Civil Society

I’ve been threatened with fines and prosecution for protecting my children’: Mum locked in row with school for refusing to send her kids

Alex and Helena have been homeschooling throughout Covid and mum Lisa doesn’t yet feel it’s safe for them to return

 

A mum is at loggerheads with her children’s school for refusing to send them back during the pandemic.

Lisa Diaz’s children Alex, 11, and eight-year-old Helena haven’t been back to Woodfield Primary School in Wigan for a year now after she pulled them out 10 days before the start of lockdown.

Since then they have been home learning and voluntarily emailing daily updates of their work to school.

Lisa has a genetic blood disorder, and while she doesn’t fall into the clinically vulnerable category, she has been shielding and does not feel confident with safety measures put in place in schools to prevent the spread of Covid.

When schools returned on March 8, the government made attendance mandatory, but made it clear that head teachers and local authorities can use their own discretion with families to authorise absences in ‘exceptional circumstances’.

Responding to a threat of legal action against the Department for Education on behalf of vulnerable parents last year, the Government Law Department admitted a blanket rule for children of shielding parents ‘would not be appropriate’, and said that Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, considered that it was ‘right that there is local discretion in this matter’.

But Lisa, 39, says that hasn’t been applied in her case and claims she’s been threatened with fines, prosecution and unlawful off-rolling for simply trying to protect her family.

In a letter she was sent at the beginning of the academic year, Woodfield’s headteacher Anna Prior, said: “The legal position is that if a child is on-roll at a school, the expectation is that they should attend when the school is open. It is not appropriate for school staff to provide work for children where families elect to keep them at home.

“Now that schools are fully re-open, attendance is mandatory and so I am unable to keep children on roll indefinitely when they are not attending. For persistent non-attendance, I am obliged to refer to the local authority. I have included relevant links below about the attendance enforcement procedures.”

Such enforcement includes £60 fines for unauthorised absences, increasing to £120 if not paid within 21 days.

And while also suggesting ‘elective home learning’ as an option for the family, she makes it clear that she ‘very much would like Helena and Alex to remain a part of Woodfield’.

Wigan council’s assistant director of education also wrote to Lisa, saying the authority’s welfare team could either support a return to school, or ‘pursue the route that both of us are keen to avoid which is one of penalty notices and prosecution’.

Lisa, whose mum is also clinically vulnerable and part of their family bubble, told the Manchester Evening News: “Miss Prior explicitly says they can’t keep Alex and Helena on roll. That’s not entirely accurate. She doesn’t have to power to do this and if she did it she would be breaking the law.

“The fact of the matter is that headteachers and local authorities have discretion. The government settled this at a pre-court hearing.”

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She added: “That I have been threatened with fines, prosecution and unlawful off-rolling for protecting my children during a global pandemic of a serious multi-system disease is beyond the pale. The stress has been intolerable.

“It is beyond the pale that cautious parents like myself are being criminalised and not supported. I haven’t received any work, other than a bit of extra support for Helena from The SEN teacher at Woodfield, but otherwise I am doing my own lessons and submitted them in everyday.”

Lisa says the school may well be following government guidelines on safety, but feels it’s ‘of no consequence when the guidelines are entirely inadequate’.

“The safety measures in primary schools in particular are all but non existent,” she said. “Just as I would not send my children into a burning building because Boris Johnson tells me to, nor will I put them in an environment highly conducive to the spread of Covid-19.”

Keeping Alex and Helena – who has special educational needs – learning at home will have the benefit of reducing classroom density and give the others more space for social distancing, says Lisa.

Helena reading at home (Image: Manchester Evening News)
And while she doesn’t want them attending school at the moment, she doesn’t want to homeschool on a permanent basis.

“I want them to be in school,” said Lisa, who works from home. “My kids want to be in school and it would be cruel to deregister them, but it has to be safe. There is no other workplace or indoor environment in which 32 bodies are packed into a room without adequate and unmeasured ventilation; no social distancing and no masks.”

Lisa’s case is one of many being highlighted by the #SafeEdForAll group, which is campaigning on behalf of any families issued with fines for not sending their children back to school.

Spokesperson Sarah Saul said: “Local authorities who are using punitive measures and coerced off rolling need to ask themselves whether fining parents for non-attendance during a global pandemic – when the scientifically recognised safety measures required in all other indoor settings where households mix aren’t in place in schools – is a wise use of public funds. Administrative costs and legal defence when the courts are finally able to get around to hearing these cases will be high.”

Helena working at home (Image: Manchester Evening News)
Woodfield Primary’s head Miss Prior stressed that she doesn’t want any children to leave the school.

She said: “Woodfield Primary School sympathises with parents’ concerns and we have worked tirelessly to ensure school is fully compliant with the necessary Covid-19 safety measures.

“Woodfield has provided the maximum appropriate support to all families and children within the regulations set out by the government.

“We do not want to see any of our families leave the school community and it is a priority for us to ensure our children can access their education in a school setting.

“We will continue to work with our families so they feel reassured and confident in the measures we have put in place to provide a safe and secure learning environment.”

Cath Pealing, Wigan Council’s assistant director for education said: “We understand and completely appreciate that the pandemic is affecting all of our families in different ways. The government decision to send children back to school has been difficult for some to adjust to but most of our children and young people have now returned.

“In the very few cases where there are additional anxieties, schools are advised to work with those families to support a return. We are mindful that some families are concerned about the impacts of Covid-19 due to vulnerabilities and we will continue to work with them to ensure they feel as safe and supported as possible.

“However, national guidance has now changed and schools are not under an obligation to continue to provide remote learning unless the child themselves is CEV or isolating.

“Though the government has stated that local authorities can impose sanctions, Wigan Council has not as yet issued any penalty notices. We continue to reassure parents that our schools are working hard to ensure their environments are safe so that our children can continue to access a quality education.”

A Department for Education spokesperson confirmed that off-rolling isn’t allowed and said: “We expect schools and local authorities to work with families to discuss the reasons behind any child’s absence and together agree an action plan so that the right support can be put in place to help them return to full-time attendance.”

 

Culled from Manchester Evening News

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