Video report by ITV News Correspondent John Ray
Secondary schools and colleges in England are opening to more pupils in Year 10 and Year 12 this week amid warnings from school leaders that disadvantaged children are being left further behind.
Students gradual return to the classroom comes after the government said they should have “face-to-face” support ahead of their exams next summer.
But school leaders warn that already disadvantaged children will slip further through the education gap if GCSE and A-levels were to go ahead as normal next year despite Year 10 and 12 students missing out on nearly a term of schooling.
They are calling on clear guidance as to how exams will look for pupils sitting them next summer.
Michael Ferry, headteacher at St Wilfrid's Catholic School in Crawley, says only one in five students have returned
A study released on Monday suggested approximately two million children in the UK have done barely any schoolwork at home during the coronavirus lockdown.
Around one in five pupils have carried out no schoolwork at home, or less than an hour a day, since schools closed partially in March, research by UCL Institute of Education (IOE) has found.
Researchers estimate this equates to approximately 2.3 million children across the UK, with vulnerable and disadvantaged children disproportionally affected.
Some schools leaders said they did not have enough space on site to admit all pupils in the eligible year groups while adhering to government guidance to limit class sizes to 15 which means only a fraction of their Year 10 and Year 12 pupils can return.
Michael Ferry, headteacher at St Wilfrid's Catholic School in Crawley, told ITV News that only 20% of his students from Year 10 and Year 12 had returned on Monday.
"As long as there's any form of social distancing, it means numbers are restricted quite alarmingly," he said.
"We talk about the exams for next year. There is a fear factor about sending students back to school, about the risk. It's impractical to maintain social distancing for large numbers.
"And then you factor in the extra anxiety when we've heard no news about what exams look like next year."
Mr Ferry continued: "There's a lot of students who have been disadvantaged over the course of these last few months, there families have as well.
"If we were to go ahead and run exams as we normally would next year, we'll be reinforcing the levels of disadvantage we've got across the whole of society at the moment."
Granger Trindade, a Year 12 student St Wilfrid’s Catholic school, told ITV News he was initially afraid of returning after missing three months of schooling.
"I believe I can make up for it in the time frame," he said. "Our teachers are there to help us get back on our feet and we will hopefully be back on our feet next year."
Another student, Genevieve Hack, said she was "definitely worried" because "about now we're working on personal statements and applications to uni and I've never done anything like that before."
She said: "We have lost almost a term of work. It's really difficult to apply your own knowledge that you've taught yourself and know that I have to use that in an exam and know that I may not get a chance to catch up on that with a teacher."
Professor Francis Green, the lead author of the IOE study, said the findings paint a “gloomy picture” of missed schooling and low take-up of academic work at home.
He said: “The closure of schools, and their only-partial re-opening, constitute a potential threat to the educational development of a generation of children.
“Everyone is losing out in this generation, some much more than others. Better home schoolwork provision, and better still an early safe return to school for as many as possible, should now become a top priority for Government.”
The research also found that one in five children on FSMs had no access to a computer at home, compared to 7% for other children.
School leaders have also warned against proposals to allow students unhappy with their calculated GCSE and A-level grades to sit exams in the autumn.
It would be a “significant challenge” to accommodate exams alongside face-to-face lessons, while providing vital support to students who have been out of school for six months, heads warned.