The school with no limits

19th September 2008 at 01:00
A virtual school helps children in care get the best out of education and provides them with vital support, says Geraldine Brennan

Anne Hawker has about 500 pupils in her school, but doesn't expect to meet many of them. In fact, most don't want to meet her, and not only for the traditional reasons many children might try to avoid their headteacher.

Anne is head of Warwickshire's Virtual School for Children in Care. Her school has just two staff (Anne and her secretary), but works with the county's 230 schools and its looked-after children service to oversee the education of children being fostered in Warwickshire. Her pupils include 90 children from Warwickshire being cared for outside the county and 34 young asylum seekers, as well as foster children.

The looked-after children are enrolled at the virtual school while attending their regular school in Warwickshire. There's a virtual school council, it has its own governing body and the school will have an Ofsted- style inspection, organised internally, this term.

Anne landed the job after being interviewed, among others, by young people in Warwickshire County Council's care.

Her role includes being informed about, and challenging if necessary, exclusions, admissions and school moves involving any of her virtual pupils.

Anne shares an office with the county inspection service and started in January, having been deputy head of Liskeard School, a large comprehensive in Cornwall, for 16 years.

"My role is more strategic than operational: to look at the policies and the procedures within the authority to make sure that these do the very best to support the young people. It's a groundbreaking role and a fantastic opportunity to have an impact on the life chances of young people, which I am passionate about."

Warwickshire's virtual school is one of 11 in England set up last year as one of the provisions of the Care Matters White Paper, which outlined the Government's strategy for supporting children in care.

Under the Children and Young Persons' Bill, currently going through the House of Commons, every local authority will have a virtual school by 2010 to make sure that education is kept to the forefront of any decisions related to children in care. For example, Care Matters recommends that children in care should not move schools more than necessary (only in exceptional circumstances in Years 10 and 11) and should not have to attend meetings related to their care in school time.

Anne is passionate about the value of access to technology and is looking at ways to get laptops for her pupils to use at home. From the school's Pounds 74,500 annual budget she has invested in online Sats and GCSE revision tools from SAM Learning, for the virtual school pupils to use anywhere they can log on.

Since her arrival, she has focused on gathering data on pupils' progress and targeting those who would benefit from private tuition which, thanks to another two-year pilot, is being funded by a grant from HSBC's Global Education Trust. Warwickshire receives Pounds 177,500 a year for two years. Care Matters stated that in 2006 only 12 per cent of young people in care in England achieved five A* to C GCSEs, compared to 59 per cent of their age group nationally, but Warwickshire is seeing positive results. For example, one Year 12 student who had been predicted to fail one of their health and social care modules achieved grade C thanks to their "virtual tutor".

Anne says: "If your child wasn't doing well in a subject, you might employ a private tutor to bring them up to standard. The thinking behind the scheme is why shouldn't looked-after children have the same option?"

Schools can apply to her for 10 hours' tuition, which can be extended, for any looked-after child that they think would benefit.

Private tutoring company Fleet Tutors will supply the tuition and draw up reports, says Bob Hooper, head of school performance in Warwickshire. It will also provide systematic evidence that the performance of children in care is being raised. (See case studies below).

"It is having an impact very quickly," says Anne. "It is especially good for pupils on the C-D borderline. It has also helped a number of our young asylum seekers to take GCSEs.

"Without the HSBC funding we would have tried to organise it in another way, though it would have been difficult. Schools have reported tremendous results."


John Williamson, a sixth form co-ordinator at Binswood Hall Sixth Form College in Leamington Spa

We have used one-to-one tutoring to support a girl who, when she came to us last year, had been in and out of schools. She had difficult family circumstances related to drug abuse and had moved to live with a new foster carer.

Her foster carer is determined that she can do well at school, is encouraging and has a good working relationship with us, but it was clear that she needed extra support.

This girl is intelligent, but her life is a rollercoaster and she has a history of making progress and then disappearing. She is not used to the stability and organisation that many high-achieving pupils have at home and is easily discouraged by small setbacks. She got one of the highest marks in her group after the extra support and the success raised her spirits and, I believe, transformed her feelings about learning.

The tutor helped her to focus, organise and structure her work, which means she has completed her AS coursework on time.

We hope she will stay on here and do A2s since we now have support in place and the tuition can continue. We believe she can go to university.

Doreen Holland, higher level teaching assistant and joint looked-after children's co-ordinator at Nicholas Chamberlaine Technology College in Bedworth

We have 12 looked-after children and offered one-to-one tutoring to all of them, and 10 took it up. The results have been excellent. One boy in Year 9 was predicted level 2 for maths and went up to level 4 after 10 hours' tuition. Without this he would have gone into the Sats and not put pen to paper. We have a gifted and talented boy who feels that he doesn't need a tutor, but we believe he will benefit from the one-to-one attention.

Primary head from Warwick

A girl who started Year 6 with us last year when she moved to a care placement near the school needed help to catch up with her peers because she had been unsettled. She started from a low base and still has some catching up to do, but we are pleased with the rate of progress.

We were able to extend the initial 10 hours' tuition by a further 10 hours and the tutor will be able to stay with her into secondary school. This additional help will go some way to getting her where she needs to be. She also has support at home and is happy with her peers.

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