Coronavirus: Parents pull children out of class over fears despite official advice, heads warn

Experts warn it could be counterproductive to close schools because interim childcare provisions, such as NHS workers staying home to care for their children or grandparents being asked to step in, could leave more people exposed 

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Friday 13 March 2020 12:32 GMT
Jeremy Hunt criticises government's approach to coronavirus

Parents are pulling children out of class over coronavirus fears despite official advice, school leaders warn.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), has suggested UK schools should not be held accountable for their attendance figures amid pupil absences.

Mr Barton added that the prospect of school closures across the country will be a “wake-up call” for education providers that do not have the technology to administer online learning at home.

His comments come after the government said it would not move to close schools yet as the evidence for its effectiveness is lacking, though this will be kept under review.

But speaking at a conference of hundreds of headteachers in Birmingham on Friday, Mr Barton said parents have already begun taking their children out of school as they are worried they will catch the virus.

He said: “We have seen examples from our members where parents have said ‘my child is going to stay home’. We are hearing from health experts saying actually it could be entirely counterproductive to have lots of children at home or indeed not at home because they are going to the shopping mall.

“There is a public information need in this age of swirling social media just to make the point that healthy children with healthy adults in a school with routines is the best place for them to be.”

Some schools, including Burbage Primary School in Derbyshire, have been closed after confirmed coronavirus cases and student and parent populations
Some schools, including Burbage Primary School in Derbyshire, have been closed after confirmed coronavirus cases and student and parent populations (PA)

Mr Barton added: “Holding schools accountable for attendance in the way you might have done in the past nationally is probably not a good thing to do.”

Headteachers' unions are set to meet the Department for Education (DfE) on Monday to discuss issues around school closures - such as the impact on parents who serve in the forces or emergency services.

[We] will be talking about whether it is really realistic that every school in the country has to close,” Mr Barton said. “Schools by definition have healthy young people and healthy adults in them. Therefore it is going to be a pretty dystopian world if the whole idea of closing all schools down were to happen.”

Education secretary Gavin Williamson told hundreds of heads at the ASCL conference that there was “absolutely no need to close a school or send pupils or staff home” in the majority of situations.

Speaking to the media, Mr Williamson said schools are “one of the safest places” for children to be.

On pupil absences, he said: “We’re going to take a very sensible and pragmatic approach in this route and we’re not going to be penalising any schools on issues that are completely outside of this control.”

Mr Williamson added that the government was working with exam boards, through regulator Ofqual, teaching and schools bodies to make sure there was "stability" in pupils' education whatever happens.

The DfE had already started discussing how schools go about delivering GCSE and A-level exams during the coronavirus outbreak.

“I want to reassure you that we are doing everything to make sure that this year’s exams are fair for students and that their efforts will be fairly rewarded,” Mr Williamson told a conference hall of headteachers in Birmingham on Friday.

Mr Williamson added he was also looking at options to make sure disadvantaged children, currently in receipt of free school meals, continued to get support in the case of any school closures.

His comments came after charities called on the government to make cash available for low-income families so children can still be fed if schools close during the outbreak.

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