are taken into care need a safe environment and a domestic situation in which they experience sympathetic care and understanding and are treated with respect and affection as individuals. They need an environment in which they can learn to respect themselves after having traumatic experiences in their young lives. They need a domestic and educational setting that enriches them and allows them to develop socially and personally. They must be equipped with the skills and personal resources to allow them to move into the wider world with confidence.

In truth, our well-intentioned target that all such children should attain standard grade English and mathematics might, rightly or wrongly, not be high on those children's personal agendas. The Who Cares? Scotland review will help to explore that issue. In the meantime, we must resist the temptation to force children into boxes for certificates gained that simply allow us to tick them and say, "Willie's got a foundation award at standard grade English—he's sorted and he won't appear in the statistics as leaving school with no qualifications. Job done." That is not what we are about.

The matter involves complicated situations for individuals who have complex needs, and it is difficult but vital for us to try to meet those needs. Those individuals deserve the best that we can give them. We must ensure that we treat them as individuals and not as statistics, and I know that the minister is committed to that. I support her motion and I look forward to further progress on what is an important issue and to the practical actions that were outlined and promised for the future in the minister's speech.

Photo of Scott Barrie Scott Barrie Labour 11:38, 26 February 2003

I welcome the debate and the opportunity to contribute to it. I am sorry that the amendment in Irene McGugan's name seems to regret that we are having another debate on the educational attainment of looked-after children. I know that Irene McGugan has a commitment to and knowledge of the subject, so I thought that she would welcome the opportunity to advocate on behalf of those in the section of the population who are in child care, who are often the most marginalised and disadvantaged in society. We must be honest: if it were not for the debates that we have had on the issue, particularly those on the poor educational attainment of looked-after children, many members would not know how serious the issue is and would not see it as requiring the political action that it clearly requires.

Today and in previous debates we have heard about the poor outcomes for looked-after children. Too few of them leave school with formal qualifications; too many of them do not go on to higher education; and too many end up in young offenders institutions almost immediately after leaving care. We must do better—by increasing educational attainment, we can increase expectations and opportunities in later life.

For too long, our education system tended to discriminate against looked-after children, particularly youngsters who were in physical care. Nothing used to depress me more as a social worker and social work manager than when youngsters were removed from their homes and placed in a residential school—allegedly following the best-interest principle—only to leave at 16 with no formal qualifications, with little to look forward to and with the stigma of not attending a mainstream school. I am not saying that residential care can never work; however, if it does not improve a youngster's educational attainment and life opportunities, what is it about?

That brings us neatly to something that the Conservatives have said in the past. In previous debates, they have expressed in warm words their empathy for looked-after children. I heard such expressions earlier and we will, no doubt, hear them again later. However, in other education debates the Conservatives have berated the Executive for setting targets for reducing the number of school exclusions. Do they not realise that the two issues are interconnected? Looked-after children are disproportionately more likely to be excluded from schools and are especially likely to be excluded temporarily on a semi-regular basis. That disrupts their schooling and makes it more difficult for them to have a continuous education, even if they have been fortunate enough to be able to remain at their catchment school following their placement away from home.

Unfortunately, the same depressing statistics also apply to those under home supervision requirements. We must be clear that we are not talking about one issue or another: the two issues are closely linked. We must be careful not to assume that we can have a debate about looked-after children one day and say positive and warm things about them, and have another debate on another day about the level of school exclusions but not tie the issues up and recognise that they are connected.

However, there is cause for cautious optimism. Proper implementation of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 means that all looked-after children must have a proper care plan of which education is a key element. Although there is a lack of child and family social workers in some local authorities, I am glad that most local authorities are fulfilling their statutory requirements. It is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of the staff in those local authorities that they are achieving that. The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 did not introduce care plans—we had them before it was passed—but the act made them a statutory requirement. Nevertheless, too often in the past, those care plans did not address the children's educational needs. I was glad to hear the minister say that the situation is improving, and I look forward to further improvement in that area.

I believe that better integration of child and family social work and education, together with other local government services, is necessary if the corporate parenting role that is embedded in the 1995 act is to be achieved. That would be the key to improving the children's educational achievement and, equally important, their personal and social development. The point was previously made that we should not measure the success of our young people just on their educational achievement, but on how they are progressing in other areas, especially in social and personal development. By focusing on those areas too, we will improve the life chances of all looked-after children. That is what some of us were always seeking to do in our professional practice, and I know that it is what most members want to see.

