Local authorities see big variation in attendance rates

West Berkshire has one of the highest attendance rates in the country since schools fully reopened after lockdown, analysis from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) has shown. The EPI’s report, School attendance rates across the UK since full reopening, found big variations in school attendance across England, and between the four nations of the United Kingdom, not all of which could be explained by local differences in coronavirus infection rates.

In their analysis the EPI found that Scotland and Northern Ireland had typically higher attendance rates than schools in England and Wales. In Scotland attendance rates started at 94 per cent in the week beginning 17 August, before dipping but remaining over 90 per cent for most of September and into October. A similar pattern was seen in Northern Ireland (NI) where attendance rates were still at 93 per cent when schools closed for two weeks in mid-October as part of wider restrictions in NI. However in England the highest attendance rates achieved were 89 per cent in mid-October, having climbed from 87 per cent at the start of term. Rates in Wales were lower still, peaking at 88 per cent. The EPI speculates that this difference may be down to the term in Scotland and NI starting earlier in the year, when infection rates were typically lower, as well as potentially that schools in Scotland and NI had longer to prepare for full reopening than those in England and Wales, having not reopened to more pupils in the summer term.

Within England there were significant variations between local authority areas, with the highest secondary school attendance rate on 15 October being 94 per cent in West Berkshire, as well as in Bath and North East Somerset and the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. This contrasts with an attendance rate of just 61 per cent in Knowsley. This variation often correlated with higher infection rates in those areas – for example Knowsley had an infection rate of 600 cases per 100,000 people at that point in October. Infection rates in the areas with highest attendance were usually much lower. However there were also local authorities with low infection rates and relatively low attendance rates, among them Bracknell Forest with a secondary attendance rate of 72 per cent, and Kingston upon Thames at 68 per cent. In their report the EPI call on policymakers ‘with access to more granular data’ to investigate these variations further.

Comparing attendance rates across different types on schools, the EPI found that in mid-October in England attendance rates were higher in Primary Schools (at 90 per cent) than in Secondary schools (82 per cent). Although in normal times Primary attendance is higher than Secondary attendance, the gap here is much greater than usual. Office for National Statistics data suggests that coronavirus infection rates are higher in older children, which may help to account for the difference in attendance. Special schools had the lowest attendance of any school type, at 78 per cent. Pupils at special schools are most likely to have medical conditions which make them more vulnerable to coronavirus, and therefore lower attendance may be expected. In their conclusions the EPI call for more support to be given to vulnerable learners, including those with SEND. In Scotland, the EPI found that attendance rates were lowest in the most deprived areas, and highest in the least deprived areas, a fact they called ‘a major source of concern’. They praised the Scottish government for publishing data which allowed such a level of analysis, and called on governments across the UK to provide such detailed data, saying that lower attendance among disadvantaged pupils was ‘highly unlikely to be a uniquely Scottish phenomenon’.

The EPI conclude the report by pointing out that significant differences in lost learning time across the country will have ‘particularly strong implications for pupils in exam years’. They suggest that policymakers ‘will need to recognise and account for huge variations in lost learning time’ when designing assessment processes for 2021. Responding to the EPI’s findings, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘This report should ring alarm bells in government about the widely differing impact of Covid disruption on pupils because many of them will be taking exams next year. There is no way that it can be business as normal if a third of pupils were unable to attend school in some areas of the country, while in other areas attendance is over 90 per cent. Of particular concern, is the evidence that the most deprived areas were more likely to have seen lower pupil attendance levels.’

Full EPI report: https://tinyurl.com/y5pl4sab

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