More than 400,000 children in England were off school last week for coronavirus-related reasons, as the government admitted that “unevenness” in lost learning could affect 2021 exam results.
Weekly attendance statistics from the Department for Education (DfE) estimated that up to 5% of England’s 8.3 million state school pupils lost classroom time, including as many as 50,000 with confirmed or suspected cases of Covid-19.
The number of schools having to shut completely increased by 50% compared with the previous week, with 60 estimated to have closed, affecting at least 12,000 pupils, the statistics showed.
The DfE figures, based on daily returns from headteachers, found that more than 350,000 pupils were out of school because of possible contact with someone with Covid-19. “As expected, a small proportion of pupils are self-isolating – but this is similar to previous weeks and the average group size is small compared to the total number of pupils,” a DfE spokesperson said.
But Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The fact that nearly half of secondary schools have recorded one or more pupils self-isolating due to the protocols necessitated by the Covid pandemic, illustrates the continuing high level of disruption they are dealing with.”
McCulloch said schools with Covid-19 outbreaks had received “patchy” advice from the DfE’s hotline, and that the government had not lived up to its promise of readily available public health advice.
The DfE figures showed that secondary school attendance sagged further last week, with just 86% of pupils present, compared with 87% the previous week, increasing fears that 2021’s exam results will become a lottery based on each pupil’s exposure.
Nick Gibb, the minister for school standards in England, told MPs on parliament’s education committee that A-level and GCSE grades would have to be adjusted to reflect “lost learning”, but defended the government’s decision to press ahead with exams with just a three-week delay.
But he said: “The other issue that really worries me, more than any other issue that we’re having to grapple with at the moment, is unfairness and unevenness, where different students with a different experience of missing education during this period.
“That is something again that we’re working with exam boards and through Ofqual to seek to address – it’s not an easy issue to address but it is something that worries me a lot.”
Gibb was challenged over shortcomings in the government’s laptop scheme for disadvantaged children, which some MPs felt had not gone far enough. Separately, the minister resisted pleas to continue free school meals during holidays, saying families in financial difficulties would be helped by universal credit.