Looked-after Young People

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:00 pm on 27th October 2005.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 5:00 pm, 27th October 2005

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-3240, in the name of Mary Mulligan, on looked-after young people. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament congratulates the looked-after young people of West Lothian who presented "Having Your Say" to MSPs; recognises the work of the young people in producing such a thought-provoking presentation and acknowledges the challenges they face, particularly in relation to education, and believes that MSPs should communicate further with the West Lothian young people, and other looked-after young people, to address the educational needs which they identified.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour 5:07 pm, 27th October 2005

I welcome the young people from West Lothian and their support staff, who are in the public gallery. Their report, "Having Your Say", prompted me to lodge the motion. I will return to the report, but first I wish to thank the MSPs who signed the motion and those who will take part in the debate.

While I am still being nice to people, I would like to congratulate West Lothian Council, and not just because we have councillor John McGinty and the council's chief executive and others with us. It is important that we recognise that the council gave a voice to the young people. I know, as do those who heard their presentation, that having listened to the voice of the young people, the council has already started to act on their views. I feel very strongly that such work is exactly what the new politics of Scotland and the establishment of a Scottish Parliament is all about. We should be listening to all our citizens, acting on their concerns and making life better for everybody, regardless of how old—or, in this case, how young—they may be.

What is the situation for those whom we call looked-after children? In 2001, following the "Learning with Care" report, it was acknowledged that 70 per cent of looked-after children were leaving local authority care without qualifications. Qualifications are important. Do not get me wrong: I firmly believe that education is wider than just passing exams. Nonetheless, we all know that qualifications are the basis on which young people establish their working lives. I acknowledge that some people will continue to need education into their 20s, 30s and beyond. Nevertheless, we must take notice of the figure of 70 per cent, particularly when it is so out of kilter with other young people at the same stage.

Local authorities take on the responsibilities of parents for looked-after children. Therefore, when West Lothian Council considered the attainment results of its looked-after children, it found that they were just as disappointing as the national average, if not a little worse. The council set itself a target, which was to increase the number of looked-after children who leave local authority care with standard grade English and mathematics. A number of actions were taken to reach that target, including having staffing reviews and awareness-raising and training programmes. The policy paper that supported the target outlined the responsibilities of those who have a corporate parenting role, such as individual carers, teachers, social workers and health workers.

However, the council recognised that, if progress was to be made, it was essential to involve those at the core of the issue—the looked-after children themselves. In 2000, West Lothian Council established a forum for looked-after young people, which brought together a cross-section of looked-after children and young people and provided them with a platform to raise and explore issues that were pertinent to them. The forum was asked to consider the issue of education for looked-after young people, so it undertook a fresh consultation with looked-after children and young people across the county; it was keen to allow everyone to give their opinion. A plan was then established to pilot a programme of discussion workshops that would culminate in a one-day conference.

A pilot group of 12 young people met for an hour across two months for a total of four sessions. The burning issues were established in the final session. Challenges included exclusion, training for teachers and social workers, raising awareness of looked-after children, the role of the school base, homework and support in school. I do not have time to go into each of those areas in detail and I am acutely aware that I could not do them justice in the way that the young people did when they gave a presentation to members in the Parliament a few weeks back on the "Having Your Say" report.

I want to highlight a couple of issues, beginning with raising awareness. The young people clearly felt that it was important for professionals and the public at large to understand that there are significant reasons for the young people being looked after. Assumptions are often made that the young people have been bad or that it is their fault that they are being accommodated. It is important for the looked-after children and young people that others, including fellow school pupils, are sensitive to why they need to leave their families, communities, friends and schools. Misunderstandings can lead to looked-after young people feeling depressed or scared, being bullied, missing their families and feeling unwanted.

The view of many of the children was that it was difficult to concentrate in school while they had to deal with such feelings. Importantly, young people felt that such issues in their lives were forgotten or underestimated by the professionals. The young people's struggles with particular issues and feelings sometimes led to challenging behaviour. The professionals then responded to the behaviour and not to the underlying causes. Therefore, raising awareness of looked-after children and young people is essential.

The young people felt that they could make a positive contribution to the training of teachers and social workers and they identified behaviour management as an important area of training. I had wanted to mention homework and a couple of other issues, but I am aware of time, so I will move to my conclusion.