Photo of Kay Ullrich Kay Ullrich Scottish National Party 11:43, 26 February 2003

I ask members to cast their minds back to their childhood. If that is far too long ago, they could cast their minds back to the childhood of their children or grandchildren. Can they remember the paintings that were brought home, sometimes still dripping wet, duly pronounced to be masterpieces and put on the wall for all to see and admire? What about the praise that was given to homework jotters when they were adorned with that very important gold star? I even remember the excitement of bringing home a good report card—although I admit that my report cards could best be described as mixed. I remember trying to convince my parents that the words "Kay creates her own diversions" meant that the teacher thought that I was in some way special. However, mum and dad soon sussed that one out.

Whether my reports were good or bad, my memories are of parents who cared about me. For looked-after children, we should be a society that cares. Sadly, that has not been the case in the past, and we have failed those children miserably. Today we have heard the statistics, which speak for themselves. Less than 1 per cent of looked-after children go on to university, and the figures show that up to 50 per cent of homeless young people were once children in care. I would be interested to learn how many of those children, as adults, find their own children taken into care. I suspect that one of the tragedies of the system has been that generations of young people have left local authority care totally ill equipped for family life and parenthood. Being a parent is a skill that is best learned at one's mother's knee.

I welcome the minister's recognition of our past failures and I will be the first to applaud when the changes take place. We have to start now. Too many young lives have been blighted for far too long. The bottom line is that we must make life for children living in residential care as near as possible to life in a family home.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Does the member agree that the problem for a lot of our children is their experience at home, which has led to their being in the care system? She seems to be making a false distinction between the experience of children who are looked after and the experience of those who are not. Some of our most troubled and damaged children are those who are not fortunate enough to have been recognised as having a problem, taken out of their circumstances and put in a system that meets their needs. There is a danger in implying that it is the care system that damages the children—what brought them into the system in the first place is what damaged them.

Photo of Kay Ullrich Kay Ullrich Scottish National Party

As an ex-social worker, I agree. We are dealing with children who are received into care because their family circumstances have led to their being damaged children. That is why we have to make life in the residential units as near as possible to life in a family home.

However, no matter how well we succeed—and succeed we must—the problem remains that staff work shifts, need days off and leave for other jobs. It is widely recognised that good child-rearing practice involves the consistency and continuity that can be achieved totally only in a family setting. That is why, today, I am making a plea to address the shortage of foster carers in Scotland. Only 27 per cent of children who are looked after by local authorities are in foster care.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I welcome and value the role that foster carers play. However, does the member accept that some young people, especially teenagers, who still have contact with their extended families may choose to be in a residential care setting rather than in a family setting?

Photo of Kay Ullrich Kay Ullrich Scottish National Party

I agree with that. However, the vast majority of children who are currently in residential care would benefit greatly if they were placed with a foster family.

A number of things could be done to achieve that. There could be a national recruitment drive for foster carers, and a national allowance for them to end the postcode variations and perhaps attract more people into foster caring. In short, foster parents should be recognised as a vital part of the child care team. It is also essential that we address the drop-out rate among foster carers. In my experience, the pay scale is not the main factor in people giving up fostering: it is the lack of support that they receive from the social work department after a placement has been made.

That brings us back to the recruitment and retention crisis in social work departments throughout Scotland. Like it or not, the reality is that looked-after children—whether they are in residential or foster care—are a low priority in an overworked social worker's case load.

Photo of Kay Ullrich Kay Ullrich Scottish National Party

I am just finishing.

I welcome the announcement that has been made today. At the risk of ruining the minister's career, I have to say that, on this issue, we are on the same side. However, let us have no more debates on the subject; let us just get on with doing what needs to be done.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 11:49, 26 February 2003

My colleague, Ian Jenkins, dealt well with the school aspect of the looked-after children problem, so I will deal with the out-of-school aspect. I will concentrate on the issues of self-esteem and expectation, including the expectation that a young person has of himself or herself and the expectation that those round them have of the progress that they will make.

We must start earlier. Early intervention must be very early intervention. Our task should be to ensure that nobody becomes a looked-after child, as we will have sorted out the problem at an earlier stage. I understand that there is an almost complete study in Edinburgh on the issue of putting a great deal of resources into tackling the problems of two to four-year-olds within their families by helping the families and the children to sort themselves out. That is a good way to proceed and I hope that more effort, money and other resources can be put into what is a resource-intensive method. If that method turned around two to four-year-old children, it would save an enormous amount of money that otherwise might have been spent later on, and would give the children and their families happier futures. I urge concentration on the issue of the earliest possible intervention.

