Message to the 2013 National Conference of Virtual School Heads

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Hello and thank you very much what I’m
hoping was a kind introduction. I’m so sorry that I can’t be there with
you in person today but I know that you will have an
enjoyable and productive day. I would like to thank Bath and
North East Somerset local authority for organising today’s event and
Bath Spa University for their generous hosting of this event as well. I’d like to take this opportunity to draw
attention to their In Care, In School pack which is
incredibly helpful for all of us involved in looked after
children’s lives and the more people who read these resources and profit from them,
the better. I am particularly sad to miss today’s
conference because virtual school heads, and hope this doesn’t come
as a shock to anyone, are a bit of a passion of mine. In my early
life, growing up with many foster children and adopted siblings and later as a family
barrister often representing children in care, I saw firsthand how education
can transform the lives and futures of children in the care system. As chair of the All-party Parliamentary
Group for looked after children and care leavers, I had the great pleasure
of visiting virtual school heads, looked after children, teachers, schools,
local authorities and leaders of children services all over the country. I saw then and continue to see now, as
Minister, some remarkably dedicated people, doing a remarkably difficult and valuable
job. Which is why the very first recommendation in that APPG’s report on
improving the educational attainment of looked after children was and I quote
‘to put virtual school heads on a statutory footing’. One of the first things I achieved as a
new minister was to get the requirement into the
Children and Families Bill currently going through Parliament. It’s worth noting that at the moment there
are just five statutory posts required in every local authority. Across all their areas of responsibility,
across every facet of local government, five posts which are seen as
absolute non-negotiables. This will be only the sixth,
which shows how important this government and the Secretary of State
and I, consider your role to be. You have the advantage of me here because
I’m recording this message a few weeks before today’s event, before the bill has
entered committee stage and before the wrangling over every word and line
has even begun. I’m glad to say that this
particular measure boasts cross-party support right across the
political spectrum. That support is due to all of
you and to the brilliant example that you set every day.
Like in East Sussex were a virtual school head has boosted
results by working closely with and across primary/secondary and
special schools, supporting the progress of children in
secondary schools through one to one tuition, tailored resources, mentoring and
revision courses. Of course I know that there are
countless more examples right around the country, but it’s
frighteningly easy for a vulnerable child to get lost in the system. For their attainment and achievement
to be forgotten or ignored. I’m sure that we all know of instances
where this has happened, particularly where children are placed
outside their authority and often in the past too little emphasis was put on
the educational attainment of looked after children, something which
I’m glad to say is now changing, thanks to the hard work and dedication of
virtual school heads. One person can make all the difference. Someone
with elbows just as sharp, and ambitions just as high as any other
parent. Someone with the right and the reason to stand up for that
young person, to take their side and encourage them to aim higher. I think
that David Simmons, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board
put it best, as he said ‘Councils must be ready to
offer children in care whatever support they need, like Mums
and Dads in the same situation’. Ofsted’s recent inspection of virtual
schools proved beyond any doubt that many virtual school heads are
making a real difference to looked after children’s educational progress,
even improving the stability of their placements and their emotional health. All of you are doing this already, often
in exceptionally difficult circumstances. Services are still patchy and we can’t
afford for any child in care to be left behind,
simply because of where they live. That’s why we’re putting your role
on a statutory footing. With your help we can start to
narrow the gap in attainment between children in care and their more
fortunate peers. Working closely with fostering agencies,
I have written to every foster carer in the country, highlighting
how important it is for them to help the children in their care to flourish educationally as well as
emotionally. We’ve launched the Fostering
Information Exchange – an online resource developed with the sector, in
response to overwhelming demand, providing valuable information
and advice for foster carers. We have also published an
education aide memoire for those who support foster carers,
setting out clearly and concisely the information they need about how the
education system works. But, and I know you don’t need a minister
to tell you this…there is more to do. In particular, many of you have pointed
out that you need more support and that schools should have a better
understanding of the specific needs of looked after children. Others have asked for closer
collaboration with local networks of school leaders. We’re working with the National
College on how their modular curriculum can focus more sharply on driving up
attainment among looked after children. Materials in the chairs of governor
leadership programme will also need to give governors a stronger understanding of
how they can support the needs of looked after children and the work
of virtual school heads. Looked after children already attract
Pupil Premium funding, which will be worth £900 per pupil in 2013-14. I want to make sure that every penny
of this extra funding goes as far as possible. So, the Pupil
Premium terms and conditions of grant letter for 2013-14 is explicit
about the need for schools and virtual school heads to work together
to ensure that looked after children benefit to the full from the way the
school uses this funding. We are also looking carefully at the
recommendation in the report from the APPG, calling for looked after children Pupil
Premium Plus as part of the overall arrangements for Pupil Premium
funding in 2014-15. We still need to go further.
In December last year I wrote to every director of children’s services
in the country, as well as lead members, setting out some
of the key findings from Ofsted about what works and asking them to
redouble their efforts. I’d also like to take this opportunity,
while I have you as a captive audience, to remind everyone about the immensely
valuable Ofsted report on virtual schools. As it found, local authorities
need to support and challenge their virtual schools, need to help
target support to those who need it most, need to keep a
close eye on the education attainment of children from the
day they enter the care system so that we can all understand the
precise impact of care on educational performance and need to
ensure that children are not forgotten when their place outside their own
authority or when they exceed the current statutory school-age. In essence, we need to ensure that the
virtual school is at the heart of the care system and each corporate
parent needs to act like any other parent, using every
means at our disposal to give looked after children the best
possible start in life, at school and at home.
Today’s programme will, I’m sure, offer much for us to consider and
discuss and indeed to put into action in the coming weeks
and months. Today is also a real opportunity to
highlight the importance of looked-after children’s educational attainment
and to reinforce to everyone involved in these children’s lives,
not just those at this conference, that looking after their educational
aspirations is just as important as their health and well-being. The unique legal status of looked
after children means that everyone involved in their lives has a
responsibility to help them reach their full potential. I’d like to
thank you all again for your role in giving these children a
better future and to wish you and them, every possible success
in the future. Thank you

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