Will SATs be fair? Soaring Covid absence raises fears over May tests

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

Questions are being asked over the fairness of holding SATs this summer given the continuing and stark increases in both student and staff absence from schools.

Official attendance figures (DfE, 2022) show that 100,000 more students are now self-isolating than two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, around 114,000 teachers, school leaders and support staff are currently off school, with a quarter of state schools reporting at least 15 per cent absence among teachers and leaders (27 per cent of primaries and seven per cent of secondaries).

In addition, 21 per cent of state schools have at least 15 per cent of support staff off (24 per cent of primaries and six per cent of secondaries).

The government intends for SATs to take place in May for key stage 1 and from May 9 to 12 for key stage 2.

However, the National Education Union is now raising concerns that such significant disruption due to staff and student absence already calls into question the fairness of holding exams as normal this summer.

On SATs, joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said this week: “In primary schools, Covid disruption once again raises questions about the usefulness of the government's plans for bringing back SATs in May.

“Staff and pupil absences have interrupted learning frequently and unevenly. SATs results will reflect this and will be even less of a fair measure of children's performance than they were before the pandemic, though schools will still be held to account for their scores.

“The government should recognise the problem and cancel statutory assessment in primary schools in 2022."

Mr Courtney says there are similar questions about fairness when it comes to GCSEs and A levels: “As the government has refused to help teachers and students prioritise teaching and learning by releasing the advanced information about topics earlier, it has a duty to ensure grades in the summer will be fair and to explain how it thinks that will be so.”

The National Association of Head Teachers also said this week that if more is not done by ministers to acknowledge the disruption, “trust in the fairness of the examination process will falter”.

The Education Policy Institute has weighed into the debate too, reminding ministers of its own research showing the relationship between absence from school and Covid learning gaps.

Chief executive Natalie Perera said: “Our research has found an association between pupil absence from school and higher learning losses, so the considerable rise of 100,000 pupils absent is a cause for great concern.

“The government must continue to closely follow pupil absences this term and consider whether it needs to target additional financial support to pupils who have been out of school the most.

“It must also keep its approach to summer exams under review, and ensure that the current adjustments in place for pupils are a proportionate response to the disruption they've faced.”

The latest attendance figures (DfE, 2022) show that 415,000 state school pupils (5.1 per cent) were not in school due to Covid-related reasons on January 20. This is up from 315,000 two weeks previously.

The figure includes 52,000 pupils with a suspected case and 322,000 pupils with a confirmed case.

Attendance in state primary schools stood at 89.1 per cent on January 20, down from 91 per cent on January 6. In state secondaries, meanwhile, attendance was 85.9 per cent on January 20, the same as two weeks ago.

Staff absence is becoming an increasing challenge for schools with 47,000 teachers and school leaders (nine per cent) off on January 20, up from 44,000 two week previously. This is in addition to 4.5 per cent of teachers and school leaders being off for reasons other than Covid.

And 67,000 teaching assistants and other staff (9.4 per cent) were absent on January 20, up from 62,000 and in addition to 4.7 per cent of the workforce who were off for other reasons.

  • DfE: Week 4: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, January 2022: https://bit.ly/3nYKbve

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