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Incoming NAVSH Chair Jane Pickthall's Conference Speech March 2017

posted Aug 29, 2017, 4:21 PM by Jane Pickthall   [ updated Aug 29, 2017, 4:26 PM ]

As I take over as chair of the National Association of Virtual School Heads I am grateful to have benefited from Alan’s assured leadership whilst vice chair. The aim of our first year was to start forging links with key partners and raise awareness of the national association. As you have just heard, this has certainly been achieved and so much more. We have been fortunate to have had an initial board of trustees with immense knowledge, experience and commitment that has helped NAVSH get to the point we are at today and I too would like to say a huge thank you to Tony, Matthew, Mike and Diane for helping us to get this far and for the encouragement and expertise of John Freeman whose support has been invaluable. I’m both delighted and relieved that Sally, Sarah, Jane and Sheila have stepped forward to join Alan, Sally-Ann and myself to keep the momentum going. The 3 year plan you have in your packs was developed following feedback from all the regional networks and as you’ll have seen, there’s plenty to do. We hope to further strengthen the links with regional groups to provide opportunities to contribute to delivering on the plan.

We’ve got five priorities with the first being to ‘implement and disseminate a new robust data set’. Those of you who were here yesterday will have seen that significant progress has already been made around the data we’ll be able to access. This data will not only change the narrative, it will help us to write a far more complex narrative that reflects the complexity of the children and young people we work with. It’s credit to the Rees Centre and Bristol University that their report has had such an impact and when we get back to our desks tomorrow we’ll be able to take a fresh look at our outcomes using the Nexus Children in Care dataset and benchmark against this year’s Statistical First Release, published today, that breaks down our data further, recognising that the high number of children with Special Educational Needs impacts on our overall outcomes. Who’d have thought Virtual School Heads would end up with such sophisticated data? The challenge now is what do we do with it?

It might help us decide how best to use the Pupil Premium Plus. It’s time to really focus on the Plus and what it’s adding. Thanks to those who completed the Pupil Premium survey we sent out, we’re starting to gain a better understanding of how it is being used and distributed across the country but we also need to better understand what makes the greatest impact. Unlike those who think it is the same as for students on free school meals, we know many care experienced children need something different that can help address the impact of the trauma and loss they have experienced. We know schools get frustrated about the variation in approaches, especially when they have children from different authorities but it needs to be recognised that we have the same discretion as any other head to direct the funding as we see fit. There is no one size fits all for virtual schools and even less so for looked after children.  

Schools are key to taking our work forward. Although we are held to account over the outcomes of our children and young people, at the end of the day, we don’t actually teach them. We know how important high quality teaching is but what does this look like for care experienced children? Most of us probably have an inkling but how do we influence schools to shift their focus from ‘zero tolerance’ to ‘maximum affinity’? The Quality Standards Sally-Ann has helped develop are being piloted across the country and will help schools identify areas where they have strengths and areas for further development. We know there are some amazing school staff making all the difference for many of our students but if we continue to develop the quality standards work to improve training for designated teachers and work alongside teaching schools and school leadership unions then hopefully the needs of care experienced children will be better understood and addressed. This should lead to greater stability, more remaining in mainstream settings which would then reduce the need for alternative provision. But don’t worry, we’ve included the issue of funding for cross border alternative provision in the plan, just in case. We’re excited by the Children’s Commissioner’s Stability Index and hope that it will focus attention on improving stability across the system which as we know, correlates with improved educational outcomes.

Designated teachers play a vital role but it could be strengthened by high quality training. They are our eyes and ears on the ground, there every day overseeing our looked after children. The best of them go the extra mile, build relationships, advocate and make sure all PEPs are perfect. We need to make sure school leaders understand their importance and give them the time and resources to do the job effectively. As schools find themselves under increasing pressure both with their budgets and outcomes data we know our looked after children are increasingly vulnerable. We will continue to work closely with the DfE and Ofsted to highlight any issues we face and make sure schools are held to account over the way they support care experienced children.

The capacity of Virtual School Heads is something else we will be keeping an eye on. We know that in 80% of SIF reports Virtual schools were praised but capacity issues have also been highlighted. I know that within the room today we have significant variations in terms of capacity, remit, management level, size of team, remuneration, experience and career history. It struck me when reading the biographies of the board members how very different our journeys to becoming a virtual school head had been but also what an amazing source of expertise we have between us. Add to this the focus on research that is one of our charitable aims and we hope that it won’t be long before we have a much better understanding of what works and what makes the greatest difference. Having just been through my local authority’s Ofsted inspection, I’m particularly pleased that the Peer Challenge framework for Virtual Schools is about to be piloted before being rolled out to the regions in the Autumn. This will help us to establish the effectiveness of virtual schools and provide a clear framework for self-assessment.

The last priority is about promoting the social, emotional and mental health of looked after children. We know how important this is to enable children to access learning and we have the data that shows a direct link between poor mental health and poor educational outcomes. We’d like to see more schools completing SDQs, improved access to emotional support and of course, a better understanding of the impact of loss and trauma. I’m going to be handing over to Tony and Judy now who will be saying more about attachment and the research that has become possible thanks to John Timpson’s generosity. It’s nice to know that some of my dry cleaning bill will be helping schools become more attachment aware.