Pupil attendance falls again as Covid closures double

Despite overall Covid absences falling, the number of pupils missing school due to closures doubled to 34,000

Despite overall Covid absences falling, the number of pupils missing school due to closures doubled to 34,000

5 Apr 2022, 13:15

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Schools are suffering their lowest attendance since the Omicron surge struck earlier this year, with double the number of pupils off school because of Covid-enforced closures.

The Department for Education’s latest attendance survey data estimates that on March 31, 179,000, or 2.2 per cent of the pupil population, were absent for Covid related reasons.

This is down by 23,000 from March 17 when the figure stood at 202,000 pupils.

However on-site attendance has fallen from 89.7 per cent to 88.6 per cent on March 31 – the lowest attendance since February 4 (87.8 per cent), when schools began recovering from the surge of the Omicron variant at the beginning of term.

The DfE’s data contradicts reports from school leaders facing widespread disruption and Covid infections reaching record highs nationally.

However, under new “living with Covid measures”, the government is no longer advising schools to code Covid absence separately.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, warned “the situation remains grave with very severe disruption continuing in many schools and colleges”.

“It is very difficult to operate in these conditions. The government’s decision to withdraw free testing in such circumstances is a retrograde step, particularly with exams a few weeks away, and we have repeatedly urged ministers to reconsider.”

Confirmed Covid cases drop to 120,000

Of the pupils absent for Covid-related reasons last Thursday, 120,000 were estimated to have a confirmed case of coronavirus – down by 39,000 from two weeks before.

The number of pupils with a suspected case of Covid remained static at 16,000.

But the number of pupils absent due to attendance restrictions being in place to manage a Covid disruption doubled from 17,000 to 34,000.

Schools Week previously revealed schools were sending year groups home after high numbers of staff tested positive.

Staff disruption continues

The overall proportion of absent teachers and school leaders decreased from 9.1 per cent to 8.7 per cent.

However this was driven by falls in primary settings. For secondaries, the proportion of teachers and school leaders off rose from 8.8 per cent on March 27 to 8.9 per cent last week.

While the proportion of absent teaching assistants and other staff rose from 6.6 per cent to 7.2 per cent.

Special schools were still the hardest hit, with 11 per cent of teachers and leaders absent. Yet this was a slight drop from 11.3 two weeks earlier.

Overall, one in five schools had more than 15 per cent of teachers absent, with 40 per cent of schools having up to five per cent of teachers off, up from 37 per cent on March 17.

Headteachers ‘at breaking point’

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “We all assumed ‘living with Covid’ meant there would be very low case levels – this is clearly not case and absence rates remain at concerningly high-levels.

“School leaders feel they have been abandoned. The ongoing risk of illness and chaos caused by staff absence, not to mention the mounting pressure of exams, SATs and Ofsted, is unsustainable.

“Our members and education are at breaking point.”

Both NAHT and ASCL published an open letter to education secretary Nadhim Zahawi yesterday calling for action on Covid disruption, which many leaders told the unions “is greater than at any previous point during the pandemic”.

They called the decision to axe free testing for pupils and staff “reckless” and urged Zahawi to U-turn on plans to publish league tables this year.

Publishing the “inaccurate and meaningless data” will add to “extreme stress” placed on staff and “exacerbate the recruitment and retention crisis that has been building for several years”, they wrote.

“Many members are telling us that this is the final straw which is leading them to step down from school or college leadership.”

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