Coronavirus: Bishop's Stortford solicitors Tees Law answer 5 key questions about your child's education
While blanket school closures have been announced in countries such as France, Spain and Ireland in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the Government says keeping schools in England open is the "best course of action".
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told a head teachers' conference in Birmingham that sending all pupils home would put a big strain on key workers, who would also have to stay at home.
School leaders agreed keeping schools open was the right decision. Geoff Barton, head of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said heads would authorise absence if parents decided to keep their children off lessons. He anticipated absences would be small-scale and similar to 'snow days'.
But what if that situation changes? What will be the potential impact on the forthcoming GCSEs and A Levels?
GCSEs start in the second week of May – when the virus outbreak is expected to reach its peak – and run until mid-June, though regulators are urging schools to prepare for exams as normal.
Polly Kerr is a senior associate with Bishop's Stortford-based solicitors Tees Law and has extensive experience in acting for and advising schools and parents in educational matters. Here, she answers FIVE key questions around coronavirus and schools...
1. What are the legal consequences of removing a child from school due to concerns about coronavirus?
It is the responsibility and legal duty of all parents to ensure that a child of compulsory school age receives a “suitable full-time education”. A child reaches compulsory school age on or after their fifth birthday. If a child is not receiving a suitable education, then a local authority can issue a School Attendance Order against the child’s parents and, if the child does not attend school, the parents could be prosecuted.
If you are considering keeping your child at home as a result of your concerns about coronavirus, I strongly advise that you speak with your child’s school before making any decision to do so because, if the school is not closed and public health guidance is being followed, you may find yourself on the wrong side of the law. If your concerns about your child are particularly focused around underlying health conditions, be sure to highlight this to the school when you speak with them.
2. My son is very worried about his exams. Will he be able to sit his GCSEs this year if the schools close?
Ofqual is advising that students should continue to prepare for exams as normal, not least because there are still a number of weeks before the examination period begins. We understand that the situation is being closely monitored by all schools and agencies involved to minimise the impact on students.
If there was a mass closure of schools on public health grounds, contingency plans for public examinations may have to be considered, but this is by no means a certainty. Such measures may include, for example, moving examination periods further into the summer, but, at the time of writing, no formal plans to this effect have been announced.
Your son’s school should keep you updated on any plans for ongoing education during any period of closure, if this is possible. For the time being, it is very much business as usual and we suggest that you keep up to date with advice coming from your son’s school and national advice available on the Ofqual and Department for Education websites.
3. If teachers catch the virus, will schools have to close?
The school may have to close and would have to follow Government guidance in place at the time. If the teacher has been to school and tests positive, then the school may need to be deep-cleaned and those who have been in contact with the teacher would need to self-isolate.
However, in respect of safeguarding children in terms of numbers, in England and Wales schools have a statutory duty to limit infant classes being taught by one qualified teacher to 30 pupils or less. There is no statutory limit on class size above Key Stage 1. Therefore, it is possible that classes could be merged to accommodate teacher absence.
However, what could be done, and what could be done safely, are two different things, and head teachers will have to give due consideration to this when making any decision as to whether to close the school on the basis of staffing levels.
4. My child has an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). How will this be impacted by school closure?
Schools have a legal duty to ensure that provision set out in an EHCP is delivered under the Children and Families Act 2014. However, the current situation with Covid-19 is unprecedented and there will invariably be disruption to education for all students, not just those with SEND (special educational needs and disability), although it is likely to have a greater impact on vulnerable students.
When making decisions about how and if schools will be able to deliver education to students during the period of closure, schools must take into consideration any reasonable adjustments it could make to enable students with disabilities to access those arrangements. However, emphasis should be placed on the term “reasonable”, and therefore you may wish to open discussions with your child’s school at an early stage; for example, to discuss access to technology that will allow the student to learn online, if required.
5. My daughter attends an independent boarding school in England. We live abroad. What will happen to her if the schools close and there is a travel ban?
I suspect that you have already put educational guardianship arrangements in place for your daughter, as an overseas student. Boarding schools need to be aware that if it is not possible for this arrangement to be utilised as a result of the virus, then they will need to consider accommodating students in boarding accommodation both during any period of term-time closure and over the Easter holidays.
The Government’s advice for home isolation includes a requirement for boarding schools to ensure that they are able to quarantine pupils within boarding accommodation or medical centres on site. They must ensure that a pupil is quarantined for 14 days from the date they last came into contact with someone who has Covid-19.
* Polly Kerr, a senior associate at Tees Law, can be contacted on 01763 295854 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit teeslaw.com.
** Tees Law was established in Bishop’s Stortford in 1913 by Herbert Stanley Tee. Today it is a major regional legal and wealth management firm, with 30 partners, 325 staff and a turnover of more than £22m. Its HQ is at Tees House in London Road, Bishop’s Stortford, and it is one of the town’s major employers. It also has offices in Cambridge, Chelmsford, Brentwood, Saffron Walden and Royston.