The proportion of pupils attending school and college during the Covid-19 pandemic has more than halved amid the Government-enforced lockdown, the latest figures suggest.
The pupil attendance rate in education settings fell from 3.7% on the first day of partial school closures to 1.3% only one week later, according to a Government analysis.
Since April 6, which would have been the first week of the Easter break, the proportion of pupils attending has not risen above 0.9%, Department for Education (DfE) data suggests.
The low figures have prompted concern among education unions and charities, who warn that many vulnerable children are not getting the support they need through school.
Schools and colleges across the UK closed their doors to the majority of pupils, apart from the children of key workers and vulnerable youngsters, from March 23. The Government put the Covid-19 lockdown in place later that day.
Of the children in school on Friday last week, 24,000 were classed as vulnerable. This was down from 39,000 on March 24, the day after the lockdown measures were announced.
Meanwhile, 62,000 of the children in attendance were children of critical workers, down from 168,000 over the same period.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It is a very serious concern that a significant number of vulnerable children are not attending the emergency provision in school.”
He added: “There is a particular worry about young people who are at risk of abuse or neglect when they are out of school, and we are all working on ways of reaching out to these families to encourage these pupils to attend the emergency provision.”
Andrew Fellowes, associate head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, said it was “worrying” that so many children in need are not attending school.
He said: “If children who could be in school are not coming in, teachers and social workers need to check in with parents and carers to ensure they are safe and well at home, be it face-to-face, on the phone or online.”
Patrick Roach, general secretary of NASUWT teaching union, said: “The majority of the drop in the number of these pupils attending school is likely to be the result of parents being able to make alternative arrangements for the care of their children.”
He added: “However, where a child classed as vulnerable fails to attend without explanation, providers should be following up with the parent, carer or social worker to check the reasons for absence and ensure these children are safe.”
In a written statement, education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Our first priority has always been protecting the wellbeing of children and young people, but particularly those vulnerable young people with special educational needs or a social worker.
“Schools remain open for them, as they also do for children of critical workers, and we encourage vulnerable children and young people to attend educational settings unless they have underlying health conditions that put them at severe risk.”
On Tuesday, the Government also confirmed that supermarket chain Aldi has joined its national free school meals voucher scheme. Parents can order vouchers for the store from next week.
It came as Sir Michael Wilshaw, former chief inspector of Ofsted, suggested that there is an “argument” for some pupils repeating a year amid disruption caused by school closures.
Speaking to the World at One on Tuesday, Sir Michael said: “Those who are preparing for examinations next year possibly need to repeat the year, and perhaps others as well. They might have lost out so much by this that they might need to repeat the whole year.”
But Ofqual has insisted that Year 10 and Year 12 pupils, due to take their exams next year, will not be “unfairly disadvantaged” if their exam performance is affected by missed lessons.