As the heatwave the country enjoyed at the beginning of August is replaced by rain, blustering winds and widespread storms, the thoughts of many parents will now be turning towards preparing for the start of the autumn school term, which is only a matter of days away.
Following the Covid-19 lockdown, schools in England reopened on 1 June 2020 for pupils in reception, Year 1 and Year 6. As a result, the reality for the vast majority of students in England and Wales is that they have not been in full time education since 20 March 2020.
Two recent studies from Public Health England (PHE) confirm that the risk of outbreaks of coronavirus in schools appears relatively low. The first study suggests that children in England made up just 1% of Covid-19 cases during the first wave of the pandemic. A second, newer study has revealed there were 67 single cases and 30 outbreaks (defined as two or more linked cases) in schools across England in June after they reopened. PHE has confirmed that only 0.01% of open educational settings have had an outbreak.
In light of these findings, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has been reported by the BBC as stating that “the chances of children dying from Covid-19 are incredibly small”, and that missing lessons “damages children in the long run”. Professor Whitty has also said that “many more [children] were likely to be harmed by not going than harmed by going” to school.
With the risk of coronavirus now lessening, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has made it clear that all children must now return to the classroom after the summer holidays and that contrary to the position prior to the summer break, where parents were not penalised if they decided not to send their children back to school, the position from September onwards is that parents who do not send their children to school now risk a fine.
Mr Williamson has made it clear that "it is going to be compulsory for children to return back to school unless there is a very good reason or a local spike. We have to get back into compulsory education, and as part of that fines sit alongside that. Unless there was a good reason for the absence, then we would be looking at the fact that we would be imposing fines on families if they were not sending children back."
Nick Gibb, Minister of State for School Standards, has also confirmed today that it is morally imperative that children go to school and that if parents have an issue and are concerned about their children’s safety, then they should contact the headmaster/mistress of the school to address those concerns. However, he also refused to rule out whether a parent would be fined if they kept a child off school.
Although research has confirmed that most parents and teachers support schools opening full time in September, it is accepted that many children will be feeling anxious and apprehensive about returning to school after an absence of several months. Whilst it is important that parents reassure children about the return to school, it is imperative that parents try to work together to agree a consistent approach when discussing any worries or concerns the children may have.
Although a return to school for all children in September is now mandatory and failure to ensure that children attend school may result in a fine, some families will continue to have genuine fears over safety, particularly when family members have been shielding or the children themselves have additional needs.
Professor Tamsin Ford, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Cambridge, said that "it is really important to understand the concerns of parents about their children going back to school so that schools and local services can best support families.” It is therefore anticipated that some parents will continue to disagree over whether or not a return to school next month is in the children's best interests.
Every person with parental responsibility for a child is entitled to have a say about major decisions affecting that child, to include having a say in their education. A birth mother automatically has parental responsibility for a child and a father will also acquire parental responsibility if they were married to the mother on, or after, the child's birth or registered on the child's birth certificate as the father after 2003. Parental responsibility can also be obtained by entering into a parental responsibility agreement with a mother or by obtaining a parental responsibility order from the court.
If an issue arises over a major decision that is to be made regarding the upbringing of a child, then it is important that parents seek advice from a specialist family solicitor in the hope that matters can be resolved by agreement. The first step will be for parents to consider attending mediation with a qualified family mediator, to try to reach an agreement with the assistance of an independent third party. Mediation involves the consent of both parties, although it is necessary for one party to attend an initial Mediation Information & Assessment meeting (known as a MIAM) before they are able to issue an application to the court.
Whilst the mediation process may not be suitable when dealing with urgent matters such as whether or not children should return to school, mediation can be very helpful to resolve many issues, including the arrangements for the day-to-day care of children, where they should live, which school they should attend and any disputes relating to financial issues.
If an agreement cannot be reached either through the mediation process, or through solicitor correspondence, then either parent is able to apply to the court for either a Specific Issue Order or a Prohibited Steps Order, which effectively asks the court to make the decision on behalf of the parties.
Section 1 of the Children Act 1989 confirms that “when a court determines any question with respect to the upbringing of a child … the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.”
The welfare of the child will therefore be at the centre of any decision made by the court, which will ultimately be in the child’s best interests.
It is therefore very much hoped that the transition back to school over the next couple of weeks will proceed smoothly, with parents working together to ensure that children are provided with the support and reassurance they need.