Pupils in England reluctant to return to school after lockdown, says report

Ofsted found online lessons affected some children’s view of the need to be in class, leading to high absence rates

Pupils who were sent home to learn remotely during lockdown may no longer feel the same need to turn up for school, according to an Ofsted report, which also cites parents requesting online lessons for their children during term-time holidays.

The report comes after an investigation into low attendance in schools, which found the switch to online lessons had “negatively affected” some secondary school pupils’ perceptions of the need to be in school and could be contributing to high absence rates.

Some parents who felt their children had learned well using remote lessons wanted to continue, while others whose children have a history of poor attendance used “possible Covid” as an excuse for absence, sometimes resulting in 10 days off school without a confirmatory PCR test.

Others had apparently misunderstood the role of online lessons. “Some parents think that remote education can be provided for non-Covid-related circumstances, such as being on holiday, which leaders have to explain is not the case,” the report says.

According to the latest government statistics, attendance in state-funded schools fell to 87.4% on 20 January, with 415,000 pupils off for Covid-related reasons. Pre-pandemic, the overall absence rate in 2018-19 was 4.7%.

The report, published by the schools watchdog on Monday, confirmed that the most common reason for higher than normal absences was pupils having Covid, but parents’ and pupils’ anxieties were also having an impact, as well as the shift in attitudes to school among some young people.

It also found that some parents were keeping children home unnecessarily after a contact with someone who tests positive for Covid, “finding it hard to move on from the ‘bubble-isolation mentality’”.

The report, Securing Good Attendance and Tackling Persistent Absence, follows a call last year by the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, for a close examination into low attendance rates in schools in England.

“It appears that the provision of remote education during national lockdowns has negatively affected some pupils’ perceptions of the need to be in school, particularly in secondary schools,” the report states.

“There is a sense from some pupils, as one leader explained, that ‘you weren’t fussed when we weren’t in school all that time in lockdown and we did our work at home, so why does it matter so much now?’” it went on.

Many schools have continued to make lessons available online because of continuing high Covid rates with many pupils still off sick and isolating. Some pupils have told teachers, however, they would prefer to work at home and can’t understand why they can’t work remotely rather than coming into school.

The report says: “Where one pupil has Covid-19 and is receiving remote education, this can affect other pupils’ perceptions: ‘My mate’s home, learning online, so the provision must be there, so why can’t I have it too?’, as one leader put it.”

Ofsted said some absences were linked to families who feel they have not had a holiday in a long time, with some taking a previously cancelled holiday during term time, though some schools reported fewer term time holidays.

Among other influences, one school leader said some families were affected by reports of rising Covid rates in their local area and kept their children off school as a result.

Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, said: “There’s no doubt that schools continue to face some very tricky challenges around pupil attendance. But it is clear that leaders who have previously improved pupil attendance have managed to maintain good levels this term by applying the same principle of ‘listen, understand, empathise and support – but do not tolerate [absences]’.”