The virtual school headteacher: What you need to know

Written by: Darren Martindale | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What is the role of the virtual school head, what does their new duty to support all children with social workers entail, and how can they support schools? Darren Martindale explains

Many schools will have had some experience of working with their virtual school head (VSH), or virtual school teams, in supporting their pupils in care.

The role of the VSH is to promote the education of children and young people in care and previously in care, and to ensure that the local authority’s statutory duties in this area are discharged effectively.

The role has been statutory since 2014, and the Department for Education also published statutory guidance in that year, since updated, which outlines the role of the designated teacher for children in care and previously in care in schools, and the duties that schools need to be aware of around this critical role (DfE, 2018).

The basic premise (if not the reality) is simple. It is about viewing all the children in the care of a local authority as if they attend one school, and the VSH is the head of that school.

Another way to look at it is that all looked after pupils have two headteachers: one is the head of the physical school that they attend, the other is the head of their “virtual school”.

Two heads are better than one

Following the principle that two heads are better than one, it stands to reason that a vulnerable child can benefit from this additional layer of support.

In 2021, DfE announced funding and published non-statutory guidance (DfE, 2021) to extend the role of the VSH to all children with a social worker – or, indeed, who have ever had a social worker – so that more vulnerable children in every local authority can benefit from the support and leadership of a VSH.

This new responsibility came into force in September 2021, and though we don’t know yet for certain, it is anticipated that the DfE’s guidance is likely to become statutory in the future.

The funding is temporary at the moment, although as I write this article the minister for children and families, Will Quince, has just confirmed an additional £16.6m in funding to extend this provision for the 2022/23 financial year.

What is clear, however, is that the DfE and Ofsted are keen to strengthen the support and monitoring arrangements that are in place for this expanded (and still expanding) cohort of vulnerable children, and these increasing expectations have implications for schools as well as local authorities.

First, for clarity, the extended role and guidance covers “all children who were assessed as needing a social worker at any time due to safeguarding and/or welfare reasons, which includes all those subject to a Child in Need plan or a Child Protection plan. This includes children aged from 0 up to 18 in all education settings”.

So, if they used to have a social worker but don’t anymore, these children could now be receiving support from early help services, for instance. Or, in some cases, they and their families may not be receiving any additional support at all at the present time.

This decision was informed by the government’s Children in Need review (DfE, 2019), which highlighted how poor the educational outcomes of children with social workers could be.

It showed that children who needed a social worker tended to fall behind their peers at every stage of education. By the time they arrive at 16, pupils who had a social worker in the year of their GCSEs were around half as likely to achieve a “strong” pass in English and maths than their peers, and three times less likely to go on to study A levels, and almost five times less likely to enter higher education.

According to the review, children with a social worker are also around three times more likely to be persistently absent from school and between two to four times more likely to be permanently excluded from school than their peers.

The review concluded that the expertise of VSHs was helping to raise aspirations and improve outcomes for children and young people in care, hence the decision to extend the role.


There is a recognition, however, that the pandemic has had a significant, and in some cases worrying, impact on the learning of the most vulnerable children (in particular).

For many children with a social worker, the pandemic will have exacerbated some of the barriers that they and their families already face, and this has impacted on attendance, learning, behaviour, and mental health and wellbeing.

The government is clear, therefore, that “they should be prioritised in the delivery of learning recovery programmes, as well as work to support the mental health and wellbeing of vulnerable children in schools” (DfE, 2021).

I remember Edward Timpson speaking at the national virtual heads conference back in 2016. He concluded that virtual heads “can be agents of real, meaningful and life-long change for some of our most vulnerable children”.

He added: “It’s why we do what we do – to see before our very eyes a child’s life chances transform ... to one full of possibility, positivity, and purpose.” (DfE, 2016)

True, and inspirational words. But what does this mean in practice, especially when it come to this challenging, ever-growing and constantly changing cohort?

The VSH role in practice

First, it can help to clarify what the role is not. For example, the DfE has stated that the extended role should not duplicate or replace existing statutory responsibilities regarding children with SEND. There will be links with other roles, however; support services for disabled children or electively home-educated children, for example, where they also have a social worker.

The DfE is also clear, however, that this will be a strategic leadership responsibility – in other words, virtual heads are not being asked to provide direct support to individual children and their families. So, we will not necessarily be sending members of our teams into schools to deliver learning or behavioural support, for example. Neither is it expected that attainment and progress will be tracked at individual pupil level, as it is for children and young people in care.

