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DCSF RESEARCH CONFERENCE Evaluation of Virtual School Heads for Looked After Children. Michael Allured Department for Children, Schools and Families Children in Care Division Education, health and wellbeing team David Berridge University of Bristol School for Policy Studies.

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Dcsf research conference evaluation of virtual school heads for looked after children
DCSF RESEARCH CONFERENCEEvaluation of Virtual School Heads for Looked After Children

Michael Allured

Department for Children, Schools and Families

Children in Care Division

Education, health and wellbeing team

David Berridge

University of Bristol

School for Policy Studies


1 where does the concept of the virtual school head come from
1 Where does the concept of the Virtual School Head come from?

  • Grew out of:

    • an increasing focus by Government from 1998 onwards on the importance of improving education outcomes for looked after children.

    • A bottom up approach model from one or two local authorities who wanted to track their looked after children’s attainment as if they were in a single school

    • A senior educationalist championing the education of looked after children was one way of demonstrating compliance with the LA duty to promote educational achievement of looked after children

    • A Care Matters Green Paper commitment to pilot the model and identify its strongest features with a view to national roll-out


Berridge, D., Henry, L., Jackson, S. and Turney, D. (2009)

Looked After and Learning: Evaluation of the Virtual School Head Pilot. Research Report DCSF-RR144. London: DCSF.


3 research and the policy process
3 Research and the policy process

  • Jowell (2003)

    - value of pilots undertaken in a spirit of experimentation

    - independence of pilots is important

    - multiple methods should be considered.

  • Burton (2006): Theorising the policy process

    - The Stages model

    - Advocacy coalition framework

    - The Argumentative turn


4 pawson and tilley 1996 realistic evaluation
4 Pawson and Tilley (1996) Realistic Evaluation

  • Limitations of traditional scientific approach

  • Random allocation not always possible

  • Not just ‘what works’ but what works for whom in what circumstances

  • Causal mechanisms difficult to untangle

  • Awareness of the context in which an intervention is delivered. Importance of local conditions.


5 research evaluation of pilots with government departments
5 Research/evaluation of pilots with government departments

  • Timescales

  • Baseline information

  • Anonymity? Research ethics

  • Nature of role/independence

  • Whether or not a Pilot continues or fine-tuning? Types of data to inform these decisions

  • ‘Analysts’ or ‘researchers’?

  • Positive experience with Virtual School Heads (VSH) study


6 evaluation objectives
6 Evaluation - objectives

11 pilot authorities chosen by DCSF. Pilots ran for two years 2007-09. Research occupied nine months at final stage of the pilots. To address low educational attainment of looked after children.

  • map the range of activities undertaken by the VSHs

  • examine professionals’ and children’s awareness and experiences of the VSH

  • investigate the educational outcomes for looked after children and the influences on them; and

  • identify examples of ‘good practice’.


7 methods
7 Methods

  • Some data from all 11; also more intensive sub-group of 5

  • official educational outcome indicator statistics published by DCSF

  • progress reports for the first year of the pilots which had been submitted by the VSHs (11)

  • background questionnaires for VSHs (11)

  • semi-structured interviews with VSHs (11) and directors of children’s services or their senior representative (5)

  • group- or individual interviews with social workers (39)

  • web surveys of young people (7-16 yrs) (31), foster and residential carers (25), designated teachers (21) and social workers (10)

  • involvement in developing methodology

  • eclectic approach. Cautious with conclusions. Causality.


8 findings 1
8 Findings 1

  • Over period of the pilot, the 11 authorities performed well compared to national average and most improved GCSE results.

  • VSHs appointed were senior educationists but often with some social work/special ed experience

  • Several appointed part-time: unusual for school heads

  • VSHs appointed at different levels of seniority

  • Key role (with their teams) forging successful relationships with local school heads – advocate for children re exclusions/extra support etc

  • VSHs backgrounds and structural position influenced this.


9 findings 2
9 Findings 2

  • VSHs worked in different ways. Mainly strategic

  • Numerous local initiatives eg innovative governors models; dedicated phone lines for help with homework; emphasis on the arts etc

  • Social workers often lacked confidence in school issues. Welcomed role of VSH

  • Children bemused by the title ‘VSH’. Mainly made educational progress over the duration of the pilots but this is a wider finding too.

  • Social workers and children who responded very positive about individual tutoring. Some communication issues.


10 conclusions
10 Conclusions

  • VSHs had successfully raised the profile of LAC’s education locally. Therefore a valuable role. ‘Champion’

  • Causality complex. Many national initiatives on this issue

  • Appropriateness of methods?

  • The 11 had made better progress nationally as a group. Secondary statistics/cohorts.

