Back to school: Schools report high attendance and positive responses from pupils, parents and staff

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Headteachers are reporting high attendances and a positive response from parents and children after the full re-opening of schools following the Covid-19 lockdown and summer break.

After weeks of at times wild national media speculation, the early feedback shows that only a minority of parents kept their children away because of safety fears over the virus.

Meanwhile, schools on SecEd’s editorial advisory panel have reported positively on the new term and how staff and students have responded.

On Friday (September 4), the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) published snapshot data from members in England and Wales showing that 92 per cent of schools reported attendance of 81 per cent or higher; 82 per cent reported attendance of 91 to 100 per cent.

Furthermore, the main reasons for non-attendance were pupils having to quarantine following trips abroad (57 per cent), pupils who were still away on holiday (50 per cent), pupils who were ill but not related to Covid-19 (41 per cent), and pupils who were self-isolating following government guidelines (20 per cent).

Only 21 per cent reported pupils not attending due to their parents’ fears over safety.

In addition, 98 per cent of the responding schools said that 91 to 100 per cent of their teaching staff had also attended on the first day of term.

However, Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, is concerned that this positive start could be damaged by the consistent failure of the government’s test and trace service.

Mr Whiteman said: “Tests need to be readily available for everyone so that pupils and staff who test negative can get back into school quickly. The government assured us that this would be ready, but at the first sign of stress it seems to be falling over.

“This will put the successful and sustainable return to school at serious risk. It is unacceptable for this to happen when schools have put so much effort into getting their part of the plan right, and when pupils have had to endure so much uncertainty and disruption already.”

Schools that SecEd spoke with this week were positive about the response from parents, staff and children so far this term. Paul Haigh, headteacher of King Ecgbert School in Sheffield, said they have seen 97 per cent attendance: “The children have slotted in really naturally like they were never away. Staff and students have adapted to the considerable changes very quickly and without complaint – everyone is pulling together to make it work.”

Likewise, Wright Robinson College in Manchester reported 96.5 per cent attendance after bringing back its more than 2,000 students in a staggered approach across three days last week.

Dr Robin Bevan, headteacher at Southend High School for Boys, told SecEd: “Pupils are naturally remaining within their social year group bubbles; teachers are embracing our new two-lesson-a-day model (and adapting their pedagogy to suit); staggered morning break-times have unexpected benefits; we’re riding on the tide of delight at being back in school.”

Challenges being reported by schools we spoke with include managing the logistics of staggered arrivals and lunches and room planning with so many different bubbles in operation. How to handle events such as parents’ evenings and staffrooms being out of action due to social distancing rules are other headaches.

Encouraging students to socially distance within their bubbles and ensuring that masks are being worn when required were also mentioned. A number of schools raised their concerns about increasing infection rates locally, while others said they were still picking up the pieces after the problems with A level grading.

In Sheffield, Mr Haigh said that with local infection rates rising, local schools are already reporting cases from community transmission, with individual staff and students being sent home in some cases and in others entire bubbles being asked to stay away.

He added: “It feels right now that while we are here and operating it’s on very thin ice. With 60,000 university students about to return to Sheffield we are worried so I’m just taking school one day at a time. I will be over the moon if all seven year groups stay open until October half-term. The uncertainty is the challenge of being a headteacher right now.”

For Dr Bevan, the aftermath of the A level grading fiasco has been a challenge: “We are spending a vast amount of time, still, picking up the pieces of the shocking mess left in the aftermath of the grade-awarding fiasco. Unsurprisingly, parents have little confidence in the system. There is a lot of anger and frustration directed at the school: even though the grades obtained were genuinely realistic.

“We are desperately concerned that DfE/Ofqual are wholly misjudging the scale of adaptation needed for next summer’s examinations – there is a real risk it will prove to be little more than an appraisal of how fortunate home circumstances were for each child during lockdown.”

Ray McGovern, head of Ysgol Greenhill School in Tenby, said that his students had returned “with fresh understanding of the importance of school in their life, both from a learning and social perspective”. He also praised his staff’s “cohesion and enthusiasm to get on with it”.

He added that challenges have included explaining the concept of class contact groups or bubbles to parents and encouraging pupils to socially distance.

He said: “Pupils who having been out and about socialising for the past month can no longer grasp the need or relevance of any social distancing. Pupils comply politely when asked but you know they are thinking ‘what is all the fuss about, I have been in five lessons today with loads of different people?’.’

In Scotland, meanwhile, schools have been back since mid-August and there has been a similar positive response. Colin Gambles, the rector of Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow, told us: “The return to school has taken a great deal of planning but has gone remarkably smoothly thanks to the hard work of so many from the team over the summer. All of our people, both staff and pupils, are just so pleased to be back.

“The biggest challenge has been trying to fit a wide variety of constantly updating advice and best practice into an individual and unique school. This necessarily means trying to make decisions in the best interest of our staff and pupils where generic advice maybe less practical. There is concern about what would happen in the event of an outbreak of the virus and what would then happen to learning and teaching once more.”

John Rutter, headteacher at Inverness High School, said that his pupils had relished returning to “some kind of normality”. He added: “The demands on senior leaders are now almost entirely operational, rather than strategic, with extended lunchtimes and more time patrolling corridors and social spaces. I am getting heartily sick of hearing myself say ‘get your mask on’.”


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