Overcautious teachers are sending entire year groups home unnecessarily, Children's tsar warns

Camilla Turner
·3 min read
Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England 
Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England

Overcautious teachers are sending entire year groups of pupils home unnecessarily, the Children's Commissioner has warned as she says education must not be "sacrificed on the altar of Covid".

Just one pupil testing positive for coronavirus can send an entire school into "chaos" with a whole year group sent home for a fortnight, Anne Longfield said.

She is writing to MPs on Thursday to highlight the huge discrepancies in the interpretation of guidance on how to handle cases of Covid-19 at school, and the detrimental effect this is having on children's education.  

"On any given day, around a tenth of kids are at home, some in isolation, some perhaps too afraid to go to school as they live with vulnerable people. This rises to a fifth in some areas of the country," Ms Longfield told The Telegraph.

"There has been chaos in some schools, with some sending entire year groups home for a fortnight because a single pupil tests positive for Covid, something that is actually against government guidance and should stop."

Her intervention comes after official figures revealed that nearly half of secondary schools in England told children to stay at home because of coronavirus last week.

The data, published by the Department for Education (DfE) this week, showed that 46 per cent of secondaries and 16 per cent of primaries sent pupils home or Covid-related reasons.

Between 11 per cent and 13 per cent of schools said that they had more than 30 pupils self-isolating due to potential contact with a case of Covid-19 inside the school.    

Schools are meant to contact Public Health England or the DfE helpline if a student tests positive, who may pass the case on to the local health protection team.

They will work with the school to identify any "close contacts" of the pupil who would need to isolate.    

But Ms Longfield will warn MPs that in some cases, schools are being overcautious and sending home an entire year group when in fact only a smaller group of pupils had close contact with a peer who tested positive.

She will point to figures published by DfE which show that the average number of secondary pupils sent home to self-isolate following one case of coronavirus is 86, but it varies widely from 25 pupils in some schools to well over a hundred in others. 

Ms Longfield said that schools should stay open "no matter what", adding: "Children’s education shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of Covid."  

She said it is problematic to be sending pupils home unnecessarily because the quality of remote education is patchy at best.

"Just as in lockdown, some children have received online classes throughout – particularly those at private school – but the majority have not," she said.

"The educational inequality this is contributing to is shocking."   Some teachers may be nervous about using new technologies, she said, but added that this must change because  "blended learning, some children in class, some at home, others catching up later, is the only way we’ll get through this pandemic with this generation’s learning intact".

A legal duty on schools to provide good quality remote education for self-isolating pupils comes into force on Thursday.

The Government has used emergency powers to issue a directive to schools to ensure children at home have immediate access to remote education that it "aligns as closely as possible" with what their peers learn in the classroom.

Nick Brook of the National Association of Headteachers said that schools need "support not sanction", adding that the legal duty is a "cynical attempt by the Government to look strong by acting tough".

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Over 99 per cent of schools have been open every week since term began, with over 7.3 million pupils attending last week.  

“As expected, a small proportion of pupils are self-isolating in line with public health advice, but this is similar to previous weeks, and the average group size is small compared to the total number of pupils."