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Helen White DfE Lead on Children in Care Conference Speech March 2017

posted Aug 29, 2017, 4:38 PM by Jane Pickthall

Due to the terrorist attack at Westminster Helen was unable to attend the NAVSH Conference but kindly shared her speech with us. 

I would like to start by taking you back in time to 2006, before bringing us back to the present day. There are many recent changes and reforms that I’d like to update you on today but, for now, let me remind you of what happened in 2006.

Kiran Desai won the Booker Prize. James Brown, Saddam Hussein, and Gerald Ford died. And a little closer to home, Sheffield United were promoted to the Premiership (we’ll skip over how long they lasted there….). And the Arctic Monkeys won the Mercury Music Prize.

And another citizen of Sheffield, a young woman called Helen White, moved to London to help develop policy for Care Matters, a government Green Paper. This was one of my first roles in the civil service and, after many years working on other aspects of children’s social care, I am so pleased to have returned to lead this policy area.

I recently found some of my old emails and files from that time. It made me reflect on how far things have progressed.

Care Matters set out a huge range of policies and ideas to improve the outcomes of looked after children. Not all of the ideas we had back then have been implemented, or have had varying degrees of success. But when I was re-reading Care Matters one proposal stood out as something that has gone beyond what we could even have imagined in 2006.

This was the idea of a “virtual head teacher”, responsible for raising standards for children looked after by the local authority.

This was based on an approach that already existed in some areas like Liverpool, where the number of looked after children getting any GCSEs had jumped from 33% in 2000 to 54% in 2005.

I remember some of the feedback that we had when we were consulting on the idea of virtual school heads. Children and young people in particular were a bit confused about whether this would be a real person or some kind of digital disembodied entity. Others – including young people - spotted the potential in the concept and felt that the virtual head role was a real opportunity to bring a coordinated approach across the authority. They saw the benefit of monitoring outcomes, of being a link between schools and the social care workforce, and of holding a strategic role as advocate and champion for the education of children in care.

So what has changed since 2006?

In terms of Virtual School Heads, from an initial pilot of eleven local authorities, this role in now statutory across the country. The National Association has been established and is playing a key role in representing and supporting you, but also in influencing and supporting us in central government. As the Minister, Edward Timpson, said at this conference last year, you have – as individuals and as an association – risen to a position where you have real currency and clout.  

Making the designated teacher role statutory was also mooted in Care Matters, and again this role is now a well-embedded part of the landscape.

In more recent years we have introduced the Pupil Premium Plus for children in care, which we have put in your hands to manage.

And all of this is reflected in the experiences and outcomes of children in care.  

The other thing that was noticeable in the narrative of Care Matters was the lack of nuance in how we described the outcomes of children in care. The main – in fact the only – comparator was the gap between children in care and all other children. That is, not taking into account the high incidence of SEND or of the trauma, abuse and neglect that many children will have suffered before entering care.

Recent research by the Hadley Centre, University of Bristol, and Coram Voice found that 83% of young people across 6 local authorities felt that being in care had improved their lives. Compared to the general population more looked after children felt safe at home and liked school.

That is something that too often we forget. Care is not in itself a negative thing – it is not the reason that children in care can have low wellbeing, may need additional mental health support, or why they may not achieve the same outcomes in school as their non-looked after peers.

And that is why I welcome the idea of ‘changing the narrative’. As the Rees Centre’s research illustrated, care can be a protective factor. Too often we have – and I include my department here – reinforced a perception of care itself as being a contributing factor to low outcomes.

That is not to say that we have low aspirations for children and young people. We want every child to achieve their full potential. It’s about having a more nuanced, sophisticated understanding and narrative about children’s experiences and characteristics.


So, 11 years on from Care Matters, so much has changed, and yet, as ever, there is more we can all do to help and support children in care.

DfE, NAVSH, Ofsted, the LGA and ADCS have been working together to reflect on the messages from the Rees Centre research. Alan Clifton has played a crucial part in this group, representing your interests and views, and helping us shape our policy and practice.

Reflecting the name of the conference, and building on the Rees Centre research, one workstrand of the group is looking at how we can ‘change the narrative’ around looked after children’s education through what we collect and publish at a national and local level. This means breaking down data, wherever possible, by SEND. It means focusing on progress rather than pure attainment. And it means comparing children in care with children in need not simply all non-looked after children and the ‘gap’.


The DfE statistical first release on looked after children’s outcomes has been published today, which I know you will all be poring over later on. Changes have been made to the outcomes presented to bring them in line with the new outcome measures at key stage 1, key stage 2 and key stage 4 for all children. In particular Progress 8 will help focus on the progress children make, not just their final outcomes. We are also developing an additional progress measure that takes better account of the characteristics, needs and experiences of these children.  

We know how important it is that you have the right tools to interrogate the data and monitor outcomes at a local level.  I think you had a demonstration of the excellent NCER management information tool yesterday.  This is part-funded by the Department for Education and I am sure will prove an invaluable part of your framework of support going forward.


Alongside this, NAVSH have been leading work on the Virtual School Head peer review challenge framework, which I understand is soon to be piloted.  A testament to the seriousness with which you and your representative body take setting and meeting high professional standards.

I’d like to talk now about some of the reforms included in the Children and Social Work Bill.

Firstly, Corporate parenting

Enshrining corporate parenting principles into law is a significant milestone and one DfE and Minister Timpson are hugely proud of.  There has often been discussion about what it means to be a good corporate parent for looked-after children and care leavers – a debate driven initially by Care Matters in 2006. Now we have a clear articulation of what it means. This can only help strengthen the support looked after children and care leavers receive.  

