Virtual schools: beware ‘mission creep’

Guidance for virtual school heads was updated recently to expand their statutory duties to include previously looked-after children. Sally Kelly welcomes the changes, but warns of mission creep and funding shortfalls

I have been a virtual school head (VSH) for seven years now. This revelation used to draw strange looks, but most people, especially in schools and education circles, now have an idea of what I do. The essence of the role is to promote the educational achievement of all the children looked after by their local authority (LA). The role became statutory in 2014 and since then we have started to see some consistency emerging across LAs, and real impact in terms of outcomes for looked-after children.

The Children and Social Work Act 2017 was followed by new statutory guidance for both schools and LAs on promoting education for previously looked-after children. Issued in February this year, the guidance brings welcome changes – many of which the National Association of Virtual School Heads (NAVSH) already considers best practice.

There is more clarity about how to spend the pupil premium plus for maximum impact. It also addresses the high numbers of children with special educational needs or mental health difficulties and lays out expectations for how VSHs and designated teachers in schools must work together to champion these children and ensure they receive the right support.

Cuts elsewhere with high-needs funding and to school budgets already mean that VSHs are under increasing pressure.

The most significant change is that we are now to “promote education for children who are no longer looked-after because they are now adopted, on a special guardianship order, or a child arrangement order”.

In many ways, the extension of this role makes complete sense. After all, these children were in care; their early trauma doesn’t go away because they are adopted. Adopted children do better than children in care at the end of key stage 4, but they still lag well behind the general population. In 2017, 32.8 per cent of previously looked-after children achieved a pass in English and maths, compared with 58.9 per cent of the general population and 17.5 per cent of the looked-after population. So they do need extra support and the people already supporting the children currently in care are the best qualified to do so.

In some aspects, the guidance is easy to deliver. Ensure school professionals have training on attachment and trauma? Tick. Ensure these children receive admissions priority? Tick. We are already doing these.

However, VSHs are raising concerns. The first is on expectations. The guidance specifies that we are not corporate parents for these children, but are required to provide advice and guidance to their parents, carers and professionals that work with them. But expectations are running high; VSHs will need consistency across the country, both in terms of the support they receive for their expanded role, and what new services LAs agree to provide.

The other difficulty is, of course, funding. My team is already receiving a huge increase in requests for support and guidance from schools, social workers and parents and carers, putting extra workload on an already strained service. Cuts elsewhere with high-needs funding and to school budgets already mean that VSHs are under increasing pressure. The Department for Education has announced £7.6 million for LAs to support the expansion of the VSH role. The changes come into force in September, and we will need to know when we get this funding.

The final worry is “mission creep”. The VSH model is successful. Children in need did only slightly better than looked-after children – 19.1 per cent scored a GCSE grade 4 or better English and Maths compared with 17.5%. Will they be the next group that we are asked to champion? This is a real concern, and many VSHs worry that what we do will be watered down if we don’t have the budget or the guidance to ensure consistency across boroughs.

NAVSH welcomes the new guidance but we are going to need to do some work to ensure that it can be enacted effectively by our members.

 Sally Kelly is chair of the National Association of Virtual School Heads

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