Coronavirus: Students return to classrooms as unions call for pause on school absence fines

Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Dan Hewitt

Education unions are calling for a temporary ban on school absence fines as thousands of pupils return to classrooms in England and Wales.

Approximately 40% of schools are expected to welcome back students for the start of the autumn term today, despite concerns being raised about their ability to reopen safely.

It will be the first time many pupils in England have stepped into a classroom since the coronavirus lockdown in March, when schools were closed except to look after vulnerable children and those of key workers.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said the Government should temporarily scrap fines for parents who do not send their children back to class due to fears around coronavirus.

Schools have been been required to introduce new measures ahead of the autumn term Credit: Danny Lawson/PA

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said: “If you are a parent and you are worried about safety, a fine is unlikely to make you feel any safer.

“The Government understands this, but the threat of fines still remains, so we’re urging the Government to take the threat of fines off the table for the coming term.

“This would send a powerful signal to parents and families and could well mean that more of them are willing to bring their children back to school, which is what we all want to see.”

The school leaders’ union said while it hoped attendance would be “as close to 100% as possible”, it understood “there will be some families who do not yet feel ready to return”.

Its recent survey of more than 4,000 school leaders in England and Wales found that 97% plan to reopen their schools to all pupils at the start of the autumn term, with the date varying across the country.

The remaining 3%, which were not immediately reopening, were planning transition periods for new pupils or phasing entry to alleviate students’ anxieties, according to the survey.

Meanwhile, according to a survey of parents in England and Wales conducted by Mumsnet for ITV News:

  • 49% secondary school parents admitted they were worried about sending their children back to school

  • 46% of described themselves as 'anxious'

  • 67% of Year 13 parents were worried their children will become ill with the virus

  • 58% of parents in England said the Department for Education was not doing enough, rising to 71% of parents of children in Years 11 or 13

  • But only 8% of parents said they were considering not sending their child back to school at all.

New coronavirus safety measures have been introduced by schools Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA

The Department for Education (DfE) said fines for parents who refuse to send their children to England’s schools will only be used as a “last resort” when classes resume.

Local authorities can fine parents £120 – cut to £60 if paid within 21 days – over a child’s absence from school, with the threat of prosecution if they fail to pay.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) said fining families for school absences “will not resolve the fears or anxieties felt by many”.

She said the Government also needed to improve facilities for remote learning and IT access for children to ensure their education continues with “as little interruption as possible” in the event of a future lockdown.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to face parliament to explain “how he will protect” children’s futures.

He said: “He needs to explain how he will make up for the damage already done, bring pupils up to speed and mitigate against the ongoing risk from the pandemic.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson took part in a question and answer session during the conference Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Mr Williamson said in a statement: “I do not underestimate how challenging the last few months have been, but I do know how important it is for children to be back in school, not only for their education but for their development and wellbeing too.”

The teachers’ union NASUWT said there was still “considerable work” to be done around how the Government intended to ensure schools followed its own safety guidance.

NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach added: “The government has also failed to provide any guidance on schools on steps which should be taken to minimise any discriminatory impacts of coronavirus, despite the wealth of data showing that those from BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) backgrounds have a disproportionately higher risk of death or hospitalisation from Covid-19.”

He said the union’s latest research found that three in 10 teachers believed budgetary constraints will affect their schools’ ability to reopen safely.

It comes as a poll by Tes found that 86% of nearly 6,000 school staff in England said minimising contact between pupils would not be possible.

More than a third (35%) also felt that the Government’s approach to coronavirus safety in schools would not work and left them “at risk”.

Schools in Scotland began to reopen on August 11, while all pupils in Northern Ireland were due to return from August 31.