Johann Lamont pointed out that problems often arise at an early stage in families. The Justice 1 Committee went round listening to people who are involved in alternatives to custody and the phrase that the committee heard most commonly was "chaotic lifestyle". Many families are totally disorganised. In relation to that, we were given the excellent statement that an appointment is a bourgeois concept. To me, that was a revelatory remark. We must help disorganised families to sort themselves out.

We must also consider providing more staff to help such families. There is a shortage of well-trained, specialised social workers. We should consider the analogy of classroom assistants, who have helped greatly in our schools. If there were out-of-classroom assistants who could provide some of the maternal—if that is the right word; it is probably a sexist one—or parental support to which Lyndsay McIntosh referred, that would be helpful.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I do not disagree with the points that have been made about ensuring that the most vulnerable families get support as early as they need it and I welcome and value the work that social workers do. However, we must stress that the problem, or issue, is not just for social workers in a local authority, but for the local authority as a whole. A range of skills in schools, from those of nursery nurses to those of classroom assistants and support staff, plays a vital role. We can and should make more of those skills.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat

That is helpful. I agree that a local authority as a whole should tackle the problem of looked-after children because it affects many local authority departments. However, based on the example of classroom assistants, people of the right calibre, who need not necessarily have social workers' extensive technical and professional training, could make a good contribution to providing young people with one-to-one help in their homes or residential accommodation.

We are moving in the right direction. If we could get council departments to co-operate better—in some cases they do not co-operate—and if we could put more resources into tackling children's problems at the earliest possible age, we would make a huge difference to young people's lives and ultimately save ourselves a huge amount of hassle. I commend the minister and I hope that she will take account of what I have said.

Photo of Colin Campbell Colin Campbell Scottish National Party 11:54, 26 February 2003

Kay Ullrich's speech has encouraged me to wander down memory lane, as I sometimes do.

The minister wondered at what stage children become disengaged. One of the more depressing experiences of my previous existence was that every year, when I supervised the lunch queue on day 1 of the school session, I found that two or three children just starting secondary 1 would come up to me and say, "When's my leaving date, sir?" They brought that message, or attitude, from primary school, which was a little discouraging all round.

Looked-after children have always been with us. Let me go down the historical route. In the 1950s, my mother-in-law taught briefly as a supply teacher in the Quarriers home in Bridge of Weir, which is no longer a children's home. She came back from that experience rather worried about the attitudes that she saw there. For example, when they went to church, everybody behaved utterly perfectly, with no pins dropped. The other matter that disturbed her was that, when she walked up and down the classroom rows, the children ducked to the left or the right as she passed. There was a strong, implicit message in that.

However, I know that all sorts of people with all sorts of talents came from that place. For example, an Edinburgh minister and a leading educational light came from there, as did a man I know who did not want just an ordinary job when he left, which was guaranteed in those days. He went out and negotiated an apprenticeship for himself. There were people there who, despite the worst circumstances, did the best that they could for their lives. Ian Jenkins was right when he talked about the need to discuss and remember the individual, which is why I gave those individual examples. Of course, many others fell by the wayside or were exported to Canada to work on farms, which was by no means an ideal solution.

I agree with Ian Jenkins that we must keep the individuals in mind. We talk about looked-after children as a body of people, but within that body are people who have a life and they are entitled to make the best of it. They need stability and a great deal of encouragement.

It is unfortunate that the problem is increasing. For example, in 2001-02, there were 10,960 admissions to residential establishments, which was a 13 per cent increase on the previous year. That is not good news for anyone.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

If we consider only the figures, we are in danger of not seeing the lives that are behind them. Individual children could have needed each of the admissions to residential care to which Mr Campbell referred.

Photo of Colin Campbell Colin Campbell Scottish National Party

That probably takes us back to Johann Lamont's point, which was that many problems could be dealt with before children reach the point of having to go into residential care.

Another factor is that a third of looked-after children experienced four or more placement moves during their most recent care episode. What hope does that statistic hold for continuity of supervision and care, and for building relationships between staff and a child so that the child feels that they matter a great deal? Studies into such areas give the results that one would expect. For example, one study found that looked-after children with more standard grades were likely to have experienced fewer placement moves. However, statistics on placement numbers are not held centrally.