I do not want anyone to think that the children and young people went through the forum discussion process just to come up with a list of problems. Many positive things were said about the range of services and the level of care that they received. I am sure that that would be true throughout Scotland and not just in West Lothian. However, it is in the nature of our role as MSPs that we focus on challenges. The Parliament has discussed issues of importance for looked-after children on a number of occasions. When I was convener of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee, Cathy Jamieson, as Minister for Education and Young People, raised such issues and Scott Barrie has raised them a heap of times in the chamber. Looking at the members who are present, I sense that there is a will to improve the opportunities for looked-after children and young people. I know that the Education Committee will continue to pursue the matter. I am sure that Fiona Hyslop and others will want to mention that.

In this debate, I wanted to recognise the great work of the looked-after children and young people in West Lothian in producing "Having Your Say". I suggest to my fellow MSPs that, if they have not done so already, they go and speak to the young people who are being looked after in their areas. Finally, I want this Parliament to continue to discuss and seek changes to the lives of looked-after children and young people until their lives include none of the challenges but all the opportunities that they have every right to expect.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 5:15 pm, 27th October 2005

I congratulate Mary Mulligan on securing the debate. This could be one of the most important of all members' business debates, because if the Parliament is to do anything it must reach out and speak for those whose voices are perhaps not heard as often as they should be. Mary Mulligan talked about the debate being a reflection of the new politics and I think that it must be seen as that. Too often, young people's voices are heard only in anger. They are sometimes heard only when there are problems. It is true that young people who are looked after have problems, but the thing that I found most striking about their presentation was their positive attitude and their desire to provide solutions. We should provide a bridge for the young people in West Lothian to help them to make contact with parliamentarians and the Government so that progress can be made.

When the Deputy Minister for Education and Young People was convener of the Education Committee, he was passionate about trying to pursue the agenda for looked-after children. Now that he is in an elevated position, he should take up the issue and pursue it vigorously. We know that there are difficulties with the educational attainment levels of looked-after children and problems with them going into further education or employment when they leave education. The problem is that although we have known about the problems, little progress has been made and there has been no tangible change. It is all very well to have spotted the problems in the past—Jack McConnell as First Minister produced a report in 2001—but there is still no movement.

What is striking about the report is that there are many practical, simple ideas that, if enacted, could make a major difference to young people's experience. Those ideas relate to issues such as transport, the regularity of taxis and the homework club. Another point that was raised is the number of times that young people have to move schools. Councils could seriously consider that issue. When a young person has to move from one set of carers to another, should they have to leave their school? I would be interested to hear from West Lothian Council—which I congratulate on its work in this area—about the challenges that it faced in implementing some of those ideas. Best practice could be shared.

I congratulate the young people on their delivery. I understand that this is their third or fourth visit to the Parliament—the way that they are going, they might get a season ticket. The good thing is that they not only speak on their own behalf, but they speak up for the other looked-after children in Scotland. That is a great responsibility. If we hear what they say and ensure that they give evidence to the Education Committee's inquiry, that will be a valuable contribution and will ensure that the Parliament listens and learns.

One of the most striking things about the presentation was the video. The first scene, in which the young girl wakes up and is not sure where she is, is particularly memorable. We have all done that when we have gone on holiday or have gone somewhere else—there is a moment of panic. I ask members to imagine what it is like to experience that regularly. We owe it to those young people to say that we want to provide some stability and some ways in which they can feel that they are valued and can contribute and that their potential can flourish in Scotland. That would be one of the most valuable things that this Parliament has done.

I thank Mary Mulligan for securing the debate and I thank the young people for their report. Some of the practical, simple proposals that are contained in the report could make a huge difference and I hope that we can support them in the months ahead.

Photo of Bristow Muldoon Bristow Muldoon Labour 5:18 pm, 27th October 2005

I think that this debate will be one of the occasions in Parliament when most members agree. That is not a problem—it is right that we express agreement with each other every now and again when we recognise a problem in society and agree on the way forward to resolve that problem. I agree with every word that has been said by Fiona Hyslop and by Mary Mulligan, who brought the issue to Parliament.

Before I go any further, I will say how inspiring I think the presentation by the young people from West Lothian is. I have seen it two or three times—first in West Lothian and more recently in the Parliament. The confidence that the young people showed in producing the report and the confident way in which they delivered it to parliamentarians—and prior to that to many local authority staff in West Lothian and other professionals who work with looked-after young people—are inspiring. It is clear that young people have the ability and that parliamentarians and local authorities need to provide the necessary support to allow them to achieve their full potential. I congratulate the young people on the report and the presentation.

