Covid-19: Anger at DfE rising as attendance continues to fall

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

The second half of the autumn term is set to be “even more difficult” for schools after a notable fall in pupil attendance due to Covid-19. It comes as anger at the DfE's Covid-19 response grows, especially after its decision to slash free laptop allocations. Pete Henshaw reports


The latest attendance figures published by the Department for Education (DfE, 2020) estimate that 557,000 pupils in state-funded schools did not attend due to Covid-related reasons on Thursday, October 22.

The figures have reignited anger at the DfE’s decision to restrict the allocation of free laptops to schools while at the same time making remote education for all pupils a legal requirement.

Schools are now braced for an increasingly difficult second half-term as infections rates continue to rise.

Up until now, the DfE’s weekly attendance figures have remained largely stable at around 90 per cent student attendance. However, last week saw roughly 86 per cent of pupils on roll in state-funded schools (excluding schools already on half-term) in attendance.

Attendance in state-funded primary schools was recorded at 90 per cent (down from 92 per cent the week previously) and in state-funded secondary schools it was 83 per cent (down from 87 per cent).

The figure of 557,000 pupils absent because of Covid-19 on October 22 breaks down as follows:

  • 10,000 pupils with a confirmed case of coronavirus.
  • 33,000 pupils with a suspected case of coronavirus.
  • Up to 459,000 pupils self-isolating due to potential contact with a case of coronavirus.
  • 55,000 pupils in schools closed for Covid-19 related reasons.

Overall, 26 per cent of state schools reported having one or more pupils self-isolating on October 22, up from 21 per cent the week previously. This breaks down as 55 per cent of secondary schools and 20 per cent of primary schools. Around 16 to 18 per cent of state schools say that they had 30 or more pupils self-isolating on October 22.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the figures painted “a grim picture of the increasingly challenging situation facing schools”.

He added: “With the majority of schools in England on half term this week, there is now a short pause while school leaders and staff brace themselves for what is clearly going to be an even more difficult half term ahead.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the numbers were “shocking”. She continued: “The challenge is not going away, so Gavin Williamson must now take steps to expand school space, increase staff numbers and help us maintain social distancing. Instead he is ostrich-like, producing increasingly bizarre responses to attendance statistics that insist black is white and all is well. This is plainly not true.

“He is also completely out of touch if he thinks that exams can continue as normal next year, even with a three-week delay of now vanishing relevance, or that Ofsted inspections should recommence in January.”

The worsening self-isolation figures have further angered school leaders after the DfE decided to restrict access to its free laptop scheme for disadvantaged pupils.

The scheme, whose roll-out was beset by delays during the summer term, has now delivered more than 105,000 laptops this term, but a new system coming into force after half-term means that schools can only claim about 20 per cent of their allocation.

The DfE has said that this is to ensure the devices can be targeted at those schools in areas most in need. However, there have been numerous stories of devastated headteachers who have been told that their allocations are being slashed. Below are just a few of the many tales of laptop cuts we have been told about.

  • In one school 61 laptops has been cut to 13
  • In one academy trust the allocation has been slashed from 465 to 55.
  • Another academy trust has seen its allocation cut from 300 to 13.
  • A school leader from the North West told Headteacher Update this week that two of his schools had seen allocations cut from 63 to 14 and 43 to 11. Both schools have high free school meals and Pupil Premium cohorts.
  • A Birmingham head, meanwhile, said that her school had been cut from 66 to 13 laptops.
  • One group of schools of around 15 schools was expecting 550 devices to be delivered, but this has now been revised down to 126, with some of the schools only receiving five devices or fewer.
  • Speaking to Headteacher Update, an academy trust chairman said: “Lots of schools have seen their allocation reduced and most seem to be reduced by three-quarters. Schools were advised on Friday afternoon last week.”
  • And a London headteacher told us: “I am furious! We were only allocated three, which has now been cut to one – and with the proviso we might not get that one.”

It comes as from October 22 schools came under a new legal duty to provide remote education for any pupils who are absent due to Covid-19.

Dr Bousted added: “At a critical moment, the education profession is faced with a Department intent on making life more difficult for schools and young people. Last week’s decision to ration laptops for disadvantaged children, while at the same time putting a legal duty on schools to provide remote learning for those who need to isolate, is shameful. Gavin Williamson is making no serious effort to fix problems of his creation, nor does he support schools in a way that is fitting in a time of crisis.”

Mr Barton said: “In this turbulent context, it is crucial that schools are able to provide disadvantaged pupils with laptops so they can work from home if they have to self-isolate and do not have access to these devices. However, it is very clear that the government has completely underestimated the number of laptops that are needed.

“This is evident from the fact that at the end of last week, just as most schools broke up for half term, the government informed many schools that their allocation of laptops was being drastically reduced in order to prioritise devices for the areas of highest need. It is clearly the case that demand is outstripping supply at an alarming rate.

“Our impression is that the government has never fully grasped the scale of the challenge both in terms of the numbers of devices that are needed and over ensuring that families have the connectivity they require. It is very frustrating that progress has been so slow on this front despite the fact that it has been discussed for many months.”

The laptop scheme is open to disadvantaged children in years 3 to 11 who do not have access to a device and whose face-to-face education is disrupted. However, the guidance states, among a number of conditions, that schools must have 15 or more children self-isolating before they can request devices.

  • DfE: Week 43: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, October 27, 2020: https://bit.ly/3jAXFZc
  • DfE: Guidance: Get laptops and tablets for children who cannot attend school due to coronavirus (Covid-19), last updated October 1, 2020: https://bit.ly/3jyFT8T


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