On foster carers, there are 4,500 foster children in Scotland and there is a shortage of 650 foster families. In Edinburgh, a foster parent gets £59.80 a week, but in East Renfrewshire they get £116.16. We need a standard rate throughout the country. A survey by the Fostering Network, to which half of Scottish local authorities responded, found that 94 per cent of foster carers were paid below the recommended minimum weekly allowance. That issue must be addressed.

We all know that there is a shortage of social work staff. For example, in 1996, there were 38,300 social work staff but, in 2001, there were 34,600. That is a 9.5 per cent fall in staffing levels.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

Would Mr Campbell accept that the number of qualified social work staff and the number of people applying to get into social work training are rising? There is no doubt that there is an increased demand for social work staff. However, the number of qualified workers is rising.

Photo of Colin Campbell Colin Campbell Scottish National Party

If it is rising, it is not rising quickly enough to deal with the individual problems that we care about. The number of whole-time-equivalent social work services fieldwork staff has fallen by 6 per cent from 9,530 in 1998 to 8,979 in 2001. The number of day care staff in services for children has also fallen, from 703 in 1996 to 600 in 2001, which a 15 per cent fall.

The critical aspects that must be addressed are continuity in payment for foster parents and the problem of social work recruitment. The Executive is trying to address those issues, but it is too little, too late. Looked-after children merit, and must have, as much support as possible. We do not want another 40 or 50 years to pass and this problem to go with them.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

We have time in hand, therefore members may treat themselves to an extra minute if they so wish in their winding-up speeches.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour 12:00, 26 February 2003

I welcome the opportunity to continue to examine this issue and to consider how to make improvements.

I will begin by reference to a person I know. Sarah came to live with her foster carers at the age of 12. By the time that she was placed, she had been in residential care with her two brothers for six years. There had been numerous residential care placements that ended in a large residential care home. Before Sarah went into care, she lived with her mother and various "uncles" or "dads", and was subjected to physical and mental abuse. The abuse took varied forms, one of which was having cigarettes stubbed out on her body. Mental abuse included watching her brothers being abused.

It is little wonder that when Sarah came to stay with her foster carers, she could not write her name, count or read the most basic words. For her, the care system was to keep her alive; education was somewhere much further down the spectrum of needs. She had very complex needs. She had little if any self-confidence and had severe behavioural problems, as did her brothers.

However, Sarah was lucky, because as a result of her placement and of her foster home setting, she went to a small secondary school. She was able to receive the support she needed from a dedicated member of staff who liaised with the family and with the school and provided support at difficult times. The member of staff drew up a learning plan that was relevant to Sarah's needs, which did not fit in with the five-to-14 curriculum because when she got to S1, the first secondary school class, she would not have qualified for P1, the first primary class.

By the time that Sarah left school, she could read, count, write and had some basic Scottish Vocational Education Council modules. She has gone on to find a job and to set up home for herself.

Sarah's experience is an example of the complex needs of children in care. For many of those children, education is not seen to be important. Therefore, we need to begin to work hard at a starting point for those children.

Kay Ullrich is right; for many children in care, a foster care placement would be a good thing, but that brings with it other challenges. For someone who has only ever had a negative experience of family, fitting into a family environment is not easy and the process sometimes causes problems for the foster care family and their children. That results in a much more serious situation, because the children are then returned to residential care, having lost their belief in families and foster care. That is why it is important that, in placing for a foster care setting, foster carers are aware of the situation that they will be involved in and are fully briefed about the child who is coming to them. Foster carers must be supported in meeting the needs of that individual child.

In residential care, continuity of placement is important but is not always easy. Individuals are complex and sometimes they do not fit into the care situation in which they find themselves. We need to explore how to maintain their education, even when they move from one residential care placement to another. That is possible and can be beneficial.

We must study why the aftercare from school is not as effective as it should be. We need to examine why children and young people who are in care are not given the support that they need to do their homework, to find the space that they need or to be involved in extra-curricular activities that would help to improve their educational attainment and self-confidence. If they do not have self-confidence, they will not learn to the best of their ability.