So, what does it involve? To paraphrase the DfE’s guidance, the VSH will enhance the partnerships between education settings and local authorities and they will work with agencies to further understand and address the disadvantages that children with a social worker can experience.

They will help to demonstrate the benefits of attending an education setting (promote attendance with parents and children) and ensure there are mechanisms in place to offer advice and support to teachers and social workers, with the aim of narrowing the attainment gap.

The DfE identifies three “critical activities” in pursuance of this, which are:

  • Enhancing partnerships between education settings and the local authority so agencies can work together.
  • Identifying the needs of the cohort, addressing barriers to poor educational outcomes, and ensuring pupils make educational progress. This should include strengthening how education settings and social care understand the impact of adversity and trauma on learning and educational outcomes of children.
  • Offering advice and support to key professionals to help children make progress, including through increasing their confidence in using evidence-based interventions.

An important distinction

Even with all the guidance and the best will in the world, however, schools are already working very hard to support their vulnerable students. We know that many staff go above and beyond and many will already be working in partnership with social workers and other external agencies.

So, they might justifiably ask, what can one extra manager in the local authority bring to the party that we don’t already have?
The answer lies in the distinction of this as a strategic leadership role. It has got to be about enhancing partnership working across those agencies, and from a broader perspective. The VSH should be able to take an overview of the whole cohort of children on Child in Need and Child Protection plans within their local authority – where they attend (and how often), any exclusions, SEND status, and other data and metrics that will help them to identify those barriers, especially where they are systemic across the local area. So, if Child in Need plans do not always take a child’s educational needs into account, for example, or if education plans are not properly joined up with social care, VSHs can help to address these problems.

Virtual heads have one foot firmly in the world of education and one in that of social care, and they can act effectively as a bridge between the two.

Offering advice for schools

Another of those critical activities is using the provision of advice to schools on quality, evidence-based interventions to help overcome those barriers. On that point, the DfE guidance identifies a few key starting points. The research What works in education for children who have social workers? (Sanders et al, 2020) analysed the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit and identified a number of academic interventions which show “signs of potential” in that they have been shown to have a greater impact for children with a social worker than for their peers.

Some of the interventions identified by the Sanders et al research come as no surprise, for example “affordable maths tuition” and “catch up literacy”. However, there are others that seem to target the specific barriers that these children tend to face, such as Families and Schools Together (FAST), a “parental engagement programme where parents and their children attend weekly group sessions, run by trained local partners, that encourage good home routines around homework, mealtimes and bedtimes”.

Another is Family Skills, which aims to improve the literacy and language of children learning English as an additional language (EAL). And, for those who have found that the key stage 4 attainment of children in care has been much-improved in the two years that exams were cancelled and the complete reliance on an exam-based assessment system was relaxed, another intervention that is very interesting is Embedding Formative Assessment, “a whole-school professional development programme aiming to embed the use of effective formative assessment strategies”.

Of course, “what works” will vary from school to school, pupil to pupil, day to day. But there can be little doubt that if schools are to find the most effective approach to assessing and meeting the needs of vulnerable pupils, that approach needs to be carefully planned and graduated, informed by evidence, and co-designed with the other key agencies responsible for those children’s health, care and education . 

  • Darren Martindale is service manager, vulnerable learners – encompassing the role of the virtual school head – at City of Wolverhampton Council. Read his previous articles via

SecEd Supplement: Back from the Brink

There are many students for whom school is difficult – with many different reasons why. SecEd’s Back from the Brink supplement offers 16 pages of advice for addressing common barriers to school and supporting students at risk of dropping out. It includes an article from Darren Martindale about working with parents/carers to improve attendance:

SecEd Summer Edition 2022

This article first appeared in SecEd's Summer Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every secondary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via

Further information & resources

  • DfE: Edward Timpson speaks to virtual school heads, March 2016:
  • DfE: Statutory guidance: Designated teacher for looked-after and previously looked-after children, February 2018:
  • DfE: Policy paper: Review of children in need, June 2019:
  • DfE: Guidance: Virtual school head role extension to children with a social worker, last updated August 2021:
  • Martindale: There may be trouble ahead: Getting attendance right, SecEd, March 2022:
  • Sanders et al: What works in education for children who have social workers? What Works for Children’s Social Care, January 2020:


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin