Skip to main content


Improving the effectiveness of virtual schools

1 October 2021 - 31 December 2023

PI/s in Exeter: Associate Professor Neil Harrison

Research partners: National Association of Virtual School Heads

Funding awarded: (total funding of £58103)

Sponsor(s): KPMG Foundation

About the research

Following the Children and Families Act 2014, every local authority in England has a statutory responsibility to operate a ‘virtual school’ for children in care.  The principal purpose of each virtual school is to improve educational outcomes for this vulnerable group whose attainment is significantly lower than the general population at every Key Stage.  It primarily achieves 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, and (c) delivering educational enhancement services directly to children.  Each virtual school is led by a ‘virtual head’ who is typically – but not always – an experienced headteacher.

Despite 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 – effective or ineffective.  For example, children in care in the local authority with the strongest GCSE outcomes attain an average of roughly two grades higher in each GCSE taken compared to the local authority with the weakest outcomes.

The overarching aim is to improve the collective effectiveness of virtual schools and thereby improve the educational outcomes for children in care.  Raising the GCSE attainment of children in care nationally to the level of the currently highest-performing virtual school would represent a major step change; it is also likely that already-effective virtual schools have scope for further improvement. Specifically, the project will 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?

(N.B. This study was originally hosted at the Rees Centre at the University of Oxford.)

Final Report – Improving the Effectiveness of Virtual Schools