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Teaching unions and parents have hit back over the threat of fines if children do not return to the classroom next week, warning it could undermine trust between families and schools at a crucial point in the UK’s recovery from coronavirus.
And the head of the body representing parent teacher associations (PTAs) told The Independent that Boris Johnson’s assertion of a “moral duty” to get youngsters into school after the enforced break was “very unhelpful” for many mothers and fathers who have legitimate concerns over the health of their children.
The escalating row came just days ahead of the start of the autumn term in most of the UK, with huge stakes riding on the government’s handling of what Mr Johnson has described as an “absolutely vital” step in the country’s emergence from lockdown restrictions.
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Downing Street and education ministers said that fines should be used as a “last resort” if pupils are kept home. But John Jolly, chief executive of Parentkind UK, which represents PTAs, said some schools felt they were being “set up” to act as enforcers and many were likely to try to avoid punitive action for absences.
A survey taken by the charity shortly before the summer holidays found that 74 per cent of parents wanted the right to decide whether their sons and daughters attend school for the rest of 2020. Some 74 per cent said they would certainly send their children back as soon as school opens, but 23 per cent were undecided and 3 per cent said they would not.
Meanwhile, Downing Street confirmed that schools which are opening their doors to all pupils for the first time in more than five months could be forced to shut them again in future local lockdowns.
Decisions would be taken on a “case by case” basis in response to spikes in coronavirus infections in particular areas, a No 10 spokesman said.
In a video message released on social media, Mr Johnson – who has taken personal charge of the back-to-school campaign since returning early from his summer break in Scotland – said that children need to be back in school for “their health and their wellbeing” as well as their academic progress.
Insisting that parents should understand that “schools are safe”, the PM said: “Let’s make sure that all kids, all pupils, get back to school at the beginning of September.
“I think parents are genuinely still a bit worried about their children contracting coronavirus. All I can say is the risks are very, very, very small that they’ll even get it, but then the risk that they’ll suffer from it badly are very, very, very, very small indeed.”
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Education secretary Gavin Williamson warned in June that fines could be imposed unless there was “a good reason for absence” and school standards minister Nick Gibb confirmed on Monday that this remains the case.
“Fines for non-attendance have always been a last resort for headteachers and schools,” Mr Gibb told BBC Radio 4’s Today. “What matters is that young people are attending school.
“We live in a country where education is compulsory and I think parents can be reassured that the measures that schools are taking to make sure that we minimise the risk of the transmission of the virus are very effective.”
Under the current system, councils can impose a fixed penalty of £60 for missing school. If this fine is unpaid after 28 days, parents face possible prosecution, with maximum penalties of a further fine of £2,500, a prison sentence of three months plus a parenting order.
The general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, Paul Whiteman, said punitive action would risk the relationships teachers have with families.
“I think with a proper engagement from government, real encouragement, and the messages about how safe it is and what to do around those areas of risk … there’d be enough confidence for parents to return their children,” he said. “We can engage with those that still have a lack of confidence hopefully without fines.
“If the government puts schools in a position where they have to enforce (fines) I think that damages the relationship between school and home at a point when you need it to be at its absolute strongest, so I don’t see that as the strongest way of encouraging children back into school.”
Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said: “The focus must be on winning the trust and confidence of parents in the measures which have been put in place in individual schools to ensure the safety of pupils.
“It is important that the safe return of children to schools is encouraged and that parental concerns are considered seriously and responded to sensitively and appropriately by schools.”
Mr Jolly said consideration of the health of children and their wider families would outweigh any concern about fines in parents’ minds.
“If you are so worried about your child’s health or your family’s health that you are not willing to send them to school, trying to browbeat you with a fine is not going to work,” he said.
Parents’ biggest concerns revolve around the ability of schools to maintain appropriate social distancing and hygiene standards, a lack of information about what school will look like under Covid-secure regimes, the vulnerability of children and other family members and the safety of transport to school, said Mr Jolly.
“I don’t think talk of fines is helpful and school leaders we have spoken to don’t see it as helpful,” he added. “Absolutely it will damage trust. Anecdotally, the message we are getting is that schools will do everything possible to avoid them.”
Mr Jolly said: “The majority of parents are keen to get their children back to school and will do so. But those parents who are making very legitimate choices based on very real concerns – about children who are vulnerable, who have special needs or disabilities or who have family members at significant risk from coronavirus – those parents will not find the messaging about ‘moral duty’ helpful.”
Schools are entering “uncharted territory” over the next few weeks and parents’ responses are likely to be “volatile”, he said. Experience from schools which remained open for children of key workers during lockdown was that parents were quick to remove their children if a Covid-19 case was reported at school – or even if rumours spread of a child being infected.
Mr Gibb said: “If they’ve got extra concerns, that is a matter between the headteacher and the family to make sure that their concerns are taken into account.
“But it is important – it’s a moral imperative – that young people are back in school, because what the chief medical officers are saying now is that the risk of not being in school outweigh the very small risk of children being in school.”
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green agreed it was “really important” for children to get back to school, but said government messaging had failed to reassure parents.
She told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “The government has to make the conditions suitable and safe for schools, for staff, for students, and it’s been asleep at the wheel, it’s been not paying the attention that schools need to the details of how they are going to reopen, nor has it been out sending a strong and clear message to parents.”
But the Tory chair of the House of Commons Education Committee Robert Halfon accused trade unions of putting “obstacles” in the way of reopening schools.
“What the Labour Party should be doing is encouraging the trade unions as much as possible to help get the children back to school, rather than put obstacles in the way,” said Mr Halfon.
“The question we’ve got to ask is why is it that it’s OK for children and parents to go to restaurants, to go to Primark every day, but the unions don’t feel that it’s right for them to go back to school?”
Schools in Northern Ireland are returning on Monday, while some schools in Scotland have already gone back. The term in England and Wales starts in September.