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Back to school toolkit – parents and pupils

Parents and carers are likely to be extremely anxious about their children returning to school. Their first concern is going to be about the health and safety implications of bringing their children out of lockdown. Whilst the Government asserts that scientifically children appear to be less at risk than adults the natural instinct for parents is to avoid a known risk, small as it may be, as far as possible.

Here are some items for consideration when you develop your planning for the re-opening of your school:

Communication with parents and carers is going to be key in planning for the successful return of children into school. It needs to be as open and transparent as possible. There is no template for this situation but consider a programme of communications from the head teacher, chair of governor’s or the chair of the board addressing questions that are raised and providing reassurance that all appropriate steps have been taken regarding the health and safety requirements that have been imposed on schools. Involve the parents in the implementation of practical actions such as hand washing and respiratory hygiene. Ask them for contact details and background circumstances that might be relevant to their child and others that they will meet. You cannot give guarantees of separation etc so do not feel pressurised to do so. Be very clear in what you intend to do, the measures you are taking and the rationale behind them. Look to engage the parents in a way that enables them to take responsibility for their decisions.

The implementation of the gradual return to school will be focused initially on reception children, year 1’s and year 6’s. It is anticipated that secondary schools will have contact before the school summer holidays with children who will have exams next year.

At present a Disapplication Notice is in place for attendance requirements (The Coronavirus Act 2020 Disapplication of section 444(1) and (1A) of the Education act 1996 (England) Notice 2020. This disapplies the section of the legislation that creates an offence relating to the failure of parents to secure regular attendance at school. This means that there will be no criminal prosecutions or convictions following a failure to ensure children attend school. The Notice applied from the 1st May and remains in place until the 31st May 2020. The notice could be renewed or modified to acknowledge part return. If the notice is not renewed for the children in the returning years, the normal attendance provisions will apply.

The normal attendance provisions require the school to inform the LA where a pupil has been absent without the school’s permission for a continuous period of 10 days or more.

The attendance register has an accepted entry for non-attendance of ‘Unable to attend due to ‘exceptional circumstances’. This could be applicable in this situation but would need to be a judgement made by the school in the known context as to whether it is an authorised absence. It will be very difficult to decide that a refusal to send children to school through anxiety is insufficient to be regarded as exceptional circumstances. If there is evidence that the children are mixing with others outside the school environment, then the authorised absence could change to unauthorised and recorded appropriately.

The duty on parents to ensure that their children are getting a full-time education remains regardless of whether the children are at school (assuming they are of compulsory school age). This is set out in the DfE guidance on Attendance and specifically under the terms of the Disapplication Notice referred to above that states that ‘it remains a parents duty to ensure that their child receives a suitable education during this period in whatever way they can under section 7 of the [Education Act 1996]’.

Parents can choose to home school their children if they wish. To do this full time they do not need to seek agreement from the school. In order for it to be recorded and for parents to avoid any actions to enforce attendance at school, the parent needs to record in writing to the head teacher that they wish to home school their child and that they want their child removed from the school register.

The parents could approach the school with a request for flexi schooling whereby they choose to attend for certain subjects only or at certain times. In this situation the parents would need to obtain the agreement for the school and the child remains fully registered at the school. It is difficult to see that a school would agree to this unless they thought it was in the best interests of the child.

Where a student has anxiety or fears about returning to school it is possible that parents and school could agree a phased return to build up confidence. Continued absence would require medical confirmation that the student is unable to attend for medical reasons and a gradual return planned and agreed.

Risk assessments are going to be very important going forward. If a child does not return to school, then factors need to be considered: Is there any known reason for the child not to attend? Are there family contexts that make return difficult (e.g. inability to travel using public transport/vulnerable relatives and the physical ability of self-isolation/communication difficulties, etc). Is the child a vulnerable child? Has there been contact during the shut-down?

Keep a clear record of any decisions and the rationale for them. Keep them dated and identified and keep them in a secure environment.

There may be a position where there are more children looking to return than the school can safely accommodate. Work out in advance a priority list and work down. Have a way of deciding between people in the same category (schools could use their admissions policy as a template). Where there are more children than capacity consider whether there are other schools that might have capacity. Can you operate a rota system within the ‘bubbles’ of children that attend? Schools will also need to be vigilant in terms of ensuring that only those that should be attending are in school, e.g. have the children in the key worker categories changed at all? Can any of these children be kept safely at home thus releasing a space for a child in the allocated returning year groups?

