Virtual schools have a hugely positive impact on the education of children in care, but there is “little evidence” that they are able to reduce the attainment gap, Ofsted has reported.
Inspectors also found that budget cuts have led to a “significant reduction” in the capacity of virtual schools in some areas.
Virtual schools are established in many local authorities and work across all schools in their area to support achievement and track progress of looked-after children.
In a report focusing on the approach, inspectors praised virtual schools for raising the profile of educational attainment for look-after children, promoting better communication between professionals, and increasing the involvement of carers in children’s education. They also reported that virtual schools do help to improve attendance and reduce exclusions.
However, the report found “little evidence that the gap in attainment between looked-after children and other children was narrowing”.
Ofsted said that progress between key stages 3 and 4 was slower than during earlier key stages and that improving the GCSE pass rate “remained a challenge for most authorities”.
There are around 65,000 looked-after children and figures show that only 31 per cent manage to achieve five A* to C GCSEs compared to 78 per cent of all children. Just 13 per cent achieve the benchmark including English and maths, compared to 58 per cent.
Inspectors, who visited nine local authorities for the report, also found that financial constraints had resulted in several of them reducing the number of dedicated posts within their virtual school.
The report states: “Inspectors saw significant impact of the challenging financial climate in several local authorities.”
It found that three of the nine local authorities had reconfigured their virtual school teams as a result of budget constraints, two had reduced the size of the service and were now running small operations with “a much-changed focus”.
The report continues: “In the local authorities where virtual school resources had been hardest hit by budget cuts, there was an acknowledged concern by senior managers that the reduced resources represented the greatest threat to educational outcomes.”
While most authorities had decided to protect the existing resources of their virtual schools, the inspectors found that “nearly all voiced concerns about the future”.
Elsewhere, the report finds that virtual schools are “often very effective” in influencing schools to take more account of the needs and circumstances of looked-after children and supporting designated teachers.
However, the report said that too many personal education plans (PEPs) were not sufficiently focused on academic achievements and were often less effective at pushing those children who were meeting expectations further.
Inspectors recommend that local authorities should carry out a full risk assessment before taking decisions to cut virtual school provision. They also call on the government to consider whether virtual school provision should be a statutory requirement.
Deputy chief inspector John Goldup said: “There is much that is hugely positive in this report, and some of the examples of the difference that the virtual school has made to the lives of individual children are truly inspiring.
“However, the life chances of too many children in care are still blighted by poor educational outcomes.
“While some planning and target setting is very good, expectations are too often too low, particularly for children who have the capacity for high attainment.
He continued: “The role of councillors is crucial. Local authorities are parents to these children. Virtual schools are at their most effective where corporate parenting is strong and challenges and supports the virtual school effectively.”
The Impact of Virtual Schools on the Educational Progress of Looked-After Children can be downloaded from www.ofsted.gov.uk