Pressures grow for reform of Covid processes amid rises in Covid-related absences

2nd July 2021

In the past few weeks, rising Covid cases have led to significant disruption in schools, leading to calls for change in how schools respond to positive cases. The most recent attendance data shows that Covid-related pupil absence in state-funded schools (adjusted for year 11-13 pupils not expected to attend) was 5.1% on 24 June. This is up from 3.3% on 17 June and 1.2% on 10 June.

In primary schools, Covid-related absence was 4.5% on 24 June, up from 2.7% on 17 June and 1.1% on 10 June. In secondary schools, Covid-related absence was 6.2% on 24 June. This is up from 4.2% on 17 June and 1.4% on 10 June. Among pupils absent for Covid-19 reasons, the main reason for absence is self-isolation due to contact with a potential case of coronavirus inside the school. On 24 June, 3.8% of pupils were absent for this reason, up from 2.3% on 17 June.

In response to the growing number of Covid-related absences, Schools North East sent out a survey to schools in our region, to assess the impact of current disruption. While the majority of schools had above 90% pupil attendance, over 40% of schools had attendance below this, and a quarter were below 80%. In the first week of May we asked the same question, and 90% of schools had pupil attendance between 90-100%.

Attendance among staff had similarly been hit. In May, just under 90% had staff levels between 90-100%. In our survey this week, this figure was down to below two thirds.

While many schools have avoided large numbers of absences, as we reach the end of term schools in our region are having to face increased disruption once again. Those that are currently dealing with this disruption report an impact on school budgets, staff wellbeing, and the ability to effectively deliver education. Staff absences are creating notable additional workload pressures, and managing the closure of bubbles and risk assessments is impeding on the ability of schools to focus on longer term priorities. Several schools also reported it affecting transition arrangements. Responses said that schools have to constantly be on alert. All of this is having a negative impact on staff wellbeing.

While for the majority staff wellbeing has remained the same or improved compared with last term, our previous surveys show that this is from a low starting point. Additionally, for just over 40% staff wellbeing is getting worse. It is crucial that schools now receive support, especially as we plan towards September. A particular concern that was raised in our survey was the need to cancel or alleviate additional pressures created by Ofsted, with recognition on how continuing disruption will affect outcomes. So far, schools aren’t confident that there has been real recognition of the reality of schooling during the pandemic, and the hard work school staff are putting in to manage disruption.

Crucially, many schools want to see a review of track and trace, and the use of bubbles. Schools want to return to some form of normality, and to find a way to make sure schools can function. Without this, disruption in schools and children’s education is set to continue into the next academic year. However, there are still significant concerns about how safely this can be achieved. Schools need clear guidance so they can have real confidence in whatever measures they put in place, as the uncertainty is having a significant impact on staff wellbeing, and the ability to plan longer term. Certainty is needed as soon as possible, so that staff can have a real break over the summer, which for many staff they have lacked since the pandemic began.

These challenges are particularly of concern for our region. Recent analysis by the Telegraph showed that young people in the most disadvantaged parts of the country are almost twice as likely as peers in wealthier areas to be forced to self-isolate. There is now growing pressure from MPs to change the rules around the use of bubbles, with a letter from 48 Conservative MPs urging the prime minister to end a “disproportionate” and “unsustainable” response to Covid cases in schools.

This week, Gavin Williamson wrote to schools saying that ‘schools and colleges may choose to start testing students and pupils no earlier than three days before the start of term, or stagger the return of pupils during the first week of term if they would like to do so’. Schools North East will continue to lobby on your behalf to ensure schools have clarity on what will be expected in the Autumn term.