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
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.