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Heads double up classes to prioritise Year 11 as Covid cases surge

Schools are facing continued disruption due to high numbers of Covid cases (PA)
Schools are facing continued disruption due to high numbers of Covid cases (PA)

Falling attendance because of rising Covid cases has meant some schools doubling up classes in younger year groups to ensure exam groups can be taught by subject specialists.

New data from the FFT Education attendance tracker showed that pupil absence increased to 10.4% in secondary schools last week, up from 9.7% the week before, while absences in primary schools rose to 7.5%, up from 7.2%.

The latest Government data showed that 2.5% of pupils were off school for Covid-related reasons on March 17, while nearly one in 10 staff members were absent.

Heads have expressed concern about what this will mean in terms of disruption to exam classes, and say that rather than “living with Covid”, schools are “living with absence”.

Pepe Di’Iasio, headteacher of Wales High School in Rotherham, said his school has been combining classes in younger years to prioritise teaching for Year 11.

He said: “We have learned how important it is for all children and young people for schools to remain open.

“Perhaps this is most keenly felt by those students in Year 11 and Year 13 who have already been hit hard through lockdown in the preparation for their exams this summer.

“We are determined to do all we can to give all our exam classes the best possible run up to the exam season this summer.

“This has meant senior colleagues taking cover lessons combining several classes of younger students with the support of teaching assistants, while exam groups have had specialist staff leading them.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said school leaders were reporting “an increasingly desperate situation” caused by Covid infection rates.

“We are not surprised to see data indicating that attendance has fallen in both primary and secondary schools. It reflects what we are hearing from school leaders who are telling us of an increasingly desperate situation caused by high levels of Covid infections,” he said.

He added that this was resulting in “significant” staff and pupil absence, and that in some cases schools had been left with no option but to send home whole year groups or classes.

“We are dismayed by the Government’s decision to withdraw free Covid testing in this context, particularly as exams are looming and the students who are taking them have already experienced so much disruption over the past two years,” he added.

“The availability of Covid testing kits for staff and eligible pupils was one of the few mitigations that schools could draw upon, and that has now been removed. This government talks about living with Covid but for schools and colleges this is translating into living with absence.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “When the Government talks about ‘living with Covid’ we all expected we’d be living with it at a low level – instead we seem to be continuing with very high levels of cases in schools, and serious ongoing disruption for both staff and pupils. This isn’t sustainable.

“The Government needs to admit that in reality Covid hasn’t gone away and we need a proper plan for how to live with it long term that is focused on keeping levels low and reducing disruption, rather than just ignoring it. Given the current situation, it seems nothing short of reckless to be removing access to free lateral flow tests for schools.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is thanks to the hard work of teachers and staff that 99.9% of schools have been consistently open this term.

“Due to high immunity in society, a greater understanding of the virus and improved access to treatments, we can now move to forward as we learn to live with the virus.

“That’s why, in line with wider society, testing of any kind will no longer be expected in education and childcare settings from 1 April.

“It remains important that we continue to maintain good ventilation and hygiene and continue to use vaccines to build the population’s wall of protection.”