Jenny Marra : Educational Attainment of Looked-After Children

Speech in the Scottish Parliament

11 January 2012

Thank you, Presiding Officer, for giving me the opportunity to speak in the debate.

I was lucky enough to hear the evidence in the Education and Culture Committee, which I was a member of until we had our reshuffle.

I commend the convener and members of the committee because we approached the issue as a committee in a consensual and constructive way, which is exactly what an issue such as this deserves.

I will miss the commitment of my colleagues on the Education and Culture Committee to issues such as this.

In Dundee today, 708 looked-after children are in the local authority’s care.

The average number of looked-after children in the care of local authorities across the country is 500, and there are 16,000 looked-after children in Scotland.

Members will note that Dundee has well above the national average of children who are looked after by a local authority.

The figure is proportionally even more above the national average when we consider that our council area has a small local authority population of 140,000 people, including 25,000 children.

When I was elected to the Parliament in May last year, 693 children were looked after in Dundee; 15 more children have been taken into care since then.

There are no signs that the number will not continue to increase.

I know that members across the chamber are sympathetic to the fact that we can talk about the statistics but, behind them, as Alison Johnstone clearly articulated, and behind each of the further 15 children who have been taken into care in Dundee, is a story of chaotic lives and empty bellies in the morning.

The committee heard evidence of children who, if they leave for school in the morning, find dog faeces in the hall as they leave their homes.

I know that all members in the chamber are alive to the tragedy that we are talking about.

The numbers of looked-after children in Dundee has led Barnardo’s Scotland to issue an appeal this morning for more foster carers in Dundee, because it thinks that the situation has reached crisis point.

Barnardo’s highlighted the worrying fact that the number of children in care in Dundee has reached an all-time high.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the foster carers in Dundee, many of whom I know, for the time, commitment and love that they give to the children.

I also commend the work that our workers in the city council do with the 708 children in their care.

Although Dundee City Council revised its budget to find money to pay for the support that the children require—as some speakers have acknowledged, providing that support is an expensive business—money is being taken away from other services, such as libraries and leisure, that could all have a preventative impact on those children’s lives.

Such services might not keep children out of care or prevent them from becoming looked-after children, but they could contribute to their quality of life.

I know that there is agreement across this chamber—highlighted by the speeches of Joan McAlpine and Christine Grahame, which touched on the criminal justice system—that our ultimate focus must be preventative and that the best way in which to tackle poor attainment in looked-after children is to tackle the causes that lead them to be looked after in the first place.

As shadow minister for community safety, I say that that means tackling issues such as domestic violence and drug abuse, which are major contributory factors to the vulnerability of our children.

Christine Grahame: I advise the member also to consider alcohol abuse. That, not drug abuse, turned out to be the main problem of women who were in the 218 project.

Jenny Marra: I accept Christine Grahame’s point that alcohol abuse is a major contributory factor. We need to consider all those issues in tandem.

I want to consider children who are looked after in the home.

Speakers have recognised that they are one of the most challenging groups because it is difficult to deliver the correct interventions to them.

According to Claire Burns, from CELCIS, from whom the committee heard evidence, raising the attainment of those children is the real challenge.

Addressing the unique needs of that group is by no means a simple task, partly because the issue of attainment is linked to a range of circumstances, as we have discussed.

Within the school environment, there have been many useful suggestions from stakeholders about how attainment can be improved, and CELCIS has highlighted the link between attainment and attendance at school.

Among children looked after in the home, attendance is lower than it is in any other category of looked-after children.

To remedy that, it has been suggested that quality improvement officers should take a more rigorous role in charting the school attendance of that group of children.

CELCIS has also suggested that more data on attendance should be collected so that those children who are unable to complete a full timetable can adopt a pragmatic one that factors in evening activities that are designed to build self-esteem and resilience.

However, it is important to note that attainment stems first from that desire to learn, which some of us were lucky enough to be instilled with, and measures to promote that must be taken not only within the school environment.

That will help children to achieve.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): I ask the member to come to a conclusion.

Jenny Marra: I will, Presiding Officer.

The increasing number of looked-after children calls for a greater focus on preventative action, and we must tackle the root causes that lead to children being looked after in the first instance.


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