Covid-19: Government action demanded as student attendance falls to 84 per cent

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

A sharp fall in the number of secondary schools able to remain fully open has caused widespread concern and renewed calls for government action.


It comes as teachers have raised concerns about the workload implications of being asked to deliver increasing levels of remote education on top of their existing teaching duties in school.

Official statistics show that on September 24 only 84 per cent of state secondary schools were fully open – down from 92 per cent on September 17 (DfE, 2020).

Of those not fully open, the DfE analysis said this was “mostly due to Covid-19 related reasons”.

“Fully open” is defined as being able to “provide face-to-face teaching for all pupils on roll for the whole school day and that they have not asked a group of pupils to self-isolate”.

It means that attendance in state-funded secondary schools has also decreased from approximately 86 per cent on September 17 to 84 per cent on September 24. Attendance in fully open state-funded secondary schools stands at 87 per cent.

At primary level, the situation is more stable, with around 95 per cent of schools fully open on September 24, similar to the picture on September 17. Attendance meanwhile has increased from 88 to 91 per cent.

It means that overall, 93 per cent of state-funded schools were fully open on September 24, down from 94 per cent the week before.

With more pupils being forced to self-isolate and with the remote education burden beginning to increase once again, teachers have this week called for more resources, including more teaching staff, to ensure remote provision is sustainable in the months ahead.

Research involving 6,445 teachers has found that 82 per cent do not feel they are being given the support they need to do their job effectively during the pandemic.

Carried out by the NASUWT teaching union between September 25 and 29, the survey finds that workload has increased for three quarters (74 per cent) of teachers and more than half (56 per cent) say they go without regular breaks.

At the same time, teachers are being expected to develop and deliver remote education, with 86 per cent of the respondents saying there is an expectation they will do this work in addition to their current workload.

NASUWT fears that the pressure is only going to increase as more and more children and school staff are forced to self-isolate and more schools put into action contingency plans for remote learning alongside the delivery of in-school teaching.

General secretary Dr Patrick Roach said: “Teachers are telling us they are experiencing massive strain on their workload and the provision of remote education is simply not sustainable without substantial additional resources, including extra teachers, to enable this to happen.

“If the government is serious about children’s education, then it must do whatever it takes to ensure that schools have the extra resources and funding they need to continue to provide education in these extremely challenging circumstances.”

Meanwhile, the National Education Union has renewed its calls for retired, supply and newly qualified teachers to be drafted into so-called “Nightingale classrooms”.

The idea is that the extra staff would help to reduce class sizes in schools, while the Nightingale classrooms will expand school space to help schools maintain effective social distancing.

The issue is likely to be debated by NEU members during a special online conference on Saturday (October 3). For details, see our report here.

Joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “With such a rapid drop in the number of fully open secondary schools in the space of just two weeks, it is clear the government's grip on the situation is now in question. This does not just begin and end with testing, although that situation is parlous enough.

“‘Nightingale classes’ will be necessary to expand school space – we have been calling for that since June. We also need proper funding support to schools, so that they can remain Covid-secure.”

She added: “Some of the current partial closures will affect exam classes in years 11 and 13. It is time for the government to set out a Plan B for this year's GCSE and A level students.”

Commenting on the school attendance figures, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the “pressure on school leaders and their staff is immense”.

He is demanding more action from the government to support schools, including by postponing Ofsted inspections, which are due to resume in January, and clarifying the plans for next summer’s examinations.

He said: “(The figures) reflect the extremely difficult circumstances in which schools are operating amidst rising infection rates in the community.

“While there are some signs of improvement in accessing Covid tests and obtaining timely public health advice in the event of positive cases, we continue to receive reports from schools that problems persist, and this is not good enough. It is increasingly clear that schools have effectively found themselves on the frontline of managing the public health emergency, as well as delivering education, and the support simply has to be there.

“The virus is an inescapable reality but there is much that the government can do to relieve associated pressures. It must reimburse schools for the costs involved in implementing safety measures to control the virus, clarify its plans and contingencies for next summer’s GCSEs and A levels, suspend performance tables for this academic year, and postpone plans to resume Ofsted inspections in January.

“Schools need a greater sense that the government has grasped the scale of the challenge they face and that it is backing them up.”

The attendance figures also show that 99.8 per cent of state-funded schools were open – but not necessarily fully open – on September 24, down from 99.9 per cent on September 17. Approximately 88 per cent of all children on roll in all state-funded schools were in attendance on September 24 – this figure has remained stable for three weeks now.

  • DfE: Week 39: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, September 29, 2020: https://bit.ly/3ijTxfs


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