Someone who deserves special credit for their support for young people in West Lothian is Wendy Milne, who has worked with young people for many years and has actively tried to ensure that parliamentarians make progress on the issue. She is also due credit for the fact that the presentation attracted MSPs from all the major parties to listen and ask cogent questions, as well as the Deputy Minister for Education and Young People, Robert Brown, who asked for a copy of the report, which he now has.

West Lothian Council has listened to the views of looked-after young people, but I hope that another outcome from the series of events will be that some of the best practice that has been developed in West Lothian is rolled out throughout Scotland. That would be a significant achievement.

Mary Mulligan referred to educational attainment, which is critical to our response on the issue. Educational attainment is important if young people are to achieve their full potential when they leave school, whether they go to college, university or into work; it is also important in people's daily lives. Therefore, the fact that the attainment levels of looked-after young people fall so far below the average is a huge issue that Scotland must attack. I know that the First Minister and the deputy minister are serious about dealing with the issue, but we must start making substantially greater progress than we have made to date.

As Fiona Hyslop said, many of the issues that have been raised would not be expensive or difficult to resolve. Often, the requirement would be for simple support mechanisms that could easily be adopted throughout Scotland; Mary Mulligan has referred to some of them already. The measures that have been proposed for support in schools include the development of buddy systems in primary and secondary schools; the development of circle time to allow young people to support each other; the possibility of children's rights officers for schools to provide advocacy and support for young people; outreach teaching services at certain points of a young person's education; and the provision of chill-out rooms in schools so that if young people have difficult times they have somewhere where they can take time out from the school day. Those are all practical measures.

I reiterate my thanks to and admiration for the young people who presented the report to Parliament.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 5:23 pm, 27th October 2005

I apologise on behalf of Mary Scanlon, who was meant to speak on behalf of the Conservatives, but has had to leave early.

I congratulate Mary Mulligan on the motion—which is well worth while—and the youngsters of West Lothian, who have produced documentation that is professional in the extreme and which puts to shame many of us who from time to time in our political careers have tried to produce documents of similar quality. Perhaps we have rather a lot to learn.

My interest in the matter was first engendered when I was a councillor in Glasgow. The ward that I represented, which was in the west end, had no great number of difficulties, but one of the recurrent problems that we had was that there were two children's homes in the area, which caused some excitement locally. The issue was not just the Shakespearean adage that

"Crabbèd age and Youth

Cannot live together".

There were genuine difficulties on both sides. When I became involved in trying to resolve the difficulties, I realised that the way in which children were being looked after in such situations was far from satisfactory. It gives me great pleasure to record that the situation has changed for the better, not only in West Lothian—I have heard the eloquent testimony on that from Mary Mulligan and Bristow Muldoon—but in Glasgow and, I am sure, in most Scottish local authority areas. However, let us acknowledge that there is still much work to be done.

One of the great concerns that Parliament has had has been about the failure of looked-after children to meet our expectations in educational attainment, which has compared unfavourably with the performance of young people who are somewhat more advantaged. It is right that that has resulted in some thought-provoking debates in Parliament, which makes it all the more praiseworthy that we have had a more than adequate demonstration of what can be done when a group of such youngsters gets together to assemble in an articulate, professional and highly amusing form some of the issues that concern young people today.

We should not be concerned about educational attainment alone, because what is leaving so many looked-after youngsters in a position of such disadvantage is the fact that they lack presentational skills. Those skills are essential to anyone's employment prospects in today's harsh economic world. If youngsters from such a background can have their presentational skills improved and honed, much of the disadvantage that they have suffered can be overcome. That is why the work of the group of youngsters that we are discussing is both praiseworthy and encouraging.

There are lessons to be learned from everything. The lessons that we can learn from the presentation by the looked-after young people of West Lothian should be copied elsewhere, as other speakers have said. I feel strongly that presentation skills are the crux of the matter. When youngsters from a looked-after background go for a job and compete with other youngsters who have had more advantages, they will be more likely to succeed if they are able to demonstrate what they have achieved and what they know in a convincing manner to the potential employer. That is why much more time should be spent on encouraging projects such as the one that the youngsters from West Lothian have been involved in. Such initiatives will ensure that looked-after youngsters are able to present themselves in the best possible light.

I congratulate Mary Mulligan on securing the debate and the group of youngsters from West Lothian on doing such a professional and worthwhile job.