The situation is complex, but I welcome the progress that has been made, particularly by my own local authority, South Lanarkshire Council, which has made progressive steps. All schools in that area now have dedicated staff members and home link workers who work in the community to try to bridge some of the gaps. Those are the kind of examples that we need to continue to develop. At the heart of the debate, however, we must always remember that we are talking not about statistics or about a group, but about individuals with complex and often difficult needs. For those individuals, the system up till now has failed them and the people whom they trusted most have failed them. The system that we put in place must not continue to fail them.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 12:06, 26 February 2003

This has been a good debate, and we have heard some well-informed speeches from all sides of the chamber. The Conservatives will support the Executive's motion today, and we agree with much of what has been said by the minister—which I am sure will disturb her. However, I echo what my colleague Brian Monteith said: that it is perhaps premature to be holding this debate on the basis of the information that is before us. We will not support the SNP's rather carping amendment, because there is not really enough evidence at the moment to support what the SNP is saying. Perhaps if we have a debate on the subject in a year's time, that will be the time to make the points that Irene McGugan made today.

As the minister acknowledged in her speech, educational attainment among looked-after children is poor; six out of 10 of those children leave school with no qualifications, compared with a national figure of around one in 20. That is not good enough, and I am pleased that the minister has acknowledged that. Looked-after children need stability; constant changes in their circumstances lead to low attainment levels, as Colin Campbell said in his speech.

Fewer than one in seven looked-after children live in residential care accommodation. Most are with relatives or friends. Of those who live away from home, a quarter have had more than three placements. That cannot be good, and the figures suggest that there is a link between poor attainment levels and instability in the home environment. We must do more to provide stability.

I want to respond to what Scott Barrie said in his rather bizarre argument about school exclusions. I am sure that we can debate school exclusions in more detail on another occasion, but there has been a sevenfold increase in violent incidents in the classroom since 1997. We would argue, and have argued, that that is a direct result of the policy of having targets to reduce school exclusions. If discipline in school is breaking down, as it seems to be, it is rather strange to suggest that we should tolerate violence in the classroom just because it is being carried out by looked-after children.

Photo of Scott Barrie Scott Barrie Labour

That is not what I was saying. My point was that, disproportionately, looked-after children face a series of short exclusions. That is a matter of fact and it contributes to their education being disrupted. We cannot dissociate children's poor educational attainment when they are looked after and the fact that they are also, disproportionately, excluded from school.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am obliged to Mr Barrie for clarifying his remarks. That was not what I took him to be saying earlier, but what he is saying is not necessarily an argument for changing the exclusion policy. His argument may, in fact, suggest that, if looked-after children have a series of temporary exclusions, they may perhaps be in the wrong environment to start with. Perhaps there are other, more appropriate, school settings for them to be placed in, rather than those in which they have that series of temporary exclusions.

I want to make two specific points on other issues, the first of which concerns the use of schools in the independent sector. A number of local authorities, for reasons of scale, do not have the necessary provision within their area. They are happy to buy into provision from the independent sector, which provides a combination of pastoral care and an holistic approach to teaching that is not always reflected in local authority schools. I can think of two schools where there is such provision. One is the new school at Butterstone in Perthshire; the other, to which Sylvia Jackson and Brian Monteith referred, is Ballikinrain school near Balfron, which is run by the Church of Scotland's board of social responsibility—the largest provider of care in Scotland outside the state. Those schools are run not for profit, but by charitable bodies to a high standard of service. I hope that the Scottish Executive will reaffirm its support for such institutions and the standard of care that they provide.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

When members are referring to specific schools or facilities, it is important to remember that we should work to ensure that the best facilities are provided for all young people. The Executive has always made it clear that for young people with complex needs, there will be a continued requirement for specialist provision.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am obliged to the minister for that clarification.

Secondly, we must address why we need a debate about looked-after children in society. We cannot have the debate without considering the primary causes, one of which is family breakdown. My colleague Lyndsay McIntosh referred to the importance of the family unit. Government, in its broadest form—I am referring not only to the Scottish Executive, but to the Government at Westminster and local authorities—must ensure that we have policies that promote family life and try to keep families together. That means promoting marriage. We know that children who are brought up by married couples are nine times more likely to be with that couple at the age of 16 than those who are brought up by a couple who are not married to each another. Politicians must recognise that statistic. We should shy away from policies and stances that undermine family life and parental rights—we saw some of that during the consideration of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill last week.

We shall support the Executive's motion, and we shall await developments and new statistics with interest. We look forward to revisiting the subject in the future.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 12:12, 26 February 2003

There has been an outbreak of consensus in the chamber this morning, in particular between Mr Monteith, Mr Fraser and the minister. Although I am always happy to welcome consensus, we should wait to see what the consensus is.

