Careers: Virtual head teacher

Virtual heads promote the educational achievement of looked-after children, finds Charlotte Goddard

What is a virtual head teacher?

Born out of the Care Matters green paper in 2007, the virtual head teacher aims to provide continuity for looked-after children in education. They head a "virtual school" for all looked-after children in schools across one local authority, and for a local authority’s looked-after children who are being schooled elsewhere.

The role was initially piloted in 11 local authorities, and although it is not a statutory requirement, most councils now have a virtual head teacher, although some go by different names. As of July 2010 all but three local authorities in England had someone acting in this capacity, according to the Department for Education.

What does a virtual head do?

The role varies across local authorities, with some working at a strategic and some at a more operational level, although all are concerned with promoting the education of looked-after children.

"In some areas the remit is up to age 25, in others there is a clear focus on school up to 18," says Victoria Hull, head of projects and policy at The Who Cares? Trust. In most cases the virtual head is within, and often manages, the looked-after children education service team.

According to the Department for Education’s toolkit for virtual heads, their role will include making sure there is a system in place for tracking the attainment of looked-after children; making sure looked-after children meet their potential at school; and ensuring that schools are aware of all the looked-after children on their register and have a personal education plan and one-to-one tuition where appropriate.

The virtual head must ensure that looked-after children are admitted to the most appropriate school for them and that their education is not disrupted by too many changes of school. They will support children and young people to take part in positive activities and access higher education. In most cases they will manage a team to achieve all of these aims.

Does a virtual head work with other professionals?

Absolutely. As well as working with the "virtual school" team, which might include tutors and outreach workers, the head must work closely with social workers and schools, and build relationships with foster carers and with elected members to promote the importance of education for looked-after children. They will also work with advice and guidance services and with voluntary sector organisations.

What experience does a virtual head need?

According to the Department for Education: "The virtual school head role should be undertaken by a person with substantial, current or previous senior-level experience of supporting vulnerable children in educational settings, preferably including experience of school senior leadership."

An evaluation of the pilot programme found that "those from a strong educational background are best placed to undertake these responsibilities". The government recommends the post should be at head of service or assistant head of service level and have direct links with the director of children’s services and the lead member for children’s services.

What qualifications are necessary?

There are no qualifications that are statutorily necessary although most local authorities would look for a former head teacher for the role. Virtual heads without experience of heading up a school could take on the National Professional Qualification for Headship.

Is the role of virtual head being affected by budget cuts?

The role of virtual head is a government recommendation rather than a statutory requirement. A recent survey by The Who Cares? Trust found that while some areas were supporting their virtual head and investing in their team, others were suffering from budget reductions, leading to redundancies in virtual school teams and an increase in work leads.

"In other areas we have seen the role combined with vulnerable children as a whole, leading to dilution of
the role. We have seen more of that since cuts came in," says Hull.

The trust is calling on the government to pass legislation requiring local authorities to appoint a virtual school head with sole focus on looked-after children.



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