Covid school absences in England reach record high as 1 in 20 pupils off sick

The latest figures were a third higher than absences recorded in early January

State school absences in England due to Covid-19 have risen by a third since the start of the month. PA

Schools across England have been hit by record Covid-19 absences, as the number of children off sick due to the virus shot up by a third.

The latest figures released by the Department for Education show that 5.1 per cent of pupils missed school on January 20 – equivalent to one in 20 children in state schools.

The number – up from 3.9 per cent on January 6 – marks a new high for the school year, with 415,300 pupils absent in total.

Of those who were off last week, 52,000 pupils had a suspected coronavirus infection while 322,000 were confirmed cases.

The data shows that school absences are not yet tracking a decrease in Covid-19 cases in England.

Meanwhile, the government has launched a new scheme to address what it calls the school absences “postcode lottery”.

The Department for Education found there was “a radically different approach to sanctions for children missing school across the country, with some local authorities issuing no fines in 2020-21, while others issued over 1,500”. In a consultation published on Tuesday, the DfE set out proposals for national rules on attendance, including when parents should be fined for their child’s absence.

Penalties could be considered after a number of unauthorised absences from a pupil within a certain period and for persistent lateness, the proposals said.

An absence due to Covid-related reasons would not result in a fine.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, who heads the department, said that absence caused by the coronavirus was “unavoidable”, but that there were other reasons pupils were missing out on school.

“I want every single child to have the opportunity to fulfil their potential, which only time in school with this country’s world-class teachers can bring,” he said.

“And as we transition from pandemic to endemic, it makes me even more determined to fight for children to be in school every day they possibly can be.

“Our new proposals will end the postcode lottery of how attendance is managed in different schools and parts of the country, and make sure every child and family gets the best possible support to attend school as regularly as possible.”

The attendance of pupils is set to be a vital component of the government’s Schools White Paper.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed Mr Zahawi’s commitment. But she said “the reasons behind persistent absence among some children and young people are complex and need to be addressed through a joined-up government strategy that includes looking in-depth at issues such as child poverty and mental health, as well as the impact of the pandemic”.

“This is a complex problem, which requires joined-up strategies, appropriate resources and a long-term commitment from government downwards.”

The consultation will run for five weeks until February 28.

Updated: January 26, 2022, 9:28 AM