'Virtual heads' have led to virtually no improvement

19th October 2012 at 01:00
Impact on narrowing the gap for children in care is questioned

With traumatic family lives, disrupted schooling and a lack of parental support, it is hardly surprising that many children in care fail to achieve high grades in their GCSEs.

In 2009-10 12.7 per cent of looked-after children received A*-C grades in English and mathematics at GCSE, compared with 53.5 per cent among the rest of the pupils who sat the exams - an attainment gap of 40.8 percentage points.

The following year, 13.9 per cent of looked-after children achieved these grades, but the performance of other pupils also improved - to 58.6 per cent. This meant the attainment gap had risen to 44.7 percentage points.

Such numbers have been the cause of serious concern within the educational establishment for some time. The most recent initiative aimed at closing the attainment gap between these children and more mainstream pupils is the idea of a "virtual headteacher".

Piloted by the previous Labour government between 2007 and 2009, the practice - having a dedicated local authority officer to help pupils with the challenges of the education system on a personal level - is common in most local authorities.

But a new report for Ofsted now says there is "little evidence" that the scheme has so far resulted in the narrowing of the attainment gap.

Inspectors examined the impact and effectiveness of virtual schools - where a virtual headteacher works directly with a group of looked-after pupils as if they were attending a single school, tracking their progress and liaising with their teachers - in nine local authorities.

They spoke to children, virtual heads, social workers, carers and senior managers within local authorities.

They found evidence of improving educational outcomes for looked-after children in all local authorities visited - including attainment at school, attendance and exclusions.

But "narrowing the gap" between the percentage of looked-after pupils attaining five or more good GCSE passes, including English and maths, and the performance of all children in the country remains "a challenge" for all local authorities, according to the inspectors.

"Most outcomes were improving in the local authorities visited, although performance was variable from year to year. There was little evidence, however, that the gap in attainment between looked-after children and other children was narrowing. Progress between key stages 3 and 4 was slower than during earlier key stages," the report says.

However, there is praise for the scheme, too. "In many cases, improved educational achievement had considerably enhanced children and young people's sense of self-worth and had provided some much-needed stability in their lives," the report adds.

This summer just two of the 17 pupils at Bath and North East Somerset's virtual school who took GCSEs got five A*-C grades including English and maths. Seven had special educational needs statements and five were at special schools.

Michael Gorman, head of the virtual school, said he believed that GCSE achievement among his pupils would rise.

"There is a great deal more work that needs to be done still at local authorities around the country to raise the standards of achievement of children in care," Mr Gorman said. "The report shows inconsistencies between local authorities in terms of the size, scope and effectiveness of virtual schools.

"Until there is greater consistency, with all local authorities working to the standards of the best virtual schools, there won't be a great deal more progress."

Mr Gorman would like more teachers to be trained on the impact of trauma, abuse and neglect on children's behaviour, something already organised for health and social workers.

Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust, a charity that supports and campaigns for children and young people in care, said that foster carers, social workers and schools should "aspire" for looked-after children and work together to support them in order to reduce the gap in achievement.

"While it's important that we have high aspirations for all children in care, it's not helpful to judge their achievements solely by comparing their exam results with those of other children of the same age as we tend to do," she said.

"Comparing the progress of children in care with those on the edge of care from similar backgrounds will give us a much clearer picture of whether initiatives such as virtual schools are making a difference."

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