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Increase in school attendance risks undermining lockdown, warn heads

The demand for school places is at risk of undermining lockdown, the National Association of Headteachers has warned.

The NAHT says contradictory guidance from the government has increased the levels of attendance significantly which could undermine the efforts of lockdown in containing the spread of COVID-19.

A survey of its members revealed that almost three quarters (74%) of school leaders reported that the demand for places from key worker families and vulnerable children has ‘greatly increased’ compared to the lockdown last March.
Over a third (34%) school leaders reported that they had more than a third of children still physically attending school.

Official DfE guidance states that parents whose work is critical to the coronavirus (COVID-19) and EU transition response include those who work in health and social care and in other key sectors. Children with at least one parent or carer who is a critical worker can go to school or college if required, however it adds “but parents and carers should keep their children at home if they can”.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, which represents leaders in the majority of schools, said: “We are concerned that high levels of attendance could seriously undermine the impact of lockdown measures, and may even run the risk of ultimately extending school closures. We urgently need the government to specify how many pupils on-site might be too many. At present, the government’s confused message to parents on school attendance risks defeating the national aim of supressing the virus.”

The survey was completed by 4,964 school leaders in England on Thursday 7 January 2021. The survey found:

· 99% of schools were open to key worker and vulnerable children.

· 38% schools reported they had 21-30% of their usual cohort attending.

· 34% of schools said they had more than 31% of their usual cohort attending.

· 74% said the demand for places is ‘greatly increased’ compared to the first lockdown in April.

· 48% said they had had to prioritise places due to an excess of demand.

Mr Whiteman continued: “This situation is incredibly difficult for parents. The increase in demand for places compared to the national lockdown last March is very concerning. It is critical that school places for the children of key workers are only used when absolutely necessary in order to reduce the numbers in school and stem the spread of the virus.

“Our survey shows that 1 in 10 schools had between 40 and 60% of pupils attending last week, after the lockdown came into effect. In these circumstances it is understandable why quite so many parents with children at home are questioning, with some degree of frustration, why their children are being asked to stay at home when so many aren’t.

“The government must be clear on what it intends schools and families to do. If the national priority is to suppress the virus then it must provide schools with clear guidance so that reasonable levels of attendance can be set.”

“We remain particularly concerned about the situation in special schools and nurseries where up to 100% of pupils and children are expected to attend,” he concluded.

Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “School leaders and staff, supported by their local councils, have worked incredibly hard to meet revised guidance to keep schools open for the children of key workers and those who are vulnerable while at the same time providing online learning to the rest.

“However, it is clear that demand for places is significantly higher during this national lockdown, meaning schools have been placed in the invidious position of balancing safe pupil numbers in school with the higher expectations of the delivery of up to five hours a day of lessons online.

“These challenges are exacerbated by reduced on-site staffing levels in some schools, including clinically extremely vulnerable staff and those self-isolating due to close contact or positive test outcomes.

“With the new guidance putting no restrictions on the maximum number of eligible children to be in school, and considering the risk of transmitting coronavirus in light of the new variant, it is vital that the government and parents recognise that schools will have to make tough decisions about balancing a safe number of children who could be taught at school while providing high quality online learning.

“Schools and councils need to focus on providing education during the pandemic, without any unnecessary distractions. This is why we are also urging Ofsted to postpone the resumption of monitoring inspections for schools, either in-person or virtual, until after February half-term at the earliest.

“Further clarity is needed to help schools make safer and fairer decisions for their pupils, staff and families,” she concluded.

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