At least 4,000 pupils were absent from Cumbria schools on just one day in October, a snapshot Government survey reveals.
With attendance rates lowest in parts of the North of England, a think tank warns pupils there will be at a disadvantage if the Government presses ahead with plans for exams next summer.
The Department for Education’s survey of school attendance showed 4,084 pupils were absent from Cumbria schools on October 15 – with an overall attendance rate of 92 per cent.
Of these, 51 per cent were absent from secondary schools, 47 per cent from primary schools and around one per cent from special schools.
The survey only looked at state-funded schools, of which 69 per cent responded, so it is likely even more pupils were off throughout the area.
The figures, which were placed in the House of Commons library following a written question from MP Margaret Greenwood, showed the total attendance rate across England was 89 per cent – down from 90 per cent a week earlier.
The DfE said up to 412,000 children did not attend school for COVID-19 related reasons, with the majority self-isolating due to potential contact with a case of coronavirus.
More than a fifth of schools said they had one or more pupils self-isolating who had been asked to do so due to potential contact with a case of coronavirus inside the school.
Attendance rates varied greatly across the country, with secondary school attendance in Knowsley the lowest (61 per cent), as infection rates rose and Tier 3 restrictions were imposed.
In Cumbria, 91 per cent of secondary pupils were in class on October 15.
This was higher than the average across the North West, of 81 per cent, which was the joint-lowest in England.
Parts of London recorded secondary school attendances as high as 94 per cent, close to the usual national average.
The Northern Powerhouse Partnership has called for coursework to be used to assess GCSE and A-level students instead of exams, to avoid the risk of a “similar fiasco” to this summer.
Head of policy for the partnership Sarah Mulholland said: “Northern students are the ones currently being impacted negatively by high infection rates and self-isolation. “We urge the Government to commit to continuous assessment as it is a fairer alternative to the proposed examination plan.
“Assessing children this way, if it is planned in advance, may in fact be more rigorous than what is proposed if plans were to have to change at short notice.”
While the Government has said exams will go ahead in 2021, but held three weeks later than usual, the National Education Union said the mistakes of 2020 risk being repeated.
Avis Gilmore, deputy general secretary of the NEU, said: “We need to see a reduction in what is assessed, and a serious conversation with the profession to ensure a robust national system of moderated centre-assessed grades.
“Decisive action is needed to ensure schools and colleges have a clear path forward, giving students and their families the reassurance that an examination system is in place that ensures fairness across the country.”
A DfE spokeswoman said schools were expected to provide pupils with remote education when they were self-isolating and headteachers could decide how to use their school’s premium allocation funding to tackle the impact of lost teaching time on pupils.
She added: “Exams are the fairest way of judging a student’s performance, which is why they will go ahead next year, underpinned by contingency measures developed in partnership with the sector.
“Over the coming weeks we will jointly identify any risks to exams and the measures needed to address potential disruption, with fairness for students continuing to be our priority.”