Virtual school heads: making them a statutory requirement

The Children's Minister talks to the 2013 national conference of virtual school heads.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Edward Timpson

Hello, and thank you very much for (what I’m hoping was) a kind introduction. I’m so sorry that I can’t be there with you in person today, but I know that you’ll have an enjoyable and productive day.

I’d like to thank Bath and north-east Somerset local authorities for organising today’s event - and Bath Spa University for generously hosting.

And I’d like to take this opportunity to draw attention to their ‘In Care, in School’ pack, which is incredibly helpful for all of us involved in looked after children’s lives - and the more people who read these resources and profit from them, the better.

I’m particularly sad to miss today’s conference because virtual school heads - and I hope this won’t shock you - are a bit of a passion of mine.

In my early life, growing up with many foster children and adopted siblings - and later, as a family barrister often representing children in care - I saw first-hand how education can transform the lives and futures of children in the care system.

As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Looked After Children and Care Leavers, I had the great pleasure of visiting virtual school heads, looked after children, teachers, schools, local authorities and leaders of children’s services, all over the country.

I saw then - and continue to see now, as Minister - some remarkably dedicated people, doing a remarkably difficult and valuable job.

Which is why the very first recommendation in that APPG’s report on improving the educational attainment of looked-after children was (and I quote) to “put virtual school heads on a statutory footing”.

And one of the first things I achieved as a new minister was to get that requirement into the Children and Families Bill, currently going through Parliament.

It’s worth noting that at the moment, there are just 5 statutory posts required in every local authority - across all their areas of responsibility, across every facet of local government, 5 posts which are seen as absolute non-negotiables.

This will be only the sixth. Which shows how important this government, and the Secretary of State, and I, consider your role to be.

You have the advantage of me here because I’m recording this message a few weeks before today’s event, before the bill has entered committee stage and before the wrangling over every word and line has even begun.

But I am glad to say that this particular measure boasts cross-party support, right across the political spectrum.

And that support is due to all of you, and to the brilliant example that you set every day.

Like in east Sussex, where a virtual school head has boosted results by working closely with and across primary, secondary and special schools; supporting the progress of children in secondary schools through one-to-one tuition, tailored resources, mentoring and revision courses. And of course I know that there are countless more examples around the country.

But it is frighteningly easy for a vulnerable child to get lost in the system; for their attainment and achievement to be forgotten, or ignored. I’m sure that we all know of instances where this has happened, particularly where children are placed outside their authority.

And often, in the past, too little emphasis was put on the educational attainment of looked after children - something which I’m glad to say is now changing, thanks to the hard work and dedication of virtual school heads across the county.

Because one person can make all the difference.

Someone with elbows just as sharp, and ambitions just as high, as any other parent; someone with the right and the reason to stand up for that young person, to take their side and to encourage them to aim higher.

I think that David Simmonds, Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, put it best. As he said, councils must be ready to offer children in care whatever support they need, “like mums and dads in the same situation”.

And Ofsted’s recent inspection of virtual schools proved beyond any doubt that many virtual school heads are making a real difference to looked after children’s educational progress - even improving the stability of their placements and their emotional health.

All of you are doing this already - often in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

But services are still patchy. And we can’t afford for any children in care to be left behind, simply because of where they live.

That’s why we’re putting your role on a statutory footing. With your help - we can start to narrow the gap in attainment between children in care and their more fortunate peers.

Working closely with fostering agencies, I’ve written to every foster carer in the country, highlighting how important it is for them to help the children in their care to flourish educationally as well as emotionally.

We’ve launched the Fostering Information Exchange, an online resource developed with the sector (in response to overwhelming demand) providing valuable information and advice for foster carers.

We’ve also published an education ‘aide memoire’ for those who support foster carers, setting out clearly and concisely the information they need about how the education system works.

But - and I know you don’t need a minister to tell you this - there’s more to do.

In particular, many of you have pointed out that you need more support, and that schools should have a better understanding of the specific needs of looked after children. Others have asked for closer collaboration with local networks of school leaders.

So we are working with the National College on how their modular curriculum can focus more sharply on driving up attainment among looked after children. Materials in the chairs of governor leadership programme will also need to give governors a stronger understanding of how they can support the needs of looked after children and the work of VSHs.

Looked after children already attract pupil premium funding, which will be worth £900 per pupil in 2013-14. But I want to make sure that every penny of this extra funding goes as far as possible.

So the pupil premium terms and conditions of grant letter for 2013-14 is explicit about the need for schools and virtual school heads to work together to ensure that looked after children benefit to the full from the way the school uses this funding. We’re also looking carefully at the recommendation in the report from the APPG calling for a looked-after children ‘pupil premium plus’ as part of the overall arrangements for pupil premium funding in 2014-15.

But we still need to go further. So in December last year, I wrote to every Director of Children’s Services in the country, as well as lead members, setting out some of the key findings from Ofsted about what works, and asking them to redouble their efforts.

I’d also like to take this opportunity - while I have you as a captive audience - to remind everyone about the immensely valuable Ofsted report on virtual schools.

As it found, LAs need to support and challenge their virtual schools; need to help target support to those who need it most; need to keep a close eye on the educational attainment of children from the day they enter the care system, so that we can all understand the precise impact of care on educational performance; and need to ensure that children are not forgotten when they are placed outside their own authority, or when they exceed the current statutory school age.

In essence, we need to ensure that the virtual school is at the heart of the care system - and each corporate parent needs to act like any other parent, using every means at our disposal to give looked after children the best possible start in life, at school and at home.

Today’s programme will, I’m sure, offer much for us to consider and discuss - and, indeed, to put into action in the coming weeks and months.

But today is also a real opportunity to highlight the importance of looked after children’s educational attainment. And to reinforce to everyone involved in these children’s lives - not just those at this conference - that looking after their educational aspirations is just as important as their health and wellbeing.

The unique legal status of looked after children means that everyone involved in their lives has a responsibility to help them reach their full potential.

So I’d like to thank you all, again, for your role in giving these children a better future - and to wish you, and them, every possible success in the future. Thank you.

Published 27 March 2013