Low pupil attendance in schools remains ‘stubborn concern’, Ofsted warns

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Low pupil attendance in schools due to the coronavirus pandemic remains a “stubborn concern” this term, Ofsted has warned.

A series of reports from the watchdog suggest that pupils have been absent from class for a variety of reasons – including Covid-related anxiety among families, worse mental health and low resilience to setbacks or illness.

Children have also missed school due to parents rescheduling or rearranging term-time holidays, as well as testing positive for Covid-19, inspectors found.

Some schools reported that they have seen more coronavirus-related absences among specific year groups – such as Year 11 and sixth form, who are due to take exams, and Year 8 – as well as disadvantaged pupils and those with special educational needs and disabilities (Send).

The Ofsted reports into the impact of the pandemic on children and learners are based on 214 routine inspections of nurseries, childminders, schools and further education and skills providers in England this term.

Many childcare providers said that young children – especially those born during the pandemic, or those who have spent most of their lives in it – are behind with their language, communication and social skills.

Some pre-school children have fallen behind with independent skills, such as feeding themselves and toilet training, according to the reports.

Inspectors found that primary schools were more likely to say that some pupils are not as resilient as they were previously, while secondary schools reported increased numbers of pupils suffering from anxiety and self-harming.

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: “Children have missed out so much already. And some pupils remain persistently absent from school for a variety of reasons.

“So, as we face further turbulence, we must do all we can to make sure children are able to continue learning in their classrooms.”

Her plea came after the latest Government figures suggest that 2.9% of all pupils – nearly 236,000 children – were not in class for reasons connected to coronavirus on December 9.

This was up from 208,000 children, or 2.6% of all pupils, on November 25.

School leaders said lockdowns have particularly affected the newest cohorts in schools who are arriving with lower starting points than previous years.

Inspectors were told that Year 7 pupils struggle with their behaviour and have taken “longer to settle in” with school routines.

Some schools said the Year 7 cohort (11 and 12-year-olds) feel a lot younger than they normally do and have displayed “more immature” behaviour.

Some secondary schools have extended the school day to help pupils catch up, while other heads said they are offering sessions after school, before school, or on Saturdays for those who need extra support.

Ms Spielman added: “The pandemic is still with us, and children’s education is still being disrupted.

“But it’s clear that many school leaders and staff have responded to these challenges with tenacity, and demonstrated creativity in how they have supported children and learners’ education and personal development.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Obviously, the ongoing issue is high levels of absence among pupils and students as the virus continues to cause huge disruption.

“This is why it is so important that the Government does everything possible to support the mitigations and controls necessary to keep children in the classroom.

“In particular, it must provide more support for testing and ventilation, and it must ensure there is sufficient capacity to roll out second doses of the vaccination programme for 12 to 15-year-olds at the speed and scale that is required.”

He added: “The Omicron variant of Covid-19 clearly poses an increased risk of more educational disruption.

“It is therefore imperative that the Government communicates any additional control measures to the sector promptly and with clarity. Its record on both fronts has not been good in the past.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “The great news here, as Ofsted points out, is that schools are doing an excellent job helping children recover from the lost learning and development they suffered during the pandemic.

“But schools are still suffering from huge disruption, with soaring levels of Covid-related absence for both pupils and staff.

“This needs to be recognised, and more needs to be done to help bring the situation under control and to stem the spread of the virus in classrooms – especially in the face of the new variant.”

On Thursday, the Department for Education (DfE) announced it would be extending its workforce fund for schools and colleges facing the greatest staffing and funding challenges amid Covid-19.

The fund, which helps schools to cover the cost of staff absences, is now being extended until February 18 rather than December 31.

It comes after the DfE estimated that 2.4% of teachers and school leaders were absent from schools in England due to Covid-19 related reasons on December 9, up from 2.0% on November 25.

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