Students who do not have parental consent but want to receive the Covid vaccine will be diverted to venues away from schools in several areas where anti-vaccination protests have taken place against the rollout of the vaccine to 12- to 15-year-olds, some local public health teams have said.
While government guidance on the issue says that vaccinations for this age group will take place in school settings, in practice students aged 12 to 15 who are judged to be able to agree to the jab – so-called "Gillick competent" in legal terms – but lack parental consent may be sent elsewhere for the injection.
School leaders in three regions where protests have taken place have told Tes that their local authority has advised that students in this age range who consent but whose parents do not will be vaccinated elsewhere rather than within school settings to avoid more pressure being felt within schools over the programme.
Schools have already received letters threatening legal action from pressure groups ahead of the roll-out, attempting to stop them being involved in the Covid vaccination programme for pupils aged 12 to 15.
Gillick competence: What schools need to know
School vaccine rollout: How to prepare for protests
One headteacher who had faced protests outside their school told Tes: "Our local SAIS (School Age Immunisation Service) has said to us that they will not vaccine anybody who does not have parental consent.
"I've already made it clear to my governors and to the SAIS team that we will not be allowing anybody to be vaccinated on the school site that does not have parental consent, and our SAIS team have told us that those students who do turn up without consent will be directed to off-site vaccination centres so that it's not on the school property,"
Covid vaccinations in schools: 'We are considering hiring private security'
Headteachers have been describing the difficulties they are facing dealing with protests over the issue.
"The advice that came through from the local authority was a bit meagre, to be honest – it consisted of three bullet points in an email to all teachers," another head told Tes.
"It was 'do not engage with the protesters, consider safeguarding your pupils by moving them away from the protesters' – which, you can imagine, has gone down well – and then 'call the police if deemed to be an immediate threat', and that was it really from the local authority."
Government guidance on the jab roll-out advises heads to contact local authorities for help on dealing with protests over the issue.
The headteacher added the protesters had come on to the school site at the main entrance to the school, harassing visitors and parents.
"The final straw for me [and] why I called the police is that they'd been harassing some of our sixth-form students [outside school], particularly girls, telling them they wouldn't be able to have babies if they got vaccinated...they were pretty unpleasant," they said.
"There's a lot of miscommunication out there about how they were concerned parents – they were not parents of our students, they are a group that's been going around several schools – I think people need to know how unsavoury they are."
The protesters refused to leave the school site until the police were called, and would only do so once they had passed on anti-vaccination pamphlets and data.
"I am very worried about the vaccine rollout for 12- to 15-year-olds that's coming...we are actually considering hiring private security for those two days," the head said.
The DfE 'needs to take abuse of staff seriously'
Another head told Tes they had received a letter issuing legal threats to heads and had also had "phone calls to our reception basically saying 'you shouldn't be vaccinating the children', that kind of thing – it was full of expletives and just screaming down the phone".
The school passed the caller details on to the police. "It wasn't very pleasant for reception staff to have to deal with that," the head said.
They added that the Department for Education and their local authority had not sent out any guidance about dealing with threatening phone calls.
And they said that when masks were introduced in schools last year, they had had a "spate of abusive stuff" online and that the DfE was not taking abuse towards schools seriously.
"What I don't think is coming out is enough of the DfE and the politicians particularly standing up publicly to those protesters – they don't talk about anti-vaxxers, they don't talk about the ludicrous conspiracy theorists," they said.
"There's nothing coming back from politicians saying this is wrong. Heads and schools are getting abuse."
However since the head made their comments, an education minister today condemned “dreadful anti-vaccination protests” that have taken place outside schools after the government announced it would vaccinate 12- to 15-year-olds.
Alex Burghart told the House of Commons: “These are totally unacceptable. The level of intimidation being put on schools and on teachers is abhorrent.
“I make absolutely clear to any headteachers and teachers watching, contrary to some of the things you have been told, legal liability does not rest with schools. It does not rest with schools at all. It rests with the health service and those providing vaccinations.”
He had earlier said vaccinations in schools were important to boosting attendance: “Just last week this government announced the rollout of vaccinations for all 12- to 15-years-olds. Our communications programme has promoted the importance of attendance and we continue to monitor the data closely.”
The minister also urged schools that feel they are being intimidated to contact the DfE
The Department of Health and Social Care, the police and Public Health England have been contacted for comment.
When should schools call the police?
In guidance from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) issued to schools last week, heads are advised that “in the event of a protest or disruptive activity outside a school, or if schools know a protest is planned, they should alert the SAIS provider, local authority and police contacts to discuss the best way to manage the situation".
But in a letter from a local police force to schools shared with Tes, the police advised that they should only be contacted if a "serious offence" takes place, such as assault.
"It is anticipated that [the vaccination of 12- to 15-year-olds] will be run through the current secondary school vaccination system and, as such, could give cause for “anti-vaxxers” to attend school establishments in order to protest," the letter says.
It adds that if heads become "aware of any pre-planned or unannounced anti-vaccine protests in attendance at your school" they should not contact the police unless a serious offence, such as assault, has been committed, someone is in immediate danger of harm or serious public disruption is likely –such as obstruction to the school gates so that pupils and staff cannot enter or leave safely.
Police can also be called regarding behaviour "which is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to any person (merely handing out leaflets does not constitute this offence unless the leaflet itself is deemed to cause harassment, alarm or distress)".
"Very often a simple request to such protesters to locate themselves next to school gates as opposed to in front of them often defuses any potential situations," the letter adds.
Tes understands that PHE does not consider the letter from local police to contradict government guidance for schools on dealing with protests.
'Confusion' over consent, says Whitty
In a debate on the vaccination of 12- to 15-year-olds hosted by the Commons Education Select Committee, chief medical officer Chris Whitty said "there has been quite a bit of confusion" over the issue of consent.
"In the great, great majority of cases, parents and children agree, and in general terms, the younger the child, the more the absolute assumption would be that if there is a disagreement, actually the parents will be the right people to turn to for this," he added.
"The two ends of the spectrum on this are once you get to 16, there's a general assumption, and once you get to 18 there's an absolute assumption that the person themselves will make a decision," he said.
"If you're talking about children below 12 you really would make an absolute assumption that the parents make the decision. There is a bit of a sliding scale, but in practice it's actually very, very rare that, particularly at the lower age ranges, this is relevant at all because almost certainly there will be agreement either way, and we're not trying to push this, agreement between the parents and the children."
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Government guidance advises schools to contact the School Age Immunisation Service, relevant local authority and police in the event of protests. It is too early to say how this will work in practice but we will obviously monitor the situation on behalf of our members.
"However, the point we would emphasise is that the onus must be on groups and individuals not to protest outside schools in the first place. It is difficult to see why anyone would think it is helpful to protest outside a school in opposition to a vaccination programme which is intended to reduce educational disruption, has been thoroughly considered and seems to us to be in the best interests of pupils.
"The role of schools is limited to hosting vaccination sessions and dealing with associated communications, and it is quite wrong to target them in this way. Moreover, this is an offer of vaccination and it is a matter for pupils, along with parents and carers, whether or not they take up this offer.”