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

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

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 Headteacher Update’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 Headteacher Update spoke with this week were positive about the response from parents, staff and children so far this term.

Chris Jones, executive headteacher at Bruche Primary School, part of the Warrington Primary Academy Trust, said that a great response from parents and carers had seen their staggered school day work “really well”.

He added: “Our children have adapted so well to the new procedures, I'm so proud of them. Our classrooms are looking great because all staff have really put the time and effort in to make them safe and strong learning environments.”

The biggest challenges so far have centred on providing emotional and mental health support: “Some of our children have come back to school with some anxiety and concerns, but once they saw familiar faces they quickly settled into lessons.

“Our parents needed a lot of reassurance that our school was safe, so we worked really hard with them to make the transition back into school as easy as possible. This included making sure all information was on the school website in a timely manner, videos of how each of the classrooms looked, and transition telephone calls for every child and their parents/carers.”

Sophie Murfin, CEO of Wise Owl Trust in east Manchester, reported a similar picture, with good attendance across the MAT’s three primary schools.

She added: “The biggest challenge for us has been building confidence in parents and staff while negotiating conflicting and constantly updated guidance.

“In order to follow guidance, it means that our classrooms are very different and our teaching styles have changed. We do very active lessons and are very big on pupil engagement, although this has proven to be challenging with the new way of working. During lockdown our staff worked extremely hard to revamp our curriculum for the September return, which has meant that gaps in pupils’ learning can be quickly addressed.”

Another challenge for the MAT has been dealing with the impact on parents of so much misinformation about Covid-19 – often found on social media or sometimes in the national media.

As such, the MAT has worked with Manchester Metropolitan University and Professor Farida Vis from the Visual Social Media Lab to develop resources for staff, parents and pupils on how to identify misinformation (see further information).

Ms Murfin added: “The staff guide has been shared with all schools across Manchester and is available to download from our website. We are currently working on a programme for pupils, which will be available to all schools.”

At Yeading Infant and Nursery School in Hayes, the school made good use of its social media accounts to help communicate with and reassure parents. Deputy headteacher Sabah Malik said: “Where parents have expressed anxiety, staff have been prepared to deal with this and there is a clear system in place to offer further support if required.”

The school is using art therapy approaches in anticipation of mental health challenges and to support children’s wellbeing. Ms Malik added: “The children are happy to be back and the vast majority are enjoying the routine of being at school. Some things are slightly different but the children and staff are adjusting well to the new changes.”

Challenges have included the “ever-changing rules on countries from which people returning must quarantine” and the delay in getting results for families who have needed to get tested.

Ms Malik added: “Due to the extra measures, drop off and pick up is taking slightly longer but families have been happy to adhere to health and safety protocol. There is still confusion over whether to wear a mask and we have needed to enforce this on the school site.”

Rachel Jones, headteacher of Kingsley St John’s Primary School in Cheshire, said that their new systems were working well with only a few tweaks needed after the first week. The school has seen 96 per cent attendance, with just one family wanting to wait a week to see how things developed and another asking to attend part-time.

Ms Jones added: “We have had two children develop symptoms on site, and have used the isolation room – the process worked well and the parent arrived within 15 minutes and took them home to access a test and self-isolate.

“A huge plus has been the time to review our curriculum and by increasing the amount of outdoor learning, and fostering a discovery-led curriculum, we are finding engagement in learning is excellent. The children have come back very positive.”

Jess Hawley, the senior leader for mental health at Markeaton Primary School in Derby, said that pupils were responding well to the recovery curriculum and that the school’s focus on rebuilding relationships is paying off. She added: “The children are so eager for structure and connection that it has flowed very well.”

Specific challenges so far have included handling the staggered start, end and break times as well as making sure there is no bubble crossover in the corridors and halls. Ms Hawley added: “This term feels like a whirlwind but I can see light at the end of the tunnel.”

And Julie Norman, executive primary lead at the Quantock Education Trust in Somerset, said they had responded to lots of parent emails asking questions about safety and government guidance. Staff had met for two days before opening to ensure all risk assessments were in place. The first days back went very well with a focus on allowing pupils to resocialise and rebuild relationships.

Ms Norman added: “The pupils were not upset about any Covid-19 stuff, masks or social distancing. They just wanted to know how to follow the new rules and spent all day reflecting on their own last few months and that of others. Relationships quickly began to reform.”

However, some parents had kept their children away or insisted on them wearing masks all day. Ms Norman said: “Trying to support these parents is a huge challenge as you certainly empathise with them, but also you can see that when we follow the basic rules of hygiene, social distancing and bubbles it just works.”

  • For more information on the work of the Wise Owl Trust and the Visual Social Media Lab, including to download the parental guide to misinformation, visit

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