Nearly half of secondary schools in England sent students home due to Covid-19 concerns

Disruption to teaching is expected to continue while ministers are discussing how best to approach exam season. 

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Almost half of all secondary schools (46 per cent) and almost one in five primary schools (16 per cent) in England sent home at least one student because of coronavirus-related incidents last week, according to the latest attendance figures.

Since the start of term, in September, the Department for Education (DfE) has been reporting weekly information on the disruption to schools caused by the pandemic.

The DfE found that 5 per cent of pupils in England – around 400,000 children – are currently out of school, because they are self-isolating either with symptoms of Covid-19 themselves, or because they have come into close contact with someone who has them. According to the DfE, 13 per cent of all schools in England, whether primary or secondary, have had to send home 30 or more students at the same time.

Overall attendance, the department has reported, has worsened over the past five weeks, from 90 to 89 per cent. Very few schools in England (only 0.3 per cent) have had to be totally closed, however. 

Disruption to schools is expected to continue and concerns have been raised as to how schools will cope with the 2021 examination period. Last summer, students were unable to sit their GCSE and A-Level exams, due to social distancing protocols, which led to a series of controversies around how best to calculate their grades.

Read more: The A-level debacle shows why coursework and AS-levels should never have been scrapped

Initially, Ofqual, the exam regulator, awarded grades using a “triple lock” algorithm, which took students’ predicted grades, their mock exam results, and the historic performance of their schools into account. But when, in many cases, huge disparities were found between the grades students were predicted and the ones they were eventually awarded, the government U-turned, scrapped the algorithm, and decided to give students the grades recommended by their teachers instead.

Appearing in front of the Commons Education Select Committee on Thursday, the Schools Minister Nick Gibb said that the DfE’s “overwhelming objective” was to ensure that GCSE and A-Level exams go ahead, but that they would do so three weeks later than usual. But Gibb added that the department is working through “contingencies”. He did not rule out whether the DfE would use another centralised mode of assessment, similar to last summer’s algorithm.

Gibb said there were no plans to cut school holidays, noting that both students and teachers needed an adequate break in what had been a testing year.

Read more: How much has the A-level debacle damaged the Conservatives?

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman

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