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In the spotlight: The virtual School (Gareth Williams-James)

Bijgewerkt op: 13 jun. 2023


My name is Gareth Williams-James and I am from the United Kingdom. My family is from Wales but when I was a child we moved home often and I have lived in many places across England and Wales. When I was young, I didn’t really think about what profession I might choose but in my late teens I began to think about becoming a teacher. Hardly surprising as I had been to so many different schools! A year after I left school, I started my training and qualified three years later. After twenty four years in that career, I was the Director of Studies in a large comprehensive school for eleven to eighteen year olds and I began to think about what I could do to help the more vulnerable children succeed in their education. I transferred to work for my local authority (England is divided into a number of local authorities for the purposes of organising and providing local services including education and social care) as an education adviser for children in alternative care. In the United Kingdom, these children are also known as “looked after” from a phrase used in the 1989 Children Act.

Children in alternative care

Throughout my teaching career, I had worked with children in alternative care but, now working closely alongside them, their carers and their families I realised I had much to learn. The children and young people themselves taught me well through their honest description of their lives and experiences, their resilience despite massive obstacles and their humour in the face of huge adversity.

The virtual school

At this time, the beginning of the new millennium, academics were highlighting research which showed that, as a group, children in alternative care were achieving much less well in education than their peers (eg Jackson and Sachdev, 2001). In particular, large numbers of children in alternative care were either attending school poorly or not attending at all. In a school, the headteacher is responsible for making sure every child attends, knowing how well every child in that school is doing and making sure that each of them is supported to achieve their potential. The Secretary of State for Education in England suggested that it would be helpful if children in alternative care had “some sort of virtual headteacher” who could take responsibility for ensuring that attendance at school and educational attainment could improve. And so, in England the term “Virtual School” started being used to describe this protective arrangement despite the obvious confusion it created because the term is also used to describe schools where children are taught online. To be clear, in this article Virtual School and Virtual School Head (headteachers are often referred to simply as heads) refer to the arrangements made for the all children in the care of each local authority to have their education monitored and supported. These children still attend their local schools or, where appropriate, a school designed to meet their special educational needs. Many children are in the care of one local authority but attend schools in another local authority, in some cases hundreds of kilometres away. The reasons for this are many but include, for instance, that the child has been placed with kinship carers who live in another part of the country. Virtual Schools do not teach the children but sometimes the Virtual School Head will commission some additional help, perhaps through a tutor or an online provider.

At the beginning of the millennium, many authorities already had teams of specialists working to support children in alternative care. These teams would include experienced teachers and would generally be known as LACES (Looked After Children Educational Support). In 2005, I was appointed to lead one of these teams in Suffolk, a neighbouring local authority to where I lived, and, as Virtual School Head, I set up one of the first Virtual Schools in England. At this stage, there was no requirement for local authorities to appoint a Virtual School Head so those of us working in the field were free to do what we thought best to support children in alternative care. I looked back to the last school in which I had worked where the headteacher had created a system where children, carers and parents talked through their progress every term (autumn, spring and summer) with the class tutors. The discussion would focus on what was going well and what was needed for the child to do achieve their potential. The resulting plans for each child significantly improved overall attainment in the school. Children in alternative care were already required to have a “Personal Education Plan” as part of their social care plan but its detail was not specified in regulation. Working with social care colleagues in Suffolk, my team and I devised a format for the Personal Education Plan (PEP) and arrangements for it to be discussed by the child (as appropriate to age), carer (and parent where appropriate), social worker and teacher every term. I was fortunate that one team member, an experienced teacher, had already been working with social care colleagues in Suffolk for several years and had established a good relationship which allowed us to develop the idea quickly. Each term’s PEP was documented and copies collected by the Virtual School team who would check and follow up with appropriate support or advice.

Training and advice

Our team members also provided training and advice to social workers and school teachers on the effects of attachment and trauma on a child’s capacity to learn. There are elements of the English school system and its traditional approaches to children’s behaviour which directly impede the capacity of trauma experienced children to make progress. We struggled (and mostly succeeded!) in persuading our colleagues in schools that the effects of trauma on the executive function of the brain would require different approaches to teaching and different approaches to how schools are managed.

