Keith Morrison at Medway Council is one of the UK’s first virtual headteachers

Medway Council has gone solo with a virtual headteacher scheme to boost looked-after children’s education. Anabel Unity Sale talks to Keith Morrison

Keith Morrison has spent a 30-year career being passionate about education, including the education of looked-after children. These two factors made the senior secondary adviser for Medway Council the ideal person to be the “virtual headteacher” to its looked-after children and young people in education.

While the job title conjures up Orwellian images of an all-powerful figure working remotely tracking and communicating with pupils via a computer link, the reality is very different. As virtual headteacher Morrison is responsible for the educational welfare and achievement of more than 500 looked-after pupils living in the borough.

“I collect virtual school data on students so my team collates reports from every school on all looked-after children. Essentially, I’m able to assemble a ‘looked-after school’ and can monitor their progress just as any other school would,” he says.

Morrison monitors all 315 local looked-after children and 222 placed by other councils in Medway, from the age of three until they leave school or university.

Medway has 83 looked-after children in pre-school education, 123 in primary school, 257 in secondary and 50 in post-16 education. He says: “I can see a pupil’s reports and SATs and identify where to provide more support to address some of the challenges they have faced in their lives.”

Core role

Since taking up the reigns in April 2007, Morrison has fitted his virtual headteacher responsibilities around those of his core role of senior secondary adviser at Medway’s children and adults service.

This has not always been easy, although his virtual head role is only meant to account for one day per month – something Morrison chuckles ruefully at. So he has had to develop some innovative ways of working: “What makes this do-able is that I’m able to make shortcuts by knowing the right services to go to and I use members of my team to work with me.”

The council adopted a virtual headteacher approach after the publication of the Care Matters white paper last summer. Building on isolated cases of good practice across the country, the paper outlined the government’s plans to build on this by piloting a virtual headteacher in 11 local authority areas (see box). The pilots started in September last year and will run until 2009, with the help of £50,000 grants to each authority and additional funding based on how many looked-after children they have. On average, councils receive £72,000.

Morrison says they were impressed by the DCSF’s plans but did not want to wait to be accepted on to the pilot so went ahead with its own version, without a deadline. “We liked the idea of a person championing the needs of our looked-after children. We had a range of people who saw it as their role but not one person who could cut through social work and education’s separate cultures.”

After a bumpy start, the reaction from social workers and education practitioners, looked-after children and young people, and carers and parents has been positive, says Morrison.

Focus on learning

“When we first started we weren’t being very effective in our support of young people and the quality was focused on caring rather than a learning target. It didn’t get inside what a young person needed to have for their learning support,” he says.

Morrison adds that he has also worked hard at engaging schools reluctant to take on challenging pupils and helping social workers understand the need for them to champion specific learning targets for a student. This has been achieved, he says, through focusing on improving the way personal education plans (PEPs) are written by teachers for looked-after children and young people.

PEPs contain all the necessary information on a student about how they want to progress through their education. As Morrison is unable to personally write each PEP himself, or attend every meeting regarding a looked-after child’s education, he regularly trains social workers, teachers and carers on how to work effectively on their behalf.

Morrison believes virtual headteachers effectively address the often neglected voices and needs of looked-after children. “Unless you listen to young people themselves you are missing a trick.”

Care Matters: Time for Change, Department for Children, Schools and Families, June 2007

Where are the pilots?

● Bournemouth ● Greenwich ● Merton ● Warwickshire ● Cambridgeshire ● Stockport ● Salford ● Walsall ● Gateshead ● Dudley ● Norfolk ● Medway

This article is published in the 11 September edition of Community Care magazine under the headline: A cyberman for children in care

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