  • Working at the heart of complex interprofessional issues

  • Title ‘Virtual School Head’. (Not a school)

  • Is the school analogy helpful? External and internal implications

  • Some confusion with role of pre-existing Looked After Children Education Support Teams (‘LACES’). Suggested integration


11 references
11 References

Burton, P (2006) ‘Modernising the policy process’, Policy Studies, 27, 3, 173-196.

Jowell, R. (2003) Trying it Out: The Role of Pilots in Policy Making. London: Cabinet Office.

Pawson, R. and Tilley, N. (1996) Realistic Evaluation. London: Sage.


12 implications for dcsf policy
12 Implications for DCSF policy

  • Maximising the impact of the role by reinforcing to local authorities the key messages which have come from the evaluation. These are:

    • The VSH had an impact on raising awareness about the educational needs of looked after children

    • The VSH model can provide a structured focus and strategic direction for how a local authority promotes the education of looked after children

    • Evidence suggests that that there is a relationship between the VSH model and educational outcomes for looked after children


13 some on going challenges
13 Some on-going challenges

  • Data management, particularly in relation to out-of-authority placements

  • Broadening the understanding among social workers about the importance of education

  • The local authority interface with schools

  • The relationship of the virtual school with the dedicated education of looked after children team

  • Challenge of deciding what is strategic and what is operational


14 our vision for the future
14 Our vision for the future

  • “Every local authority has a senior manager, whether or not called a ‘virtual school head’ who takes lead responsibility for:

    • Monitoring the attainment of pupils as if they were in a single school

    • Rigorously tracking and monitoring data

    • Ensuring that every school has the information it needs

    • Making sure there is a personal education plan for the child and one-to-one support

    • Promoting a focus on educational attainment of looked after children across the authority

    • Working with others to improve behaviour and attendance

    • Maximising placement and school stability”


15 the on going challenge of implementation what we need to do together
15 The on-going challenge of implementation - What we need to do together

“It’s all about changing the behaviour of well intentioned people including practitioners, providers, community stakeholders, policy makers and funders”

National Implementation Research Network (NIRN)


16 the implementation gap
16 The implementation gap to do together

It is one thing to say with the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down like mighty waters,” and quite another to work out the irrigation system.

William Sloane Coffin

Social activist and clergyman


18 the implementation gap solved
18 The implementation gap – solved? to do together

  • The VSH with the right level of seniority can make a difference and make things happen by:

    • Having access to and influencing the DCS and lead members

    • Being the grit in the oyster who doesn’t let anyone forget about the educational needs of looked after children

    • Building a virtual team (a virtual governing body) made up of colleagues across the authority on whose budgets s/he can draw


19 supported by
19 Supported by: to do together

  • Personalisation – Personal Education Allowances, Designated Teacher, fewer school moves.

  • Mainstreaming within broader programmes, e.g. Making Good Progress roll-out

  • New statutory guidance on the role and responsibilities of the designated teacher to sit alongside regulations


20 supported by
20 Supported by: to do together

  • School Standards Advisers guidance for primary and secondary schools

  • Revised National Minimum Standards, care planning regulations and guidance, Children Act 1989 Guidance, revised education of looked after children statutory guidance

  • National Strategies

  • New OfSTED inspection framework


21 ofsted inspections of local authority looked after children services
21 OfSTED inspections of local authority looked after children services

  • Will focus on, among other things:

    • outcomes achieved

    • access to and attendance at suitable schools

    • the quality of care planning and review and support, including in relation to PEPs

    • effectiveness of corporate parenting approaches

  • Inspections on LAC subject to limiting judgements

    • Overall effectiveness likely to be inadequate if any outcome judgement inadequate

    • Overall effectiveness unlikely to be good if enjoying and achieving are not judged good

    • Enjoying & achieving not likely to be good if LAC are not making at least good educational progress


22 the vsh role is an integral part of the whole wider implementation of care matters
22 The VSH role is an integral part of the whole wider implementation of Care Matters

  • Renewed focus on corporate parenting led by DCS and Lead Member

  • Children and Young People’s plans set out how children’s trust arrangements address needs of looked after children and care leavers

  • Local authorities have a Children in Care Council where every looked after child has the opportunity to air their views

  • Strengthened role of IROs

  • Stability of placements

  • Supporting education and training of care leavers and the transition to adulthood

  • Revised statutory guidance on the duty local authorities have to promote the educational achievement of looked after children


23 embedding the learning
23 Embedding the learning implementation of Care Matters

  • Sharing effective practice through:

    • the nine regional Government Offices who support Virtual School Head networks

    • A Virtual School Head newsletter

    • Virtual School Head toolkit

    • Continuing to build on the VSH pilots and evaluation findings to identify and embed the most powerful aspects of the VSH model that work

  • VSH isn’t the total answer to narrowing the gap in attainment between looked after children and their peers but it’s a big part of the answer.


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