On 2nd February 2021, the All Party Parliamentary Group on coronavirus held a hearing on transmission in schools. Alongside an impressive panel of experts, two Clinically Extremely Vulnerable parents – both members of Parents United – gave powerful testimony on their experience of dealing with their schools and Local Authorities throughout the pandemic.
It has been great to see growing support from MP’s and across Twitter for parents in the same predicament as those who gave testimony at the APPG:
Parents United submitted a 60 page dossier of evidence to the panel in advance of the hearing, demonstrating the pressure under which parents have been placed to send their children to school, despite legitimate safety concerns.
What follows is our prefacing statement to that dossier, and that of Public Interest Law Centre who provide pro-bono legal representation to families in receipt of attendance fines.
The statement is a testament to the incredible dedication, expertise and commitment of our Support Department.
Education in the Pandemic
Parents United is a Facebook group of 23,000 parents and carers of school age children. The group was founded in May 2020 as a response to Covid-19 safety concerns surrounding government plans to fully reopen schools at the beginning of June.
Our team performs a wide range of functions: we campaign publicly for a sensible, safe and sustainable approach to education during the pandemic, and furnish parents who are concerned about school safety with the vast range of help and information they need.
The UK government’s insistence that schools are ‘safe’ does not stand up to scrutiny. Public Health England data covering the final 12 weeks of 2020, shows that schools were responsible for 3 times the number of Covid-19 outbreaks than hospital settings: they accounted for 26% of all outbreaks in that time, second only to care homes.
Cases rose sharply over the course of the Autumn term and the Office for National Statistics Infection Survey shows that both secondary and primary school children had the highest levels of infection of all age groups by the end of term in December. The National Education Union reports that infection rates for children of senior school age showed a 75 fold increase from early September to the end of the Winter Term, and that teachers are almost twice as likely to contract the disease than the average UK citizen.
This is unsurprising given the overcrowded nature of schools, and the importance of social distancing to prevent infection. Health and Safety legislation allows for around 60 cubic metres of space per class of 30, while offices operating at full capacity would provide at least 11 cubic meters of space per adult worker. This situation could have been addressed by reducing class sizes, with the use of rotas and the provision of additional spaces and staff. Unfortunately, the UK government did not furnish schools with any such additional resources for this purpose.
In addition, schools have not been provided with resources to increase classroom ventilation and combat airborne transmission. This route of transmission is now widely recognised to be a major one, and is a considerable risk in crowded environments which are occupied for significant lengths of time, such as the school or working day.
It is extraordinary that the issue of ventilation within schools has not been acknowledged in the government’s pandemic response. This is particularly shocking in light of the SAGE-ERG report “Role of Ventilation in Controlling SARS-CoV-2 Transmission”, published on 30th September 2020.
Guidance on mitigation of aerosol transmission within workplaces has since also been issued by SAGE. Yet this guidance makes no specific reference to schools, which is at least consistent with there being no resources provided by the government to implement mitigations within them.
Meanwhile, schools have been reliant on hoping for the best: using, often small and barely-opening, windows to increase ventilation and packing pupils and staff into small spaces to endure uncomfortable working temperatures during the autumn and winter months.
A 50%- 70% more transmissible variant is now in circulation and the prevalence of long-term symptoms and life-long disability threatening children and young people as the result of coronavirus infection is uncertain.
Understanding Our Members Concerns
Parents and carers are gravely concerned by the inadequacy of safety measures to stem the spread of coronavirus in schools, and the unquantified risk to their children’s health and that of other family members.
In response, the Parents United Admin Team provides quality information and a well moderated support group. We also support individual parents and carers who have encountered pressure to return their children to conditions which they believe pose a safety risk – either to the child, or to other members of the household.
Between 11th August and 4th December 2020 we received 131 requests from parents in need of practical and emotional support to our page inbox.
All of the parents who contacted us in regard to keeping their children home due to safety concerns during this period said that their child’s school was marking the absence as unauthorised, and 99% of them wanted our help in communicating with their school.
95% of parents we corresponded with stated that their child’s school did not provide any home learning support, and around one third of parents we supported said they were aware of confirmed cases of Covid-19 at their child’s school.