The central government’s Department for Children, Schools and Families (now known as the Department for Education) decided to run a two year (2007-2009) pilot of Virtual Schools to look at the potential for improving outcomes for children in alternative care. The Suffolk model was used by the DCSF to help with the design of the pilot and eleven local authorities successfully bid for pilot funding. A review of the pilot ((Berridge, Henry, Jackson & Turney, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, 2009) found that, when compared with other local authorities, improvements in educational attainment were evident and, underpinning those improvements, there was evidence of better engagement with education for children in alternative care. The review also identified in detail many of the challenges that Virtual Schools would need to address if they were to develop.

National Association for Virtual School Heads

As a result of the pilot and a growing number of local authorities adopting Virtual School models, an informal working group of Virtual School Heads, representing nine regions of England formed a partnership with the newly designated Department for Education with the ambition of creating a legislative framework for all England’s local authorities. That ambition was fulfilled with the Children and Families Act, 2014 which, amongst many other things, required local authorities to appoint a Virtual School Head “to ensure the local authority fulfils its statutory duty to promote the education of looked after children.” At this point, the National Association of Virtual School Heads was created. NAVSH “exists to improve educational outcomes for looked after children by working with partners and commissioning research to ensure that the educational needs of looked after children are better understood.” This broadly involves VSHs working in partnership with each other and relevant agencies as well as commissioning research. An annual conference brings this work together and the organisation works closely with central government as its work develops.

The Virtual School Head

In 2015, I decided to leave my permanent post in Suffolk and work independently for local authorities who required a temporary role, usually as the Virtual School Headteacher during the period of recruitment between one postholder leaving and the replacement commencing in post. This has given me the chance to see how different local authorities respond to the legislative requirements and endeavour to meet the needs of the children for whom they care. I have also witnessed and had to manage the widening responsibilities of the Virtual School for children who have previously been in alternative care and for children who have a social worker but who are not in care. I can tell you that there is no normal or typical day for a Virtual School Head nor is there a uniform model of the Virtual School across authorities! There are about 150 local authorities in England; the smallest has fewer than twenty children in alternative care and the largest has around two thousand. The challenges are different for every Virtual School but most of the work of the team and the Virtual School Head focuses on the following activities:

  • Ensuring that there is an effective system in place to collect Personal Education Plans every term. This means that the attendance and attainment data is extracted and that other important information is read by a Virtual School team member so that it can be acted upon if necessary. Most Virtual Schools use an electronic system for this which can be linked with social care records.

  • Providing direct support or commissioning help for children who need it.

  • Working closely with individual schools especially when staff are struggling to understand how to help individual children.

  • Providing or commissioning training for teachers, carers and social workers so that they can understand the how best to support children in alternative care and to understand how trauma and attachment affect a child’s learning.

  • Working with the local children in alternative care council to hear the messages from children and care leavers.

  • Working with local councillors (locally elected politicians who run the local authority) and the directors of children’s services to ensure policy reflects the needs of children in alternative care.

  • Managing the Pupil Premium Grant for Looked After Children. This is a central government grant provided to every local authority Virtual School to fund the work of the Virtual School and the support given to children. A pilot of the extension of this grant for post 16 year olds is also being rolled out.

  • Developing policy and practice to meet the additional responsibilities that have been added to the work of Virtual Schools, reflecting their success with children in alternative care.

Virtual School Heads are usually based in the main offices of each local authority but, depending on the authority’s size, team members may be based elsewhere. The team members will also work from home, particularly since the pandemic, but much work requires visiting schools, carers at home, other agencies and colleagues in other authorities so a fair amount of travel is also needed.


Since their creation, Virtual Schools have gradually improved the educational attainment results of children in alternative care. Perhaps far more significantly, the school attendance of children in alternative care rose rapidly in the period before the Covid pandemic. So rapidly and so successfully that, by 2020, their average attendance was higher than all children in England! (Outcomes for Children in Need, including Children Looked After by local authorities in England. Annual National Statistics publication, UK Government). One of the main reasons that Virtual Schools have been effective is that those who work in them have to learn and combine the work of a number of disciplines. The most obvious are education and social care but workers have to understand foster care and family dynamics, special educational needs, psychology, mental health, brain science and much more. Many specialists from these disciplines either join or work alongside Virtual School teams and all team members learn from each other.

The education systems of the four nations of the UK differ. Scotland has now introduced the Virtual School Head role. Wales and Northern Ireland provide educational support for children in alternative care without the Virtual School Head role but by using some of the practices employed by Virtual Schools.


You may be interested in finding out much more about Virtual Schools for children in alternative care and, if so, you are very welcome to contact me. Gareth Williams-James <>

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