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Can parents refuse to send their children to school and will they be fined?

Boris Johnson has issued a personal plea for parents to prepare their children for the return to school

Sabrina Barr
Wednesday 02 September 2020 07:00 BST
Jenny Harries says schools are currently a safe environment for children

Pupils will begin returning to school in England this week – the first time many children have been in the classroom in months.

On 23 August, the prime minister said the risk to children from coronavirus was “very small” and that parents should be preparing their children for the start of term.

On Monday, deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries said the risk of seasonal flu or a child being involved in a car accident on the way to school was “higher than the risk” presented by Covid-19.

Pupils in Scotland already returned to full-time education on 11 August, with the Borders and Shetlands schools being the first to reopen.

Although the government is keen to stress the minimal risk to children in the classroom, schools minister Nick Gibb has said fines will only be used as a “last resort” for parents who keep their children at home.

Mr Gibb acknowledged some parents would still have concerns but said that there was a “moral imperative” for pupils to return, stressing education was compulsory.

When are schools across England reopening?

On Friday 20 March, three days before the establishment of nationwide lockdown, schools across England were closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Only vulnerable children and children of critical workers were allowed to remain in school from that period.

Some year groups were temporarily allowed back for brief periods before the summer break – but most children have remained at home, doing remote-learning with the help of parents and carers.

Throughout the summer the government has been insistent that the biggest priority for the autumn is getting children back to school, even if this means closing pubs or other locations to stem the virus spread.

Children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield had said the reopening of schools “should be prioritised”, insisting they must be first to reopen and last to close during any restriction plans.

Now children will begin returning to school in England after the August bank holiday – either on 1 or 2 September.

Can parents refuse to send their children to school?

In May, the Department for Education said: “Parents will not be fined for non-attendance at this time.

“Parents will not be penalised if their child does not attend school. We expect schools and other relevant partners to work with and support the relevant families and pupils to return to school.”

However on Monday 29 June, Gavin Williamson said that at the start of the academic year, it will be “compulsory” for children to attend school unless they have a “good reason” not to.

On Monday 24 August, education minister Nick Gibb said the government will consider fines for parents who keep children out of school as a “last resort”.

He said teachers should try to “reassure” parents of the need to send their children back to school but said there was a “moral imperative” to do so.

Asked whether fines were a possibility for parents who continued to resist, he told the BBC’s Today programme: ”Fines are something that headteachers are very reluctant to use, they only use them as a last resort.”

Despite this warning, headteachers and teachers’ unions have been urged to “build confidence” with families by not rushing to reintroduce fines.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said that the organisation doesn’t believe fining parents if their children do not attend school in September is the “right approach”.

“There will be many frightened and anxious parents out there, and this is very much a case of building confidence that it is safe to return, rather than forcing the issue through the use of fines,” he said.

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, added that ministers should “think carefully before issuing warnings to parents”

In May, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), stated that it is important to work with families “in a constructive and supportive way”.

On the government’s website, it states that the “usual rules on attendance will apply” when the autumn term starts, which includes “fixed penalty notices, in line with local authorities’ codes of conduct”.

How much is a school fine?

Current rules allow local authorities to charge parents £60 for a non-attendance of their child.

This rises to £120 if the fine is not paid within 21 days.

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