33% of parents we supported stated that they or their partner fits the government’s definition of Clinically Vulnerable or Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (the actual proportion of parents falling into this category is likely to be significantly higher, as 52% did not inform us of their medical status).
Other familiar themes include: families with other Clinically Vulnerable/CEV household members, parents who are unpaid carers for providing familial care to Clinically Vulnerable/CEV relatives, children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, families who have been subject to Domestic Violence or Coercive Control, older parents, single parents, and families from a BAME background.
15% of the families we supported said their child had been removed from the school roll without the parents permission, or that they have received threats that this would happen if an absence persisted. A further 8% had removed their child from the school roll in order to escape the pressure under which they were being placed to return their child to school.
Parents are also encountering unwanted and intrusive visits to the family home, and are being threatened with and referred for Local Authority fines.
Due to the limited resources within our team of volunteers, we have not been able to produce statistics for this aspect of our work, however we provide a selection of detailed case study reports in the latter stages of this report.
Important insight on the threat of fines can be gained from the Enforced School Attendance survey conducted by Square Peg for the Winter Term of 2020. Square Peg is a social enterprise in April 2019, to effect change for children who struggle to attend school and their families. Of the 663 parents surveyed, 180 said they had been threatened with attendance fines if they did not return their child to school.
Source: Enforced School Attendance Survey, Winter 2020 – Square Peg
The Department for Education’s mixed messaging has been an affront to many families protective parental instincts. This creates a conflict with parents who are dedicated to correctly fulfilling the statutory and moral duties conferred on them by the legal concept of Parental Responsibility, and by the bond they have with their children. Further, Parents United consider that the government’s policy regarding schools during the pandemic, and the impact of ineffective control of infection rates within schools, may impinge on the fundamental Human Rights of children, enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The clauses of the Convention to which we refer include, but may not be limited to: Article 2: non-discrimination, Article 3: best interests of the child, Article 4: implementation of the convention (which states that governments must do all they can to make sure every child can enjoy their rights by creating systems and passing laws that promote and protect children’s rights), Article 6: life, survival and development, Article 12: respect for the views of the child (see the concerns young people have raised with us here), Article 18: parental responsibilities and state assistance, Article 23: children with a disability and Article 28: right to education.
Of particular concern is the impact of adequate research and support on children living with Long Covid: Parents United consider that a failure to take heed concerns such as those expressed by the Long Covid Kids campaign may constitute an impingement on Article 24 of the convention: health and health services.
We also consider that any assessment of the Department for Education’s response to the pandemic should include a consideration of the Human Rights belonging to parents and carers, particularly in relation to discrimation against those parents with protected characteristics.
Safety School Leadership and Education Welfare teams repeatedly insist that they have no option but to impose sanctions for non-attendance due to the content of the DfE’s Full Opening Guidance – despite the Department’s assertion that authorisation of absence is a discretionary power which continues to be held by Head Teachers – something which is clarified in the letter provided by the Public Interest Law Center, an organisation responsible for supporting some of our families with legal representation.
In addition to messages relating to our support role, our inbox and email act as bodies of evidence with relation to non-compliance with Covid safety measures within the school environment – such as some schools insisting that children who should be isolating at home with family members that have tested positive should still attend, or suggestions that parents who are self-isolating should leave home to do the school run.
Further, we have received a disturbing number of reports that education workers and pupils have continued to attend school when they should have been isolating, such as when they were symptomatic and awaiting test results, or when they had clearly been in contact with a person who tested positive soon after, but were not defined as a close contact as their interaction was not recorded on the seating plan.
During the same timeframe quoted above, we have received 435 such whistleblower reports. It is important to note that these reports are held in communications which have been sent to us directly and of which we have a detailed knowledge, although they are reflected in the group discussions which take place between our wider membership.
We consider the current lockdown an important opportunity to reflect on the detrimental impacts which the previous approach to the wider reopening of schools in September has had for families, school staff and for the UK population as a whole.
