Persistent absence from school caused by Covid and mental illness is hampering efforts by pupils to catch up on lost learning, according to a report by Ofsted.
The schools inspectorate said its visits to 98 primary and secondary schools in England had found many were “still working on getting back to pre-pandemic attendance”. It said most of the absences were related to Covid, including cases of infections and mental health issues, and what it called “Covid-19-related anxiety” among parents and pupils.
Many school leaders said mental health concerns continued to cause difficulties for some of their pupils, with some reporting increased numbers of pupils suffering from anxiety and self-harm.
Inspectors were told that other Covid-related absences were the result of “low resilience to setbacks or illness”, as well as families taking rescheduled or rearranged holidays during term-time. Covid-related absences were said to be higher among disadvantaged pupils and pupils with special educational needs or disabilities, as well as older students.
The report found gaps in literacy and maths were commonplace, although how big they were varied. “How much pupils had learned, and how secure they were in this knowledge, depended on whether they were in school during lockdowns, how much they had engaged with remote learning and how independently they could work at home,” the report said.
Ofsted also found that teacher absences related to Covid were having a profound effect on how schools function, with improvement plans and staff training being slowed down or postponed. Headteachers said they had to operate with “multiple members of staff” off at the same time.
Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said: “The pandemic is still with us, and children’s education is still being disrupted. But it’s clear that many school leaders and staff have responded to these challenges with tenacity, and demonstrated creativity in how they have supported children and learners’ education and personal development.
“Children have missed out so much already. And some pupils remain persistently absent from school for a variety of reasons. So, as we face further turbulence, we must do all we can to make sure children are able to continue learning in their classrooms.”
Pupils starting at both primary and secondary schools appear to have been the most disrupted, with inspectors hearing that children had arrived “with lower starting points” than in previous years and were taking longer to settle in.
In reception year, children who had missed out on nursery were struggling more with peer interactions, behaviour and attitudes to learning. “Some teachers said that the impact of the pandemic on reception pupils was bigger than they had expected,” the inspectors noted.
The report did have at least two bright spots. Headteachers said some pupils who had previously withdrawn from their school in favour of home schooling had changed their minds and returned. And some staff said pupil behaviour had improved compared with before the pandemic. Pupils were happy to be back in school and showing a positive attitude to learning, they said.