The way back following Covid-19


As schools are re-opening, attendance officers must work closely with senior leaders to make sure parents are clear about what to expect. Attendance procedures will be different and Sue Cowley highlights some key points for consideration by attendance officers.


  • It will not be appropriate to use attendance rewards whilst students are being reintegrated into school.
  • Parents need reassuring about the measures that you are taking and videos can help with this.
  • The Coronavirus Act 2020 has changed attendance legislation.

Attendance has long been a complex issue, but it is likely to become even more complicated in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown as schools re-open more widely. Clearly, families will have had very different experiences of lockdown and of the virus. For some, the experience may have been reasonably straightforward, with relatively little impact beyond the inconvenience of not being able to go out. However, for others, the pandemic may have proved very difficult indeed.

Some families will have suffered bereavement, parents may have lost their jobs, children will have had to spend their time in a cramped environment with no outdoor space and few learning resources. The children of key workers will have had an entirely different experience to their peers – continuing to go to school while their friends were at home, and perhaps suffering anxieties about their parents’ health. Schools and settings will need to be sensitive to this wide range of experiences.

As schools open to more year groups, there are parents who may be anxious about their children going back to school. This will particularly be the case where there are clinically vulnerable people or people shielding in a household. It is essential for schools to be sympathetic to families and there cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to dealing with absence from school during the pandemic.

The situation with children who are shielding is changing, with all families asked to speak to their clinicians over the summer about a return to school. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has published the following guidance on shielding:

Encouraging attendance

The DfE has said that eligible children, including priority groups, are ‘strongly encouraged to attend their educational setting’ unless they are self-isolating or clinically vulnerable. They have stated that staff should ‘explore the reason with them and address barriers together’ where children do not attend.

Schools are asked to focus particularly on those children who were persistently absent prior to the pandemic and to continue to notify social services where a child who has a social worker does not attend.

With attendance not compulsory at present, and many parents understandably nervous around the safety of their children and wider families, leaders will want to consider how they can encourage parents to send their children in. Where parents want to continue to home educate their children due to their personal circumstances, this might prove helpful short term in keeping numbers in schools down.

You will need to look at your current policy around attendance and ensure that it is adapted to meet the current crisis. For instance, it will not be appropriate for any attendance rewards to be used to encourage attendance for the time being, particularly in a situation where some children may be asked not to attend where there is an outbreak of Covid-19 in a setting.

“It is essential for schools to be sympathetic to families and there cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to dealing with absence from school during the pandemic.”

Reassuring parents

A key factor is to help parents understand what your school has done to ensure that children are safe. Share information with parents about the new routines, policies and approaches that you have introduced – both via your website and emails/text messages – and the thinking behind these. Where tutors and teachers are making regular phone calls home, they could talk this through with parents.

Explain the practicalities to your families, so that they can see how you have thought things through with your staff team. Things to consider will be, for example:

  • how you will deal with drop-off  times
  • the use of staggered arrivals
  • what your cleaning and hygiene routines will look like
  • measures you have put in place to ensure that social distancing can happen
  • plans for break and lunchtimes
  • managing movement around the school.

If you are planning on doing a lot more outdoor learning because of transmission rates being much lower outside, then explain this approach to your parents.

With younger children, especially those in the Early Years Foundation Stage, the DfE has said it may not be possible for the children to socially distance, and that instead small ‘bubbles’ of around 8 children (up to 15 in Reception) who mix with each other are the preferred approach. These bubbles stay with the same staff and are aimed at minimising wider contact for the children. You should explain to parents how this works.

A number of schools have used videos to show parents how and where to drop off, what classrooms will look like with social distancing, and to explain the plans that have been put in place. The video format works well because it helps parents see how the familiar school that they know is still there, just with temporary alterations and adaptations.

A focus on well-being

The majority of children should return without any problems, but settings will probably want to prioritise well-being over curriculum, particularly for those children who may have had a difficult experience of lockdown. Make it clear to parents that you do expect to be dealing with anxiety from some children, and that you have plans in place to handle this.

Schools report that children are much more tired on their return to the setting, so factor this into your plans around how to timetable the day. Give children a chance to get used to the structure of the school day again, rather than immediately trying to return to normal.

Completing attendance registers

When schools re-opened to more children from 1 June, the DfE published guidance on taking attendance registers in the current situation, which was correct at the time of writing. Settings should return attendance figures by midday each day.

Anecdotally, it is taking school leaders and administrative staff a considerable time to complete registers as they are required to submit a wider range of responses. Speaking to individual families about their circumstances and reasons for non-attendance has the potential to add significant workload.

At the time of writing, all absence was to be classed as authorised, although it now appears that this will no longer be the case from September. The attendance legislation has been changed by the Coronavirus Act 2020, to ensure that parents do not commit an offence if their child is not attending school regularly.

Using attendance codes

When schools were re-opened more widely from June, a series of attendance codes came into use that were correct at the time of writing, but which could change again from September. Pupils who are not eligible to attend a session, including any children who are not in an eligible year group or priority group, are recorded with Code X. This means they are not required to be in school. This code also covers those children who are not required in school for a specific session i.e. Year 10 and 12 pupils who are not among those with the opportunity to be in school for lessons at a given time.

Record (using Code Y) those children who are eligible to attend a session but are absent; for instance, those in eligible year groups, children of key workers and vulnerable children, such as those with an EHCP. This indicates that they are unable to attend due to exceptional circumstances. This same code should be used where a child cannot attend school due to them following coronavirus guidance.

Where children are ill, Code I should be used, as was previously the case for pupils not attending due to illness. Schools should note whether the illness involves coronavirus symptoms on the educational setting status form.

Where children could attend a session but choose not to, despite being eligible, and are not unable to attend because they are shielding, self-isolating or unwell, they should be recorded as Code C. This code is for leave of absence authorised by the school.

If children are attending another school where they are registered (for instance, a pupil referral unit), Code D is to be used to indicate that they are dual registered and attending elsewhere. If they are attending another school on a temporary basis, because their home school is currently unable to accommodate them, they should be registered with Code B. Code M can be used for medical appointments where appropriate.

Where there is a policy about how long the register is kept open, settings might want to change this to reflect a staggered start time for parents dropping off their children. Schools and colleges will not be held to account for their attendance data at the current time.

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About Author

Sue Cowley

Sue Cowley is a writer, presenter, teacher educator and author of 30 books on education. After qualifying as a teacher with a first class BEd (Hons), she taught in primary and secondary schools and overseas. Sue’s international bestseller Getting the Buggers to Behave has been translated into ten languages and is a set text at many universities. Her best selling guide for NQTs How to Survive your First Year in Teaching has been in print for 20 years. She now works internationally as a teacher trainer and presenter. Website: email:

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