Commenting on week 28 school attendance figures published by the Department for Education, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:  

“The number of pupils absent for COVID-19 related reasons is now the highest at any point in the pandemic. One in five pupils, including more than a quarter of secondary pupils, were absent from school last week for all reasons combined. This means that many pupils will be facing further disruption to the end of the school year: missing end of year trips, transitions to new classes and schools, and the chance to say goodbye to friends and staff. Education professionals are being exposed to classroom outbreaks, with more than one in twenty education staff absent for Covid-related reasons last week. With more than half of teachers aged under 40, this means a majority of education professionals are likely to still be vulnerable while awaiting double vaccination. 

“The Government has failed to protect students and staff by not prioritising mitigation measures such as masks and testing, in the face of evidence and advice. The NEU wrote to Gavin Williamson last week (1) in light of the government's intention to do away with almost all safety guidance for education settings. Other voices have joined us in asking for the data and modelling that has led government to make this change. No one from government has been so far able to provide these answers, and this can only raise concerns that we may need alternatives - which are not being planned. 

"Too many of the Government's recent actions on Covid have been driven by optimism, and a refusal to give serious thought to contingency planning. In a pandemic Plan Bs should not be viewed as a sign of weakness, but one of strength. Boris Johnson is yet to learn this lesson. Today's decision advances on an earlier relaxation of rules around masks in classrooms, which in our view has now proven to be a mistake. 

"It is now abundantly clear that the Government has no plan for schools and colleges in the event that cases carry on rising over the summer. School outbreaks are now at their highest level in 2021 so far, and self-testing amongst school-age children has collapsed to less than 20%. This is from a 60% high in March. Gavin Williamson's only response to this is to give up. The root cause of the current disruption in schools is virus spread, so focusing every effort on reducing transmission in schools to keep children healthy and in education should be the Government's priority. 

"Simply hoping for the best did not prevent the Delta variant breaching our borders, and hoping for the best will not be sufficient support for school and college leaders who need the backing of Government to stay open safely and sustainably when case counts rise. We can all hope for the best but we must plan for something that is less than the best." 

Editor’s note 

  1. Letter to Gavin Williamson, 8 July 2021