Most people reading this will have already attended the conference and will have hopefully found it interesting and be raring to put new ideas into practice. The focus for this year’s conference is, ‘what can we learn?’, both from each other and leading academics, on the areas most closely linked to the role of the Virtual School Head. As we formally create a National Association for Virtual School Heads, we know just how important our learning will be. Our tagline, ‘looking after learning’ (thanks to Mike Gorman for this inspired idea), refers not only to the learning of our children in care but also our own learning about what makes the greatest difference to outcomes. One of the main functions of The National Association will be to commission research so we have the information we need to guide us in providing the best support for children in care but also to ensure the advice we give to our colleagues in schools and children’s services is underpinned by sound evidence.
Both Luke Rodgers and Dez Holmes will encourage us to learn directly from children and young people, the experts on the system and the people whose voices we most need to hear. Although Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, wasn’t able to attend the conference this year, her work to create a national network of Children in Care Councils is important to ensure that care experienced children and young people gain a national voice. As a National Association one of our priorities for this year will involve creating stronger links with children and young people to ensure their voice ‘is at the centre of our work’.
The recently published research by The Rees Centre, University of Oxford / Bristol University on the Educational Progress of Looked After Children, has already had a significant impact, leading to a joint paper by ADCS, NCER and NAVSH. The research highlights the complexity of the factors that impact on the outcomes of children in care and the need for our data to better reflect this. We now have the evidence to show us that stability is one of the most important things to achieve for better GCSE outcomes. We also now know that there is a correlation between SDQ scores and outcomes, making children’s mental health an even higher priority and the need for all people working with children in care to have an understanding of attachment. Janet Rose and her colleagues at Bath Spa have been working with several Virtual School Heads to develop their Attachment Aware Schools programme and now the evidence is starting to emerge to demonstrate the impact this is having on outcomes. You will also have heard from Sonia Jackson, someone who has devoted a large part of her career to raising awareness of the educational needs of children in care. In her most recent work she has been turning her attention to Virtual School Heads and how the role is developing across different local authorities. Now we are statutory, it is vital that the role is as effective as it can be, and we are given the time and resources to succeed.
The morning session will have hopefully demonstrated the progress we have been making nationally with our key partner organisations. The Ofsted questionnaire that VSHs completed last year provided both insight into our role and suggestions for how Ofsted can further support children in care through the inspection work they do. NAVSH have also produced their own framework for schools, available on the website.
Several VSHs were included in discussions with the ADCS Educational Achievement Policy Committee about the Rees Centre / Bristol University research paper. Having the support of our DCSs will be crucial as tough decisions get made in local authorities and the importance of having high quality services for children in care can be seen throughout the research paper.
We were delighted to learn that Edward Timpson, Minister of State for Children and Families, would be able to attend the conference this year. We have a lot to thank him for and it will be an honour to be able to do this directly to him. Our friend and colleague at the DfE, Michael Allured, has worked tirelessly with the National Steering Group, acting as the conduit between VSHs and the department so we must also thank him for where we are now. Over the last few years the importance of our work has been recognised and being placed on a statutory footing has helped us to raise the profile of the educational needs of children in care. The Pupil Premium Plus has also provided us with the resources to work in partnership with schools to target at an individual level to maximise outcomes.
As we go forward as a National Association we hope to continue building on the work we have been doing but also benefit from the knowledge we all have by providing a forum for sharing best practice. We hope that you will return to the website again, join us on Twitter, engage with Regional Networks, join working groups and maybe one day take on a national role yourself but most importantly that you will return to the day job, knowing that you are supported and that together we are ‘looking after learning’.