Foster carers may be unfamiliar with the concept of a virtual school head. It’s important that more people understand the nature of this role for its parameters are profoundly important for all involved in fostering provision. And the Children and Social Work Act of 2017 has extended the role of virtual school heads. In broad terms, Virtual school heads (VSHs) have the responsibility of supporting and promoting the educational achievement of all children looked after by the local authority that they are employed by. They are responsible for the management and allocation of pupil premium funding for looked after children. This may also involve the arrangement of funding for alternative provision (AP) for such children who; for whatever reason, cannot attend mainstream school.
It is also the responsibility of VSHs to oversee the early years pupil premium (EYPP). Their task is to allocate the premium to early years providers educating foster children and all looked after children in local authority care. This group will include any organisation providing education for children under the age of five. This will include childminders and nurseries.
The responsibilities of Virtual School Heads are listed below. They have to:
Significantly, the funding can also be used by a VSH to determine the learning targets in an individual child’s PEP ensuring the Plan is always useful and relevant. It can also be used to encourage looked-after children to take an active involvement and interest in their own education.
Each VSH has considerable flexibility but the overall goal for them all is the setting of clear targets in PEPs. Ultimately this is about narrowing the achievement gap between foster children (looked-after children) and their peers in school.
One of the most important jobs of a foster carer is to support their child in his/her education. This should involve becoming a powerful advocate for them. Foster carers should be aware that there are VSHs in place whose specific task is to work to narrow the attainment gap between looked-after children and their peers. This is important because a report from 2018 disclosed that the education disadvantage gap has stopped narrowing for the first time since 2011. It presents this as a “major setback for social mobility”. This is according to the ‘Education Policy Institute’s annual state of education report which was produced in partnership with the ‘Fair Education Alliance’. The report acknowledges there are significant discrepancies based upon where children live, their ethnicity and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). It is a fact that many foster children have special, educational needs so the report captures their experiences. There are a couple of headline findings from it that should give everyone pause for thought: “Poor children in England are 18 months behind.” and the mind-numbing claim that “it will now take more than 500 years to close the disadvantage gap.” This is because it has been speculated that the gap may well start widening again in future years.
What can be done? The first thing is to make sure that foster carers feel empowered to make a real difference. Their efforts need to be galvanised individually and collectively. Many think that the first important step is the professionalisation of the role of the foster carer. There are those that think this should not be done – the authors of the relatively recent fostering stocktake. It is not clear why the role and effectiveness of the VSHs did not come in for more scrutiny during this exercise. It certainly should have as it would have provided both context and measurement as to whether things were getting better for looked-after children.
There is another compelling statistic that needs to be remembered. Only around 6% of care experienced children are currently going on to higher education. This as recently as 2017 compared with almost 50% of the general population. We need to be doing a lot better especially since the number of children who started to be looked after has been increasing ever since 2011. This will mean the trend; unless it is reversed, will result in ever-expanding numbers of young people destined to lead unfulfilled lives. Even worse, those children who have been in care between the ages of ten and seventeen are five times more likely to be convicted of a criminal offence or subject to a final warning. it is also the case that children in care are also five times more likely to have e been excluded from school. Such young people are all much more at risk of succumbing to other social ills such as unemployment, homelessness and teenage pregnancy. All VHSs must have the goal of improving such statistics otherwise there will be no prospect of closing the gap between foster children and their peers.
