Guidance on capping pupil numbers sought as thousands of schools report 40 per cent attendance

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

The high attendance levels in many schools during the current lockdown gives the government the perfect opportunity to understand infection risks ahead of full re-opening, it has been suggested.

However, school leaders are still seeking urgent government guidance on whether in-school numbers should be capped in light of the emerging and more contagious Covid variants.

Thousands of schools have as many as 40 per cent of their pupil cohort in attendance, with headteachers warning that demand for places is continuing to rise during the latest national coronavirus lockdown.

Official figures show that attendance across all state schools in England was up to 14.9 per cent as of Thursday, January 28 – up from 14.1 per cent the week before (DfE, 2021).

However, a snapshot survey by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has found that as many as 2,000 schools have had at least 40 per cent of pupils in attendance since the current lockdown began.

The DfE figures show that on January 28 attendance was 22 per cent in primary schools, five per cent in secondary schools, and 33 per cent in special schools. Seventy per cent of those attending are the children of critical workers.

Attendance now is much higher than during the first lockdown last year. In May 2020, for example, on-site attendance was around four per cent in primary schools, one per cent in secondaries and eight per cent in special schools.

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, said the attendance figures are a stark reminder that schools have been anything but “closed” since January 5.

He has urged the DfE to “scrutinise” infection rates in schools with higher numbers in attendance to help inform its planning and decision-making over full re-opening.

He said: “While discussion of schools ‘reopening’ dominates the headlines, these figures are a timely reminder that schools did not really close in the first place. A significant number of children continue to be taught by their teachers in school every day, while often those same teachers are simultaneously supporting remote learning to those pupils that remain at home.

“In planning for a return of more pupils to face-to-face education, government should scrutinise the infection rates and transmission within the minority of schools and communities where significant numbers of pupils and parents continue to meet daily.

“Understanding the level of risk presented by higher numbers of pupils in school would appear key to planning for a safe and sustainable return to school for all pupils.”

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), meanwhile, is seeking urgent government guidance on whether schools should cap pupil numbers in light of the new, more contagious variants of Covid-19.

Geoff Barton, general secretary, added: “It is worrying that demand for school places is obviously rising during the course of the lockdown. Schools are being placed in the very difficult position of much higher demand than in the first lockdown and no guidance from the government about how many children should be in school at any one time.

“Many schools are having to juggle in-school teaching for quite large numbers of pupils with remote education for everyone else. We have asked the government for guidance over whether numbers should be capped, but we have not had a satisfactory response. It is very difficult to square this with the government’s message to the public to stay home, protect the NHS, and save lives.”

Elsewhere, the DfE’s figures show that an estimated two per cent of teachers and school leaders and three per cent of teaching assistants were away from school on January 28 for Covid-related reasons – a confirmed or suspected case, or self-isolating due to a potential contact.

It comes as Ofsted has confirmed that a return to in-person routine inspections will not happen until March 8 at the earliest. Until then, remote inspections will continue of schools judged to be “inadequate” or “requiring improvement”.

  • DfE: Week 5: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus outbreak, February 2, 2021: http://bit.ly/35DM7Aw


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