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"Virtual schools" are failing to close the gap for children in care

The 67,050 children languishing in care suffer dramatically worse educational outcomes than average. I believe the solutions to this are as follows: firstly, adoption for as many as possible; secondly, boarding school placements for as many of the remainder as is feasible; thirdly, a minimum to remain in children's homes.

Another approach which has been tried by many local authorities is that of a "virtual" headmaster. Often there is a whole team providing a "virtual school". These might be senior teachers, invariably well meaning and dedicated professionals, but they won't actually teach the children in care.

Their role is monitoring, assessment, going to meetings, noting (lack of) progress, writing reports. They have "a strategic role" with "multi agency working" among " key stakeholders." Do the teachers, the foster carers, and the children in care cheer? Or do they groan at the prospect of yet more bureaucracy?

Ofsted has just produced a report on their role. One "virtual head" says his job is "rattling cages." Another says it is to be a "cruise missile" to "provide the necessary challenge."  Information is shared, progress is chased. Problems are taken seriously, as can be measured by the number and length of the meetings, and the resulting reports. "Network meetings" are a way to "build networks" and establish "consistency of practice".

What is the upshot?

At a cost of millions, probably tens of millions, these "virtual schools" are found to have made no difference. Maybe they sometimes do some good and they sometimes do some harm. It broadly balances out. The measure of success is how the "Looked After Children" perform relative to the other children at schools in the local authority area.

Crucially the report says:

There was little evidence, however, that the gap in attainment between looked after children and other children was narrowing.

While the quality of foster carers varies, it is not hard to imagine how a child in such transient conditions is less likely to get their homework done then a child who has been placed for adoption. Nor is it hard to imagine how a couple that has battled to adopt a child will then battle to ensure that child goes to a good school.

Supposing the foster carer loves the child, and makes sure the homework gets done, and pushes for the best school possible? Even then the child is liable to be taken back to its birth mother when she comes off heroin, then sent off to new foster carers when she goes back on. Giving foster carers training courses in why children need to do homework is not really going to help.

In the Ofsted report, the virtual school reps from Tower Hamlets are quoted as claiming of their efforts:

As a result, every child receives a learning intervention at least termly to ensure the appropriate levels of progress are made and barriers to learning are addressed swiftly and actively.

Do they really? In Tower Hamlets overall there are 61.5% of children achieving five or more good GCSEs including English and Maths. For the Looked After Children in Tower Hamlets it is 23.1%. Is that considered "appropriate"? The soft bigotry of low expectations strikes again.

This is not to pick on Tower Hamlets. That degree of failure, while appalling, is typical.

Would boarding schools regard such outcomes as "appropriate"?  They would not. The Royal National Children's Foundation currently funds 350 vulnerable children to attend boarding school. Councils fund around 75. Norfolk County Council alone funds 20. But most councils fund none at all.  Yet research suggests an astonishing level of success. A study of 97 vulnerable children assessed them as being at or above the average of their peers on all social and educational criteria within three years of going to boarding school.

The standards achieved by Looked After Children in the schools in the Royal National Children's Foundation survey are "appropriate." Those achieved by Looked After Children in Tower Hamlets, which its "virtual school" seem pleased with, are not appropriate. They are an indictment.



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