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Spotlight on the role of the virtual school and the virtual school head: What do you need to know?


This article is aimed at learners, tutors and assessors in relation to NCFE CACHE Supporting Teaching and Learning qualifications.

It will raise awareness of the role and responsibilities of virtual schools and virtual school heads (VSHs), and may be particularly useful when exploring knowledge around school structures, staff roles and supporting children and young people in education.

In addition, it covers the changes in ‘Keeping children safe in education’ (KCSIE 2022) statutory guidance in relation to virtual schools and VSHs, and offers signposting to further information.

What is a virtual school?

All local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children and young people.

As part of this duty, all local authorities in England are required to have a virtual school and a virtual school head to ensure that looked-after and previously looked-after children have the maximum opportunity to reach their full potential.

The virtual school is a statutory service which exists to support and challenge all those involved in the education of children in care.

It is not a physical school space, learning tool or digital learning environment and does not exist in real terms as a building. The responsibility lies with the school in which children and young people are enrolled.

In the simplest terms, the role of the virtual school is to work in partnership with the child or young person’s educational setting to ensure that they are supported to fulfil their potential at all stages of their education and to act as a champion to promote their progress and educational attainment – thus, supporting children and young people who are (or who have been) in care of the local authorities to achieve educational outcomes comparable to their peers.

What is the role of the virtual school head?

The Children and Families Act 2014 requires local authorities in England to have a virtual school Head (VSH) who monitors looked after children, previously looked after children and those children with a social worker as if they were in one school, the virtual school. In June 2021, the role of the VSH was extended to include non-statutory responsibility for the strategic oversight of the educational attendance, attainment, and progress of children with a social worker as well as looked after children. This role includes identifying the local authority’s looked after children and those with a social worker, and being the lead responsible officer for ensuring that arrangements are in place to improve their educational experiences and outcomes.

Virtual school heads offer advice and guidance to schools and have responsibility for managing pupil premium and pupil premium plus funding. In maintained schools and academies, the designated teacher should work with the VSH to discuss how funding can be best used to support the progress of the child and meet the needs of the child’s personal education plan.

VSHs are also responsible for managing early years pupil premium (EYPP). They oversee allocating the premium to the Early Years providers that educate children under the care of the local authority who are taking up the free early education entitlement for 3 or 4 year olds. A Personal Education Plan (PEP) is required which details a clear breakdown of how the EYPP is to be used to support outcomes for children.

Ofsted requires VSHs to report on the management of pupil premium and EYPP funding, evidencing how the spending of funding has supported the achievement of children looked after by the local authority.

However, VSH’s have the potential to play a wider and more active role in the attendance, attainment and achievement of children in care or have a social worker.

 This might be by:

  • Ensuring appropriate training is in place for those responsible for promoting the educational achievements – for example, carers, adoptive parents, school staff or social workers
  • Ensuring that all looked after children have a robust and effective Personal Education Plan (PEP) in place
  • Building links with other services to support the looked after child, such as mental health services, educational psychologists, learning advocates and mentors, post-16 support officers or education welfare officers
  • Offering advice and information to workforces that have relationships with children with social workers – VSHs should identify and engage with key professionals such as designated safeguarding leads, SEND coordinators, headteachers or governors
  • Ensuring strong communication with designated teachers to identify looked after children who are absent without authorisation
  • Championing the needs of looked after children across their local authority.

Children who have left care through adoption, special guardianship, or child arrangement orders, or who were adopted outside England and Wales, still fall under the care of the VSH who will promote their educational achievement through the provision of information and advice to their parents, educators and others who the VSH considers necessary.

Case study

There was a boy in Year 1 who had lots of potential, but his behaviours were stopping him from learning. This was his third school in one year due to placement moves. He had only been in school part-time and needed constant supervision due to absconding and dangerous behaviour. His primary school was concerned that they could not meet his needs, especially as there seemed to be no triggers for his behaviour and he was very erratic.

