Number of pupils in class drops amid concerns about spread of Indian variant

The proportion of pupils attending state schools in England has dropped over the past week amid concerns about the Indian coronavirus variant, Government figures show.

Just over nine in 10 (91%) state school pupils were in class on May 20, down from 92% on May 12, according to the Department for Education (DfE) statistics.

Approximately 87% of secondary school pupils attended last week, down from 89% on the previous week, while attendance in primary schools fell to 94% last week, from 95% on May 12.

The data suggests that 82,000 pupils were out of class and self-isolating on Thursday last week due to potential contact with a case of coronavirus, compared to 65,000 the previous week.

The figures come after the Government removed the requirement for secondary school and college pupils in England to wear face masks in class despite worries about the Indian variant of the virus.

School leaders’ unions are calling on the Government to publish data about the spread of the new variant in schools and colleges and its impact on pupils, teachers and families “without further delay”.

The DfE estimates that around 1.0% of all pupils on roll – up to 104,000 children – did not attend school for Covid-19 related reasons on May 20.

Last week, 60,000 pupils were self-isolating due to a potential contact with a Covid-19 case from inside the school, up from 44,000 on May 12.

A further 22,000 pupils were self-isolating due to a possible contact outside school, up from 21,000 the previous week.

Meanwhile, 18,000 pupils were absent because they suspected they had Covid-19, up from 17,000 on May 12, and 4,000 were off after testing positive for Covid-19, up from 3,000 the week before.

Fewer than 0.1% of pupils in state schools were absent on May 20 because their school was closed due to Covid-19 related reasons, the analysis shows.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “As these numbers show, it is still far too soon to be complacent about lifting Covid restrictions or relaxing safety measures in schools.

“There is growing concern about the spread of the Indian variant in schools. The Government must make the data they hold on this public without further delay.

“Schools need transparency about the levels of infection around the country so they can make sure they have the right measures in place for their local area.

“The Government must be proactive to ensure that transmission in schools, particularly in relation to the new variant, is not allowed to proceed unchecked.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “While Covid-related pupil absence is said to remain low overall, we are increasingly concerned about the dearth of public health information about the impact of the Indian Covid variant in schools and colleges.

“Despite repeated requests for data on its incidence in education settings, this has not been forthcoming from the Government.

“We now learn that the Government is advising people not to travel into and out of areas hardest hit by the new variant and this will inevitably further raise concerns among staff, students and families.”

He added: “The Government has to understand that many members of staff in schools and colleges are either unvaccinated or have not yet received a second vaccination, while the vast majority of students are not vaccinated at all.

“It is essential that there is full transparency about the impact of the new variant in schools and colleges so that the level of risk is clear and any necessary protective measures can be taken.”