The consensus seems to be based—I shall put it charitably—on mistaking concern for action. The consensus in the chamber should be one of anger and outrage at the situation that exists in Scotland today, and about which we have heard. It should also be based on taking action and making progress.

This debate shows, as previous debates and reports have shown, that it is possible to have consensus as long as we recognise the key elements of the problem. In all those debates and statements—there have been five, plus one that we introduced last year that dealt partially with the issue—concern should have been expressed about the crisis in social work and the inability to build the social work profession in a way that makes a difference. That was the burden of the speeches from Irene McGugan and Kay Ullrich, both of whom have considerable experience, and it should focus where we are going.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No; I shall finish what I have to say. The minister intervened on every speech and I do not doubt her genuineness for a moment, but her actions are lacking. We have to draw attention to that. The reality is that actions are lacking throughout the policy.

The Parliament could have agreed to make major progress on the matter, but it has not. One of the problems is that we do not have the statistics. I do not regard it as sufficient for a Government to say that, four years into its term, it does not know the nature of the problem. Such a comment is, however, marginally better than what Mr Jenkins said. He seemed to think that it did not matter whether we had the statistics; he just agreed that we still do not know the nature of the problem.

However, we know how awful the problem is because the statistics are in every report and statement. For example, we know that this Government said in its programme for government that it would reduce the take-up of residential accommodation by 10 per cent. However, we know that between 2000 and 2002 the figure fell by half of one per cent. In fact, the number of admissions actually rose. We know that two thirds of those leaving care had no standard grades, whereas the equivalent figure for those who are not in care is 4 per cent. We know that 83 per cent of looked-after children had experience of truancy and 71 per cent had experience of exclusion. We know that less than 1 per cent of looked-after children go to university. Finally, we know that 45 per cent of young offenders in custody in 2000 had spent some time in residential care. That is probably the most worrying statistic of all. Although we have known all those things for some time, apparently we do not know whether we are making any progress on them.

We have some other figures. For example, the number of social work staff has fallen by 9.5 per cent since the Tories left office. As Colin Campbell pointed out, the number of day care staff is down by 15 per cent.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

The member should let me explain.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The minister can explain it to the voters.

We know that some child care teams have 50 per cent vacancy rates; that there are vacancy rates of 10 per cent in children's services; and that there are vacancy rates of 12 per cent in residential services.

The minister has not just dropped in from Mars on this issue; in fact, she has a long and distinguished history of working on it. She has been an MSP since 1999; she was briefly a member of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee; she is the deputy leader of the Labour party; and she has been the Minister for Education and Young people since November 2001. Indeed, since 1997, she has been the fifth minister in this and the previous Administration with responsibility for this issue. However, we know that the statistics that I mentioned are true.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I will tell members what I will do. The pressure is on for us to take action, not to have words. The pressure is on for us to recognise the problem, which my colleagues have outlined. For example, we have problems with the existing social work situation and with retaining and recruiting social workers. The pressure is on for us to ensure that we get the statistics and that there is delivery.

There is consensus in the chamber for something effective to be done.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I will not.

Although I think that such consensus exists throughout the chamber, it is not enough to mistake concern for action. Unfortunately, most of the debate has centred on expressing legitimate and deeply felt concerns that I have no doubt exist and on highlighting the feelings of outrage that we have such a situation in Scotland. However, we have still had no progress on this matter. We need that progress; after all, we have had five debates on this issue and people are depressed by the lack of progress. All we have are words. They might be warm words and they might be words of concern, but they simply fail those who have been failed for generations and are still being failed.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat 12:18, 26 February 2003

Despite making some very personal remarks against the minister, Mike Russell failed to take a single intervention from her, even though she repeatedly asked him to give way. Moreover, he failed to make a single constructive suggestion about what he or his party would do to tackle the problems in question. Until that speech, the debate had been genuinely constructive and had contained some pertinent and knowledgeable speeches from members who care deeply about the issue. I regret the fact that we went so far off track during the shadow spokesperson's winding-up speech.

Cathy Jamieson highlighted the current position and the work that is going on to improve unacceptable outcomes for many of our young people. I will pick out some examples from the work that has been done to improve the situation over the past year and a bit and show how young people believe that it has made a difference to them. The work should not be seen as a one-off exercise. Instead, it is about putting in place principles of good practice and continuing to improve the situation year after year. We have a long journey ahead if we are to turn round the situation in Scotland.

