School attendance data: Government 'pretending that the pandemic is over'

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

The latest school attendance figures have been stripped of any data on Covid-related absence as ministers try to “pretend that the pandemic is over”.

The removal of free Covid testing for staff and pupils and the decision to stop recording Covid-related absence has rendered the attendance data of little use when it comes to tracking Covid in schools, say school leaders.

The Department for Education (DfE) published the latest attendance figures for England’s schools on Tuesday (April 19).

They now only show overall attendance as well as a total figure of workforce absence for any reason after the DfE’s decision to stop collecting data on specific Covid absence.

The government also ended public access to free tests from April 1 as part of its Living with Covid Strategy. The legal requirement for people to self-isolate following a positive test ended in late February, although the government’s guidance still advises self-isolation.

School leaders are frustrated that the government seems to be ignoring the on-going problems with pupil and workforce absence due to Covid.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The evidence we have been hearing is that Covid-related absence among both staff and students was still a huge problem in a number of schools before Easter and that leaders have major concerns about on-going disruption as we begin the summer term.”

The latest attendance figures (DfE, 2022) show that on-site attendance in state-funded schools on April 7 was 89.1%. This breaks down as 92.3% for primaries and 85.6% for secondaries.

Meanwhile, 21,000 teachers and school leaders were absent for any reason on April 7 (8.2%) as were 27,000 teaching assistants and other support staff (7.6%).

When compared to the March 17 attendance figures, we can see that overall attendance on April 7 is down from 89.7% on March 17. However, it is now impossible to track Covid absence rates.

The April 7 figures do tell us, however, that 18% of schools had more than 15% of their teachers and leaders off for any reason, while 12% had more than 15% of teaching assistants and support staff off. Covid is likely to be a major factor in these figures.

Mr Barton continued: “Almost a fifth of schools had more than 15% of their teachers absent. It is very clear that Covid is continuing to wreak havoc and it is hard for schools to operate under these conditions.

“It is also very clear that the pandemic is not over. Reintroducing free Covid testing to prevent disruption to the first public exams in three years is clearly the obvious way forward, and we call upon the government to act urgently.”

The sentiment is echoed by the National Association of Head Teachers who said the government was “ignoring” the pandemic situation in schools.

General secretary Paul Whiteman said it was “no longer possible to draw any conclusions from these attendance figures as to what the Covid situation really is in schools”.

He added: “These changes are deeply troubling and ill-advised and seem symptomatic of the government’s wider attempts to try to just pretend that the pandemic is over.

“This data does show that disruption is clearly still very high. Overall workforce absence is still close to the same level as at the start of term.

“Making such changes when staff and pupil Covid absences remain high makes very little sense, and ultimately means that we have less information about why pupils have been absent from school. The lack of up-to-date information also raises serious questions about the government’s ability to respond quickly should cases start to rise or new variants emerge in the future.

“We continue to hear a sense of deep frustration from school leaders as they struggle to deal with the significant and on-going disruption caused by Covid. Despite the government no longer collecting data, schools will still have to deal with the reality of higher than normal levels of staff and pupil absence. School leaders feel they have been abandoned.”

Mr Barton questioned the value of the new-look attendance figures: “It is increasingly difficult to see the value of the government continuing to produce attendance statistics about the impact of Covid when it has removed free testing for both staff and pupils which was a crucial means of being able to tell whether or not staff and students have the illness.

  • DfE: Week 16: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, April 2022:

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