Should the UK government attempt to fully open schools too soon and without effective safety measures, we consider that – in light of the transmissibility new variant – parental confidence will very quickly nose dive, and that the policy will be unsustainable. We are also greatly concerned about our children’s health and the stability of their education if the further opening of schools is not approached with appropriate caution, care and resources. Before attempting to widen the opening of schools, we recommend that the government ensure there are:
- the resources to undertake school work at home. In order to rebuild trust, this must be without punitive sanctions, and appropriate compensation be made for those who have already been subject to these
- see Legal Action on Attendance Fines from Public Interest Law Centre, page 7
- a significantly lower rate of infections within the population
- see our Traffic Light System for further details
- properly resourced safety measures – such as class size limits to facilitate social distancing and the reduction of the risk of airborne transmission – based on published and appropriate scientific data
We are proud to have been of service to our group members and the members of the public who have contacted us for help and support throughout the span of our campaign. We are also committed to campaigning to ensure that our children’s schools are made genuinely safe. We will continue to perform these functions and more, for as long as is necessary.
Parents nationwide have come to us and our group for support from other parents in the same predicament. The evidence we are providing today is a mere snapshot of what we have seen over the past 9 months: there is even more still to be processed, and further information is available on our website, or by request at @email@example.com
Parents United Against Unsafe Schools
Legal Action on Attendance Fines
The Public Interest Law Centre has been acting on behalf of clinically vulnerable families, challenging the Government’s policy on school attendance during Covid-19.
It has come to our attention that the reason schools have not authorised the absence of students and have instead threatened enforcement action/referred cases to the Local Authority for penalty notices, was because they felt unable to do so. That is because of the Government’s guidance in this area which stated that children who live with someone who is clinically vulnerable should nevertheless attend school.
We sent out a pre-action letter to the Government on behalf of CV and CEV parents, challenging this guidance because:
- Vulnerable families are being forced to choose between risking contracting the virus, or facing fines, de-registration from school and/or a criminal conviction;
- A policy that only a very small cohort (clinically extremely vulnerable children) should have their absence authorised, is irrational and has been implemented in breach of Equality and Human Rights Law; and
- The policy appeared to leave local authorities and schools no discretion to authorise a child’s absence in cases where:
- They have vulnerable family members;
- They are vulnerable but not extremely vulnerable themselves; and/or
- There are mental health issues or special educational needs to consider.
The Government responded to our pre-action letter, and its official position (cleared by ministers), is NOT what it seems from the published guidance. There are two parts to the letter.
Part 1: The government justifies the current guidance
Pages 2-3 of the letter restate the government’s guidance on infection control (i.e. the steps that schools should be taking) and school attendance during Covid-19. The Secretary of State restates his expectation that children should attend school even if parents are shielding/vulnerable.
Part 2: The Government makes clear that authorising absence during Covid-19 is a matter of local discretion
Pages 4-5 of the letter makes clear that:
- Whether leave of absence should be granted is determined by each individual school headteacher or local education authority. This is a matter of local decision-making and is made on a discretionary basis.
- A child’s absence can be authorised beyond the examples set out in the government’s guidance. The categories of authorised absence contained in the Government’s guidance are therefore not ‘closed’. They are non-exhaustive examples.
- None of the national guidance from government overrides local discretion and flexibility. Schools have the final say.
This applies to cases involving both clinically vulnerable (CV) & clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) parents. (The response refers to ‘the situation of [our] client’. One of our clients who received this response was a CV parent. The other, who received the same response, was a CEV parent.
The Government’s full response and our advice in respect of the same can be found here: https://www.pilc.org.uk/blog/school-attendance-for-cev-households-in-covid-19/
Since we have brought attention to the Government’s response, a number of schools and local authorities have changed their position (as they previously felt their ‘hands were tied’), and authorised absence retrospectively. They have also reinstated children to the school roll those who felt forced to de-register, with immediate effect.
However, some schools are still (understandably) confused and others still feel persuaded to follow the guidance (which they are of course able to take account of when deciding whether to exercise discretion).
In order to properly support and protect vulnerable children and their parents, steps must be taken to:
- Amend the Government’s published guidance to reflect the official position on local discretion in these cases, so that schools can be made aware that their hands are not tied and are able to consider the vulnerabilities of family members.
- Change the Government’s guidance on school attendance and vulnerable family members, with retrospective effect – so that when schools re-open, vulnerable families do not face the same hardship, and those who were issued with penalties under the previous guidance are appropriately compensated.
Should you require any further information please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Helen Mowatt | Solicitor | Public Interest Law Centre