The fifth corporate parenting principle is at the heart of the virtual head role: promoting high aspirations and seeking to ensure the best outcomes for children in care. That’s at the heart of promoting the educational achievement of looked-after children and, by extension, care leavers.  But the work you do touches on all seven of the principles, not just this one.

The principles are about looking at the young person’s needs in the round.  They are about the LA acting as a whole rather than seeing their responsibility just through the eyes of social care.  Education is a vital part of this.  To help make the corporate parenting principles a reality it will be vital for strong relationships between education, social care and other services supporting looked after children and care leavers.

I hope that the corporate parenting principles will help you reinforce to all partners that things shouldn’t be done in isolation without considering the impact on education. For example,implementing a placement move without considering its impact on the child’s schooling; putting off a young person’s ambition to go to a prestigious university just because the local one is cheaper; or moving a young person into independent living at the point where they are about to take A levels.

I know I am preaching to the converted when I say education is so important! Because of this I hope that you will work closely with all your colleagues across the local authority, continuing to build relationships to help ensure every looked after child and care leaver reaches their potential.

We will be consulting on the implementation of Corporate Parenting Principles over the summer, including aspects relevant to you.  I urge you to participate in this and feed in your views.  We will, of course, work closely with NAVSH to ensure that the Association – and your – views are fully reflected.

Secondly, I wanted to talk about changes to the role of the Virtual Head and the Designated Teacher

Children’s needs do not change overnight if they are adopted or leave care through other permanency routes. We know that many of the needs children have because of the abuse and neglect they experienced before they came into care will last for the whole of their childhood – and beyond. And we know that many Virtual School Heads and designated teachers already respond to requests for advice, information and support for this group of children.


The Children and Social Work Bill will change the role of the Virtual Head and Designated Teacher regarding children who leave care via adoption and special guardianship, and for children adopted from care outside of England and Wales.


Extending the role of the Virtual School Head to children who were previously looked after will further boost support for these children building on other entitlements we have put in place over recent years. This includes the free early education from the age of 2, the Early Years and Schools Pupil Premium, and priority school admissions.

We know that in a challenging climate of competing pressures you are concerned about your capacity to provide support to this group of children.  I want to assure you that we are alive to this concern and want to work with you to ensure our commitments in the Bill are a success.


We will be issuing revised statutory guidance on Promoting the Education of Looked After Children, and Roles and Responsibilities of Designated Teachers later this year.  This will make clear that the virtual school head role for this group of children will be different, reflecting the fact that you are not their corporate parent.


The guidance will set out the flexibility to shape and determine the full extent of your offer of support to schools and adoptive parents based on local needs and local circumstances.  But crucially the guidance will also be an opportunity to highlight how the Virtual School can make a real difference to the lives of children adopted from care.

Alongside the guidance there is further help, support and expertise on the needs of these children – not least from PAC UK and Adoption UK, who you will hear from later today.


We are grateful to NAVSH for helping us shape our thinking on the revised guidance so far. I urge you to take part in the consultation later this year so that we can ensure this is as useful as possible to you.  

Although we can by no means mention everything, some of the wider work being undertaken by DfE and across government will also be of interest to you.

Children’s mental health has huge impact on their education.  In January the Prime Minister announced support for young people’s mental health, including a Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health setting out plans to transform services in schools, universities and for families.  

We also want to ensure that children’s mental health needs are better assessed and identified on entry to care.  During the Children and Social Work Bill, Lord Nash announced that we will pilot new approaches to assessing the health and wellbeing of looked-after children to enable improved identification of needs and access to support. We hope to begin these pilots later in spring.

And an Expert Working Group chaired by Alison O’Sullivan and Peter Fonegy, is looking more holistically at the mental health needs of children in care, those adopted from care, and care leavers. They will report in October and make recommendations on what the care pathways for these groups of children should be.

Tom Bennett’s review of behaviour management in schools is due to be published imminently, focusing on leadership, culture, and systems that lead to good pupil behaviour.  While the primary focus of the review was school leadership, culture and systems, it takes into consideration all areas, including special educational needs, that might impact an individual child’s behaviour.   This report is a helpful additional resource we would encourage school leaders and practitioners to access, whilst of course ensuring they adopt strategies that are suited to their local contexts and children’s needs.  We would encourage you to discuss with your local schools what the review report might mean in the context of looked after children.

Finally, turning to Alternative Provision.  This government is committed to improving the outcomes for pupils in AP. We announced plans last year which will help to build a world-leading system of AP, with stronger lines of accountability and new curriculum standards, so that all children have the best possible opportunity to fulfil their potential.


So, from 2006 to 2017. I wonder what we will be discussing in another 11 or 12 years. As a civil servant, I know that change is the only constant – and I suspect this is common across most parts of the public sector.

So going forward, I am keen to focus not on more systemic change but on making the system we now have work as well as possible. Where are there niggles or frustrations that we can help you address? How can we know what is working well and help spread that practice? How can we be a conduit for NAVSH to other parts of the department, or across government?



The changes in the Children and Social Work Bill, improvements to data, the revised guidance, and many other areas have been developed in partnership with NAVSH. In terms looking at tweaks to the system for example, DfE colleagues working on admissions to Academies recently came to one of our working groups to your concerns.  And we have acted as a conduit to policy colleagues working on behaviour, admissions, exclusions and safeguarding.

I know that I speak for the Minister too when I say how much we value this collaborative approach with NAVSH and I hope this partnership working will continue

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity, on behalf of the Department for Education and the Minister, to say thank you for all of your continued work, commitment and passion.

Thank you.


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