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Case update 01 December 2021

Clinically vulnerable families: Government is giving mixed messages about school absence

With a barrage of mixed messages from Government, it’s no wonder that clinically vulnerable families who wish to keep their children home from school until they are better protected from Covid are still facing obstacles.  

In October, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi sent a letter to schools confirming that they can allow Covid-related absences for children who are particularly vulnerable because of a health condition, or who live with a vulnerable family member – despite the Government’s own guidance seeming to imply otherwise. 

But a week ago, the Secretary of State sent another letter to schools, suggesting that the height of the pandemic was over and that they should therefore move to a tougher approach. The letter told schools to “make full use of enforcement actions where appropriate. During the height of the pandemic, suspending the use of these measures felt most appropriate, but as we push now to maximise school attendance, it is important that they are once again being applied across the country”

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Needless to say, it is extremely confusing for schools – and parents – for the Department of Education to issue a rolling series of advice letters which seem to contradict one another. Schools will simply assume that each new letter from the Government supersedes the last. That is why any advice to schools about absences must set out the position in full – including the fact that the law has not changed, and Covid-related requests for absence can, and in many cases should, be approved. 

And if the Education Secretary believes that threatening vulnerable families with penalties and fines will compel them to send their children back to school, he is wrong. Many parents feel they have no choice but to deregister them. This cannot be a desirable outcome for a Government which wants to see as many children as possible in school; long-term, it is storing up an education crisis.

We’ve written to the Education Secretary asking him to confirm that his latest letter doesn’t overwrite the guidance in the earlier one – and to make that crystal clear to schools. 

A one-size-fits-all approach does not keep clinically vulnerable families safe; it puts them in danger, when these children could easily be learning remotely from home for the time being. 

With the new Omicron variant having reached the UK, we will continue fighting for the safety of vulnerable families. And if the Education Secretary doesn’t clarify the guidance, we will consider bringing judicial review proceedings against him. 

You can read our letter to the Education Secretary here.

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