Fears over Covid testing cut-off as pupil absences start to rise

Attendance tracker records 'first significant increase' since late January

Attendance tracker records 'first significant increase' since late January


Pupil absence rates are rising again after a sustained fall, new data shows, prompting warnings over the government’s plan to end free Covid testing for the public.

Data from the FFT Education attendance tracker shows absence increased to 8.8 per cent in secondary schools, up from 7.9 per cent last week. Absence in primaries rose to 6.4 per cent, up from 5 per cent previously.

FFT Education said the data from around 9,000 schools marks the “first significant increase” since late January. The data is more up-to-date than government figures, which currently only cover up to March 3.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said it was “worrying… especially given the currently rising numbers of Covid cases and hospital admissions nationally”. He added: “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

The South West is worst hit, with secondary absence at 9.5 per cent compared to 7.7 per cent in London. Primary absence in the region was also highest at 7.4 per cent, compared to 5.6 per cent in the North East.

The latest absence rates, which include both Covid and non-Covid absence, also reflect rising Covid cases nationally. The number of new cases was over 170,000 UK-wide on March 14, the highest level seen since early January.

The latest Office for National Statistics infection survey also indicates a more pronounced uptick in the infection rate among primary pupils, which rose to 6.3 per cent in the week to March 12.

It had previously been below 5 per cent since mid-February, having dropped from a high of almost 15 per cent in January.

Richard Wyborn, from FFT Education, said his organisation would be “monitoring the data to see if this trend continues as we move towards the important assessment/exam period for schools”.

Uncertainty over free Covid tests for schools

It comes as the government prepares to scrap free Covid tests for the general public and amid uncertainty about how long tests will remain free for schools.

The government ended its advice that secondary school pupils and staff test twice weekly at home last month.

But the recommendation remained in place for special schools, and mainstream schools were told they could still order stocks of free tests to help manage outbreaks.

The Guardian reported that free tests for special schools would end this month.

A Department for Education spokesperson refused to confirm the plans, only saying decisions on testing would be “outlined in due course”.

Julie McCulloch (pictured), director of policy at the ASCL union, said her organisation was “extremely concerned” about the government’s plans “and the impact this may have on transmission and attendance rates in education settings”.

Life was “anything but normal” for many schools, she added.

“Many of our members are telling us that absence levels among staff and pupils remain worryingly high. Many schools are still having to rely on expensive supply staff, where they can get them, to deliver lessons.”

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