Fall in number of pupils in school as more children forced to self-isolate

Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent
·4-min read

The proportion of pupils attending schools in England last week dropped as more children were forced to self-isolate at home, Government data suggests.

Nine in 10 state school pupils were in class on March 25, down from 91% on March 18 when all schools in England had fully returned, the Department for Education (DfE) analysis shows.

The data suggests that 220,000 pupils were out of class and self-isolating on Thursday last week due to potential contact with a case of Covid-19, up from 169,000 pupils in the previous week.

The DfE estimates that approximately 3.3% of all pupils on roll – up to 264,000 children – did not attend school for Covid-19-related reasons on March 25, up from 2.5% on March 18.

This includes 173,000 pupils who were self-isolating due to a potential contact with a Covid-19 case inside the school, and a further 47,000 pupils were self-isolating due to a possible contact outside of school.

Overall, 28,000 pupils were absent because they suspected they had Covid-19 on March 25 – up from 21,000 the previous week – and 9,000 were off after testing positive for Covid-19, up from 7,000.

A total of 7,000 pupils were absent as their school was closed due to Covid-19-related reasons, up from 4,000.

Secondary schools in England were given flexibility to stagger the return of their pupils between March 8 and 12 to allow for the mass testing of students.

All students in secondary schools were expected to complete three rapid Covid-19 tests on their return, spaced three to five days apart, then further tests at home twice a week.

Around 87% of secondary school pupils were in on March 25, a fall on March 18 when 89% attended.

Attendance in primary schools also fell to 93% on Thursday last week from 95% the previous week.

The DfE said the main reason for absence among pupils who did not attend school for Covid-19-related reasons was self-isolation due to contact with a possible case inside the school.

On Tuesday, guidance for schools was updated following the Government’s announcement that anyone who receives a positive result using a lateral flow test will be asked to take a confirmatory lab-based PCR test.

All positive results from rapid asymptomatic tests taken by pupils and teachers, either at home or at school, now need to be confirmed with a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test within two days.

If the PCR test is negative, students and staff will now be able to return to class and stop self-isolating, the advice says.

Figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) last week showed that Covid-19 infection levels among children of secondary school age in England had increased slightly.

The percentage of children in school years 7 to 11 likely to have tested positive for Covid-19 in the week to March 20 was 0.43%, up from 0.32% the previous week, according to the ONS estimates.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Although there was a slight dip in attendance last week, this was always likely to happen as Covid positive cases emerged and triggered Covid protocols necessitating the self-isolation of close contacts.

“On the whole, however, attendance levels have borne up remarkably well, and great credit is due to schools and their staff for all they have done.

“There is now the natural firebreak of the Easter holidays and we will see where we are at the beginning of next term.

“Everybody will obviously hope that the relaxation of Covid restrictions in wider society will not lead to an escalating rate of positive cases in schools, with the disruption this causes to education.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “Attendance in schools remains higher than at any point during the autumn term, as students and staff continue to follow the protective measures set out in our guidance to reduce transmission of the virus.

“With the testing programme now in full swing and millions of tests being conducted each week, we are only seeing a small increase in the numbers of students testing positive and self-isolating.

“We are grateful to everyone who continues testing twice-weekly from home and self-isolating where that is necessary, playing their part in keeping everyone as safe as possible.”