Young people in Scotland are looked after for reasons that are complex and wide ranging. Citizens Advice state some of these reasons to be that the child or young person is beyond parental control, is a victim of a serious criminal offence, is suffering from a lack of parental care, or is being exposed to people who may abuse or harm them.
All these issues can impact a young person's ability to learn whilst they are in school. However, the ‘whilst they are in school’ part of the last sentence is also a major factor in how looked after young people progress throughout their time in education. On average a looked after young person will attend 158 days of a school year compared to 166 days attendance for a non-looked after young person.
The most recent Scottish Government report on the education outcomes for looked after children states that across all stages, ‘a lower proportion of children who are looked after for the entire school year tend to achieve the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) level relevant to their stage.’ For example, only 55 per cent of looked after young people achieve CfE Third Level or better during S3, whilst this is achieved by 84 per cent of non-looked after young people.
How can a looked after young person be expected to make the same progress when they are missing, on average, an extra eight days per year? Can we really expect them to be ready to sit their National 4 exams when they potentially could have missed an extra 88, or more, school days by the end of S4?
With these attendance figures and failure to reach CfE milestones, is it any wonder that looked after young people tend to leave school at a younger age? In 2015/16, almost three quarters of looked after school leavers were aged 16 and under compared to just over a quarter of school leavers in general. Moreover, only 15 per cent of looked after young people left with one or more Higher at A-C compared to 62 per cent of school leavers in general.
There are examples of looked after young people going onto great things, however, the prospects for a large proportion of these young people are not great. For example, 93 per cent of all school leavers are in a positive destination three months after leaving school, such as further or higher education. However, for looked after young people this is only 78 per cent, and of that only 5 per cent go to university. For school leavers in general, 40 per cent go to university. Of the looked after young people who go on to further education, such as college, around a quarter do not sustain this destination after nine months.
Along with the other issues looked after children and young people face they have to cope with having fewer days at school than others. Why do we place them under the added pressure of meeting the same milestones as their peers? Perhaps the CfE stages should be based on days attended at school. Maybe the senior phase should start when a young person is ready to do so. If this was all in place, would looked after young people stay on at school and be more likely to go on to positive destinations?
If we gave looked after young people more realistic goals, and the chance of educational equity, we may not see some of the following damning statistics. Figures show that 26 per cent of young people leave care without a formal plan for what happens next and at least 21 per cent of care leavers become homeless within five years of leaving care. Terrifyingly, care experienced people are 20 times more likely to be dead at the age of 25 than anyone else.
Attendance at school may seem like a small issue when compared to the issues set out in the first paragraph of this article; however improving school attendance could give looked after young people the chance of a better future.
Looked after children and young people deserve the opportunity to shine and we need to give them the time, resources and encouragement to do so. If we do not, The Scottish Government will fail in its worthy ambition to close the attainment gap.
Iain Cameron is Head Teacher at Spark of Genius’ Caledonian School, member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition. This article first appeared in The Scotsman on Wednesday 24th January.