The Government has been urged to introduce “Nightingale classes” and increase teaching staff after new figures suggested around one in six state secondary schools were unable to fully open last week.
According to the Department for Education (DfE)’s latest school attendance statistics, approximately 84% of state-funded secondary schools were fully open on September 24 – down from 92% a week earlier.
Schools are considered to be not fully open if they are unable to provide face-to-face teaching for all pupils for the whole school day and have asked a group of students to self-isolate.
The cause of schools not being fully open was “mostly due to Covid-19 related reasons”, the DfE said.
As a result, attendance in state-funded secondary schools fell from approximately 86% on September 17 to 84% on September 24, the department said.
Meanwhile, attendance remained stable in fully open state-funded secondary schools at 87%.
The DfE statistics also suggested that 99.8% of state schools were open on September 24, with the small proportion that were shut being closed “mostly due to Covid-19 related reasons”.
State-funded schools are primary, secondary, special schools and alternative provision.
About 88% of all children on roll in all state-funded schools were in attendance on September 24, the DfE said, adding that this figure has remained “broadly stable for three weeks”.
Responding to the figures, the National Education Union (NEU) called on the Government to provide more support to schools in the form of extra teachers and funding.
Joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “With such a rapid drop in the number of fully open secondary schools in the space of just two weeks, it is clear the Government’s grip on the situation is now in question.
“It is doubtful the urgency of the situation has yet dawned on either (Prime Minister) Boris Johnson or (Education Secretary) Gavin Williamson, who must now ensure that schools and colleges are equipped to deal swiftly and effectively with any outbreaks that occur on their premises.
“This does not just begin and end with testing, although that situation is parlous enough.
“We need to see the drafting in of retired, supply and newly qualified teachers to get class sizes down. ‘Nightingale classes’ will be necessary to expand school space – we have been calling for that since June. We also need proper funding support to schools, so that they can remain Covid-secure.
She argued the Government’s “inability” to provide schools with what they needed to remain open was “unacceptable” and would “affect not only children’s education, but the wellbeing of staff and students”.
Warning that partial school closures would affect exam classes, she called for the Government to lay out a “plan B” for GCSE and A-Level students.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said it was “extremely concerned” by the drop in fully open state secondary schools.
“This reflects the extremely difficult circumstances in which schools are operating amidst rising infection rates in the community,” he said.
“While there are some signs of improvement in accessing Covid tests and obtaining timely public health advice in the event of positive cases, we continue to receive reports from schools that problems persist, and this is not good enough.
“It is increasingly clear that schools have effectively found themselves on the front line of managing the public health emergency, as well as delivering education, and the support simply has to be there.”
Highlighting that pressure on staff was “immense”, Mr Barton expressed concern it could lead to “deteriorating mental health and wellbeing”.
He said the Government should reimburse schools the cost of implementing Covid-19 safety measures, clarify plans for next summer’s exams, suspend performance tables for this academic year, and postpone plans to resume Ofsted inspections in January.