Photo of Scott Barrie Scott Barrie Labour 5:27 pm, 27th October 2005

As Bristow Muldoon said in his introductory remarks, it is likely that all members who speak in the debate will say similar things, but there is no harm in that. That is a testament to the motion that Mary Mulligan lodged and to the hard work and endeavour of the looked-after young people of West Lothian who, as Fiona Hyslop rightly said, have spoken on behalf not just of themselves, but of looked-after young people throughout Scotland.

As Bill Aitken said, it is tremendous to read such a well written and witty report as the one that we have before us. The young people concerned have put in a great deal of hard work and it is good to note the hard work that a range of children's organisations, such as the Scottish Throughcare and Aftercare Forum and Who Cares? Scotland, have done over a number of years. They kept the issue of looked-after children alive when it was not getting the attention that it has received in the five or so years since the Scottish Parliament began to meet, first up the road and now in our new building. It was only with the advent of the Parliament that the issues that are faced by young people who live in the care system or who leave it began to receive attention at political level.

I want to focus on those who leave the care system. Those of us who were fortunate enough to go on to university from home did not leave the parental home until we were well into our 20s; we may have left for brief periods, but we went back and forward between home and university. Those who leave school and go into full-time employment tend to do something similar, although perhaps not into their mid-20s. Young people in the care system, whether they are looked after in the parental home or away from it, leave their home, whatever it happens to be, at the age of 16 and a half if they are lucky; quite often, they leave it not long after their 16th birthday. The briefing that Barnardo's provided for members for this afternoon's debate made a number of valid suggestions that we should all think hard about. It argued that

"No young person should leave care to stay independently until they are at least 18 years old" and that

"All young people should have the ability to return up to the age of 21 years should this prove necessary."

If we are serious about helping young people to make the important transition from adolescence to adulthood appropriately, we should consider those two valuable suggestions. We all make mistakes, but one of the valuable things about making mistakes is that we can learn from them. If we do not provide an adequate safety net for young people when they are leaving the care system—one that allows them to make mistakes but not to suffer unduly as a result—we are not getting the system right for them. It is vital that we provide something, although it may not be strict foster caring in the sense that all of us understand it. Some other means of providing assistance and the physical environment in which the young person could live would go a long way towards helping them to make the important transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Other members talked about education, which I agree is important. However, it is also vital that those of us who have worked previously with young people and those of us who do so at present remember that there is a need to measure positive outcomes. We need to get away from the idea that the absence of negative outcomes is in itself positive. If we hold up the positive outcomes, we will go a long way towards ensuring that young people make the transition successfully.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 5:31 pm, 27th October 2005

I congratulate Mary Mulligan on the motion. I apologise for being unable to attend the presentation that the young people gave—obviously, it was extremely good.

I will concentrate on two points, the first of which is that the presentation is a super example of something we should do a lot more of—we should listen. By and large, politicians are not great at listening; we are much better at yakketing away. We need to listen more, including to all sorts of groups who know about particular problems and who can let us know about it. When we do listen, it tends to be to the usual suspects who come before us in deputations and so on.

We have to develop a system at local and national government levels that allows us to listen to the groups of people who really know what they are talking about on subjects that can sometimes be very limited. There is a feeling that young people do not know anything about anything, but the feeling is the same about people at the other end; people say that pensioners do not know anything about anything. There is, however, a whole lot of wisdom at both ends of the age spectrum that we should be harnessing.

My second point was also raised by Scott Barrie. It is the question of what happens to young people when they leave care. I mentioned the subject in my speech in the previous debate this afternoon. I referred to Barnardo's suggestion that the age at which a young person leaves care should be extended from 16 to 18. That leads to the matter of the support that is needed when young people leave care. Everyone needs support, as Scott Barrie said. I shudder to think what a mess I would have made of running a flat if I had had to do so at the age of 17 or 18. Many young people are expected to do so, however, so we have to put a lot more effort into support for young people. Some good organisations do that, but they need more funding and we need more of them.

Bill Aitken made a point about the excellent way in which the young people from West Lothian presented themselves. I agree that the point is an important one. Many people who have had problems in their lives lack self-confidence. One thing that unites politicians is that we have far too much self-confidence; we are all good at being interviewed, otherwise we would not be here at all. We have to give help and support to people who have talent but who, like plants, need a bit of watering to allow the flower to blossom. We need to help young people more when they come out of care. I am thinking of help with jobs, housing support and, more generally, with how they live their lives.