It is clear that there needs to be some radical rethinking. Its equally clear that education has to lie at the heart of any solution. It would make a lot of sense for the government to recognise the direction of travel and that after many years the situation is not altering significantly. To blandly use the term education will not of itself sort things out. Its value lies in identifying where the main thrust of the effort needs to be. What is important to identify is the actions and changes that need to be made. As part of this, a lot of people now think it is time to significantly re-evaluate the role of the foster carer. We need to elevate our foster carers so they are not regarded by the rest of society as well-meaning people who just happen to have a spare room. The country – and its leaders – have to admit that there is a problem that does not look like going away any time soon. We are getting perilously close to creating a two-tier society and that will not be a good thing. Some argue we should be considering of a new model for fostering altogether. One that saw foster carers as an integral part of a team around a child or young person. And if we thought in terms of supporting a healing and learning child, the strategies and organisational changes necessary would be easier to identify and implement. Questions need to be asked. The Role of VHSs is wide-ranging and potentially transformative. How close is the relationship currently between them and the foster carers looking after the children VSHs share responsibility for? Clearly, it should be a close one and managed so that there is a level of operational consistency across the board. This is so the benefits would be the same for all children and young people irrespective of where they lived in the country. And whichever VSH they happened to have. To do this, we need to create structures that actively promote and encourage teamwork in a consistent manner. It’s important to achieve these goals that VSHs are in the best position so whatever system is decided upon, it can be properly evaluated and modifications made where judged necessary. Mockingbird might be exactly the kind of foster care model that can facilitate this.
Mockingbird relies upon the use of an extended family model comprised of ‘constellations’. There is a ‘hub’ home with several ‘satellite’ homes close by. The hub home foster carers are specially recruited. They offer peer support, regular joint planning and social care. They are also able to provide respite care. A particularly important aspect of the Mockingbird model is it stops foster carers feeling isolated. This is because of the way it is structured. Immediate, practical and knowledgeable support is on-hand. In Stockport, this enhanced level of support has resulted in a number of short-term placements becoming long-term. This means far greater stability to the children and young people growing up with those families.
Jane Parsons is the Mockingbird coordinator at the council. She provided an example of just how responsive the support Mockingbird can give is. When some satellite carers were let down by their babysitter, the carers rang the hub home foster carers directly who were able to provide support. This meant that the young person was able to remain in the hub home over the weekend. Jane explained:
“Before the project that wouldn’t have happened due to the request coming out of hours and the and the permissions that would have had to have been secured. But as part of Mockingbird occasional stays at the hub home were already part of the young person’s care plan and the appropriate delegated authority was in place. And the young person didn’t have any qualms about staying with the hub foster carers because he knows them and he’s stayed with them previously.”
A VSH who has a close working partnership with a Mockingbird fostering hub is likely to be able to move closer to achieving their working remit. This is because the circumstances of the children are far more likely to be stable. Above all else, it is this stability that is the prerequisite for educational progress.
More information is available at – https://www.gov.uk/guidance/pupil-premium-virtual-school-heads-responsibilities
Could you be a foster carer with Rainbow?
Firstly, to foster you do need to have a spare room for the sole use of a child in placement. You will also need to have the motivation to embrace and support children from diverse religious, cultural and racial backgrounds. And then to be able to understand a child or young person’s individual development. Rainbow need people who are always available and flexible enough to consistently meet a youngster’s needs. Finally, we look for people who are keen to work as a member of a team. If you feel you can meet all these criteria and will never lose sight of the fact that childhood should also be about having family fun, then we’d certainly like to hear from you.
There is a current shortage of over 8,000 fostering families so we are looking to recruit new foster carers in #London, #Hampshire, #Birmingham and #Manchester immediately. Rainbow will enable a new foster carer to develop their career with us in any number of directions. This could result in looking after sibling groups, teenagers or perhaps a disabled child. It is widely recognised that fostering has become increasingly demanding and complex. All the training we provide is designed to prepare foster carers for fostering – as well as help them to work positively with children who are in need. This will also include training to work therapeutically with children. We have foster parents who are single/divorced/married. We also have couples who live together – with or without children. In addition, Rainbow Fostering has same-sex couples fostering children and young people. Our LGBT+ foster carers make a tremendous contribution to our community of carers here at Rainbow.
Visit these pages of ours for more useful information: http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/therapeutic-foster-carer/
and for an engaging, thought-provoking blog: http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/arts-matter-fostering/