DfE will no longer publish school Covid absence updates

Leaders warn ‘having no stats doesn’t mean Covid has disappeared’

Leaders warn ‘having no stats doesn’t mean Covid has disappeared’

7 Apr 2022, 11:26

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The government is no longer asking schools to submit data on the number of pupils absent due to Covid-related reasons, signalling an end to regular updates on pandemic disruption.

The Department for Education today updated its educational setting status form “to remove questions on pupil absence due to COVID-19”.

This comes despite recent survey data revealing schools are struggling with their lowest attendance since the Omicron surge hit earlier this year.

It means the now twice-a-month publication of attendance figures – introduced during the pandemic – will no longer show how many pupils are missing school because of Covid.

Schools were previously asked to specify the number of pupils unable to attend school with a suspected or confirmed case of Covid, as well as those absent due to attendance restrictions put in place to manage an outbreak.

The attendance survey data released this week revealed the number of pupils absent due to Covid attendance restrictions doubled from 17,000 to 34,000 on March 31.

‘Having no stats doesn’t mean Covid has disappeared’

The removal of the questions signals the latest step from the government under its new “living with Covid measures”.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said there is “some logic” to the changes.

schools academy trust
Julie McCulloch

“As there is no access to free testing for either pupils and staff any longer, schools and colleges will not have any definitive figures to record.”

We saw the consequences of this in this week’s data release, which estimated the number of pupils absent for Covid-related reasons actually dropped from 202,000 to 179,000.

This contradicted reports on the ground from school leaders facing mass disruption and Covid infections nationally reaching record highs.

But schools are now advised by government to record Covid absence under the catch-all “illness” code in registers, rather than separately. Pupils are also no longer testing as regularly, which both likely explain the difference.

This was backed up by overall attendance falling again to its lowest level since the Omicron surge earlier this year.

But McCulloch added that “having no statistics does not mean that Covid has disappeared.

“Some schools are still experiencing massive disruption, with absence levels among both staff and pupils higher than they have seen throughout the entire pandemic.”

DfE to scrap form for automated collection

The DfE also plans to scale down the attendance form further after a review into the “burden” it placed on settings.

The government began a trial of automated collection of attendance data in January, which 13,000 schools have signed up to.

An email sent to school leaders, seen by Schools Week, adds: “Once the trial is fully established, we will stop collecting attendance data through the form and reconsider the frequency of the collection of workforce absence data.

“In the interim, the educational setting status form remains a valuable data source and we will continue to collect on-site pupil attendance and workforce absence data weekly in the summer term.”

McCulloch said the sector is “struggling to buy in to the government rhetoric that the Covid crisis is over.

“The disruption is still huge as we approach a critical period where many pupils are facing important exams. The worry is that confusion over whether illness is Covid or not will lead to increased transmission of the coronavirus.”

ASCL repeated its call to restore free testing for pupils and staff until exams are over “at the very least”.

Schools still asked about Covid closures

The status form still asks schools whether they are fully closed because of Covid. It will still also collect overall attendance rates.

The DfE expect to continue publishing the data “in the usual way”.

A new question regarding the attendance of pupils in Year 11, 12 and 13 will appear on the form from April 21.

It notes that as provision for these year groups may be different in the summer term, due to upcoming exams, it may not include in-person attendance.

Leaders will be asked to specify how many pupils in these years are not attending because of “study leave where students only attend school for exams, visits to education providers, or other arranged activities outside of school”.

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