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School Absences

Volume 818: debated on Thursday 3 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many children in (1) primary, and (2) secondary, schools in England were absent the weeks commencing (a) 10 January, (b) 17 January, and (c) 24 January.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I declare an interest, in that my 10 year-old grandson, Oscar, currently has Covid.

My Lords, I am very sorry to hear about the noble Lord’s grandson. I hope that he recovers speedily.

Absence data is collected by the department on a termly basis, but we publish fortnightly data on on-site attendance in state-funded schools. The latest data, from 17 to 20 January, shows that average secondary attendance was 86.7%, unchanged from the previous week, while primary attendance was 89.4%, down slightly from 91.8%. Absence figures specifically for Covid-related reasons are published fortnightly, and were 5.7% and 3.4% in primary and secondary in the week of 17 January, and 3.7% and 3.5% in primary and secondary in the week of 10 January.

I am very grateful for the kind words of the Minister.

The latest ONS figures for last week show over 600,000 primary school children not in the classroom. This would be worrying at any time, but obviously with the statistics relating to the national tutoring programme at a miserable 15% of their target, the remedial action that is needed is clearly not working. Can the Minister go back to the department and work out what has happened with the contract which was relet last September?

The noble Lord is right to raise the issue of the 600,000 primary-age children not in school, although I remind the House that there is a clear expectation that all schools offer high-quality remote learning. We are working very actively on the national tutoring programme contract and are confident that we will reach our objectives.

My Lords, as well as the absentee rates in schools, as the Minister knows we have hundreds of thousands of children not in school at all. They are missing from the system. Some may be home tutored, but we do not know that. What plans have the Government got for those home tutors to register their children, so that we know they are safe and know where they are?

I am pleased to update the House that, this morning, we announced our response to the Children Not in School consultation and have confirmed that we will be setting up a register of home-schooled children.

During the pandemic schools were provided with laptops to support students during the national lockdown and any future school closures. These laptops were delivered without software, anticipating that schools would need to install the programmes applicable to their own school context. However, in some cases, these devices still have not been used, as this added to the already stretched capacities of existing IT staff, who did not have the additional hours needed to install software or set up the laptops sufficiently. Do the Government have any information about how widespread this problem was and how many laptops remain unused?

The laptops that were distributed in the department’s Get Help with Technology programme are owned by the schools, trusts, local authorities and further education institutions concerned. It is those institutions which are responsible for making sure that they are safe and secure. We are offering support to those organisations to take urgent action to reset devices and to apply their own safeguarding measures, and we are making grant funding available to them to contribute to the technical support costs to which the noble Baroness refers.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the grandfather of two primary school children who have caught Covid and who are now at home. Is my noble friend confident that the catch-up plan will be robust enough to deal with the slightly uncertain total number of children who are missing vital education at this stage? That is the assurance that many parents who are now returning to work would be very pleased to have.

My noble friend is right to highlight this. I will try to set out for the House that our approach is genuinely comprehensive. Last week, we announced a consultation on new attendance measures and we are consulting on behaviour and exclusion, which, less at primary but more at secondary, is a material issue for attendance. We made direct investments through the £1.3 billion of recovery funding and the £1.5 billion tutoring programme. Schools have the flexibility to direct that to the most disadvantaged children, so that they can catch up fastest.

My Lords, following the answer the Minister has just given, I wonder if she is aware that, unsurprisingly, a survey by Teach First found that teachers in the most disadvantaged schools strongly believe that attainment would be greatly improved if attendance could be improved. What specific measures are being brought in to improve the attendance of children, particularly in primary but also in secondary schools? What kind of monitoring is being done to find out which of these measures are most effective and which do not work?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving me the opportunity to set this out in more detail. Attendance is an absolute priority for this Government, both because children obviously cannot learn if they are not in school and because of the well-recognised impact on their mental and physical health. We have already announced a team of attendance advisers, who will support schools, and we are open to piloting new approaches to supporting attendance. The Secretary of State has established a national attendance action alliance with key actors from across the sector and we will focus in the consultation on getting consistency in both the attendance policy of a school and the use of different sanctions for non-attendance, which very much vary across the country.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a donor to various charities in the children’s sector. Given what the Minister has just said, will there be any special focus in those measures and the catch-up programme on children with SEND?

My noble friend is right to focus on children with special educational needs. School is absolutely the best place for them to be, too. Throughout the pandemic, we have consistently prioritised children with special educational needs—for example, through the education recovery funding and by providing additional uplifts for those who attend specialist settings, including specialist units in mainstream schools. I am sure that, for the most part anyway, the House will share in the good news that at-risk children aged five to 11 are now eligible for the vaccine and its rollout has started.

My Lords, the ongoing disruption caused by absences of pupils and teachers is evidence that the Government have failed to get a grip on the measures required to keep children learning, whether that is from the supply of testing kits or classroom ventilation. Schools that ended the requirement for pupils to wear face coverings last month, in line with government guidance, are now reinstating it because of the upsurge in Covid cases. Part of the effect of the January disruption was that some pupils were unable to sit their mock exams. What plans are in place to ensure that those pupils are not disadvantaged as a result when it comes to the real thing?

I think the noble Lord is being a little harsh: 99.9% of schools have stayed open. I know that he, with me, will recognise and deeply thank head teachers and all the teaching and associated support workforce for making that happen and for the flexibility they have shown. On Monday, we will announce the advance information about exams. The evidence from the VTQ January series of exams is that it has gone extremely well.

My Lords, DfE guidance to schools, updated on 20 January, told heads that

“A director of public health might advise you that face coverings should temporarily be worn in communal areas or classrooms”.

What would the Minister say to the head who is asking all pupils to wear masks until further notice, as one of their pupils has leukaemia and is severely immuno- compromised? Why have the Government, whether the Department for Education or the department of health, not given advice to these pupils, their families and their schools?

The noble Baroness raises a very specific point. The department’s advice would be to talk to the director of public health and our teams, who are available and have been offering support to schools around the country, throughout the pandemic.