Supporting corporate parents

Jim Wallace asks what the corporate parent can do better and how a national parenting strategy can successfully intervene, where other strategies and frameworks have not over the first 13 years of devolution.

The Scottish Government's proposed national parenting strategy promises to offer support to all of Scotland's parents. It is an ambitious concept which could achieve a transformational change in how we support families. However, there is one parent above all others needing considerable support if it is to improve the outcomes for its children, the corporate parent.


The Scottish Government and local authorities currently act as corporate parents to close to 16,000 looked after children and young people. There are different ways that a child can be in 'care': in residential units, in temporary or long-term foster care or cared for 'at home'. This last includes children who are subject to a supervision requirement made by a children's hearing panel. Many may not be living with their birth parents. There are also looked after children in kinship care living with other family members, such as grandparents.

Nearly all come from chaotic lifestyles with complex family issues, such as domestic abuse, parental alcohol and substance misuse, physical or sexual abuse, loss, trauma, separation or family break up.

Statistics show that looked after children and young people experience poorer outcomes in almost every area of life that we measure, from education, health, safety, to employment, poverty and housing. These poor outcomes follow them through care and beyond.

They have also deteriorated over the years, and have not improved since the re- establishment of the Scottish Parliament 13 years ago. That is not to say that successive administrations have not tried. The many reports and strategy documents produced have not delivered. To be blunt, Scotland, as a corporate parent, is failing.

Education and beyond

The educational attainment level of looked after children, based on a points system, on average, is five and half times lower when compared to all school children. Those children looked after at home perform the worst of all categories of looked after children (The Scottish Government 2011).

90% of looked after children leave school aged 16 or under, compared to 37% of all other school leavers, however, this is rarely into a positive destination and last year's figures showed that, six months after leaving school, only 44% of looked after children were in employment, education or training compared to 85% of all school leavers. Only 1% of looked after children progress to higher education compared to 36% of all school leavers (The Scottish Government 2011).

Substantial numbers end up in a different kind of institution. The 2011 Scottish Prison Population survey found that over one quarter (28%) of the prison population had been in care, and one fifth (20%) had been in care at age 16 (Carnie and Broderick 2011). An Edinburgh study* found that three quarters of children who are in residential care by their 16th birthday have a criminal conviction by age 22.

If not in prison, then many young people who have left care find themselves homeless. The Who Cares Trust estimates that 30% of homeless people in the UK have been in the care system.

Health and wellbeing

The majority of looked after children and young people suffer poorer health and are more likely to engage in risky behaviour, often as part of the cause, or as a direct consequence of them becoming, looked after. Many of their health problems remain once they leave care, and often go undiagnosed and untreated.

A report on looked after children in Scottish local authorities found that 50% of looked after children have a mental health problem, up to five times more than other children (Scott and Hill 2006). Children generally wait a long time for child and adolescent mental health services. Looked after children are less likely to access any of these services, in spite of a local authority requirement to assess their health and treat them within four weeks of entering the care system.

Care leavers aged 16-24 are over twice as likely to smoke regularly, compared to all 16-24 year olds (Taulbut and Gordon 2009). There is a higher level of drug use among young people who have been looked after compared with other teenagers. Around a third first tried drugs while in care, but just over two-thirds had taken drugs before coming into care (Scott and Hill 2006).

Young women who have been in care are more likely to become teenage parents than other young people, and their chances of becoming pregnant increase when they leave care. Half of all prostitutes have been in care.

Research at the University of Bedfordshire indicated that looked after children are more likely to be victims of child sexual exploitation (Jago et al. 2011).

It is, therefore, unsurprising that looked after children face such poor outcomes, particularly in their education, which affects their ability to move into further education, training and, ultimately, employment.

Social and economic costs

This problem also has a wider impact. The social and economic costs of allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to become the unemployed adults of the future are high. For every young person not in education, employment or training there is an average cost of £56,000 to public authorities over their lifetime (Coles et al. 2010). The annual cost of a keeping a young person in a secure unit is £239,000. The average prisoner costs the state an annual £35,000 (Audit Scotland 2010).

