Figures showing just how badly Greater Manchester schools have been impacted by Covid cases have been revealed for the first time.
The data, published by the Department for Education, gives a breakdown of all local authorities and shows that across the region there were weeks with as many as 50,000 children absent from primaries and secondaries.
While the Manchester Evening News has been reporting on schools impacted by positive cases since September, it’s the first time that official figures have been released.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they paint a stark picture of the extent to which our schools have been affected.
The data looks at weekly attendance rates from the beginning of the first lockdown, on March 23, up to December 10, but we’ve been taking a look at how schools have been affected since pupils started the new academic year in September.
It shows that the two weeks where schools were worst affected, were just before the half term break on October 22 and then again on November 19. During both weeks more than 50,000 children were unable to attend school because of Covid.
While some may have tested positive themselves, many more will been sent home as part of bubble isolations, or staff absences – the cause of many schools having to resort to remote learning.
Overall attendance rates have varied throughout the term, but on average Rochdale has had the lowest rates in both secondaries (70%) and primaries (84%), followed by Oldham, with very similar rates of 71% and 84% respectively.
During at least six weeks since the start of term, some areas had every single high school with at least one pupil isolating due to Covid contact within school, most recently in Bury.
Among those was St Gabriel’s RC High School which closed early for Christmas after more than two dozen students tested positive in one week.
Teaching unions have been calling on the government for greater transparency over Covid cases in schools, saying they and the public were being ‘kept in the dark’.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “These attendance figures, that have been hidden from the public for so long, show just what a profound impact coronavirus has had on schooling in many areas.
“The NEU commends school leaders and councils for taking an ethical stance, in a volatile situation where public health is the prime concern, especially so close to Christmas. It is their standing up for pupils, staff and the community which mattered most in a time of crisis. By contrast, the Secretary of State and his colleagues have failed utterly in their responsibility to keep schools safe.”
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has previously raised concerns over the number of cases in the region’s schools and the impact isolations will have on pupils, particularly those due to sit exams in the summer.
He said the region’s absence figures are ‘higher than expected’ and the government needs to do more to ‘remove the threat of significant discrimination’ when it comes to next year’s GCSEs and A-Levels.
“We don’t believe the government has yet gone far enough with its proposals for exams next year, to take account of the large amount of time that a number of students here have spent outside of the classroom,” said Mr Burnham.
“And of course it’s quite a random impact, because some will have been sent home multiple times and others not at all. Therefore I believe assessment has to be a large part of what is done.
“To say that colleges and universities will give greater consideration to people who have spent some time out of the classroom isn’t good enough, because they still will carry the stigma of lower grades with them for the rest of their lives.”
Asked whether it was right that pupils in London were offered mass testing last week, ahead of any such move in Manchester, he said: “The government has been working with Greater Manchester on introducing targeted testing at scale, that has started to begin in earnest in the last few days and in certain boroughs schools will be prioritised as part of that.
“The way it was presented was as if we weren’t getting any of that support and other places were getting it before us. I think there could have been more done to bring it in here more quickly, given the level of disruption that we were facing.”
Despite calls for schools to close early for Christmas – to allow families to isolate for longer before mixing with households over the festive period – the government has stood firm, allowing schools just one inset day on December 18.
Only this week it threatened legal action against Greenwich Council in London to stop its move to have pupils learning remotely for the final days of term.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “ Schools, colleges and early years settings across the country have worked extremely hard to remain open, implementing safety measures and scaling up remote education provision for those children who are self-isolating.
“I know some areas of the country have faced more significant challenges, including Manchester and attendance has been impacted by the high rate of infection in the community. From January, our new programme of rapid testing will help keep more staff and young people in school by identifying positive cases more quickly and breaking chains of transmission.
“It is a credit to the teachers and staff across Manchester that so many schools have remained open since September, enabling thousands of children to attend every day. Our regional school commissioner teams continue to support the local authority and school trusts to remain open and help resolve any operational issues.”
Proportion of children attending school by borough since September (primaries/secondaries)
- Bolton – 86.3% / 74%
- Bury – 86.9% / 78.7%
- Manchester – 84.9% / 79.6%
- Oldham – 84.9% / 71.3%
- Rochdale – 84% / 70.1%
- Salford – 86.7% / 77.6%
- Stockport – 89.6% / 82.4%
- Tameside – 89.5% / 81.9%
- Trafford – 90.4% / 87.4%
- Wigan – 88.2% / 75.3%
Councils with some of the worst attendance rates have responded to the figures and stressed what a ‘challenging time’ it’s been for schools this term.
Councillor Kieran Heakin, Rochdale Council’s cabinet member for children’s services, said: “This has been an extremely challenging time for schools who have managed incredibly in a borough where we have seen consistently high rates of Covid-19.
“Everyone is committed to pupils being in school but the safety of everyone and stopping the spread must remain a priority for us all. Where bubbles are sent home for isolation schools have put in place remote learning for pupils.
“We’ve made strong progress with attendance recently, overall our attendance is higher than the national average at over 85%, in primary schools we’re now at over 90% which is above the national average and in secondary we’re in line with the national average at 76%.”
In Oldham, the council said that ‘consistently high levels of Covid have affected school attendance during the autumn term’ and said that despite recent improvements, that could all change following the Christmas break.
A spokesperson said: “Department for Education data shows that the proportions of staff and pupils who have had to isolate in Oldham have regularly been among the highest in Greater Manchester and nationally.
“Our schools and academies have worked closely with public health and education officers to minimise the numbers of staff and pupils who need to isolate by rigorously identifying close contacts of any positive cases. This has sustained attendance under very challenging circumstances.
“In terms of statistics, the community infection rate peaked at around 750 per 100,000 this term, amongst the highest in the country. During this period, we recorded over 1,600 positive cases in school pupils and staff.
“We welcome the latest figures which show a reduction in community infection rates and improved attendance figures. It is not possible to predict what will happen in the new year following greater mixing during the school holidays.”
Bury Council said recent attendance figures have improved there too, with a spokesman saying: “Our schools, like those across the land, have been hit by coronavirus and a significant number of children and young people have missed face-to-face learning throughout the autumn term.
“The numbers will reflect the wider infection rate in the community, with Bury currently having the highest rate in Greater Manchester.
“However, we have been able to limit the number of children that have had to self-isolate through having effective measures in place.
“The situation has also improved considerably. Last week, around 450 children were required to self-isolate, compared with a peak of 2,200 in late October. This is out of a total pupil roll of 29,000, which compares very well with other GM districts.”