Fines a ‘last resort’ for parents who don’t put their children back in school next week, says education minister
Parents can be issued with fines of up to £120 if their children do not return to school. (PA)
The Government will view fines for parents who do not put their children back in school next week as a “last resort”, an education minister has said.
Nick Gibb said parents’ concerns about the safe return to the classroom would be seen as a “matter between the headteacher and the family” when schools in England open their doors from next week.
His comments came as the head of the National Association of Headteachers said fines were unlikely to be “helpful” and stressed the need for “cooperation rather than compulsion”.
Boris Johnson on Sunday night issued a personal plea for parents to prepare their children for the return, as he said the risk to kids from coronavirus was "very small".
"As the chief medical officer has said, the risk of contracting Covid-19 in school is very small and it is far more damaging for a child's development and their health and well-being to be away from school any longer,” he said.
The intervention from the PM followed a rare joint statement from the chief medical officers and their deputies in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, which said that that while there were "no risk-free options", sending children back to schools was the "best course of action" amid concern that disadvantaged pupils are falling behind peers from richer households.
But while the Government is seeking to reassure parents about the safety of getting kids back in the classroom, ministers have also made clear that councils reserve the right to fine those who do not comply with the push.
Current rules allow local authorities to hit parents with a £60 charge for non-attendance of their children, rising to £120 if not paid within 21 days.
Speaking to the Today programme on Monday, Mr Gibb said: “Fines for non-attendance have always been a last resort for headteachers and schools. What matters is that young people are attending school.”
But he added: “We live in a country where school, education is compulsory.
“And I think parents can be assured that the measures that schools are taking to make sure that we minimise the risk of the transmission of the virus are very effective.”
Asked what should happen if a parent refused to bring their children back from next week, Mr Gibb said they should first “have discussions with the headteacher who can reassure them about the measures that they’ve taken”.
And he added: “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.”
"If we acknowledge the risk, quantify it and mitigate it, I think there’ll be enough confidence for parents to return their children" - Paul Whiteman, NAHT union
But Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT union, said his members would be relying on “cooperation rather than compulsion”.
He told BBC Breakfast: “The relationship between school and family and school and home is a very precious one and you put that at risk if you start talking about fines and compulsion against the backdrop of a disease that nobody understands and against the backdrop of anxiety that I don’t think you can underestimate at the moment.
“So we don’t think that’s helpful. Everybody understands the need for education.
“And I think with proper engagement from government, real encouragement and the messages about how safe it is and what to do around those areas of risk — if we acknowledge the risk, quantify it and mitigate it, I think there’ll be enough confidence for parents to return their children and we can engage with those that still have a lack of confidence hopefully without fines.”
'MISSING IN ACTION'
The comments on fines came as Labour accused the Government of being “missing in action” over next week’s return of pupils.
The opposition, which backs the return of schools, has nevertheless been on the offensive after the Department for Education's botched handling of A-level results in recent weeks.
"A well-controlled school environment, with the information and knowledge that we have about Covid now should be a safe one" - Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries
Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green said that while it was “essential” for children to go back to avoid damage to their ”learning and their long-term life opportunities”, she hit out at ministers over the help offered to schools to allow that to happen.
“In terms of making preparations for their return, while headteachers, principals and school staff have been working really hard over the last few weeks of the summer holidays to make the schools safe, I think the Government has been missing in action to be quite honest,” the Shadow Education Secretary told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
And she warned: “The guidance that’s been given to schools is one-size-fits-all.
“It doesn’t take account of the fact that a small school, perhaps in very constrained premises, will have to make different arrangements from a large inner city school.
“There hasn’t been information for school leaders, so that they can’t plan what they might have to do if there was a sudden spike in the local infection rate and the guidance that has come out I think has been... contradictory, it’s been confusing, it came very late, shortly before the summer holidays.”
England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries — one of the signatories to Sunday’s joint statement aimed at shoring up confidence among parents — said on Monday that she could “understand entirely why parents might be concerned”.
“They’re hearing potentially different stories in the media and in the press,” Dr Haries told Sky News.
“But in fact that’s why all of the UK chief medical officers from all the four countries and the deputy chief medical officers have put out a statement to help them understand the risks and benefits of children attending school.
“And the key one really is that... a well-controlled school environment, with the information and knowledge that we have about Covid now should be a safe one.
“And that the long-term harms of children not attending school significantly, we think, outweigh those potential risks.”
Mr Gibb meanwhile made clear that mobile testing lab should be dispatched to schools if local health protection teams fear a significant outbreak is underway in one institution.
“If a child or a member of staff shows symptoms they should be sent home or stay at home and they will be encouraged to take a test,” the education minister said.
“If that test is positive then the local health protection teams will be involved in advising the school what to do.”
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe