'Fines for pupil absences in September? It's immoral'

Threatening fines for pupil absence in September means alienating families who are suffering, writes Michael Ferry

Michael Ferry

Coronavirus: It's ridiculous to fine parents for pupils not attending when schools reopen in September, writes headteacher Michael Ferry

According to the Department for Education, headteachers are supposed to fine parents whose children don’t turn up to school in September. 

Well, that’s just ridiculous. It’s not just ridiculous: it’s immoral. What kind of civilised country does that?

The DfE guidance for schools, published today, says that all children, regardless of circumstances, are expected to return in September. The usual penalties for absence – including fines for parents – will therefore apply.

Coronavirus: Opening schools in September

My school is in Crawley, West Sussex. If you walk to the end of one of our corridors, you can see the terminal of Gatwick airport. The airport is a big employer in the area, and a number of our families have been affected by its closure.

Virgin Atlantic's headquarters is also here, and that’s closing. And Virgin Atlantic will be moving its planes to Heathrow.

A number of families who weren’t previously eligible for free school meals have now lost their main wage-earner or had a significant reduction in their income. A recent report said that Crawley was the town most likely to be affected by coronavirus, in terms of unemployment.

For us to then say, “Your children have to come back to school or you’ll be fined,” is very blunt.

If you look at the fine – £120 – in stark terms, it’s eight weeks’ worth of food vouchers for a low-income family. That’s just obscene. How can we do that in a civilised country?

Hitting parents already hit by the crisis

One of the things that schools are really, really good at is working with parents: creating a partnership, so we can allow their children to be successful, academically and holistically.

If you tell headteachers to fine parents in September, suddenly you’re erecting a barrier in the way schools relate to parents. It is harder, then, to bring parents on board, and to tie into the same vision.

Disadvantaged students have found it very, very difficult to access education over the past few months. They didn’t have the infrastructure at home: the wi-fi or access to laptops. Those students have invariably become disengaged from learning – probably more so than the others. It’ll be harder to bring them back into schools.

So how should we respond: penalise the financial situation of their families? It’s nonsensical, really. I can’t believe anyone would think this was a good idea.

The virus is out there

We all know the virus is still out there. I have a Year 10 son myself, and we’re all having to weigh up the various risks. You can’t apply punitive pressure, just to make sure you get people back into school. I don’t think anyone can defend it.

It might be that not everyone is able to come back to school that first day. Parents might want to wait and see.

If there’s a genuine fear or concern about going back into school, you need to work with parents, rather than telling them there’s an automatic fine if your child doesn’t turn up to school.

Besides, this announcement is being made at the start of July, and we don’t go back to school until September. As we know from the past few months, things can change massively in a small amount of time. So why alienate parents now? Or, indeed, at all?

Parents have a lot of trust in schools, a lot of trust in headteachers. We’re going to be challenged a lot in coming weeks and months to produce a plan for September to make sure we keep everyone as safe as possible, as far as possible.

We need to show that we’re recognising their concerns, and ensuring low levels of transmission, as well as doing the very best we can in terms of the curriculum. It won’t be perfect, by any means, but we need to make sure that parents know we’re on their side.

Michael Ferry is the headteacher of St Wilfrid’s Catholic School, in Crawley, West Sussex

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