The scheme is a really good one. We must learn from it. I hope that we have hundreds of other debates on groups all across Scotland, just as we have had on this group this evening.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 5:34 pm, 27th October 2005

I thank Mary Mulligan for giving me this opportunity to speak in the debate on looked-after children. I say a big thank you to the children from West Lothian for the hard work that they put into the consultation, their conference and presentation to the Scottish Parliament.

So—who are looked-after children? There are different reasons why children come into care. Their home lives are not what we want for young people in society. For some, the reason might be illness or the misuse of drugs by their parents. For most of them, it is safer for them to be in care than in their own homes. That is a very sad thought.

I worked for many years as a house mother in a residential home for girls. When I look back at my time there, I realise that we failed to listen to those young girls. They were giving us a clear message that they had something to say and contribute, and that they had a story to tell. Like Donald Gorrie, I am not absolutely sure that we are listening as we should now.

Sometimes things go wrong—of course they do—and individuals and society make mistakes, but looked-after young people should be given an opportunity to have a much better life experience than they might have done under difficult circumstances at home.

What a great but simple idea it is for looked-after young people to collect the views and aspirations of other looked-after young people, which is the essence of what happened in West Lothian. Having read the report of the conference, I am afraid that I experienced several moments of déjà vu. We do not send looked-after children to school in brown uniforms any more, but we still hear them say—as I have heard in the past—"I like school and I'm quite good at it, but I don't think I'll even get a standard grade." Why do they feel that way? Why have we not addressed that? Why, as Bristow Muldoon asked, are they still asking for a chill-out room and support in school, for homework, a buddy system and for the highlights of the education of looked-after children to be recognised in the school system? Those are practical measures that we have still not put in place. Are we making assumptions that looked-after children are bad and that it is their fault that they are in care? They do not wear brown uniforms these days, but they are still being labelled and that is not right.

There is also the continuing use of insensitive language such as "parents night"—I am a single parent and I did not like it, either. Why not call them open nights or something like that? Why do schools still use inappropriate language? There should be sessions in the school curriculum to raise awareness and to provide information about what it is like to be looked after.

Our Minister for Justice, Cathy Jamieson, was one of the founder members of the Who Cares? Scotland project, which Scott Barrie mentioned. It was set up to help kids when they leave care. When Cathy Jamieson set up the project, kids left care at 16—the door was opened and they were sent out to face the outside world without any help and very little support. The result was the throughcare strategy that is now in place. Although it is not perfect and mistakes are made, it is much better.

I found the West Lothian report rather disturbing in some ways. I had hoped that our progress in looking after children would be better. I know that the situation is much better than it was, but it looks as though we still have a long way to go. We have to remember that if a child is looked after, we, as the state, are the parents and it is our duty to ensure that they have positive experiences in school. We must make sure that when they leave school, proper support systems are in place to give them the best possible start as independent young adults.

Here we have a group of young people who are pleading to be recognised for who they are, not how they got there. They are pleading to take part in all school activities, academic or other. As for those of us who are parents—oh dear, do we not wish that our kids were so enthusiastic? I say well done to all the young people from West Lothian who contributed to the report. As individual MSPs, we should ensure that looked-after children in our constituencies are heard and that what they say is acted on. Children have that right.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 5:39 pm, 27th October 2005

I add my congratulations to Mary Mulligan on securing the debate this evening. I also congratulate the young people who are present in the public gallery on their report and the presentation that I attended. It was moving, interesting, hard hitting on occasion and full of good ideas.

I will provide a quick review of the presentation. I noted down ideas such as a buddy system; chill-out rooms; circle-time support; homework support; a drop-in service for carers; the revision of exclusion policies, which is an important idea; teacher training; support for awareness raising for teachers; the introduction of children's rights officers in all local councils; and funding for flexible transport.

I wish to pick up on a point that was raised earlier. It is so important that, if somebody who is looked after or cared for is settled in a school, they do not have to change schools when, for one reason or another, they have to change carers. Whenever possible, the necessary transport arrangements should be made, whatever the expense, so that those young people can attend the school that they want to stay at and do not have to move.

