An Ofsted study of nine local authorities found that virtual schools had improved communication between professionals, increased carers’ involvement in children’s education, improved attendance and reduced exclusions.
But academic results failed to show a narrowing in the attainment gap between looked-after children and their peers, particularly between key stages three and four, and for students able to achieve five or more good GCSEs.
The report also revealed personal education plans for children in care tended to focus too little on academic achievements, and that professionals were unclear about how to use the pupil premium effectively.
“There is much that is hugely positive in this report, and some of the examples of the difference that the virtual school has made to the lives of individual children are truly inspiring,” said Ofsted’s deputy chief inspector John Goldup.
“However, the life chances of too many children in care are still blighted by poor educational outcomes.”
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said the results were to be expected in a climate of budget reductions.
“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,” said BASW’s professional officer Nushra Mansuri.
“Sadly, with the finite resources that are available, we have seen a shift away from the kind of support children in our care system deserve, as the ‘corporate parenting’ role becomes less and less meaningful.”
The Who Cares? Trust called on the government to make virtual head teachers a statutory requirement.
“In our Open Doors, Open Minds report we urged that the virtual head role becomes a statutory one, as did the report published recently by Edward Timpson while he was chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Looked-after Children,” said Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of the The Who Cares? Trust.
“Ofsted has now added significant momentum to the call for this important work to be statutorily protected and properly resourced.”
David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said councils had made significant achievements despite financial constraints.
“It’s encouraging that this report recognises the progress the majority of local authorities are making,” he said.
“Despite significant budget cuts, most councils have protected existing resources for key services like virtual schools, which provide extra tuition, promote aspiration and help looked-after children settle into a new school. However, as budgets continue to be squeezed, this is likely to become increasingly difficult.”
Department for Education figures published last year showed only 13 per cent of looked-after children achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to C including mathematics and English, compared with 58 per cent nationally.
The virtual schools system works by providing additional support to children in care as if they were in a single school. Some local authorities also choose to appoint a virtual school head teacher.