fiona odFiona O’Donnell was MP for East Lothian from 2010 to 2015. She says Kezia Dugdale’s focus on looked after children may have surprised some, but it was the right thing to do.

 

It’s a week since we met in Perth for a revitalised and positive Scottish Labour Party conference. It can be a great opportunity to catch up with old friends but it was outside the conference venue that I bumped into someone who reminded me why Kezia Dugdales’s announcement of support for looked after children was so welcome.

The friend had been a foster carer for a child I was supporting when I was a project worker for a children’s charity which worked to keep children at home and in mainstream education.

The decision to remove a child from their parents’ care was never, in my experience, lightly taken. Our Children’s Panel system in Scotland makes these decisions in the best interest of the child, rightly without consideration for budgets and resources.

While it may be the right decision for the child, we know that it can have a lasting impact on the child’s health and development in the broadest sense.

The minute that decision is made, we become the parents.

It is difficult for those of us who grew up in loving and supportive families to imagine the impact of being removed from that environment. I was constantly amazed by how resilient these children could be, but not at all surprised that their ability to learn was negatively impacted.

We need to do more to provide a home for looked after children where they feel safe, supported and even loved.

Too many looked after children live waiting for the next move. Discussing insecure tenancies with teachers, they have told me that moving home is disruptive and damaging to children’s learning. The impact is even worse when you leave your family or carers behind.

A report earlier this year from Action for Children revealed that one in every six foster children in Scotland moves home two or more times a year. How can we expect them to focus on their education when they live with uncertainty about where they will lay their head. Living with that insecurity makes it difficult to invest in relationships at home, at school and in the community. We need to get better at finding the right place for children to live and be cared for earlier in their looked after lives.

In the area of education it is clear from the latest statistics, that being a looked after child impacts on a child’s ability to learn, to realise their full potential and to move on to positive destinations when they leave school. It is also the case that looked after children leave school at an earlier age.

As a society, with shared parenting responsibilities for looked after children, we have to do more to close this education attainment gap. Kezia’s announcement of full grant support, worth £6.000 a year for looked after children to progress to higher education shows our ambition for these children and our determination to close that gap. It is easier to believe in yourself when your parents believe in you too.

It may seem surprising to some that Kezia chose to speak about this issue in her first speech to conference in her new job as Scottish Labour Party Leader. I think she was right. After all, there is no job more important than being a parent.