If every child deserves the best possible start and the same opportunities to enjoy a full and enriching life then there is a moral requirement on the state to act. With national and local government increasingly looking to make significant savings to their budgets, there is also an economic case to intervene.

Improving children's lives

So what can the corporate parent do better and how can a national parenting strategy successfully intervene, where other strategies and frameworks have not over the first 13 years of devolution. Ideally, intervention must be as early as possible to ensure a child never enters care in the first place and a national parenting strategy must prioritise this. There needs to be systems to identify families at risk and structures to support them.

When a child moves into the care system and there is little hope of them returning to the family home, then the government needs to ensure that there is a system to move that child into a stable, permanent home environment as quickly as possible.

There is substantial evidence that suggests that such stability can improve the outcomes of looked after children. Scottish Government statistics show that, in education, looked after children in stable foster homes, outperform all other looked after children and their attendance at school is better than all school pupils. This compares to those looked after children who had multiple placements throughout the school year, who scored considerably lower than all school pupils, and on average the more placements they had the lower their attainment.

Statistics also show that over half of all children looked after away from home have experienced two or more placements. 30% had three or more and 6% had six. A study by the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration of 100 looked after children found that most took more than two years to achieve permanence through adoption or Parental Responsibilities Orders. The shortest was 12.5 months and the longest ten years and ten months. Delays in decision-making and obtaining a permanent home can undermine a child's long-term life chances.

Many local authorities are doing a good job, with committed staff, but are constrained by resources. There are concerns that professionals are losing sight of the needs of the child as a result of the demands of the process.

Support into adulthood

There is also an important question for the national parenting strategy: to what extent and for how long should the corporate parent remain responsible for the young people in their care?

Today's parents often support children well beyond the transition into adulthood, through further and higher education, early employment, accommodation, financial support and more. Many looked after children and young people do not have any support beyond 16 and, not surprisingly, 90% leave school at 16. Those who do stay on are usually in stable foster home environments.

If the state is the parent, should it not be acting in a similar way to other parents? If not, then looked after children and young people, when they leave care, are at a significant disadvantage compared to other young people. The strategy must consider how the corporate parent should support care leavers into and during adulthood.

Meeting the challenge

The strategy must also link in with the policies, strategies and frameworks already in existence, such as the Early Years Framework, GIRFEC, the Alcohol Strategy, Opportunities for All and the Mental Health Strategy. In turn, these should target looked after children to ensure that their complex and often interlinking needs are met.

Ultimately, the corporate parent has one of the hardest parenting roles, but we must get it right; otherwise we are failing some of the most vulnerable children and putting the majority of them on a path to nowhere. The national parenting strategy can provide a vision and direction to ensure that looked after children can enjoy the childhood, prospects and achievement that all children should have.

* Edinburgh study of youth transitions and crime, a research project following 4,300 young people since 1998. See

About the author

Jim Wallace qualified as a social worker in 1982 and worked in a variety of social work posts before joining Barnardo's in 1994. In 2011, he was appointed acting head of children's services. His interests focus on looked after and accommodated children and mental health, and he is currently leading a group in Barnardo's Scotland examining how best to support vulnerable service users.


Audit Scotland (2010). Getting it right for children in residential care. See: [PDF]

Carnie, J. and Broderick, R. (2011). Prisoner survey 2011. Scottish Prison Service.

Coles, B., Godfrey, C., Keung, A., Parrott, S. and Bradshaw, J. (2010). Estimating the life-time cost of NEET: 16-18 year olds not in education, employment or training. York: University of York

Jago, S. et al. (2011). What's going on to safeguard children and young people from sexual exploitation? How local partnerships respond to child sexual exploitation. University of Bedfordshire.

Scott, J. and Hill, M. (2006). The health of looked after and accommodated children and young people in Scotland: messages from research. Edinburgh: Social Work Inspection Agency. See: [PDF]

The Scottish Government (2011). Statistics publication notice: educational outcomes for Scotland's looked after children, 2009/10. The Scottish Government. See: [PDF]

Taulbut, M. and Gordon, D. (2009). Young adult smokers in Scotland. Revised Edition (December 2009). ScotPho.

Other resources

Edinburgh study of youth transitions and crime. See