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Middlesbrough's Virtual School Conference: Foreword from Sue Butcher

Hello everyone,

My name is Sue Butcher and I am the Executive Director of Children’s Services in Middlesbrough.  I feel both enormously privileged and proud to be in this role.   

Thanks to COVID we are all much more familiar with working virtually than we were 2 years ago; dining rooms and lofts have been transformed into home offices and most of us don’t have to trek into work every day of the week. However, the concept of the Virtual Schools existed long before COVID. So, if the Virtual School does not have its own bricks and mortar, and children and young people do not have to get on a bus to get there by 9am 5 days a week, what does it look like? What does it do? Who is it for and what makes the Virtual Schools in Middlesbrough & in Redcar and Cleveland particularly special? 

So think of the Virtual School as a school without walls where a team looks outwards working cooperatively and collaboratively to grow partnerships between education settings and the local authority so that they can work together to improve children’s lives. What I mean by that is people working in schools and people working in Children’s Services) work together as people who care about children. It is all about relationships.

Virtual Schools have been looking after the learning of looked after children for many years although the role of the Virtual School Head only became statutory in 2014. (I met my first Virtual School Head in 2007 – yes, I am that old!) However, from September 2021 Virtual School Heads are asked by the Department of Education (I think that is ‘asked’ in inverted commas) to become strategic leaders for all ‘children with a social worker’.

Let’s unpick that phrase a little – Children with a Child in Need plan? Yes. Children with a Child Protection plan? Yes. But let’s go further and dig down into the detail a little more.

Think about children who have experienced significant adversity and trauma in their lives. 

Think about children from complex family circumstances.

Think about children who have experienced multiple changes in their lives, moving schools, moving homes, moving families, moving houses, moving continents – What is it like to pitch up on a beach in Kent having survived a perilous journey in a flimsy dingy knowing you will never see your family again?  

Think about Middlesbrough where 39% of children live in in low-income families,  higher than in any other geographical area in England and it is getting worse year by year and 48% of neighbourhoods fall into the worst nationally for child poverty and think about Redcar & Cleveland where 30% fall into the same group.

If you were one of these children wouldn’t you want the support of a Virtual School? I would.

The Virtual School is REAL, it is making a REAL difference to the lives of children and young people in Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland. Enjoy the day and see for yourselves just what I mean.

Thank you,