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Head of a school that doesn’t really exist!

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Larissa Gordon is a Virtual School Head teacher with Aberdeen City council. Here she explains the unique role and the difference it can make to looked after children.

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I am a Head Teacher of a school which technically doesn’t exist – there’s no actual school building. I do however, have are pupils on a school roll. These pupils are children and young people who have a legal status of being looked after and are placed across authorities as well as within Aberdeen City. These pupils are often some of the country’s most vulnerable children and young people. As the Virtual School Head Teacher I act as a champion for these pupils in all aspects of their education to ensure that they have the opportunity to achieve positive outcomes from their education.

The role is unique!

It’s a unique role in Scotland – I am the only Virtual School Head Teacher in the country. All teachers have a corporate parenting responsibility and schools have a Designated Manager who is an advocate in the school for their looked after children. As the Virtual School Head Teacher, I have lead corporate parent responsibility for education, having an overview of all children and young people who are looked after by Aberdeen City and are in education. This means my school roll currently sits at 473.

The detail matters

It’s all about improving outcomes for Aberdeen City’s looked after children. To date, with support from colleagues, I have put in place a system that supports the tracking and monitoring of attendance and attainment. In addition to this, the Child’s Plan is key to monitoring achievement and progress, so part of my role involves supporting and advising all partners to the plan to ensure the needs of the child are always at the forefront of everyone’s mind and are evidenced in the plan.

Our systems are only as good as the information entered into it, so one of the first tasks I carried out was to examine the accuracy of the data held by education on who our looked after children are. This data has now been aligned with the data on Care First which is the database used by social work colleagues. By cross-referencing the two databases every month, we can ensure the children get the support they need and teachers are clear about who their looked after children are. It also strengthens the partnership working between education and social work in order to meet the needs of the child.

The children aren’t always nearby

Along with colleagues in social work, I am currently developing a system for tracking the educational progress of our looked after children who are placed out with the authority. For example, when a young person attends a mainstream or residential school in another authority, I do not have access to the information held in the school management and information system regarding their attendance and progress. This makes it difficult to ensure there is equity for all of our looked after children.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, there are times when placements for our young people do not work out. A new placement can often mean a new school. Part of my role has been to establish a procedure whereby all those who know the child best can ensure relevant information is provided to the next school, to make it as smooth a transition as possible. It’s also important that the child or young person is able to have their say on what they would like the school to know about them as a person, and what would help them to settle.

It is well documented that taking part in sports can lead to an increase in confidence and self-esteem, which is lacking for many of our young people. In order to support them with this, and as part of an approach to having a flexible curriculum that meets the needs of our looked after children, I’ve developed a strong working relationship with Sport Aberdeen who last year, appointed a Development Officer for looked after children. The emphasis in the development of programmes is about identifying transferrable skills and helping the children and young people to experience success in their lives, giving them a sense of achievement.

Training and sharing the learning

It is still early days and it is important to stress that the children who are part of the Virtual School remain the responsibility of the school where they are enrolled. The Virtual School is there as an additional layer of support for some of our most vulnerable children and young people. I often act as a bridge between education and social work to strengthen the team around the child.

Involvement of the Virtual School varies and is very much needs-led at an operational level. At a strategic level, it is about developing systems and delivering CPD for those working closely with our looked after children. This can include social work, foster carers, teachers and Designated Managers. There are always barriers but it is about taking a solution-focused approach. As an example, colleagues are currently developing online CPD delivery, as it’s recognised that teachers can often struggle to get out of school for training. It’s also about knowing the context within which you are working and for me, it was about establishing the needs of our children in Aberdeen City and those providing the support.

I am currently working closely with our further education establishments in the city and an aspect of this work helps to provide training for our probationer teacher in the areas of attachment and trauma, as many of our young people have poor attachments and have experienced significant trauma. This is often evident in both their distressed and distressing behaviour often observed in the classroom.

A single point of contact

Feedback so far from those who have worked closely with the Virtual School is on the whole very positive. Colleagues in education and social work have found it beneficial to have a central point of contact as have partners across the city who are looking to improve outcomes for our looked after children. By working closely together, we’ve ensured a number of our looked after children who were not on track to achieve, will come out with a suite of national qualifications. In addition, there are children who have successfully managed to transition back into their mainstream school with the support of the school and partner agencies.

As with all children, relationships are key. For many of our looked after children, moving schools means key adults who advocate for them will be changing more often than we would want. It’s important for them to know that wherever they live and whatever school they attend, the Virtual School Head Teacher will be working with professionals on their behalf to get it right for them and ensure they have the same opportunities as their peers.

I'm relentless in my drive to help children improve

The role of the Virtual School Head Teacher is evolving as we identify need. Although a lot of work is done at a strategic level to improve outcomes, it’s important to remember how vital the work at an operational level is. We talk about our looked after children as a group, but each child is an individual with individual needs and we must remember this and respond accordingly. I am supported in this work by my looked after children teacher.

The core purpose of the role of the Virtual School Head Teacher is to be relentless in driving up improvements in the educational progress, attainment and achievements of all children looked after by their authority, including those placed in schools in other authorities. We also have an important role in working in partnership with other authorities to support the educational progress of children in their schools but looked after by other authorities. As children who are looked after are being educated across a large number of schools, the Virtual School Head Teacher has an important role in tracking their progress as if they were in a single school.

Read the Virtual School Handbook, published by the Rees Centre.

Author: Larissa Gordon

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