Learning more about Scotland’s Virtual Schools

01 May 2024

Topic: Education
Author: Michael Bettencourt and Dr Leanne McIver


For over five years, the role of Virtual School Head Teachers (VSHTs) in Scotland has been evolving and in 2024 is established as a key part of the support for school-aged care experienced learners in 19 local authorities. In this blog post, Michael Bettencourt, Education Consultant at CELCIS and Dr Leanne McIver, Research Associate at CELCIS, discuss the research they have undertaken into how the role and remit of VSHTs in Scotland have developed, and how these compare to Virtual School Heads (VSHs) in England.

In Scotland, Virtual School Head Teachers are responsible for the education of care experienced learners across a local authority. Children and young people continue to attend their usual school but have an additional layer of support from a VSHT, whose role is to support care experienced learners as if they belonged to a single (‘virtual’) school, including through strategic planning and data collection.

The Virtual School Head Teachers’ Network is hosted by CELCIS, and is a space where VSHTs can meet regularly to share knowledge and good practice. ‘Virtual School’ is a term that can be used interchangeably to refer to the VSHT, the cohort of care experienced children and young people a local authority is responsible for, or the way that local authorities organise the support they provide for care experienced children and young people.

Although the role of VSHTs is relatively new in Scotland, ‘Virtual Schools’ have been a feature of the education landscape in England for over a decade, with the ‘Virtual School Head’ (VSH) role becoming statutory in 2014. In Scotland, an increasing number of local authorities have used their allocation from the Scottish Government’s ‘Care Experienced Children and Young People’s Fund’ to introduce such a role, with an overall goal of addressing the attainment gap between care experienced learners and their peers, and improving their educational experiences and outcomes.

As the policy and legislative context in Scotland is in many ways different to that in England, we wanted to understand more about how the idea of a Virtual School for care experienced learners is working and the similarities and differences between the two countries. To do this, we conducted interviews with 13 VSHTs across Scotland to find out more about their role and remit, and looked at how these compare to the equivalent in England.

The role and remit of VSHTs in Scotland

From speaking with Virtual School Head Teachers in Scotland, we were able to better understand the things that could contribute to making their jobs feel easier or more difficult.

One of the key things that VSHTs told us was how their role enabled them to form collaborative working relationships beyond education as they were able to attend a broad range of meetings across local authorities to raise awareness of their role and help build connections, particularly with social work services:

“I've met so many different people and over time you get to know them. You get to know their, their way of working and they know my needs and what I need to do, so it's, it's just built so many more bridges.”

VSHT - Participant 2

“[My] role is developing [into] far more [working] with our social work colleagues in particular. I do feel that I'm involved in a lot of what they are doing now.”

VSHT - Participant 4

Being placed in a team which included education, social work and other colleagues could also help facilitate collaborative working and enable connections to be made between education and social work colleagues. VSHTs’ title of ‘Head Teacher’ was talked about as a key factor in generating status and respect for the post, and ultimately both these things played a role in developing the connections needed to ensure effectiveness in the role:

“I think within different local authorities they have it in different teams and also the grading of the post [is different], so I will be very honest, I think that a lot of the successes I've had in [my local authority] have been because I was already an established Head Teacher […] there's a certain level of respect that came with me, and I think that that's where the placing of the post is incredibly important.”

VSHT - Participant 6

“I kind of straddle the two. I was based in the education office but spent as much time in the social work office.”

VSHT - Participant 3

This connection between social work and education was also mentioned when VSHTs spoke about their experiences accessing high-quality data. Data can be a useful tool in helping to identify learners most in need of support and then targeting this support where needed, but most VSHTs we spoke to felt that while they had the information they needed, the process of accessing it could feel frustrating, bureaucratic, time-consuming. They said it was often complex to bring together information from both education and social work and to deal with this, many ended up creating their own databases to hold this data in one place:

“The first thing for me was to find out who are our care experienced young people, because you have the social work and education databases. Both have most but nothing has all, so I set out to create an Excel spreadsheet with everybody that I knew that was on a compulsory supervision order. But separately those that I know were care experienced in the wider aspect. That's been quite a hard job, it's quite hard to keep it up to date."

VSHT - Participant 3

What are the similarities and differences to Virtual School Heads in England?

After speaking to the VSHTs and learning more about their remit, we wanted to understand the similarities and differences between the role in Scotland and England, drawing upon existing research from England to do so.

Virtual School Head Teachers in Scotland and Virtual School Heads England have a lot in common, despite their very different educational and legal contexts. Their main goals - to support the learning and improve the experience of education for care experienced learners – were unsurprisingly similar, as were their broad approaches to achieving this: the importance of knowing the children, building relationships, and appropriately directing or accessing support, were common to both.

The main differences came from the policy and legislative context. In England, the VSH role was initially focused on ‘Looked After’ learners only but has since expanded to include all children with a social worker. The support offered to learners in that context depends on the legal status of the child or young person; for example, whether they are currently or previously ‘Looked After’ will influence the role of the VSH in supporting them. In Scotland, VSHTs have had a remit for all care experienced learners from the outset, although sometimes resource constraints mean a focus on particular sub-groups for strategic interventions, such as children living in residential care settings.

There were also differences in the ‘levers’ available to achieve their aims. In England, VSHs could call upon legislation, and even take legal action, to ensure individual schools met their obligations towards their learners. In Scotland, the development of good working relationships which enable a strong sense of ‘support and challenge’ were key to encouraging schools to meet learners’ needs.

What’s next?

Interest in how the Virtual School model can benefit care experienced learners is growing. The Scottish Government has said, for example, that it is committed to the expansion of the VSHT Network in their recent ‘Programme for Government’.

However, there remain challenges around the way in which more local authorities might take this approach to supporting their care experienced learners; in smaller local authorities in Scotland, for example, the funding allocation from the Care Experienced Children and Young People (CECYP) fund would not stretch to a full time VSHT post. Nevertheless, we hope that by highlighting the ways in which this role and model can make a difference in the Scottish context and beyond, we will contribute to local authorities’ understanding of how such a role in their area might work.

This blog post is adapted from ‘Virtual schools for care-experienced learners in Scotland: Reflections on an emerging concept in a new context’ by Dr Leanne McIver and Michael Bettencourt, an open-access peer reviewed academic article published in the British Educational Research Journal in February 2024.



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