The poor outcomes for young people show that we must start to provide good-quality help, support and care early and that we must continue to provide support right through their education. There must be a way of ensuring early support and, when necessary, early intervention so that young people do not lose faith in education and in the system and do not become lost in bureaucracy and inadequate management. When, as is the case, some local authorities have difficulty telling us basic information about the number and location of the looked-after children in their areas, what hope is there for the care of those children?

Some of the statistics that have been quoted by Brian Monteith, Irene McGugan, Cathy Jamieson and others are—as has been said repeatedly—unacceptable. It has been made clear that we will take action if local authorities are not delivering. The next step will be to meet the local authorities that are failing, in order to discuss their shortcomings and ensure that an action plan is in place.

We will not let up or let go on this matter. If it takes a fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth debate in the Parliament, we will hold those debates. Surely there is not a member of the Scottish Parliament who believes that the issue would have received elsewhere the scale of attention and focus that we have been able to bring to it over the four years of this new Parliament.

We know the statistics, because we are now gathering them—some of them for the first time. We are gathering the statistics not only to have them and publish them for a debate in Parliament, but because we are determined to take action and turn the situation round.

Colin Campbell and Mike Russell should not exaggerate the situation—they do not need to do so, as some of the statistics are bad enough. However, there have been improvements. If members read the report that has been put in SPICe today, they will see that there have been some improvements in local authority areas. From 1999 to 2001, the number of fieldwork staff for children and families has risen in Scotland by 30 per cent. There were 200 more new social work students in 2002 than there were in 1998.

The investment of £10 million that we made to improve the educational attainment of looked-after children was designed to kick-start the process. The young people who have benefited from that money have told us that it has worked for them. When a young person is given the tools that are necessary to learn, their focus changes and their ambition can grow. Many local authorities chose to purchase, for example, computers and educational software for their looked-after young people. Young people have said that they have found that equipment very helpful; it encourages them to do their homework and to continue course work out of school. Clackmannanshire Council used part of the money to provide an educationally rich environment in their residential unit. The importance of making access to books and quiet working areas a natural part of growing up cannot be underestimated and the new environment has proved popular with young people.

Cathy Jamieson said that the issue was about more than academic achievement. Some councils looked to boost young people's self-confidence and self-esteem, in the way that Ian Jenkins mentioned, to enhance life skills. Aberdeen Council paid for theatre and cultural events and paid coaching fees for dancing and swimming. The sadness is that looked-after children do not get some of those things already as a matter of course.

We said on publication of the report that local authorities had invested the money wisely to benefit children who are being cared for and, in the main, I believe that to be the case. If the examples that Irene McGugan gave of the disappointment in some areas are accurate, I would share that disappointment and join the criticism, and take action in the future.

Local authorities recognised that different age groups have different needs and targeted the money where they believed that it would be most effective. Midlothian Council provided every looked-after child with a schoolbag pack so that they could go to school properly equipped. In the older age range, Perth and Kinross Council bought equipment to help a young person attend a further education course. Those are things that should be happening, but have not been happening in the past few years. They can make a real difference and—allied to the "Learning with Care" recommendations—should lead to real improvements in educational outcomes for young people in Scotland.

To achieve real improvements, we need to ensure that all the recommendations in "Learning with Care" are implemented, not only the three that Cathy Jamieson mentioned and on which the document that is now in SPICe reports. The examples that have been mentioned show that some councils are taking practical steps to implement the recommendations, but more should follow. Early support and early intervention in tracking the education status of young people are vital if those young people are not to fall by the wayside. We will keep a close interest in progress in all authorities and we expect year-on-year improvements, which we will report on to the Parliament. That there have been four debates on the matter already is a great advantage of having the Parliament; today's debate is the fifth. There is a real determination to achieve results. Prior to 1999, we would not have devoted the attention to the subject that we are devoting now.

As Cathy Jamieson said, our ambitions for looked-after young people have been too low for too long. Looked-after young people have been viewed as young people with problems from whom too much cannot be expected. That is simply the wrong approach and grows the problem. Every young person has potential, abilities, skills and a spirit that requires encouragement and nurturing. Every child deserves the best in education and life. Currently, we are not doing enough.

This morning, we have debated stark statistics that should force us to think hard when we use phrases such as "every child matters." In Scotland in 2003, do we really and truly mean that? To mean it really and truly is the challenge.

Meeting suspended until 14:00.

On resuming—