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Children from disadvantaged backgrounds ‘less likely to return to school’ as they re-open

Disadvantaged children are less likely to go back to school as they re-open this week, senior school leaders have reported.

A report by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that senior leaders with the highest proportion of pupils in receipt of Free Schools Meals in their school estimate that 50 per cent of families will keep children at home once schools re-open.

This compares to an average estimate of 42 per cent from leaders in schools with the lowest proportion of FSM.

“This raises concerns that pupils in most need of access to education will be least likely to receive it,” said the report. “In line with the advice from SAGE (2020), clear messages will be needed from government to encourage families to allow their children to return.”

The report, funded by Nuffield Foundation, found that before schools were closed to the majority, the pandemic had the greatest impact on schools serving the most deprived pupils.

Before 20 March, leaders from schools with the highest proportion of FSM pupils were more likely to report that they had experienced a significant drop in numbers of pupils attending school (73 per cent) than those with the lowest proportion of FSM pupils (57 per cent). This suggests that the differential impact of the pandemic on disadvantaged pupils dates back to the period before lockdown.

Schools closed on 20 March prior to lockdown measures being introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
They remained open for the children of key workers and vulnerable children allocated a social worker. However, early indications in April showed that just 5 per cent of disadvantaged children were in fact attending school, according to DfE statistics. More recent figures show that 15% of all children and young people classified as ‘Children in Need’ or who have an Education, Health and Care Plan, were attending school on 21 May up from 14% on 14 May.

The government announced that schools would be re-opening to more children from 1 June, starting with reception and years 1 and 6.

The report found:

- School leaders have fewer teaching staff available at a time when they need more:

In May, school leaders were operating with 75 per cent of their normal teaching capacity. Over a fifth (29 per cent) of teachers who are available to work are only able to work at home.

- Most school leaders feel unprepared for resuming a range of activities when more pupils return to school:

School leaders feel least prepared for managing pupil movement around school (66 per cent) and organising school space to enable social distancing (65 per cent). However, 65 per cent of primary and 73 per cent of secondary leaders think it would be at least somewhat feasible to operate a rota with different year groups or classes in school on different days.

- Opening to more pupils in June considered less feasible for primary schools:

In May, only 18 per cent of primary school leaders felt it was very/entirely feasible to open their schools to more pupils this month. Some commented that it is simply not possible for them to ensure social distancing because children are too young to understand the rules and/or their school buildings are unsuitable.

- The pandemic has had a greater impact on schools in the West Midlands, North West and London:

School leaders were most likely to report some impact from Covid-19 on their schools in terms of the availability of staff and pupil attendance prior to 20 March if they were based in the West Midlands (84 per cent), London (82 per cent) and the North West (79 per cent) compared with school leaders in the East Midlands (61 per cent).

- Senior leaders want the government to provide clear, detailed and realistic guidance to schools on opening to more pupils.

Senior leaders want information from the government (and to a lesser extent from local authorities and trusts) on how to manage social distancing.

Carole Willis, CEO at National Foundation for Educational Research, said: “Today’s report suggests there is large variation between different types of schools, each experiencing their own challenges in opening to more pupils. Government guidance needs to be tailored and responsive, allowing flexibility for school leaders to use their professional judgement. This will be necessary to manage the differing and changeable levels of staffing, parental choices and practical accommodation issues that each school is likely to experience.

“The findings also reinforce concerns about children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Schools with a high proportion of free school meal children were the most affected before lockdown and expect fewer children to return, adding to concerns about their loss of learning. There needs to be very clear messages and reassurance for parents, as well as a continued focus on the quality of remote learning,” she added.

This report is based on findings from a national survey of 1,233 senior leaders in publicly-funded, mainstream primary and secondary schools in England (conducted between 7-17 May 2020).

Returning Pupils to School

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