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Last month, the Secretary of State for Education conceded that schools could authorise Covid-related absences for pupils who are particularly clinically vulnerable, or who have vulnerable family members – contrary to what Government guidance suggested.
Of course, it is not just vulnerable families who are worried at the moment; case numbers in schools are high, safety measures are inadequate, the vaccine rollout is happening too slowly, and the long-term consequences of Covid in children are unclear. But the Secretary of State’s concession did, at least, help some of the families with the starkest reasons to be concerned.
Or at least, it should have.
Some schools are now exercising their discretion fairly – and we’re pleased about that – but many aren’t. These schools are insisting on rigidly applying Government guidance, despite the Education Secretary’s concession, or say their hands are tied by local authorities insisting on a strict approach.
That is the situation faced by Mr and Mrs Brooks*. Mrs Brooks has a serious medical condition and is on immunosuppressant drugs. The couple’s youngest child has a rare form of epilepsy which is triggered by illness and, in particular, fever. Their two older children have gone into school whenever case numbers have been low, but have stayed at home to protect the family when the risks have been greater.
Until recently, the Brooks children’s headteachers supported this sensible approach – but apparently they can no longer do so, because the local authority, Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council, wants all children back in school, no questions asked. The Brooks were told to send their children back into their respective schools or face fines – or potentially even prosecution.
A week later, there was a Covid outbreak in their child’s infant school, but the threat of fines hasn’t been withdrawn.
If Solihull Council has acted as the schools allege, we believe it has acted unlawfully. The regulations say that absences should be approved by schools. The local authority does not have the power to involve itself in those decisions or to issue blanket guidance seeking to tie schools’ hands.
We are supporting the Brooks family in challenging Solihull’s actions. We sent the pre-action protocol letter, which formally starts legal proceedings, on 17 November 2021, and a response from the council is due by 1 December.
No child should be forced into an unsafe environment. Allowing vulnerable families to keep their children at home while risks are still high is the absolute minimum schools should be doing.
We have said from the outset that we will help people challenge schools or local authorities which refuse, despite the Education Secretary’s concession, to take a pragmatic approach; and we will continue doing so for as long as necessary.
We launched a crowdfunding page for our initial challenge to the Secretary of State. We will use any more money raised to support this legal action against Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council. If you are in a position to do so, you can donate here.
*The claimants’ names have been anonymised.