One in 20 pupils absent from school amid spike in Covid cases

ITV News Correspondent Rachel Younger reports on the increasing difficulty pupils are facing despite many other areas of society feeling like the pandemic is coming to an end

Covid-related absence in English schools has reached the highest level since pupils returned to their desks in March amid indications from the government the bubble and self-isolation rules could come to an end at the start of the next academic year.

Around one in 20 (5.1%) state school pupils did not attend class for Covid-19-related reasons on June 24.

The figure includes approximately 279,000 children self-isolating due to a possible contact with a Covid-19 case, 24,000 pupils with a suspected case of coronavirus and 15,000 with a confirmed case of coronavirus.

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The figures are up from 3.3% on June 17 and 1.2% on June 10, according to estimates from the Department for Education (DfE)

In secondary schools, 82.4% of pupils attended class, down week-on-week from 84.9%, while 90.9% of pupils attended primary school, down from 93.0%.

Daily Covid numbers in the UK have been rising sharply in recent weeks as the relaxing of lockdown rules combined with the spread of the Delta variant has led to a spike in cases.

The headteacher of a school in Oldham discusses the impact current rules are having on their pupils' education

Currently, if a pupil in a 'bubble' - which are often defined as whole year groups - tests positive for Covid then the whole group must self isolate at home.

Children's Commission for England Dame Rachel de Souza said there was an urgent need for children to get back to normal as lockdown restrictions had been a “real trauma” for many young people.

The DfE said earlier on Tuesday ministers have written to secondary schools asking them to prepare to potentially replace isolation rules with testing.

A spokesman said: “We are provisionally asking secondary schools and colleges to prepare to offer on-site testing when students return for the new academic year, so that schools are ready in case it is needed to keep as many children as possible in face-to-face education."

They said more information about their plans for September would be released in "due course".

Schools minister Nick Gibb said the Government was conducting a review into using testing to end self-isolation for school pupils in bubbles.

He told ITV News: “We have to make sure this daily testing trial is effective in controlling the virus and that’s a matter for the scientists to advise us on having looked at the data from the trial."

Mr Gibb said the government's priority "remains getting children back into school and keeping them in school safely, and that’s why we have all these measures in place to keep schools safer and to minimise the risk of transmitting the virus within the school".

"Children have borne...more than their fair share of the burden of dealing with this pandemic," he added.

He said that about 3% of students are currently self-isolating, saying it had increased by 1% on the previous week.

Hundreds of thousands of pupils are regularly seeing their education disrupted. Credit: PA

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, the Children's Commissioner said the need for children to go in and out of isolation was “a really big issue” and was proving “incredibly frustrating” for pupils and teachers alike.

“With bubbles, I think everybody would like it if we could get back to normal, as soon as possible. Obviously we have to be safe, and we have to take advice, but it’s very very restrictive,” she said.

“The experience of lockdown has been a real trauma, and I think we shouldn’t underestimate it. Children are really troubled, and it’s right across the board.”

Dame Rachel said young people, who had seen their normal childhood disrupted in order to protect older people, were now struggling with their mental health.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

“They have done a huge amount for us, I mean they really were the least at risk of this and they’ve given up 19 weeks of their education, they’ve had all this anxiety and concern and exams cancelled; they’ve taken a big burden for us,” she said.

The commissioner said although adults largely assumed “kids are resilient, they’ll bounce back”, the results this year of a sweeping survey on British pupils dubbed The Big Ask showed “they are telling us that they have got these worries and we need to listen to them”.

The survey of more than 550,000 children, run by the office of the Children’s Commissioner, had shown mental health was the biggest concern for 20% of respondents, a figure that rose to 40% for those aged 14-17, the Telegraph reported.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has asked for ‘fresh advice’ on school isolation rules Credit: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/PA

A former teacher herself, Dame Rachel said she had “real concern” for nursey-aged children and those starting school, who were at an age when they “need to be playing and learning and developing language skills” but were instead “stuck inside for too long”.

Her warning came as official figures on Monday showed another rise in infections with almost 23,000 lab-confirmed cases – the highest daily rise since January 30.

In a statement, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “The vast majority of children and young people are in school, but I am aware that sadly a minority are experiencing disruption at the moment.

“Whilst pupils who are self-isolating are being immediately provided with high-quality remote education, we know that the best place for children is in the classroom.

"That is why I am working with the health secretary, alongside scientists and public health experts, to relax Covid measures in schools in line with wider work to remove restrictions across society.

“I’ll be looking closely at the issues around the need for ongoing isolation of bubbles and the outcomes of the daily contact testing trial, as we consider a new model for keeping children in education.”

Labour Shadow Transport Minister Jim McMahon said: "We recognise that children and education have been one of the victims of Covid - we know that last year from September to December it was children in the most deprived communities that really felt the brunt of that in terms of lost school days."

He added: "The parents that I speak to are very clear that it can’t carry on as it is, you accept disruption for a period but, actually, the profound impact on health and education means that we do need to have a review."

The warnings came amid continuing concerns over the spread of the Delta variant with Portugal, Spain, Malta and Hong Kong announcing new restrictions on tourists from the UK.

Despite the increase, new Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there was “no reason” why the final stage of lockdown lifting in England should not go ahead as planned.

In a Commons statement, he said the country would have to “ learn to live with” the disease as there was no “zero risk” option.

His comments were welcomed by Tory MPs who believed they signalled a more robust approach to ending restrictions than was the case under his predecessor Matt Hancock.

Mr Hancock resigned at the weekend after admitting he had broken social-distancing rules after footage emerged of him kissing a close aide in the Department of Health and Social Care.