Robert Brown and I both attended an extremely hard-hitting throughcare and aftercare forum in Glasgow. Those who attended were singularly unimpressed with the services that are available for young people when they leave care. That was not true for individuals, however: the young people knew that there were all sorts of people and organisations that could help them, but felt that there was a lack of co-ordination. I believe that some steps forward have been taken in that respect in Dunbartonshire, where there is a one-stop shop for young people. That is something that councils elsewhere could pick up on. Indeed, there are lots of good ideas for councils to pick up on. Perhaps the Education Department could issue councils with guidance or an advice note so that they can learn from the various examples of best practice.

Trish Godman and Bill Aitken both picked up on the important issue of participation—illustrated by the involvement of the young people from West Lothian in the report that they produced. The important element is not just what they said, but their involvement in producing the report. If councils are really going to listen to children, that is the sort of approach that they should be taking. They should all be setting up appropriate forums so that they do not just listen to young people but get them to participate in the decisions that will affect their lives, not so much for now but for the future.

There are two levels: one involves listening, writing down and sharing best practice. The other, which is by far the more important—I want to impress this upon the Executive—means encouraging all councils to set up forums of a similar nature to the one that I have described, if they have not already done so, so that young people can participate in making the decisions.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour 5:42 pm, 27th October 2005

I congratulate the youth group from West Lothian. They have reached out to many other parts of Scotland, including Glasgow, and have shown their peers and other people in society how to use local elected members, such as Mary Mulligan, to make their case constructively and creatively.

Scott Barrie made a powerful point about the need to recognise that, just because someone is cared for, that does not mean that they will not have opportunities to further their own expectations. There are positives.

I agree with Fiona Hyslop on one point, but I am afraid that I have to disagree with her on another. The idea of a season ticket for the public gallery is a positive one, although we might not get the same queues that we see at Parkhead or Ibrox—or Livingston. However, I disagree with her about the need for a radical overhaul of the current system for looked-after children. In particular, I refer to how we can support young people so that they do not end up in care in the first place, for example by giving them opportunities to be with the family network that surrounds them and which could prevent them from going into care. That is where I would wish to place the focus.

I am dealing with three cases relating to the drug issues that people in my constituency face. The aunts, uncles and grandparents concerned have ended up having to support the young people involved in their families. The current social work support network is appallingly inadequate in many ways. A number of families have raised issues involving not only financial assistance but the very basics of support that are needed to allow them to care within the family for the young people who find themselves in difficulty.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The former Social Justice Committee produced recommendations on that point when it reported on drug misuse and deprived communities. It said that family support needed to be identified, particularly for young children of drug-misusing parents. The Parliament has already supported that point.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

I thank Fiona Hyslop for that helpful intervention.

I ask the minister to accept that, for financial reasons and to ensure that young people can, where possible, remain within the family network, we should support the various organisations that can support people in that process. A top-to-bottom review is needed of how we deliver social services throughout such networks to ensure that we give those young people the opportunity to remain with their families, because many young people who end up in care could have been supported by their families.

I congratulate again the group from West Lothian from whom we have heard and Mary Mulligan. I hope that we can build on the positive and creative subjects that the group raised and on the speeches that have been made.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 5:46 pm, 27th October 2005

The debate has been excellent. Like others, I congratulate Mary Mulligan on securing this members' business debate and more particularly on organising with Bristow Muldoon the event in the Parliament a few weeks ago with the young people from West Lothian, which I attended for part of the time.

I echo other members in thanking the young people in the having your say forum for producing their report, which is professional, as Bill Aitken said, and for having the drive and enthusiasm to involve themselves in a groundbreaking and innovative project. It is groundbreaking because of its success in bringing to our attention a series of important and constructive representations and it is innovative because of the extent to which young people have led and taken ownership of the process. The report is inspiring, to use Bristow Muldoon's word. Like all members, I have met many young people as a back bencher and latterly as a minister and I have always taken something away from the discussion. That echoes the point that Trish Godman and Donald Gorrie made about the importance of listening to young people and profiting from discussions with and decisions made with them.

Everyone in the chamber wants all our young people to have the best start in life and the opportunity to fulfil their potential, for themselves and for the contribution that they can make to Scotland. Sadly, as members have said, looked-after children often have atrocious beginnings to their lives and face challenging problems in their home situations from an early stage. It is an enormous tribute to their personal qualities that people come through such experiences successfully. I wish that I could isolate the special potion that makes that happen and use it to benefit others who have greater difficulties.