The solution:
  • Partnership working: Between the school, social worker, foster carers, virtual school co-ordinator and virtual school mentor, behaviour support, district inclusion officer, and educational psychologist. The team had regular high quality personal education planning meetings where advice and guidance were thoroughly explored and robustly implemented. This team gave a strong sense that everyone was committed to the young person and was prepared to always go the extra mile to support him.
  • Voice of the child: The young person was involved in designing his own safe space and was able to use it when he felt overwhelmed and anxious. Over time he used it less and less and eventually, he volunteered for it to be used as the space for a new school mascot instead.
  • How was the pupil premium used: 1-to-1 teaching assistant support, individual and whole school attachment and trauma training and letterbox in the home.
  • Aspiration: To support the pupil to regulate his behaviour so that he could increase his time in school and make the progress in attainment that he was capable of achieving.

As a result, he is now in school full-time and permanent exclusion has been avoided. He is a popular member of the class and is making good relationships. He is starting to fill in the gaps in his education and is engaging in learning at home, something that he would not have done previously. He is now very much a part of his new foster family and they have confidence to go out and experience new things together.

I'm lucky because textbooks I don’t have to pay for and some things like stationery I don’t have to worry about, and uniform – I can ask virtual school and they’ll sort it out for me and anything else I need support in.

Young person in care

With thanks to Staffordshire virtual school, this case study is based on a nomination to the Staffordshire virtual school pupil premium plus awards 2017.

Underpinning legislation:
  • The Children’s Act 1989, as amended by the Children Act 2004 and the Children & Families Act 2014 and the Children and Social Work Act 2017
  • The Education and Inspections Act 2006
  • The Children and Young Persons Act 2008
  • The Designated Teacher (Looked-After Pupils etc.) (England) Regulations 2009
  • The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010, as amended
  • Keeping Children Safe in Education 2022
  • The Children and Social Work act 2017.
Changes in statutory guidance

Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) 2022 – Statutory guidance for schools and colleges

The Department for Education (DfE) has published an updated version of the statutory safeguarding and child protection guidance for schools in England, ‘Keeping children safe in education’ (KCSIE) (DfE, 2022).

The guidance sets out what schools and colleges in England must do to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people under the age of 18.

This guidance replaced KCSIE 2021 when it came into force on 1 September 2022.

  • Part two of the guidance: the management of safeguarding

The guidance has been updated to reflect the extension of the role of the virtual school head to include non-statutory responsibility for the oversight of the attendance, attainment and progress of children with a social worker. Virtual school heads should identify and engage key professionals to help them understand the role they have in improving outcomes for children.

Useful resources and signposting
  • Looked after child(ren) / child(ren) looked after – These terms are often used interchangeably. Under the Children Act 1989, children are legally defined as ‘looked after’ by a local authority if they are provided with accommodation for a continuous period of more than 24 hours, are subject to a care order or are subject to a placement order.
  • Pupil premium is funding to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils in schools in England. It can be used to fund interventions for pupils in years reception to year 11. Evidence shows that disadvantaged children generally face additional challenges in reaching their potential at school and often do not perform as well as other pupils.
  • Early Years pupil premium is additional funding given to early years providers to improve education they provide to disadvantaged 3 and 4 year olds. For example, this funding could be used to buy equipment to support learning and development or employ specialist staff to help children develop their speech and language skills.
  • Pupil premium plus is additional educational funding given to schools or virtual schools for children who are looked after or in care, plus those children previously looked after. Funding for this cohort of children was originally covered by the Pupil Premium, but it was soon recognised that this group had additional needs due to gaps in learning and life experiences impacting their ability to learn.
  • Personal education plan (PEP) is a format used for children in care. It is here that the views of the child, parents, school and social worker ( if they are involved) are collated and used to inform how the pupil premium plus should best be utilised to ensure adequate support for that particular child.
  • Alternative provision   is when a child or young person is unable to access mainstream school for reasons including school exclusion, behavioural issues, illness, or other reasons then education outside of school will be arranged by local authorities.