Parents in England who fail to send their children back to school in September will face fines unless they have a good reason for them not attending, the education secretary has said.
The government is due to unveil plans later this week for the full reopening of schools in the autumn, when it will become compulsory for pupils in all year groups to return to classes, except where there are local surges in infection rates.
“It is going to be compulsory for children to return back to school unless there’s a very good reason, or a local spike where there have had to be local lockdowns,” Gavin Williamson told LBC’s Nick Ferrari at Breakfast show.
“We do have to get back into compulsory education, and as part of that obviously fines sit alongside that. Unless there is a good reason for the absence then we will be looking at the fact that we would be imposing fines on families if they are not sending their children back.”
Headteachers and teaching unions have urged against reintroducing fines, warning that many parents will remain anxious about the continuing health risks and that schools will need to rebuild trust rather than penalise.
Fines for non-attendance have been suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic and parents have given the right to choose whether their children return as schools have opened more widely since the beginning of June.
Over the weekend, Boris Johnson signalled that lenient approach would change in September when school attendance would once again become compulsory. Under normal arrangements a child can miss school only if they are too ill to attend or have got advance permission from the headteacher. Parents can be fined £60 for an unauthorised absence, increasing to £120 if not paid within 21 days, and prosecution can follow if fines are not paid.
Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said ministers should focus their efforts on winning the trust and confidence of parents and teachers over their school reopening plans.
“Many parents will have genuine concerns about whether it will be safe to send their children to school and they will need to know that all necessary and appropriate steps have been taken to ensure that schools are covid-secure,” he said
“Ministers should think carefully before issuing warnings to parents when the government has not yet explained how it plans to reopen schools safely in September. It is important that the safe return of children to schools is encouraged and that parental concerns are considered seriously and responded to appropriately.”
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We don’t think that it is the right approach to fine parents for the non-attendance of children as soon as schools fully reopen in September, and the government should not expect schools to take this action.
“There will be many frightened and anxious parents out there, and this is very much a case of building confidence that it is safe to return, rather than forcing the issue through the use of fines. The government must show a greater understanding of the realities of the situation, and we would recommend that there is a period of grace while normal patterns resume.”
Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Working with families in a constructive and supportive way, using scientific information to address concerns, is a far better route than fining parents. This can often alienate the very individuals schools most need to reach out to and would always be a last resort.”
The government has been widely criticised for its handling of the reopening of schools after they were all ordered to close in March to help limit the spread of coronavirus.
Most schools in England have remained open to children of key workers and vulnerable pupils throughout the crisis, and primary schools began to reopen more widely on 1 June, though the government was forced into a U-turn over plans to get all primary school children back for a month before the summer holidays.
Williamson admitted the governments plan’s for a June return may have been ambitious. “If it was a little bit ambitious, I would hold my hands up to that, but I want to see and what we will see in September is that every school, every child and every lesson will be running and children will be able to go into schools, they’ll be able to have the benefit of a world-class education that we actually provide.”
He added: “We’ve got almost 1.5 million children going back into school at the end of last week. I want to see that number grow, grow and grow every single week as we go to the summer holidays, but in September every child has to be back.”
According to the latest government figures, around a third (34%) of all year 6 children attended school on 18 June, up from 26% a week earlier.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, accused the government of being “asleep at the wheel” on the issue of reopening schools, and said there has been a lack of planning.
Speaking on Sky News, he said: “If you could put up Nightingale hospitals – a good thing to do – you can certainly put up temporary classrooms, you can certainly take over libraries, community centres.”