The figure of 1 million children not returning to school is uncertain

1 June 2020
What was claimed

One million primary school pupils are set to stay home on 1 June despite schools reopening.

Our verdict

This is based on survey results of around 1,000 senior teachers asked in early May what proportion of families would keep their children at home. The results were then applied to the estimated number of students in Early Years, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.

“Schools reopen with kids in masks and teachers checking temps – but 1 million kept home”

The Sun, 1 June 2020

“At least one million primary school pupils to stay home today despite reopening”

The Mirror, 1 June 2020

“A million children in England – half of those who are expected to return when their classes reopen – are likely to stay at home on Monday rather than go back to school”

The Guardian, 1 June 2020

Schools are reopening today for children attending nurseries and early years providers as well as those in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6. This morning, headlines declared that over one million children were set to be kept off school. 

This was based on survey results published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) which found that senior school leaders estimated on average that 46% of families would keep their children at home when schools “open more fully” and the fact that there are around two million children in total in the three year groups going back to school today. NFER told us that it did not calculate the one million figure.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in that 46% figure though, as it’s based on what senior teachers thought in the first half of May when asked, rather than a survey of families’ intentions.

Assuming that senior teachers’ estimates of families’ intentions are correct, 46% of families doesn’t necessarily equate to 46% of all children in these years, as the Mirror pointed out, because many families will have more than one child returning to school.

The number of children going back to school

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated that there are around 2.1 million children in the year groups allowed back to school today which is around 43% of all primary school children. It also said there are “up to 680,000 families that could expect all of their children to return to school”. That’s around 17.5% of families with children in early years or of primary school age.

The survey

NFER sent a survey to all 20,553 state funded mainstream primary and secondary schools in England between 7 and 17 May. It received responses from 1,233 senior leaders (head teachers, principals and deputy head teachers) as well as 1,821 other teachers. This particular question was based on the responses of senior leaders.

NFER asked senior leaders “When schools open more fully, what percentage of families do you think will keep their children away from school?” and it told us the teachers then had to indicate a response between 0% and 100% by moving a slider to their chosen response number, or they could choose the option ‘not sure’. 949 senior leaders responded from 898 schools, providing an answer somewhere between 2% and 96%. NFER told us that half of all teachers’ responses fell between 30% and 59%. Another 200 responded ‘not sure’.

NFER then weighted the data to make it representative of schools in England.

It found “Senior leaders predict that when schools open more fully, 46 per cent of families will keep their children at home”. NFER told us that 46% was the mean average after the results were weighted.

NFER also says to “note that because senior leaders were answering questions over a ten-day period, some responses pre-date the Prime Minister’s announcement on the 10th May and the publication of DfE guidance from the 12th to the 25th May”. This refers to the Prime Minister’s speech on 10 May when he announced that Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 would be reopening “at the earliest” by 1 June as well as other guidance from the Department for Education on schools reopening.

The calculation

There is a lot of uncertainty in the figure produced by the NFER survey. It is an average based on what teachers think rather than families themselves, the survey was done in the first half of May and we don’t know how or if attitudes may have changed since then and the question didn’t specify a situation where only specific year groups may have returned (as is the case today). 

But even assuming it is correct that 46% of families will keep their children home today, that doesn’t necessarily equate to 46% of all children in those year groups that can go back to school today. Some families will have multiple children who are eligible to return to school, while other families may have some children who can return and others who cannot. It’s possible such factors could affect how likely a family is to send their children back to school, which could mean that 46% of families might not translate to 46% of children. It could be more, or less. 

The only way to know for sure will be through attendance information submitted daily by schools to the Department for Education.

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