Changing guidance and interventions from ministers has created confusion over which pupils should be attending school, putting further pressure on headteachers.
After announcing last Monday that schools would remain open to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers until February half term at the earliest, the government has since sought to encourage critical workers to keep their children at home if they can.
The health secretary has stated that families where one parent is a key worker but the other doesn’t work should not send their children to school.
What is the source of the confusion?
The government announced partial closures of schools last Monday, but then waited until Thursday to send out updated guidance for schools, and Friday to update its guidance for parents.
In the intervening period, some schools reported very high attendance rates. According to the NAHT school leaders’ union, some schools have reported attendance rates of up to 70 per cent of their normal levels.
Polling data from Teacher Tapp also shows that attendance, especially in primary schools, is much higher than it was early on in the first lockdown last spring.
Last Wednesday, 20 per cent of primary staff polled said they had between 20 and 30 per cent of their usual body in, while 9 per cent said they had between 30 and 40 per cent in.
When asked the same question on March 23 last year, just 1 per cent of primary staff reported attendance rates of between 20 and 30 per cent, and none reported rates of over 30 per cent.
The issue has also been compounded by guidance from the government stating that pupils who have “difficulty engaging in remote education” may be classed as vulnerable.
What does the guidance for schools say?
Guidance for schools, which was only updated last Thursday, states that schools “should speak to parents and carers to identify who needs to go to school”.
“If it proves necessary, schools can ask for simple evidence that the parent in question is a critical worker, such as their work ID badge or pay slip.”
But, the document also tells schools there is “no limit to numbers of these pupils who may attend and schools should not limit attendance of these groups” (although there are now calls for the government to impose some sort of attendance cap).
However, the guidance also states that parents and carers who are critical workers “should keep their children at home if they can”.
What does the guidance for parents say?
Until Friday, guidance for parents simply stated that children with at least one parent or carer who is a critical worker “can go to school or college if required”.
However, the government subsequently updated the guidance to state that parents and carers “should keep their children at home if they can”. This has been reported as a U-turn.
Critical workers include those whose who work in health and social care “and in other key sectors”. The government’s list of critical workers now includes more than 40 different roles across eight sectors, and families have been told their children are eligible to attend school even if only one parent is on the list.
Hancock muddies the water amid calls for clarity
Despite the guidance stating that children with at least one parent working in a critical role are eligible to attend school, Matt Hancock muddied the water over the weekend when he pleaded with key workers to keep their children at home if they can.
“For instance, if you’re a key worker and your partner doesn’t work then you shouldn’t be sending your children to school,” he told Sky News.
As well as causing confusion, the muddled message has put school leaders in a tricky position. For instance, nearly half of respondents to an NAHT poll saying they have had to “prioritise places due to an excess of demand”.
Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, said: “The government must be clear on what it intends schools and families to do. If the national priority is to suppress the virus then it must provide schools with clear guidance so that reasonable levels of attendance can be set.”