Too often, lack of educational attainment, special learning difficulties, mental health problems, a greater risk of substance abuse, homelessness and alienation are the lot of such young people. Paul Martin was right to say that we must tackle such matters from the beginning and, if possible, prevent people from moving out of the normal situation of care in their families. Against that background, we are reviewing the children's hearings system and integrated children's services.

In the past two years, I have had the privilege of meeting young people at the Scottish Throughcare and Aftercare Forum—Robin Harper touched on that. Most recently, I had the pleasure of opening the debate project event in Glasgow. The Executive has provided financial support to that project, which held an event that was for and run by young people, at which they had the opportunity to talk about the issues that are significant and relevant to them, as with the having your say project. That project involved many young people who had daunting early family lives but who have huge potential, which many of them are realising. The challenge for all of us is to ensure that the life chances of young people whom the state has entrusted to our care as a society—as corporate parents—are greatly boosted and enhanced. Several members referred to that.

I was struck by several points in the excellent report. First, West Lothian Council recognised challenges in its area, took action, invested heavily in staff and support and significantly raised levels of attainment for the target group. I mention that because it is easy to say that something is too difficult, that whatever we do is doomed to failure—that standard grades will not be attained, as Trish Godman and others said—and that nothing will make a difference. West Lothian Council and the young people of West Lothian have shown that a difference can be made.

Secondly, I was impressed by the fact that most looked-after children like school—or at least do not dislike it. Only 9 per cent of looked-after children do not like school or do not like school at all. We have always known how central well-led, well-organised and highly motivated schools are for our children, but there is direct evidence of that important truth from those who are most affected.

In some cases, there are barriers that prevent children from doing as well as they can. Transport, time pressures on homework and home factors are dominant barriers. Therefore, the third point that I was struck by was the importance of dealing with feelings about stuff that prevents children from concentrating at school—I mean, for example, the stigma of being and feeling looked after and different; children missing their mums or being bullied; the stress of attending children's hearings; anger, changing placements and genuine fear. None of us would do well if we were in such circumstances, so it should not be a surprise that young children in such circumstances do not always do too well. We must be able to build in things such as buddy systems, chill-out time and circle-time meetings to support those young people in school. Indeed, there are such things in a number of places in Scotland.

In passing, I would like to deal with two points that have been made. The throughcare and aftercare regulations that were introduced in 2004 state the general principle that young people should remain in the care system until at least the age of 18, and later where that is appropriate. The Scottish Executive and many local authorities are actively encouraging that principle to ensure that life skills develop and that the successful transition to independent living is supported. Most people will rely on their parents at the end of a telephone line or when they go back home occasionally, or they will rely on them to pay for driving lessons or to give other support as they move out into a wider life. It is important for that concept to come through in what society is trying to do.

Secondly, we are doing quite a lot to fund and support organisations such as Columba 1400, which is running a two-year pilot project that aims to assist young people between 16 and 25 who are preparing to make the transition from the care system to independent living. We try to support such initiatives. There is also support for the fostering network.

Another point that I want to make concerns the importance of the children's rights officer who was appointed by West Lothian Council. I am sure that that officer helps to give a much-needed focus on young people's perspectives and points of view.

Driving up outcomes for looked-after children is probably one of the most challenging policy areas for the Executive. There are no simple or simplistic answers, but that is a high priority for the Executive, as has been said.

Besides what I have mentioned, ministers have announced a pilot programme of educational support for looked-after children. We are making available £6 million to pilot and evaluate new models of educational support for them. Proposals from seven local authorities have been successful and work is progressing on pilots in East Ayrshire, Highland, Midlothian, North Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire, Stirling and Glasgow. We are also in the process of appointing development workers to support authorities—including West Lothian Council—that submitted proposals that were not successful in the earlier tranche.

We have also established a working group on looked-after children, which my colleague, Peter Peacock, chairs. The group is intended to focus and drive forward our agenda on looked-after children and it is extremely important because, as members said, it is difficult to move towards outcomes. We must bring everybody on board.

The debate is on an important matter and it has been extremely worth while. I say to the young people who are here today that I read and thought about their report and I am instructing education officials to ensure that its recommendations are taken on board in the various pieces of work that are being done across the Executive to improve opportunities for young people. I believe that the work and experiences that went into the report will help to make things better for other young people. I have said a number of times before that we have a fantastic generation of young people in Scotland. We need all of them to contribute their talents to Scotland's future.

I thank the young people who have been involved and I thank members for contributing to the debate, which has been a first-class run around the territory.

Meeting closed at 17:54.