With three weeks remaining of their spring term, schools in England began a phased reopening for all year groups. The opening from 8 March followed eight weeks of home learning for most pupils (excluding February half-term). When schools reopened, attendance reached a peak of 92% on 16 March, the highest level since the start of the pandemic.

In March 2021, the Department for Education (DfE) published data on the change in numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM). This data suggests that the pandemic has increased the number of pupils eligible.

This Insight looks at data on issues state-funded schools in England faced during spring term 2021, including attendance, pupils lacking equipment, and free school meals.

Attendance in spring compared to autumn

Schools were open to pupils during the whole 2020 autumn term. Attendance in state-funded schools was generally high (86% on average). It declined after half term, particularly in the final two weeks of term.

For the majority of the 2021 spring term, only children of critical workers and vulnerable children could attend school. Attendance over this period generally followed an upward trend. On average, attendance was around 15% of pupils, which was over twice as high as during the previous closures in 2020.

Average attendance over the three weeks that schools were open was slightly higher than during the autumn term (around 87%). Attendance also reached a pandemic peak of 91.6% on 16 March and exceeded 90.0% on 10 consecutive days. During the autumn term, attendance only exceeded 90% on one day.

A chart shows attendance of state-funded pupils during Covid-19 outbreak reached a peak in March 2021

During the autumn there was variation in local attendance rates in line with changes in community transmission of Covid-19. This was also the case following schools reopening in the spring term. On 25 March attendance was highest in the South East and South West (92%) and lowest in Yorkshire and the Humber (86%).

Can the data be compared with before the pandemic?

Attendance data collected for the 2019 spring term alone is not available (it stopped in 2012).

Data collection differed in autumn 2018 and spring 2019. and the time periods are also not equal, but for rough comparison purposes, attendance was 95.5%.

Who was eligible for free school meals?

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

In March 2021, for the first time since the the pandemic began, the Department for Education (DfE) published data about the change in the number of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM). It captures eligibility as of 1 October 2020, and shows there has been an increase in the proportion of pupils eligible, to 19.7%. In January 2020, it was 17.3%, and in 2019 it was 15.4%.

Around 302,000 children were newly eligible since the first lockdown on 23 March 2020. This is a much larger increase compared to the same period the previous year (March to October 2019) when around 209,000 children became eligible.

This data suggests the pandemic has affected the number of pupils eligible. However, other factors could also be contributing, such as the transitional protections during the rollout of universal credit.

Local authority and regional differences

The proportion of pupils eligible for FSM increased in every local authority between January and October 2020.

Some areas had larger increases than others. In the London borough of Newham, eligibility increased by more than 5 percentage points, while in Redbridge it increased by under 1 percentage point. Many of the biggest increases are in areas with already high eligibility rates.

The variation in the increase in eligibility rates was smaller at the regional level, but regions with the highest rates of eligibility (North East and West Midlands) had the biggest increases while those with the lowest rates (South East and East England) increased the least.

A chart shows percentage point increase in proportion of pupils eligible for and claiming free school meals

Pupil premium funding is changing

The deprivation pupil premium is additional school funding for pupils eligible for free school meals or who’ve been eligible in the last six years.

For 2021/22, the way these allocations are calculated is changing. For most schools, they will be based on the October 2020 school census instead of January’s.

The ongoing pandemic suggests a net increase in eligible pupils between October 2020 and January 2021. This means there will be eligible pupils who will not be allocated pupil premium funding for more than a year. Some union survey findings appear to support this.

The DfE has not publicly estimated the impact of this policy change and has said this change will give schools more certainty.

The rate of electronic devices and routers sent out has increased

The DfE is very close to achieving its target of delivering “over 1.3 million devices” (around 32,500 devices or 2.5% short of the target) since the start of the pandemic. A target for routers was not made.

Device delivery data is available for most of the spring term (from the beginning of term until 14 March 2021). During this period, the DfE distributed around 705,000 laptops and tablets and around 19,700 wireless routers to disadvantaged pupils in England.

During the spring term, deliveries increased from around 84,300 per week (between the start of term and 14 February) to around 164,500 per week (between 7 February and 14 March). The rate of router deliveries also increased sharply (albeit from a lower base) from around 2,200 to around 4,600 per week.

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

However, in early 2020, Ofcom’s Technology Tracker survey 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 children lived in households with no internet access at home (an estimated 2% of UK households with children). A further 473,000 to 913,000 children lived in households with internet access only through a mobile (an estimated 4% of UK households with children).

Chart shows router and device deliveries increased over spring 2021 since 15 May 2020

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 Alissa De Leva on Unsplash

Related posts