The poorest pupils in the UK face a “double blow” to their schooling as they are more likely to have missed the most learning time during lockdown and into autumn term, a think tank has suggested.
In areas with the highest rates of coronavirus, such as the North West of England, as many as two in five secondary school pupils were unable to attend class during October, whereas other areas have seen almost all of their pupils attend school, according to analysis by the Education Policy Institute (EPI).
It suggests that in the first half of the autumn term the most deprived areas in the UK were more likely to have seen lower pupil attendance levels.
The report compares data on school attendance across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland since the return of schools in August and September.
It found that school attendance was higher in Scotland and Northern Ireland at the very beginning of the autumn term and into October, compared to England and Wales.
England has had significant variation in pupil attendance, with attendance levels in secondary schools as low as 61% in Knowsley.
The analysis, supported by the Nuffield Foundation, notes other areas with high infection rates also saw very low levels of secondary school attendance in October, such as Liverpool (67%) and Rochdale (70%).
In contrast, attendance in secondary schools this month was as high as 94% in Kensington and Chelsea, West Berkshire, and Bath and North East Somerset, the report has found.
However, there were also a number of areas with lower virus rates that have very low secondary school attendance rates, including Calderdale (64%), Kingston-upon-Thames (68%) and Bracknell Forest (72%).
The analysis suggests there is strong evidence of a link between higher levels of pupil disadvantage and lower levels of school attendance.
In Scotland, attendance rates in October were lowest among the 20% most deprived pupils in the country (89% school attendance) and highest among the 20% least deprived (95% school attendance).
The report says that the Department for Education (DfE) should publish more data on local school attendance rates and do so on a regular basis to allow for greater scrutiny of the figures in England.
In June, Boris Johnson announced a £1 billion plan to help students in England catch up after spending months out of school during the lockdown.
As part of the catch-up funding, £650 million will be shared across state primary and secondary schools over the 2020-21 academic year to help children from all backgrounds who have lost teaching time.
An additional £350 million will be spent on a national tutoring programme during this academic year to help the most disadvantaged children catch up with missed lessons.
But the think tank says the Government should target more of its catch-up funding at disadvantaged pupils who have fallen further behind, rather than offer the same level of support across-the-board.
David Laws, executive chairman of the EPI, said: “The most disadvantaged children in the UK are facing a double blow to their education, after having lost the most learning time during the lockdown period in the spring and now during the autumn term of the new school year.
“Government support for these pupils currently falls short of what is required.
“There is a compelling case for a more targeted approach to support poorer pupils who are disproportionately missing out on learning time, in order to prevent a significant widening of the attainment gap.”
Report author Luke Sibieta, research fellow at the EPI, said: “While school attendance figures vary considerably, emerging evidence suggests that it is the most disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils across the UK who are missing the most formal schooling following the reopening of schools.”
A DfE spokeswoman said: “Over 99% of schools have been open every week since term began and millions of pupils were attending last week, benefitting from time with their friends and teachers.
“Schools are putting remote education in place for pupils self-isolating and our £1 billion Covid catch up package will tackle the impact of lost teaching time as a result of the pandemic, including a £650 million catch up premium to help schools support all pupils and the £350 million National Tutoring Programme for disadvantaged students.”
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “Labour has repeatedly called on the Government to put measures in place to close the attainment gap but they have failed to do so.
“The Government must urgently get a grip of the situation and ensure that any child who has fallen behind will get the support they need to catch up including proper access to digital devices and broadband.
“No child should be left behind because of this crisis or Government incompetence.”