DfE refuses to budge on rotas as infection rates rise among pupils

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

Primary and secondary-age children are currently the only age groups with an increasing rate of Covid-19 infection, survey data shows.

It comes as around 876,000 pupils did not attend school last week for reasons related to coronavirus – up from 550,000 the week before. Of these, around 18,000 had a confirmed case of Covid-19, while 31,000 or so had suspected cases.

The National Education Union (NEU) has labelled this a “collapse in attendance” and wants action to protect schools.

School leaders, meanwhile, have renewed their pleas for the government to allow rota systems to be put in place – arguing that with so many pupils self-isolating many schools are effectively operating a chaotic rota system anyway.

However, the Department for Education (DfE) has so far refused to budge on the rota issue and the government’s Covid-19 Winter Plan, published earlier this week by prime minister Boris Johnson, also rules out allowing schools to close early for Christmas.

The DfE is due to update its guidance for schools (2020a) shortly in light of the Winter Plan and the revised three-tier system of local restrictions which comes into play after the national lockdown.

It comes as Covid-19 infection survey data for November 20, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS, 2020) shows that after a small decrease in October, infection rates are now rising again, especially among secondary-age students.

It states: “Positivity rates continue to increase in primary school-aged children. The highest rates are seen among secondary school-aged children and older teenagers and young adults; however, trends vary between these groups.

“After a small decrease in late October and early November for both age groups, rates among secondary school-aged children now appear to be increasing again, whereas rates for young adults appear to show early signs of levelling off. Over the last week, positivity rates appear to be levelling off in people aged 25 years and over.”

Meanwhile, the latest attendance data from the DfE (2020b) shows yet more schools with pupils self-isolating and yet more students being sent home.

Overall, attendance in state schools now stands at 82.9 per cent (on November 19). This is down from 86.5 per cent (on November 12).

Within these figures, primary school attendance is down to 87 per cent (from 90 per cent), while secondary school attendance has hit 78 per cent, down from 83 per cent.

The DfE states: “We estimate approximately 9 to 11 per cent of pupils in state-funded schools did not attend school for Covid-19 related reasons on Thursday 19 November.”

While the vast majority of schools remain open, 73 per cent of secondaries and 29 per cent of primaries now have one or more pupils self-isolating. Around a quarter of all state schools – primary and secondary – said they had 30 or more pupils self-isolating.

Ultimately it means that 876,000 pupils did not attend school last week for reasons related to coronavirus, including around one in five (22 per cent) secondary pupils and one in eight primary pupils (13 per cent).

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union said: “The government cannot bury their heads in the sand about coronavirus transmission in schools any longer. There is very clear evidence that secondary age pupils are catching the virus in school and on their way to school, and then passing it to their families. In these circumstances the government cannot expect schools to run as normal with almost no measures to protect staff and pupils.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has previously called for rota systems to be introduced.

The official DfE guidance for schools, last updated November 5, continues to state that “schools should not put in place rotas” (DfE, 2020a).

It comes as a letter to public health directors earlier this month, from education secretary Gavin Williamson and health secretary Matt Hancock, told them not to close schools or move them to rota systems as part of their any local responses to rising infection rates.

Nonetheless, Mr Barton renewed his pleas this week: “The reality behind these figures is that many schools are experiencing disruption on a monumental scale and are desperately trying to cling on to the end of term. We support the priority of keeping schools open but the government has to give them the flexibility to operate rota systems if it would help to manage this turbulent situation.

“However, the government seems to be implacably opposed to rotas and does not appear willing to give even this small concession to support schools. The fact is that the current disruption already amounts to many children rotating between school and home because of Covid protocols.”

The National Association of Head Teachers, meanwhile, has renewed its calls for the government to reimburse schools for the spiralling costs of Covid safety measures.

A petition calling for the government to cover schools’ costs has now been signed by more than 27,000 people, meaning the government is obliged to respond.

General secretary Paul Whiteman said: “These attendance figures show how hard schools are working to maintain provision for as many pupils as possible, but the support from the government is not good. Schools continue to need to spend money on safety measures and cleaning, and on supply staff to cover when teachers are out of school through illness or isolation. At present there is no additional money from the government to cover any of these costs.”

Mr Courtney added: “The government’s refusal to give school’s any money to deal with coronavirus this term speaks volumes.”


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