Covid-related absences in English schools reaches record high for academic year

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Covid-related absence in English schools reached a record high for the academic year last week, as one in 20 children stayed at home because of the virus.

Figures from the Department for Education released on Tuesday showed 5.1 per cent of pupils in state-funded schools in England — equivalent to 415,000 children — were off for reasons linked to coronavirus on January 20, up from 3.9 per cent a fortnight earlier.

The proportion of pupils with a confirmed case of coronavirus rose to 3.9 per cent, or 322,000, nearly double the 159,000 registered on January 6.

Educators said the jump in cases, recorded as restrictions such as mask wearing were dropped in England, showed things were far from “back to normal” and demanded more government support.

“[Schools] are still very much in the eye of the Covid storm and there is no escaping the fact that it is having an impact on education,” said Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers which represents school leaders.

He added that the disruption was putting “huge pressure” on students in exam years. Whiteman called on the government to “look again” at its plans and do more to reassure students that exams can be fair, taking into account differences in missed learning.

While teacher absence as a result of Covid fell slightly in the fortnight leading up January 20, DfE figures showed that 9 per cent of teachers and school leaders in total were off last week, up from 8.6 per cent two weeks earlier.

Nearly one quarter of all state schools had more than 15 per cent of teachers and school leaders off work, up from 8 per cent in September at the start of the academic year.

“As well as the impact on affected staff themselves, this also poses significant issues for leaders in trying to ensure they can continue to provide education for all pupils, including through the use of expensive and scarce supply staff,” said Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

He added that government needed to provide support for the “mounting costs” that headteachers faced. He said that dropping official guidance that pupils wear masks had “reduced the defences available to schools”.

In a select committee earlier on Tuesday, headteachers told MPs that they were struggling to source supply teachers and said strict guidelines prevented many schools from claiming additional money to fund cover.

John Blaney, executive headteacher with the Burnt Mill Academy Trust in London, said almost 50 per cent of staff were currently absent at one of his schools.

“It’s great to have the children back but I do think we have to recognise the challenges we face, due to still quite high levels of absences from staff and pupils,” he said.

Separately on Tuesday, the DfE announced it would consult schools on how to prevent school absences, identifying that a rise in pupils missing class was a problem beyond the pandemic.

Government figures indicated the number of students persistently absent from class increased to 501,642 in secondary schools in autumn 2020, up from 454,167 in 2019, not including those absent because of Covid.

Source: Financial Times

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