Gavin Williamson could be in breach of the law if he forces vulnerable children back to school while Covid-19 rages, lawyers have warned.
Government policy does not mandate contact tracing by schools and has done away with teaching in bubbles, encouraging families and children with serious medical conditions to “follow the same guidance as everyone else”.
But legal advice, commissioned by the Good Law Project, has questioned whether such an approach is lawful – and lawyers have concluded it may not be.
Williamson in the dock
In a statement, the Good Law Project said: “The legal advice says (1) fines or prosecutions for not attending school could – depending on the facts – be unlawful; and (2) vulnerable children or children who belong to vulnerable families may have a legal right to be provided with an education at home.
“We are now writing to Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, asking him to issue guidance that protects vulnerable children and families.
“We will make the same request of a sample of local authorities and schools. If those letters do not draw adequate responses we will begin court proceedings to ensure compliance with the law.
“Plainly we want children back in school. But the transition to a world with Covid is complex. It will take time and sensitivity.
“What we want in the meantime is for governments, local authorities and schools to support the reasonable assessments of loving families of what is in the interests of their children and other vulnerable family members.”
?NEW: Education Secretary Gavin Williamson could be in breach of the law.— Good Law Project (@GoodLawProject) September 6, 2021
We're publishing the external legal advice we've received – which makes for shocking reading ?https://t.co/eKT49Qmt9C
Williamson is reportedly at risk of losing his job this week, with Boris Johnson said to be preparing a surprise Cabinet reshuffle.
The Sunday Times reported that the prime minister is considering shaking up his top team as soon as Thursday, in an effort to distract from a looming row over social care.
If a reshuffle does go ahead, Williamson is considered the most vulnerable figure, having lost the confidence of many Tory MPs over his error-strewn handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The education secretary is comfortably the least popular minister among Tory members, with a rating of -53.5 per cent in ConservativeHome’s monthly Cabinet “league table”.
Williamson has said he will “move heaven and earth” to avoid shutting schools again, but did not rule out a rise in Covid-19 infections being caused by children going back to class.
He also did not exclude classes and assemblies having to take place outside during this academic year amid coronavirus outbreaks in schools.
Pupils across England and Wales begun to return to the classroom last week after the summer holidays, and schools in Northern Ireland have reopened.