Building Connected Cultures

13 October 2014

Pippa Joiner from Richmond upon Thames Arts Service shares her thoughts on their Connecting Culture project to date and the benefits and challenges of building relationships with ‘virtual heads’ in their work with Children Looked After. 

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A key learning of our Connected project, the aims of which are outlined in my last blog, Connecting Culture has been the process of finding a shared language and vision between cultural organisations and children’s services. This has been possible due to the passion and commitment of dedicated staff in both sectors. Yet there have been barriers to break through.

One of the barriers for cultural organisations are the array of confusing terminologies relating to work with Children Looked After, such as ‘virtual heads’, ‘virtual schools’ and ‘corporate parents’.

Our project has opened a dialogue with local cultural organisations to enable better understanding of terminology. We want to extend this learning to share with others – and one of our project outcomes will be the creation of a practical ‘how –to’ document aimed to demystify terminology and develop a shared language and understanding for joint working between Children’s services and Cultural Organisations. We will disseminate this resource via A New Direction in March 2015.

Perhaps one of the ways in which the terminology can present confusion relates to the often new concepts embedded in it. For example, people have been learning to parent and raise children since history began - yet the concept of the ‘corporate parent’ is still new.

The role of the ‘corporate parent’ is to seek for the children in public care the outcomes that every good parent would want for their own children. This is particularly vital given the statistics stacked against the life chances of Children Looked After. The guiding questions for Corporate Parents are questions that benefit everyone working with vulnerable groups:

‘If this were my child, would it be good enough for them?
If I were that child, would it have been good enough for me?
How could I make it even better?’

Our ultimate vision is that Cultural providers will be able to share in the responsibility of ‘corporate parenting’ for Children Looked After. We hope they will offer sustained engagement for this vulnerable group; giving access to cultural opportunities and the chance to develop their creativity and participate fully in a rich cultural life.

This is a large vision – and evidently not necessarily easy to achieve. But things that are worthwhile aren’t always easy. Furthermore, there is a growing body of evidence about the positive impact of cultural engagement for Children Looked After.

One of the key people to build strategic relationships with to enable such work to develop are ‘Virtual Heads’ – or ‘Virtual School Heads’ .They are some of the key players involved in work with Children Looked After, as they champion and promote their educational needs.

Whilst Children Looked After attend a range of local schools, the role of the Virtual Head is to improve educational standards as if they were attending a single school. The Virtual Head is often supported by a Virtual School team who liaise with the schools that Children Looked After attend, tracking the progress they make and supporting them to achieve. Many schools are likely to have only a few children in care on their register, and staff may be unfamiliar with their issues. The role of the Virtual School is to know how the looked-after children are doing and help support school staff and social workers.

The Virtual Head has a strategic role and a senior position within the local authority, which can heavily influence ‘buy in’ to projects. In addition, being the Virtual Head of a school communicates an important status and helps make connection with other heads. They also invariably have impressive networks.

Recent statistics published by Ofsted show that, as of 31 March 2013, the average local authority had looked-after children from 27 other councils living within their boundary. This context of a high level of out-of-area placements, leads us to our next question: What would a young person-centred approach to cultural engagement across different boroughs look like?

One of the key successes of our extendcultural provision to Children Looked After, irrespective of which borough they are placed in. The joint work is proving successful – mainly due to the dedicated staff who are driving projects and new ways of working forward. We are also developing plans to set up a group where participation workers and other key stakeholders from within the Local Authority can meet to discuss joint plans. We hope this will enable resilience and an enriched offer for young people.

We will be giving a presentation about this project as part of the Creating Links Conference on 3 December 2014 – an event which shares best practiceandnew research in targeted youth arts which enables children and young people most ‘at risk’ to build a positive future. Please do come along and find out more about our project there!


To learn more about the project please contact Pippa Joiner, Arts and Heritage Development Coordinator at Richmond upon Thames Arts Service.