Schools battle on alone amid 'grim' Covid absence figures

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

Some schools are reporting up to 10 per cent staff absence due to confirmed or suspected cases of Covid-19.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) is so concerned by dramatically increased rates of Covid absence that it has written to new education secretary Nadhim Zahawi pressing him to act.

School leaders also want to know why the roll-out of the promised 300,000 CO2 monitors is taking so long. It comes as the number of pupils absent from school due to Covid passed 200,000.

A survey of school leaders from the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) found that a quarter of schools were already exceeding the Covid infection thresholds as identified in the government’s contingency guidance (DfE, 2021a).

Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, said he was “disturbed” by the “grim” attendance statistics and called on Mr Zahawi to act.

Both ASCL and NAHT have pointed to anomalies in the current guidance for schools (DfE, 2021b) that allow siblings of a child with Covid to continue to attend school even if they share a bedroom.

Speaking to the BBC this week, Mr Barton pointed out that in Scotland, where some Covid mitigation measures have been kept in place – such as masks – there has been a reduction in non-attendance.

The latest school attendance statistics for England (DfE, 2021c) show that an estimated 2.5 per cent – around 204,000 – of all pupils on roll in state-funded schools did not attend school for Covid-related reasons on September 30 – up from 1.5 per cent (around 122,000) – two weeks previously. This includes:

  • Around 84,000 pupils with a suspected case (up from 45,000).
  • Around 102,000 pupils with a confirmed case (up from 59,000).
  • Around 5,000 pupils absent due to attendance restrictions being in place to manage an outbreak (up from 2,000).
  • An absence rate of 1.9 per cent in primary and 3.2 per cent in secondary.

Attendance in state-funded schools on September 30 was 89.5 per cent (down from 91.9 per cent). This breaks down as 92.6 per cent attendance in primaries and 86.3 per cent in secondaries.

The latest figures also show an estimated 1.7 per cent of teachers and school leaders and 1.5 per cent of teaching and support staff absent for Covid-related reasons on September 30.

Speaking to ASCL members in a briefing on Tuesday (October 5), Mr Barton said: “We’ve seen the attendance figures go down to 89 per cent, that’s more than 200,000 young people out of school at the moment.

“It’s not just that that’s a terrible problem with some of those young people feeling incredibly poorly as a result, the other issue is you are struggling with staff. In some cases, 10 per cent of your staff are not there.”

He said he would be writing to Mr Zahawi to ask him “where is the plan” and also to ask him “where are the CO2 monitors that we were promised”.

The DfE pledged to make around 300,000 Co2 monitors available “over the autumn term” at a cost of £25m to help schools identify the indoor spaces where ventilation is poor. However, roll-out has been slow.

The latest information shows that around 1,700 state schools will receive their devices between October 1 and 15. This comes after just 1,008 schools were due to receive their monitors in the first three weeks of September (see further information).

In a statement on Tuesday, Mr Barton added: “The new education secretary recently said that he won’t stand back and let attendance fall because the education of our children is simply too important. Now is the time for him to set out exactly what steps he intends to take. We are writing to him today expressing the urgency of the situation.

“One thing he might do is to look at why it is taking so long to deliver the carbon dioxide monitors. These devices are a relatively modest step towards addressing the issue of ventilation – and we would still like to see investment in high-quality ventilation systems – but they are at least something.”

Mr Barton said ASCL has seen reports from some schools who have as many as 10 per cent of pupils absent due to Covid and others who are struggling with up to 10 per cent of staff off. One school had 13 teachers absent with no supply cover available.

The government’s contingency guidance to schools (DfE, 2021a) states that if one of two thresholds is reached, they should consider extra action and contact their local health teams. The two thresholds are:

  • Five children, students, or staff, who are likely to have mixed closely, test positive for Covid-19 within a 10-day period.
  • Ten per cent of children, students or staff who are likely to have mixed closely test positive for Covid-19 within a 10-day period.

The NAHT’s survey of 1,106 school leaders – mainly working in primary schools – found that 26 per cent had already exceeded this threshold. They report that they have already had an average of three staff members absent this term.

The school leaders also say that they want to see the government do more on ventilation, with 40 per cent calling for the government to provide air filters where necessary.

General secretary Paul Whiteman said: “We are hearing from members on a daily basis who are still experiencing a high level of disruption. Our members are particularly concerned about the current guidance relating to siblings and household contacts. At the moment, if a child tests positive for Covid, their siblings can continue to attend school, even if they share a bedroom, for example. Our members say this is actively contributing to the spread of Covid in schools.

“School leaders want the government to revisit its guidance, particularly when it comes to contact-tracing and self-isolation. No-one wants to see a child miss any time off school, but there is a real risk that the current policy is inadvertently leading to more children missing school in the long run.”

  • DfE: Contingency framework: Education and childcare settings, August 2021a: https://bit.ly/3zEcoeI
  • DfE: Guidance: Actions for schools during the coronavirus outbreak, last updated September 27, 2021b: https://bit.ly/3eGCaHm
  • DfE: Week 40: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, October 5, 2021c: https://bit.ly/35DM7Aw
  • DfE: Access to the DfE’s guidance for using CO2 monitors – How to use CO2 monitors in education and childcare settings – as well as delivery forecasts per-school for the coming weeks: https://bit.ly/3l2cLJR
  • The DfE’s guidance offers contact numbers for the suppliers. Rexel can be contacted via 0330 0450 606 and CEF via 01926 350018. Meanwhile, the DfE’s own coronavirus helpline for schools is 0800 046 8687.


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