Why has a larger number of pupils attended school in person during the current lockdown than in the first lockdown, and has it contributed to the spread of coronavirus?

First published in March 2021.

At the start of the year the UK government announced that schools in England would move to remote learning for all except vulnerable children and children of key workers. Harmful though this would inevitably be to the education and mental health of children, it was seen as a crucial part of the lockdown strategy needed to bring the spread of coronavirus back under control.

It immediately became apparent, however, that a large number of pupils were still attending in person. Indeed, headlines talked of schools where more than 50% of pupils were turning up. Such high attendance risked undermining the logic of closing schools. It also suggested that less work was being done remotely, potentially with pressure from employers, again undermining the effort to control the spread of the virus.

With schools in England returning to in-class teaching on the 8 March it seems apt to look back over the data from the last couple of months and question whether the school closures ‘worked’.

One thing is readily apparent, government figures show that in class attendance has been significantly higher in the current lockdown than it was in the first lockdown that began in March 2020. To illustrate, the below graph charts in class attendance from the date of school closure. In March 2020 attendance hovered around 1-2% of pupils, which equates to around 100,000-150,000 children. In the current lockdown attendance is above 14%, which is more than one million children. Thus, roughly 10 times more children attended school in the current lockdown.

Roughly 10 times more children attended school in the current lockdown. | Department for Education

In interpreting these numbers it is crucial to distinguish vulnerable children and children of key workers. There are good reasons why we would want vulnerable children to be prioritised and so their attendance is a positive sign. As you can see in the graph below the proportion of vulnerable children attending school (measured by children with a social worker or Education, Health, Care and Social Plan) was worryingly low in the first lockdown at only around 5%. An increase of attendance to around 40% in the current lockdown is, therefore, welcome. This is surely a positive sign in terms of trying to maintain educational provision to those most in need.

There was an increase of the attendance of vulnerable children to around 40% in the current lockdown. | Department for Education

The increase in attendance of vulnerable children does not, however, account for much of the overall increase. In particular, the number of children of key-workers attending school in the current lockdown is consistently above 800,000 compared to just 100,000 in the first lockdown. We have, therefore, seen a dramatic rise in the proportion of children of key-workers attending school. It is obviously interesting to question why we have seen this increase.

The definition of key-worker has evolved since March 2020 but not enough to explain the increase. We are, therefore, left with the basic logic that there are lots of key workers who kept their children at home in March 2020 that sent them to school in January 2021. Does this suggest some ‘gaming of the system’, for instance employers ‘encouraging’ employees to send children to school? Not necessarily. In particular the Office for National Statistics estimates that of all households with children under 16, 6% were lone parent key workers and 9% were households where both members of the couple were key workers. This adds up to 15% of households. While 15% of households does not necessarily equate with 15% of school children it does sit remarkably well with the 14% attendance rates we have observed.

Social norms, though, have surely played a part in the dramatic rise in attendance. In the first lockdown the vast majority of households obviously found a way, however difficult that may have been, to keep their children at home. That points towards desire to sacrifice for the public good. In this latest lockdown there is seemingly some slippage in that norm. It is particularly interesting to note how attendance rates fell over time during the early days of the first lockdown but have been steadily increasing in the current lockdown. Such dynamic changes are consistent with social norms because they suggest people being influenced by what others are doing – in the first lockdown keeping children at home but in the current lockdown sending them in. Seen in this light it is the incredibly low attendance rates during the first lockdown that stand out and not the increase this time around.

Even if the higher rate of attendance is what we would expect we are still left with the question of whether schools have contributed to the spread of coronavirus. Recent data showed that Covid infections are now highest among 5-12 year olds, which could be because of the higher in-class attendance. So, this is concerning.

Ultimately, however, cases have fallen dramatically in recent weeks and scientists remain optimistic that schools can reopen in March without jeopardizing these gains. 

Professor Edward Cartwright, Professor of Economics, De Montfort University. Director of the Institute for Applied Economics and Social Value.

[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 8 March 2021. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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