Back in November, we told you about a Covid-vulnerable family living in Solihull, in the West Midlands. Mum-of-three Mrs Brooks lives with a serious medical condition and takes immunosuppressant drugs to treat it, while her youngest child has a rare form of epilepsy that’s triggered by illness, particularly fever.
Her two older children have gone into school when infection rates were low, but are being home-schooled while the risk is higher to protect their clinically vulnerable mum and sibling. The children’s schools had been supportive of this arrangement, until Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council apparently told the schools that they could no longer approve the absences, and threatened Mr and Mrs Brooks with prosecution if they continued to keep their children at home.
We believe this approach would have been unlawful. After we challenged the Department for Education over their confusing guidance, they confirmed that schools can allow pupil absences in exceptional circumstances like this. Local authorities have no place telling schools whether or not they can approve pupil absences.
On 17 November, we sent a Pre-Action Protocol letter to Solihull Council, asking them to withdraw their threats of prosecution and allow headteachers to make their own decisions.
Solihull haven’t responded formally to our solicitors’ letter, but they have denied the claims that the headteachers were pressured to stop approving absences. They agree that these decisions were the headteachers’ to make. They’ve also quietly agreed not to prosecute the Brooks family.
At best, this sorry story is the result of a breakdown in communications. Contradictory messaging from the Department for Education left many parents and schools confused. And the Department’s determination to talk tough on absences seems to have influenced local authorities, which only made things worse. We expected that schools and local authorities would either be unwilling or unable to defend a hard-line approach in Court, and this case has proved that.
The Brooks children are now allowed to learn from home for the time being, without the threat of prosecution. They will return to school once the family is fully vaccinated, which, now that vaccines have been extended to vulnerable under-12s, is hopefully just around the corner.
We would have liked Solihull Council to properly explain their position, and would have taken the claim all the way if necessary, but the Brooks family are now safe and happy, and understandably don’t wish for the case to continue.
We will continue doing everything we can to make sure clinically vulnerable families are properly protected for as long as the Covid-19 pandemic rages on.
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