In the autumn 2020 term schools opened for all year groups, but some pupils missed periods of face-to-face learning due to Covid-19.

The amount of schooling missed wasn’t evenly distributed. In the West Midlands, on average, pupils missed the most amount of school, whereas those in the South West of England missed the least.

Due to the pandemic’s impact on the economy, it’s likely the number of pupils eligible for free school meals has increased. However, the most recent data available is from before the outbreak (January 2020). Preliminary studies also suggest that the negative impact of not attending school is greater for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This Insight looks at data on key issues state-funded schools in England faced during autumn term 2020, including absences, children lacking equipment, and free school meals.

Attendance was relatively high but declined after half term

School attendance was mostly restricted to children of critical workers and vulnerable children during the summer 2020 term. By autumn, pupils returned full-time. However, many missed periods of face-to-face schooling due to Covid-19.

During the autumn term, the Department for Education estimated that the average attendance in state-funded schools in England was around 86%. This was around two-and-a-half times the average attendance rate of year 6 pupils during the partial reopening in the summer term 2020.

Year 6 pupils had the highest average attendance of any year group invited to attend school during the summer term. Data collection differed in autumn term 2019, but for rough comparison purposes attendance was around 95%.

In the first half of the autumn term, attendance was relatively high and stable (ranging between 86.0% and 90.1%). Rates fluctuated more widely after half term and generally followed a downward trend, particularly in the final two weeks of the term (ranging between 76.9% and 89.6%). The attendance of pupils with education health and care plans was consistently lower than the average for all pupils but followed a similar trend.

Regional differences

Attendance was uneven across different regions in England. On average, it was highest in the South West and lowest in the West Midlands followed closely by London and Yorkshire and the Humber.

During the autumn term all regions recorded declines apart from Yorkshire and the Humber, which showed a slight increase. London had the largest attendance decline during the term (around 18 percentage points). Despite the provision of online education, these variations might affect levels of learning between pupils who live in different areas of the country.

Proportion of pupils attending school in autumn term by region
Notes: The change in attendance rates over the autumn term (10 Sep to 16 Dec) is expressed as the percentage point (pp) difference. All figures are estimates because they have been adjusted by the DfE for non-responses.
Source: Department for Education, Coronavirus (COVID-19): attendance in education and early years settings: 13 January 2020

Differences by local authority

Local authority data which specifically identifies Covid-19 related absences was published for the first time capturing 15 October 2020. Reasons include pupils with a confirmed or suspected case of Covid-19, pupils self-isolating, or attending schools that closed due to Covid-19.

This data was then published on a weekly snapshot basis. It is not adjusted for non-responses from schools and so may not be representative.

Before October half term the local authorities with the highest rate of absence due to Covid-19 were in the areas surrounding Liverpool and Manchester (around 17% absence in Knowsley and Liverpool on 15 October, and 15% in Oldham). The majority (around two thirds) of all areas recorded lower than 5% absence due to Covid-19.

By the end of term absence rates increased in general, and this pattern had reversed. The areas in and around Liverpool recorded some of the lowest rates of absence due to Covid-19, while parts of London and nearby areas such as Kent and Essex recorded the highest rates. This reversal was in line with changes in community transmission.

An animated chart shows absence rate due to Covid-19 by local authority in state-funded schools in England
Source: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, DfE (Table 1c)

Who was eligible for free school meals?

It’s difficult to quantify the impact of the pandemic on different groups of pupils until better data is available.

However, disadvantaged pupils, and those from areas with historically lower attainment, are likely to be disproportionately affected by the disruption to schooling.

In its annual report, the Education Policy Institute said: “everything we have so far learned about education during the schools’ lockdown suggests […] a particularly adverse impact on poor and vulnerable children”

Department for Education data shows there is considerable variation between local authority areas when it comes to the proportion of children known to be eligible for benefit-based free school meals. In January 2020, 34% of pupils in Knowsley were eligible, whilst the rate in Wokingham (Surrey) was just 7%. These figures are the most recent, but don’t take account of the increase in benefit eligibility as a result of the pandemic, so are likely to be underestimates.

A chart shows the proportion of pupils eligible for and claiming free school meals in January 2020
Source: Schools pupils and their characteristics 2020, DfE

The rate of electronic devices and routers sent out has increased

During the autumn term the Department for Education distributed around 341,900 laptops and tablets and around 3,600 wireless routers to some disadvantaged pupils in England. This was in addition to the 220,500 devices and 51,000 routers distributed during the summer term.

During the autumn term, the pace of electronic devices deliveries increased from around 17,000 per week (between the start of term and 22 October) to around 29,000 per week (between 22 October and the end of term). The rate of router deliveries also increased sharply (albeit from a low base) from around 30 to around 400 per week.

It is not known how many pupils in England currently do not have access to a device for learning, or don’t have a suitable internet connection.

However, in early 2020, Ofcom’s Technology Tracker carried out a survey which estimated that between 1.14 million and 1.78 million children under the age of 18 lived in households without access to a laptop, desktop or tablet in the UK (an estimated 9% of UK households with children).

Between 227,000 and 559,000 lived in households with no internet access at home (an estimated 2% of UK households with children). A further 473,000 to 913,000 lived in households whose only access to the internet was via mobile (an estimated 4% of UK households with children).

Chart shows device and router deliveries have increased over autumn 2020
Source: Laptops tablets and 4G wireless routers progress data, DfE

About the authors: Shadi Danechi is a statistics researcher specialising in education and Nerys Roberts is a researcher specialising in school-level education at the House of Commons Library.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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