Schools face drop in attendance as parents ‘prioritise safety’ before Christmas

Schools could see a “steep drop” in the number of pupils attending class next week as parents seek to prioritise family safety ahead of Christmas, a head teachers’ union has said.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT union, said giving schools the flexibility to switch to remote learning for the final few days of term was an “obvious and straightforward solution”.

He called on ministers to announce a plan in the next 24 hours to avoid a “chaotic and disruptive” end of term, adding that the rules over Christmas put schools and parents “between a rock and a hard place”.

The warning came after the latest attendance figures from the Department for Education (DfE) showed more than a fifth (22%) of secondary school pupils in England were absent from class on November 26.

Approximately 8% to 10% of state school pupils – up to 798,000 children – did not attend school for Covid-19-related reasons.

Overall, pupil attendance was 83% for the second week in a row.

Mr Whiteman said: “School leaders are concerned that there will be a further and potentially steep drop in attendance figures next week, as families are forced to decide for themselves how long to isolate before getting together at Christmas.

“The Government has decided to relax the rules about getting together over the Christmas holidays in order to give people the chance to see loved ones and have as normal a celebration as possible. This strategy has put schools and parents between a rock and hard place.

“It is only natural that many parents will prioritise family safety over attending school in the last few days of term and keep their children at home. The Government cannot continue to pretend to be oblivious to the consequences of their decision.

“Once again, Government thinking is far behind the impossible decisions facing families.

“We are calling for the Government to give schools the flexibility to work with parents and make arrangements that best suit their individual circumstances. Giving schools the flexibility to switch to remote learning for the final few days of term seems an obvious and straightforward solution.

“But if the Government has another solution it needs to be announced in the next 24 hours, otherwise there is huge potential for a chaotic and disruptive end to this term.”

A DfE spokeswoman said: “It is vital for all children to be in school where possible. The chief medical officer has highlighted the damage caused to children’s education, development and mental health from not being in school.

“Children are at very low risk from the virus, with only 0.2% of state-funded pupils who were absent from school last week having a confirmed case.

“Schools, colleges and early years settings across the country have worked hard to remain open, implementing safety measures and scaling up remote education provision for those children who are self-isolating.”