Virtual schools failing to close educational gap for looked-after children

A report by Ofsted is further evidence that the corporate parenting role is becoming 'less and less meaningful', the British Association of Social Workers has said.

Virtual schools have raised the profile of educational attainment for children in care, but are yet to close the gap between their achievements and those of their peers.

This was the finding of a report, published today by Ofsted, that examined the impact of virtual schools on the educational progress of children across nine local authorities.

Inspectors found virtual schools – established by councils to work with children in care as if they were in one school – have promoted better communication between professionals and helped to improve school attendance and reduce exclusions. 

In all nine authorities, the virtual school ensured education was central to planning and reviewing children’s care. They were often successful in influencing schools to take more account of looked-after children’s needs and circumstances, and in working with social workers who said they often felt less confident and experienced on children’s educational needs.

Closing the gap

But inspectors found little evidence that virtual schools were translating this work into better educational achievements for looked-after children, compared with their peers.

Several of the schools had not established clear eligibility criteria, which meant educational support was not always effectively targeted for the children who most needed it. There was also a lack of clarity and knowledge among professionals about the appropriate use of the Pupil Premium, which sometimes hindered councils’ ability to question and challenge schools about a child’s needs.

Nearly all the authorities said they were worried about funding for virtual schools in the future, while some found budget constraints had significantly reduced their school’s capacity.

Message to government

Among the report’s recommendations, Ofsted said ministers should consider whether there should be a statutory duty upon councils to establish and maintain robust virtual school arrangements.

John Goldup, deputy chief inspector for Ofsted, said the role of councillors is crucial, adding that virtual schools are, “at their most effective where corporate parenting is strong and challenges and supports the virtual school effectively”.

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, said the corporate parenting role is becoming “less and less meaningful”.

“Both education and social care budgets have suffered reductions, which means that there is less targeted support to improve educational attainment for children in care. Sadly, with the finite resources available, we have seen a shift away from the kind of support children in care deserve, as the ‘corporate parenting’ role becomes less and less meaningful.”

Cllr David Simmonds, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Despite significant budget cuts, most councils have protected existing resources for key services like virtual schools. However, as budgets continue to be squeezed, this is likely to become increasingly difficult with councils facing further tough choices about the non-statutory services they can continue to provide.”

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Inform social work guide: Looked-after children – care planning, placement choice and review

Inform reference manual: Education of looked-after children

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