When the notion of a Virtual School presented itself, there were a few questions that needed to be answered. However, amongst the how’s and why’s, there were just two questions that stood at the forefront, “what exactly is a Virtual School?” and “what benefits can having a learning platform provide?” To put it simply, a Virtual School is exactly that, Virtual, which means that it isn’t curbed by the physical ‘school building’ restraints of normal schools. Although the concept seems futile, as the children already attend conventional schools of the ‘floors, walls and ceilings’ variety, the vision behind the idea, and the assistance of the London MLE, is what makes it so special, and what caused us to sit up and take notice.
It all started in 2007 when, as part of the government’s vision to present children and young people in care with life-improving opportunities, the Department of Children, Services and Families supported a selected number of Local Authorities to participate in a two year ‘Virtual School Head’ pilot project. The following September, having not been in the initial group of Local Authorities selected, Hammersmith and Fulham decided to appoint their own Headteacher for the Virtual School for Looked After Children, in order to develop the concept as part of its corporate parenting responsibilities.
The Virtual School is a model by which Hammersmith and Fulham provides educational support to the children ‘looked after’ by the Authority, but living in care homes across the country. Although the children are of the responsibility of Hammersmith and Fulham, out of approximately 250 looked after children of school age, only a third live with carers within the borough, with the other two thirds being in Greater London and around the UK respectively. Student ages range from 3-18 years old, and 25% have special education needs. Some of these children have also come from severely devastating backgrounds, and 19% of the children are in the care of Hammersmith and Fulham because they are Unaccompanied Asylum Seekers (UASC) whose first language is not English. Something needed to be done to extend the children’s opportunities, improve their education and develop a sense of community and belonging. After many years of experience gained as a dedicated Headteacher, there seemed no better candidate for the job than Terry Baker, who from day one has not lost the driving passion behind this initiative.
“We have to create a different model and make a difference. Whilst some individual children in care do well, as a group they have some of the worst educational outcomes of any children. Their educational attainments are low and they underachieve. Early life experiences, being taken into care and subsequent movement between placements have disrupted their lives and their schooling. In the Virtual School we need to think outside the box and adopt a creative approach to raise their attainment.” – Terry Baker.
After being appointed, Terry recruited the aid of Diana Samuelson, an experienced educational professional herself, as his deputy. She definitely shares the vision that is fundamental to the implementation of the idea behind the school. Once the pair had started to put their plan into action, they appointed like minded educators in June/July ’09 that they knew could be trusted to give these children the necessary personal attention to improve in their school and personal lives. Every looked after young person has a Personal Education Plan (PEP) meeting at least once a year, teachers from the Virtual School will be attending these meetings for the children assigned to their caseload, in order to focus on educational targets. They will also work closely with carers in a more focussed way to promote and support learning.
The lack of physical restraints works to the school’s advantage, especially since the Virtual School for Looked After Children is the first of its kind in the country with an MLE.
“We need to be able to communicate with the children as they live across a wide geographical area. We want to be able to communicate with young people, and to make resources available to them. We want the MLE to be at the core of communication with young people, carers and staff within the school.” – Terry Baker.
Katherine Douglas, Director of the Kingswood City Learning Centre in Hammersmith and Fulham is also delighted to be a part of this initiative, and feels that Fronter is an obvious choice when it comes to the Virtual School. It will show “how collaboration can be powerful”, and will enable communication within a controlled environment between pupils, teachers, carers and other professionals. As well as providing a resource base and supplementary learning opportunities for the children, their learning platform will also provide necessary resources for carers with regards to their foster children, and difficulties that may arise, equipping them to support the educational needs.
“One of the benefits of Fronter is the opportunity of offering on-line learning resources. Young people should all have access to schooling and education, but often, because of where they are, their opportunities are limited. It’s a learning and resource tool.” – Diana Samuelson.
Another benefit to using the learning platform is that, because of the continuity created by the digital portfolio, children will be able to take their previous work and information with them if they move to a new school/foster location.
“They will have their own learning space, which is quite empowering for them” – Katherine Douglas
Nationally in 2007, only 13% of children in care attained 5 A-C’s in GCSEs compared to 62% nationally, and only 64% of children in care attained 1 GCSE compared with 99% nationally. With the implementation of the London MLE, the Virtual School will be striving not only to improve these statistics, but also to boost morale within the virtual community and give the children the tools necessary to feel that they are capable of achieving whatever goals they set their minds to.
“The school will be celebrating good news – sharing stories of children who have done well” – Terry Baker
The school has only been ‘open’ since the beginning of September 2009, but we look forward to keeping you up to date with their progress, and sharing the feedback about how they are positively affecting the lives of the cared for children from Hammersmith and Fulham.
To read more about the Virtual School on Merlin John click here