Schools are losing touch with some of the most vulnerable families across England during the pandemic, as the threat of truancy fines leads parents to de-register their children, with many feeling abandoned and isolated.
The government has said that parents who do not send their children back to school should face the usual penalties for non-attendance. But, although ministers say missing school would put “a huge dent in children’s life chances”, some families with members suffering from serious health conditions say it is not worth the risk. With headteachers saying they cannot authorise their absences because of the government’s policy, they face fines of between £60 and £2,500 for each parent.
Some heads are demanding letters from doctors to prove families’ health vulnerabilities, causing confusion as GPs say it is not their job to intervene. Education Otherwise, which supports home educators, says that while some parents have seen the benefits of home education during the lockdown and want to continue, others are being forced into it to protect a vulnerable family member. “We have had parents telling us that headteachers have insisted that a child attend school and that they just have to accept the risks. In these circumstances, parents are forced into home education out of significant concern for the lives of family members,” a spokeswoman says.
The choice is between one or two years without formal education, or 50 years without her dad. That’s a no-brainer
Amy Wolfs, parent from Shrewsbury
The parent pressure group Boycottreturntounsafeschools (BRTUS) says it is getting daily reports of GPs declining to write letters to confirm health conditions, saying they have been told not to do so. A spokesman for the British Medical Association says schools should not be asking patients for a GP’s letter. “As shielding arrangements are no longer in place and national guidance is that all children should be going to school, GPs do not have the power to override this. Ultimately, this should be a discussion between the school and the parents, without the need to involve the GP,” he says.
But families say the end of shielding does not make people less vulnerable. Amy Wolfs, from Shrewsbury, whose husband has multiple sclerosis, fears he could die if he caught the virus and so they have kept their five-year-old daughter, Evie, at home. “Evie is still very young and if she misses one or two years then they can be caught up with support, but if she were to go to school tomorrow and lose her Dad, he is irreplaceable. So the choice is between one or two years without formal education, or 50 years without her dad. That’s a no-brainer,” she says.
Home education is not something the family wanted, she adds. “We talked to the headteacher and he said he couldn’t authorise Evie’s absence. I asked about home education and he said we would need to deregister from the school, which we did,” she says. “My husband’s strength is in maths and mine is in English and science, so we complement each other. Evie is thriving, so it has worked out well. But once you de-register, you are on your own. There is no support and we worry whether we will be able to meet her needs as she gets older.”
Headteachers opposed to fining parents with genuine concerns about the virus say their hands are tied because of central government policy that children must return to full-time lessons. Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, the school leaders’ union, says that if a parent is concerned enough about their child’s safety to keep them off school, the threat of a fine is unlikely to change their minds.
“Schools and families need to be able to work together to support children’s attendance. We would urge the government to abandon its plans to fine families at this time and to do more to address the remaining concerns of some parents about their child safely returning to school,” he says.
Under the 1996 Education Act, parents have a legal duty to ensure children of compulsory school age receive a suitable full-time education and if they want to home educate, they must instruct the school in writing to remove their child from its roll. It means such parents bear the financial and educational burden of educating their children. Last month the government announced a new legal obligation on schools to provide remote education to all children off school because of Covid-19, starting on 22 October, but this will not apply to those de-registered by parents.
As the rate of Covid-19 infections increases, some parents with no known health issues in their families are also deciding it is safer to keep their children home. One is Kerrie Stanford, from Lakenheath in Suffolk, who has given up work as a paint sprayer in a vehicle body shop to home educate her two sons, Danny, seven and Zack, nine, although no one is vulnerable in her household.
“There is very little information about the long-term effects of Covid-19 and, with our sons being so young, we don’t want to risk their health by sending them to school at the moment,” she says. “It’s a good school, and they tried to reassure us and suggested that we could send the boys in a bit earlier in the morning to avoid the crowds, for example, but we just didn’t think that the bubbles would work.
“The school said it had to follow protocol and there is no way we could afford to pay fines, so de-registration was the only alternative. My husband works as a musician and gigs have dried up, and as a gardener – but it’s not the best time of year. We are making a huge financial sacrifice, living from week to week, because the health of our children is the most important thing.”
Gemma Sewell, who last May co-founded BRTUS with a former teacher, Tony Dadd, says it now has around 25,000 followers on the internet. “People who live in areas where the Covid rate is high are being told they must send their children to school, even if they have vulnerabilities in their households. We don’t have any vulnerabilities in ours, and my daughter is back at school because the rate here in this part of Essex is low. If it starts to rise, however, I will take her out.
“The only way we are going to get rid of this virus is by a proper plan, and we believe that for schools it should be blended learning, with some face-to-face teaching and the rest by distance learning so you can have smaller numbers on the premises at any one time,” she says.
“If your child has terrible asthma, or a heart condition, then you could probably persuade the school to provide virtual learning at home. But if you yourself have a dangerous heart condition, that doesn’t count. So your child goes to school, brings home the infection and you die. No parent should be forced to risk that. We should be given a choice.”
In Oldham, Greater Manchester, Mary Harratt, a single parent who has serious health conditions, has spent the past few weeks worried sick over keeping her daughter Eva, 13, at home. But after a visit from an attendance officer, and a letter of support from the hospital consultant whose care she is under, the school has agreed to add Eva to its virtual learning group.
“We are both very relieved, but it’s completely unfair that decisions to fine depend on where children live or how lenient their head feels. It can be a matter of life and death. Parents should be trusted, and given a choice,” she says.
The Department for Education says schools can only remove children from the register on strict grounds laid down by legislation. A spokesman says: “Regular and full-time school attendance is essential to help pupils catch up on time out of the classroom. Schools should work with families to ensure children are attending full time. As usual, fines will sit alongside this, but only as a last resort and where there is no valid reason for absence.
“Our data shows that the vast majority of schools are open, as has been consistently the case since the start of term, with the latest data showing a 2% increase in the numbers of pupils attending, to more than 7.4 million pupils. Attendance in fully open primary schools is now consistent with what we would have expected before coronavirus.”