Fining parents if they do not send their children back to school in September should be a “last resort”, teaching unions have said.
On Monday, the government said financial penalties could be issued to parents whose children do not return for the autumn term as the coronavirus lockdown is eased.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said a return to school will be “compulsory” and families may face fines if they keep their children at home without a “good reason”.
He said a detailed plan on how the government plans to ensure all children in England are back in school in the autumn will be revealed at the end of this week.
Boris Johnson had previously announced that he wanted all primary schools to reopen at the beginning of June, but the plan was quashed amid a wave of opposition from teachers, parents and health experts.
On Monday, the prime minister admitted the coronavirus crisis had been a “disaster” for the country.
Headteachers and teaching unions are urging against reintroducing fines, saying schools will need to rebuild confidence among families concerned about the spread of COVID-19.
“Working with families in a constructive and supportive way, using scientific information to address concerns, is a far better route than fining parents,” said Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union.
“This can often alienate the very individuals schools most need to reach out to and would always be a last resort.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, called for a “period of grace” before fining parents if they refuse to send their children back to school when they fully reopen.
“There will be many frightened and anxious parents out there,” he said, “and this is very much a case of building confidence that it is safe to return, rather than forcing the issue through the use of fines.”
Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said: “Ministers should think carefully before issuing warnings to parents and when the government has not yet explained how it plans to reopen schools safely in September.”
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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the government of being “asleep at the wheel” on the issue of reopening schools.
He told Sky News on Monday: “If you could put up Nightingale hospitals – a good thing to do – you can certainly put up temporary classrooms, you can certainly take over libraries, community centres.”
But Williamson told LBC Radio: “It is going to be compulsory for children to return back to school unless there’s a very good reason, or a local spike where there have had to be local lockdowns.
“Unless there is a good reason for the absence then we will be looking at the fact that we would be imposing fines on families if they are not sending their children back.”
He suggested that the full return to school in September may not rely on social distancing – instead, whole classes would become “bubbles” separated from other pupils.
The latest government figures show that about a third (34%) of all Year 6 children attended school on 18 June, up from 26% on 11 June.
Attendance was about a quarter (26%) in Year 1, up from a fifth the previous week, and 29% in Reception, up from 22% on 11 June.
Johnson said on Monday the fact that more pupils are not back at school yet is a source of “deep frustration” for him.
He told Times Radio that teaching unions and councils should be saying “loud and clear” that schools are safe.
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