Headteachers won’t fine parents who decide to keep their children home from school next week, unions have signalled to Downing Street.
Number 10 insisted compulsory fines should be used as a ‘last resort’ to force parents into bringing their children into the classroom when schools reopen.
But unions, who have opposed the return to the classroom because of the danger coronavirus poses to teachers, told The Telegraph fines were ‘counterproductive’.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: ‘Talking about fines now is unhelpful. Members cannot say don’t use them but they are more motivated by co-operation rather than coercion.’
It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the risks of Covid-19 in schools ‘are very, very, very small’.
In a video posted to Twitter he added: ‘The risk that they’ll suffer from it badly are very, very, very, very small indeed.’
Nick Gibbs, the schools minister, said strict attendance was ‘not optional’ but parents could raise any concerns they might have.
Headteachers have the power to impose fines of £120 per parent, which is halved if paid within 21 days.
If the fine goes unpaid and the case makes it to court some parents could be left with a £2,500 fine and a three-month prison sentence.
Fines are usually brought in after five days of non-attendance.
Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NAS/UWT, the second biggest teaching union, said schools needed to work with parents ‘constructively’.
‘The Government needs to support schools to apply a sensitive approach that recognises the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and that some parents will have genuine safety concerns,’ he added.
The Association of School and College Leaders said there should be a ‘period of grace’ before resorting to fines.
Meanwhile, Dr Jenny Harries said the risk of children being involved in a traffic accident or of catching the flu are ‘probably higher than the current risk’ posed by the deadly virus.
Public Health England data has shown that teachers are more likely to be infected than their pupils, after one in 23,000 students tested positive during the partial reopening of schools before the summer holidays.
The Government remains under pressure over its handling of the return of schools with Tory MPs complaining ministers left it ‘very late’ to persuade parents it is safe.
Many pupils in England have not been to class since March, when schools were closed except to look after vulnerable children and those of key workers.
Schools in Scotland reopened earlier this month, while those in Northern Ireland will welcome pupils again on Monday. English and Welsh schools will follow suit in September.
The Government today stepped up its efforts to prepare for the return of pupils as Dr Harries suggested the risk coronavirus poses to pupils is actually very small.
She told Sky News: ‘Every time a parent sends their child off to school, pre-Covid, they may have been involved in a road traffic accident – there are all sorts of things.
‘That risk, or the risk of seasonal flu, we think is probably higher than the current risk of Covid.’
Her comments sparked controversy on social media as some accused her of ‘shockingly superficial thinking’.
Dr Harries also told the BBC: ‘No environment anywhere we can say is 100 per cent risk free so I think we need to make that clear.
‘But it clearly is very confusing for parents at the moment and so all the UK chief medical officers and deputy chief medical officers right across Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England have looked at the evidence and put that down on a statement so that parents can understand the risk.
‘We think that the risks for children in schools is exceptionally small from Covid but the risks of not attending school are significant.’