Pupil attendance has improved for a second week running, but around 650,000 pupils remain absent across England due to Covid-19 as schools continue to operate “under huge pressure”.
The latest attendance data from the Department for Education (DfE) revealed between 7 and 8 per cent of the pupil population – up to 650,000 – did not attend school for Covid-19 related reasons on December 3.
The number of pupils missing school because of Covid has been decreasing in recent weeks; falling from 876,000 and 798,000 on November 19 and 26 respectively.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the improvements suggested the recent national lockdown had a positive effect, but warned “the disruption in schools remains very significant despite this improved picture”.
He also called on the government to “prioritise school staff for the new Covid-19 vaccination as soon as possible”.
“This would greatly ease the pressure in schools of staff absence due to Covid, helping to keep them open and fully functioning, and it would provide extra reassurance to staff who are being asked to work in environments which are inherently busy and crowded”, Barton added.
The attendance data shows that of the pupils off school last Thursday; 16,000 were absent with a confirmed case of coronavirus, 28,000 with a suspected case of coronavirus and up to 569,000 pupils self isolating due to potential contact with a case of Covid-19.
Additionally 37,000 pupils were off due to their schools being closed for Covid-19 related reasons, compared with 62,000 pupils the week before.
Overall attendance improved for the second week running, rising from 83.5 per cent to 85.5 per cent.
The proportion of open state schools also increased to 99.5 per cent, up 0.3 percentage points on the previous week.
Attendance in state-funded primary schools was up from 88 per cent to 90 per cent, while attendance in secondaries rose from 78 per cent to 81 per cent.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson added: “It is encouraging to see that, following national restrictions, attendance has increased again this week, while overall prevalence is falling among both children and adults.”
However the weekly data release has been consistently criticised by education unions and MPs for not including a breakdown of attendance by region and local authority, instead providing an overview of England which may disguise the hardest hit areas.
Barton added: “There is a great deal of variability between and within regions. Many schools are struggling with large numbers of pupils and staff having to self-isolate, and are operating under huge pressure.”
Last week MP Wes Streeting ordered ministers to “come clean” and reveal the regional disparity in pupil attendance Covid is creating after the DfE refused to answer his written question.
Streeting had submitted a written question to the DfE requesting the number and proportion of schools missing school due to Covid broken down by region and local authority.
The DfE refused to release the data as it said it would be publishing it in the final week of term, next week, alongside the normal attendance data.
However this data will only be provided one every half-term. Schools minister Nick Gibb also revealed to MPs the department doesn’t collect attendance data by year groups, but said he will go away and look at whether this is something they can do – particularly for pupils in exam years.
Elsewhere, the DfE data shows that the number of schools reporting one or more pupils self-isolating has fallen for two consecutive weeks.
It has dropped from 36 per cent on November 19, to 33 per cent on November 26 – and now stands at 28 per cent as of December 3.