Information for Schools

Schools have a key role to play in improving the educational outcomes of looked after children. There is no denying that quality teaching has the greatest impact on outcomes but looked after children need more than this. They need understanding, high aspirations, staff  that go the extra mile and organisations that work in partnership.

Improving the attainment of looked-after children in primary schools: guidance for schools

Improving the attainment of looked-after children in secondary schools: guidance for schools

Who are our looked after children?

A child is looked after by a local authority if they have been provided with accommodation for a continuous period of more than 24 hours, in the circumstances set out in sections 20 and 21 of the Children Act 1989, or is placed in the care of a local authority by virtue of an order made under part IV of the Act. Further definitions can be found in The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations, but if in any doubt about the status of a student in your school then speak to your Virtual School Head.

School Admissions

Looked after children have been given the highest priority within school admission arrangements. The admission requirements for looked after children are set out in the School Admissions Code which applies to maintained schools and academies, including free schools.

The majority of looked after children enter care through no fault of their own. They are likely to have experienced some form of abuse, neglect or trauma prior to entering care.

Most looked after children live in foster care provided by the local authority, but increasingly this is with a member of their extended family under a legal order. A smaller proportion live in children’s homes or attend residential schools due to their complex needs.

Looked after children tend to have higher levels of Special Educational Needs but often this is due to their Social, Emotional and Mental Health needs and not necessarily due to their cognitive abilities.

The Designated Teacher

All schools must have a designated teacher, who is ideally a member of the senior leadership team. The designated teacher is responsible for championing the educational needs of looked after children in their school and ensuring they have good quality PEPs. They should be the main author and champion of the PEP within the school context.

The most important aspects of a designated teacher is that they have high expectations of looked after children and the time to understand their needs.

The statutory guidance relating to designated teachers provides an excellent summary of the designated teacher good practice.

Most Virtual Schools provide training and networking opportunities for Designated Teachers to help them carry out their role effectively.

The Personal Education Plan

The Personal Education Plan (PEP) is central to improving educational outcomes for looked after children. When used effectively, it is a tool to gather views of school, home and from the child or young person in order to identify strengths and barriers and put in place a plan of action to help support the education of a looked after child.

The Statutory Guidance provides more detail about what makes a high quality PEP.

School Governors

Headteachers who prioritise the education and welfare of looked after children ensure that the governing body is able to fulfil its obligation to appoint a sufficiently senior and experienced designated teacher with sufficient time to undertake their duties and influence school policy. They also facilitate termly reports from the designated teacher to the governing body and a positive working relationship between the designated teacher and the designated governor for looked after children.

Governing bodies that prioritise the education and welfare of looked after children identify a governor to take particular interest in the work of the school in relation to looked after children, and to meet regularly with the designated teacher. The chair supports this ‘designated governor for looked after children’ by ensuring they have access to training to fulfil their function and advise the governing body as a whole.

The Virtual School Head

All local authorities in England are required to have a Virtual School Head who monitors looked after children as if they were in one school, The Virtual School. The role of the Virtual School Head and The Virtual School varies across authorities but all work with schools to help improve the outcomes of looked after children.

Virtual School Heads can offer advice and guidance to schools and have responsibility for managing and distributing the Pupil Premium Plus for looked after children.

Virtual Schools rely on schools providing them with progress data on a regular basis in order to ensure looked after children are on target to achieve to their full potential. It is important that schools have high expectations and set aspirational targets. Early end of key stage outcomes may not reflect the true ability of a looked after child who may have been in a traumatic situation at the time of the assessments and not focused on learning.

One project in The Wirral explored target setting in their RADY Project.

The Pupil Premium

The Pupil Premium Plus for looked after children is currently £1900. Pupil Premium Plus must be managed by the Virtual School Head to improve the attainment and progress of looked after children.

The Virtual School Head, working with education settings, should implement pupil premium plus arrangements for looked after children in accordance with the latest DfE Conditions of Grant and any supplementary departmental advice issued, such as the document relating more specifically to the Virtual School Head’s responsibilities.

There are many best practice reports available including:

How schools are spending the funding successfully to maximise achievement

Evaluation of Pupil Premium Research Report July 2013

The Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit is also very useful in helping to identify strategies that are most effective.


Many Virtual School Heads recognise the significant impact a child’s attachment needs have on their ability to settle to learn in school. There are many practical books available on the subject and the work on Attachment Aware Schools provides many useful resources.

Nice Guidance: Children's Attachment

Emotional Health and Well-being

Perhaps the single most important thing that a Virtual School Head can do is to stimulate a professional dialogue with headteachers about the reasons why children and young people behave as they do.

This can, in turn, raise awareness of the physiological and psychological effects of early abuse, trauma and loss, on attachment and resilience, in particular, and through them relationships with peers and adults.

What works in preventing and treating poor mental health in looked after children?

SDQs – Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaires

The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) is a brief behavioural screening questionnaire. Local authorities are required to submit the scores of the carer version but there is also a version for young people (over the age of 11) and schools to complete. The triangulation of all three responses gives the most accurate picture of a looked after child’s mental health and well-being. There is also a link emerging between SDQ scores and educational outcomes, making them more significant for Virtual School Heads.

Promoting the health and wellbeing of looked-after children