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Department of Education

Research projects

Improving the effectiveness of virtual schools

Following the Children and Families Act 2014, every local authority in England has a statutory responsibility to operate a ‘virtual school’, the principal purpose of which is to improve educational outcomes for children in care.

Virtual schools aim to achieve this by:
(a) advocating on behalf of children with physical schools, local authority departments and other agencies engaged in their welfare,
(b) administering the Pupil Premium Plus funding which amounts to around £135 million across England, and
(c) delivering educational enhancement services directly to children (e.g. additional tutoring or mentoring).
Each virtual school is led by a ‘virtual head’ who is typically – but not always – an experienced headteacher.

Virtual schools are constituted very differently between the 151 English local authorities, with contrasting resourcing, organisational positioning, professional networks and leadership.  This partly reflects the size of the local authority in which they are based, but also the status of the virtual head and the priority afforded to the virtual school – and children in care more widely.  The portfolio of activities undertaken by virtual schools also vary considerably, based on prior history, interests within the staff team, access to research findings and local circumstances.  Another important distinguishing factor is the proportion of Pupil Premium Plus funding that is used strategically by the virtual school, as opposed to being passed to individual schools.

Despite this variability and the importance of virtual schools to government policy objectives around children in care, little research has yet been undertaken into the principles that underpin effective practice for virtual schools.  Indeed, the educational outcomes for children in care are known to vary widely between local authorities in ways that are not readily explained, suggesting a very strong role for local practice.


Research questions

The study is a collaboration with the National Association for Virtual School Heads and funded by the KPMG Foundation.  Specifically, it will seek to answer the following research questions:

  1. How do virtual schools understand effectiveness within their work, including markers of success at the organisational and individual child level?
  2. What elements of effective practice in virtual schools can be identified?
  3. How does the apparent effectiveness of virtual schools with respect to educational outcomes for children in care vary between local authorities?
  4. What relationships exist between the environmental and organisational contexts of a virtual school and its apparent effectiveness?


Outline methodology

The study will take a four-strand mixed methods approach:

  • Strand 1: expert group interviews. The project will begin with four online group interviews to inform the research questions and to guide the other strands of the project: (a) ‘designated teachers’ for children in care, (b) local authority directors of education, (c) experienced former virtual heads, and (d) the NAVSH board, drawing on the previous four group interviews.
  • Strand 2: focus groups. Six regional online focus groups of virtual heads will be held to explore effectiveness within their organisations.  A final short session will be held where the research team reflects the emerging findings back to the grouped participants to check understanding and stimulate further discussion.  The findings will also be reflected back to the group of children in care to comment and contribute.
  • Strand 3: questionnaire.  The project will draw on data from an annual survey of virtual schools to examine information about (a) resourcing and staffing levels, (b) organisational ‘location’ and (c) other contextual factors.  This will be combined with published social, demographic and education data on local authorities to provide a rich picture of the context surrounding virtual schools.
  • Strand 4: analysis of aggregate attainment data. Statistical analysis will be used to explore differences in outcomes for children in care relative to other children in the local authority at Key Stages 2 and 4, as a working proxy for the effectiveness for the virtual school – i.e. the extent to which they have been able to ‘close the gap’.

The study has been approved by the Department of Education Research Ethics Committee at the University of Oxford with the reference number ED-CIA-21-251.  It has been approved by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services with the reference number RGE210701.  Work on the study commenced in June 2021 and it is expected to report in August 2022.


Former team member: Neil Harrison

Research Team

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