Parents 'should not be fined if child misses school due to anxiety' - psychiatrists

26 August 2020, 08:50

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Hundreds of psychiatrists are urging the government not to fine parents whose children miss school because they feel anxious.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling on Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to suspend plans to penalise children who do not return to the classroom in September due to worries it could "severely" affect pupils' and their parents' mental health.

Fines will only be used as a "last resort" when schools reopen after being shut due to the coronavirus pandemic, the government has said.

School standards minister Nick Gibb said there was a "moral imperative" for children to return and that any concerns parents feel should be discussed with headteachers.

Currently, if a child is absent from school, local authorities can fine parents £120 - reduced to £60 if paid within 21 days - with the threat of prosecution if they fail to pay.

More than 250 child and adolescent psychiatrists have signed a letter demanding the removal of the fines and asking for schools to be better resourced to tackle issues regarding mental health.

Writing to Mr Williamson, Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chairwoman of the faculty of child and adolescent psychiatry, said: "The threat of fines could force parents of children who feel anxious to send them back to school even if they're not ready.

"This could have serious consequences on their mental health, especially if they are worried about family shielding.

"Fines could bring more financial stress on families as we're entering a recession, severely affecting children's and parents' mental health.

"We want all children to benefit from returning to school but don't believe that fines are the right way to encourage them."

Pupils practice social distancing at Longdendale High School in July
Pupils practice social distancing at Longdendale High School in July. Picture: Getty

The letter notes that the reopening of schools is "an opportunity to move forward and feel hopeful" and will be a relief to many families.

However, it warns that for some it could be a trigger for anxiety and that making children return to school without the correct support could risk their mental health.

Mr Williamson told LBC's Nick Ferrari all schools should be working with parents and explaining how they have created a safe environment for pupils to return.

He said: "It's important for those children to be coming back to school because of what they're missing out on, not just in terms of their education, but the benefits in terms of their physical health and their mental health.

He said fines will remain in place as a final sanction but advised discussion and negotiation to ensure children return because "it's the best thing for every child".

A new training scheme to help teachers cope with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children's mental health will be available in schools from September, the Department for Education said.

The government is putting £8 million towards the Wellbeing for Education Return programme, led by mental health experts, to help support pupil and teacher resilience and recovery and prevent longer-term mental health problems.

Nominated teachers will be trained through webinars, which can then be shared within the school or college.

Mr Williamson said schools are the best place for children to be "for their education, development and wellbeing".

The scheme will "help schools and colleges to support their pupils effectively, enabling them to have sensitive and open conversations with pupils", he added.

Mental health minister Nadine Dorries said: "This scheme will help empower staff and parents to spot the signs when children are struggling and enable them to offer emotional support, whether they are dealing with bereavement, stress, trauma or other anxieties triggered by recent events."

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