Education Leaders: Working in partnership with the Virtual School (part 1)

Andy Wright, Head of Partnerships, West Midland CiC Foundation and ASCL Council representative for Virtual Schools
Matthew Cooke, Chair of the National Association of Virtual School Head Teachers (NAVSH) and Virtual Head Teacher for Suffolk.

Part 1
The support, influence, advice and impact of Virtual Schools (VS) is certainly increasing as the role of the Virtual School Head Teacher (VSHT) is extended and developed. The leaders of all schools and colleges will have children and young people (CYP) who will also be in the VS cohort – what support is being provided for each of these CYP?

There are 150 VS across England representing each local authority (LA), all with differing cohort numbers, internal organisational and financial arrangements and approaches. The number of young people in care and the LA context are variables that affect the number of staff employed and the roles they hold. This VS cohort is from Early Years through primary and secondary into post-16, with strong links and influence over care leavers. Significantly, an individual VS cohort could include CYP who do not reside in their LA, sometimes up to 70%, meaning that in addition to working across local schools, their responsibilities and partnerships extend across LAs in England, Wales and Scotland.

At a national level, VSHT are represented by the NAVSH, who are organised into regions and where the local VSHT work collaboratively to support their cohorts. There are VSHT emerging in Scotland, different to those south of the border but also linked closely to NAVSH.

The role of the VSHT, and the VS team, was originally to promote the education of CYP in care (CiC) and previously in care (PLAC), and to ensure that the LA’s statutory duties in this area are discharged effectively.

The role has been statutory since 2014, and the Department for Education (DfE) also published statutory guidance in that year, since updated, which outlines the role of the designated teacher (DT) CiC and PLAC in schools, and the duties that schools need to be aware of around this critical role (DfE, 2018).

Working in partnership
The central work of the VSHT is to support improvements in the educational progress and attainment of all CiC, including those placed in schools in other LA areas. This means that they work in partnership with Regional/National and/or VSHT in other LAs to support the educational progress of children who are in their schools but looked after by other LAs. A VSHT will oversee the academic progress of their CiC across a large number of schools, in and out of their LA. The work of the VS is carried out as if the cohort were in a single school, with the larger VS numbering 2,000 children and young people. 

The key areas of responsibility for the VSHT in relation to the CiC cohort include:
  • Ensure that there is a system to track and monitor the attainment and progress of CiC.
  • Ensure that all CiC have high-quality and effective Personal Education Plans (PEPs) and access appropriate interventions.
  • Champion the educational needs of all CiC across the LA and those placed in other schools/local authorities.
  • The role of the VSHT became a statutory role for LAs across England at the direction of Edward Timpson, the Children's Minister, in 2013.This role was created to champion the education of all CiC within the LA and to address the considerably lower educational performance of children in care compared to their peers.
The role was extended to provide advice and information for PLAC to key adults, schools and professionals.

In 2021, the DfE announced funding and published non-statutory guidance (DfE, 2021) to extend the role of the VSHT further to all children with a social worker (CWSW), and those who have ever had a social worker to enable the more vulnerable children in every LA to benefit from the support and leadership of a VSHT.

The extended role and guidance covers “all children who were assessed as needing a social worker at any time due to safeguarding and/or welfare reasons, which includes all those subject to a Child in Need plan or a Child Protection plan. This includes children aged from 0 up to 18 in all education settings”.

This decision to extend the role was informed by the government’s Children in Need review (DfE, 2019), which highlighted how poor the educational outcomes of children with social workers could be.

It showed that children who needed a social worker tended to fall behind their peers at every stage of education. By the time they arrive at 16, pupils who had a social worker in the year of their GCSEs were around half as likely to achieve a “strong” pass in English and maths than their peers, and three times less likely to go on to study A levels, and almost five times less likely to enter higher education.

In part 2 of this blog, Andy and Matthew will look at how the extended role of VSHTs following the Children in Need review enables VSHTs to focus on the strategic leadership needed to improve the outcomes for all children who need or have had a social worker.

Andy Wright is Head of Partnerships, West Midland CiC Foundation and ASCL Council representative for Virtual Schools.

Matthew Cooke is Chair of NAVSH and Virtual Head Teacher for Suffolk.
Posted: 03/01/2024 14:35:08