Parent and pupil FAQs

We have brought together a number of FAQs which will be of use to schools in the planning and preparations of re-opening schools:

If there is an acceptable reason for absence, communicate that to the parents and record the absence as authorised appropriately.

If there is no immediately obvious reason for non- attendance inform parents that regardless of the pandemic, they still have a duty to ensure that their children receive full time education. Make sure that the parents have the list of actions you are taking to make sure that the school is as safe as possible. Ask them to set out precisely what their concerns are given the actions that are being taken. Try to address their concerns as openly as possible. If they still refuse, then consider whether an authorised absence code is appropriate. If it is, inform the parents that this is what is being recorded but that it will need to be reassessed in [x time]. Encourage them to home school their children in the meantime.

If the decision is made that you do not think it is an authorised absence, inform the parents of this and your rationale for reaching that decision. Explain that you have a legal duty to take the absence further and outline the process of enforcing non – attendance.

A child may not be in the location of the school. A lot of families re-grouped at the beginning of the shut down and the children could be some distance from the school making a commute untenable. If the child remains distant for an extended period such that the parent does not show any intention of return, you can look at de-registration.

It is possible that there may be vulnerable people within the family home that would not want to risk contact with the child after school attendance and where self- isolation within the home becomes problematical or not an option. The travel arrangements may not be feasible if the child is not within walking distance and the family does not have a car. Public transport may not be practical.

Where a child has medical conditions that make mixing with other children an increased risk. In his instance, where the condition has not been previously recorded a medical confirmation should be sought.

It is possible that the child itself is anxious and frightened about returning to school. Think about the ways that you would approach this phenomenon pre-Covid-19. Are any of the normal methods applicable? Would a phased return be appropriate? Ultimately, if the child refused to leave home due to anxiety, then a doctor’s confirmation and recommendations should be sought.

The latest Primary School Guidance has advised against rota systems for managing numbers of children in school. Instead it is about identifying priority groups. These are;

  • Vulnerable children and children of key workers in all years,
  • Early years settings – 3- and 4-year olds then going down the ages,
  • Infant schools – nursery and reception,
  • Primary Schools – nursery, reception and then year 1,
  • Schools can look to second staff from elsewhere.

Yes, they can, either full or part time. If full time, the child needs to be removed from the school register. If part time, then the school needs to agree and to plan what the child will attend and seek confirmation that the child is receiving the balance of the education at home. Any such decision must be in the child’s best interests.

If a vulnerable child is not attending school and they should be, try and contact the parents and understand why the child is not attending. If you are unable to get through after repeated attempts and the child has a social worker, contact the social worker and inform them. If the child is not on the formal vulnerable list but in your opinion is nonetheless vulnerable, then carry out a risk assessment. Keep a clear log of the calls you are trying to make and the various attempts to get in touch. If you are in touch with other parties keep a record of this as well. If the child has been absent for 10 days continuously inform the Local Authority. If you have concerns in respect of the child’s safety and well-being contact the Local Authority and make clear that you have concerns, that you have carried out a risk assessment and that you have implemented all the actions on your Child Protection policy without success. Make it clear that you are seeking help and action from the Local Authority.

Children with SEN should not be discriminated against when children are returning to school. Where a child has challenges that can be accommodated by way of reasonable adjustments these should be made. However, where these are not sufficient (e.g. child has issues with spitting) then alternative arrangements might need to be reached with parents. The DfE are looking to issue further guidance about a SEND risk assessment for children with specific needs.

Make it very clear that children returning to school will be required to follow new rules in relation to social distancing, hand washing, etc. Set out the consequences of these rules not being followed. Ultimately, where a child is endangering themselves or others by their behaviour through repeated non-compliance a school could exclude. It is important to keep the balance correct between trying not to exclude and keeping children and staff safe. A record of the actions taken should be kept and the rationale for decisions recorded. It could be considered reasonable in the circumstances that action has to be swift and uncompromising. Parents and students need to be aware of this as a condition of return.