The government has closed an attendance reporting loophole six weeks into term that left officials “unable to get a grip” on the true scale of the pandemic’s disruption in schools. Thousands of absences may have been missed.
Since Monday, all schools have been asked to provide data on Covid-19-related absences, using the Department for Education’s daily education setting status form.
These include suspected and confirmed cases, and those who have had potential contact with a case inside or outside school.
In guidance sent to school leaders, seen by Schools Week, the DfE admits that it had only asked for partially or fully closed schools to provide data on Covid-19 absences.
A school was previously classified as “partially closed” if it had specifically requested a group of pupils to self-isolate. But schools with pupils absent because of Covid symptoms or symptoms in their household did not count as partially closed. Their absences were not recorded.
The action is ‘very late in the day’
Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said it had been “clear for some time” that the government had not been able to “get a grip” on case counts. “This latest shift in data collection is welcome but very late in the day.”
School staff were “not impressed” with the “inaction and delay”.
The change comes after Schools Week made enquiries about the problem last month.
Neil Patterson, the principal at Silverstone UTC in Northamptonshire, said he had sent 14 pupils home to self-isolate since the start of term after one pupil tested positive. This left the college “partially closed’”under DfE definitions.
But the absences of 11 more pupils because of Covid-related reasons were not able to be logged, which meant the government would “know nothing about them”.
Patterson said he assumed decision-makers would “want to know how many students had been affected and for how long”, but this had been impossible to report.
Julie McCulloch, the director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said it was important the government got a full picture as infection rates soared and pupils in almost all areas were having to stay at home.
The change in reporting comes as more regions head into stricter lockdown measures under the government’s new tier system.
Meanwhile, latest DfE data shows that nearly one in ten schools is now closed, although attendance has crept up to 92.2 per cent as of October 8.
Government officials now tracking online learning
The increased attendance collection shows the fine line the DfE is attempting to tread.
Caroline Barlow, head of Heathfield Community College in East Sussex, questioned the additional workload for a task that used to take a staff member less than half an hour. It now takes four staff members “significantly longer”, she said.
Extra questions on remote learning are also required, including the amount of work set and how often it is marked.
Schools must choose from one hour to more than four hours of work set, while feedback is categorised as daily, two to four times a week, weekly or fortnightly.
It follows a new rule that schools must provide remote learning for children absent because of Covid-19. It comes into force next Thursday (October 22).
McCulloch said this was “unnecessarily time-consuming” and should be streamlined.
“This feels less like a government building a picture of attendance, and more like Big Brother checking up.”
A spokesperson for the department said it initially only asked for Covid absence data from partially closed schools to understand their position at the start of term and that it endeavoured to balance the information needs of the department with the burden placed on schools.
As well as attendance entries, the department also “closely monitors daily data reported by schools through our regional schools commissioners, local authorities and other teams within the department, including confirmed positive cases”. Public Health England also reports infection data.
The department said it constantly reviewed what information it published.
Data shows daily rise in Covid-19 absences
The DfE has been reticent to provide the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases among school pupils, saying it won’t provide a “running commentary”.
However, aggregated anonymous data from management information system provider Arbor shows the number of Covid-related absences in schools has risen every day this week.
On Monday, 3.5 per cent of pupils were self-isolating, rising to 3.9 per cent by Wednesday.
The data is from the 1,200 schools and 100 academy trusts that use the Arbor management information system and accounts for about 360,000 pupils.
The statistics only indicate the scale of the pandemic’s effects on schools and are not representative of the national picture.