New report lauds Virtual Schools as education’s hidden asset – and calls for a review to help them work even more effectively

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2023 | 15 August 2023

A new report released today lauds ‘Virtual Schools’ as education’s hidden asset – and calls for a government review ten years after their inception to assess how they can effectively expand.

Virtual Schools were set up in 2014 as teams based in councils specifically to support the education and progress of children in care. At the same time, the virtual school also provides wider support to local schools to help them meet the needs of this cohort of children.

A new report from the County Councils Network (CCN) to launch its new ‘Policy in Focus’ series takes a closer look at how these services are currently being used and how they could be supported to provide even more value to the education system.

Based on interviews with those that work for local authorities and those within Virtual Schools, the report concludes that these services have quietly built up a reputation as a valuable asset for both schools and councils. It argues that Virtual Schools play a strong role in championing the education of children in care, and crucially, improving outcomes for them.

Funded by the enhanced Pupil Premium +, an area’s Virtual School plays an important strategic role in identifying gaps in the system which too many children in care fall through leading to poorer outcomes in the long term.

In the past few years, the government has expanded the role of Virtual Schools beyond just children in care to all young people with a social worker. Whilst interviewees for the study believe this is a recognition of their success, they also said it presents new challenges, particularly over resourcing. One Virtual School said it had formerly had twelve members of staff for 900 pupils and now has oversight of an additional 4,000 young people, but with no means to increase staffing.

Other interviewees said that this expansion could change the way the service operates. Historically it had provided some specific support to individual children, where needed, and was able to effectively track their educational journey. However, given the substantially greater numbers in the new cohort it will not be feasible for the Virtual School to provide this service without substantially greater investment.

It is also important that additional focus does not stetch the work of virtual schools too thinly and undermine the successes they have achieved for children in care.

Therefore, the report calls on the government to launch a review into Virtual Schools – almost ten years from their creation – to assess what they require to effectively work with larger numbers of children, including additional resources to bolster staffing. The review should also look at how their remit could change with oversight of thousands more young people.

The report also finds that Virtual Schools – both in terms of size and scope of work – are highly variable across the country.  There should be more consistency in the offer and government should support local authorities with guidance and resources to achieve this.

Cllr Liz Brighouse, Education Spokesperson for the County Councils Network, said:

“Virtual Schools are one of the most successful educational policies introduced over the last decade, and today’s report sets out how they have effectively championed the education of children in care, and most importantly, improved their attainment.

“The government has recognised the positive impact of Virtual Schools and has recently expanded their remit to include all young people with a social worker. However, we don’t want these valuable services to become a victim of their own success and this is why today’s report calls for a review into Virtual Schools to assess how they can be properly resourced to effectively champion this new cohort of young people, alongside their traditional role in supporting children in care.

“The report also finds that the make-up of Virtual Schools differs across the country. This was deliberate as it allowed for innovation and local solutions, but there should be more consistency in the offer across all areas and this is something any review should look into too.”