Exclusive: Questions over future of 'stressed' virtual heads who support looked-after children

Those who oversee the education of children in care are seeing their role 'pushed down the agenda' due to budget cuts, warns regional network of heads

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The role of virtual school heads – who oversee the education of children in care – is in serious jeopardy because of cuts and strained relationships with schools, according to headteachers.

Virtual school heads (VSHs) saw their roles expanded last year to take responsibility for adopted children under the Children and Social Work Act 2017. 

But a regional network of headteachers doubts that VSHs will be able to carry out this bigger role – and questions whether they even have a future in their current form.

Mike Parker, director of Schools NorthEast, told Tes: "We have concerns about the ability of VSHs to perform their expanded role, given the steep decline in local authorities’ spending power since 2009-10.

"There is a sense among school leaders of the VSH role being pushed down the agenda when authorities are under significant financial pressure."

Looked-after children need consistency in their lives, Mr Parker pointed out, yet regional headteachers "report a high turnover of VSHs in some areas", he stated.

The 'bureaucracy' of virtual school heads

He also criticised the "bureaucracy" created by VSHs, and the fact that most VSHs have "no experience of senior school leadership roles". 

He said: "It may, in fact, be better to draw VSHs from the ranks of ‘real’ headteachers, with the VSH preferably being the most experienced local headteacher."

He concluded: "The points I have raised and the feedback we have heard from local heads lead me to question whether VSHs should continue in their present form." 

The National Association of Virtual School Heads (NAVSH) shares some of the network's concerns about VSHs' remit and resources, and said they needed more support from other parts of the education system.

NAVSH chair Jane Pickthall said: "We're under such enormous stress. If there was shared responsibility then there would be so much less pressure."

For example, she said, if schools were more open and transparent about how they were spending Pupil Premium Plus money – aimed at looked-after children – then "we wouldn't have to spend time chasing them up". "School headteachers have underestimated their role in this," she added.

And changes to the inspection system could be made that would better support the work of VSHs, Ms Pickthall said. She questioned, for example, whether schools that had refused to accept an application from a looked-after child should be awarded a "good" or "outstanding" rating. 

"We're not measuring a school on how inclusive they are or how they support vulnerable children. That's back to Ofsted and the Department for Education."

Extra accountability measures are adding to the difficulties faced by VSHs, by providing greater incentives for schools to exclude children in care, Ms Pickthall suggested. "We can't get away from the fact that one to two children can hugely impact on a school's data," she said.

An Ofsted spokesperson said: “Our inspections of local authority children’s services and schools pay particular attention to the quality of support that schools and LAs provide to children in care.”

The DfE was contacted for comment.

Tomorrow, Tes will publish the results of an investigation showing the huge barriers faced by many children in care who apply for a new school place

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