Hundreds of psychiatrists are calling for the Government to ensure no parent is fined if their child misses school because they feel anxious.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is being urged by the Royal College of Psychiatrists to suspend fines for children who do not attend when schools reopen in September.
The penalties could ‘severely’ affect children’s and parents’ mental health, the body warned.
The Government has said fines for parents who refuse to send their children to England’s schools will only be used as a ‘last resort’ when classes resume after the coronavirus shutdown.
School standards minister Nick Gibb said there was a ‘moral imperative’ for children to attend, and that parents with concerns should discuss them with head teachers.
Local authorities can fine parents £120 – cut to £60 if paid within 21 days – over a child’s absence from school, with the threat of prosecution if they fail to pay.
More than 250 child and adolescent psychiatrists have signed a letter calling for the threat of fines to be removed and for schools to be given more resources to tackle poor 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.’
The letter notes that the reopening of schools will be a relief to many families, adding that ‘it’s an opportunity to move forward and feel hopeful’.
But it warns that for others it could be a cause of significant anxiety, and that the risk to their mental health is high if they return to school without the right support.
The Department for Education (DfE) said a new training scheme to help teachers cope with the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health will be available in schools from September.
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 school is 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.”
A DfE spokeswoman said: “Regular and full-time school attendance from September will be essential to help pupils catch up on time out of the classroom. In all our decision making we have balanced the need to continue to control transmission of Covid-19 with the real and ongoing cost to children’s education, welfare and health from being out of the school.
“Schools should work with families to ensure children are attending full time from September. As usual, fines will sit alongside this, but only as a last resort and where there is no valid reason for absence.”
Picture: Schoolchildren say goodbye to their parents as they approach school. (Jens Bttner/DPA/PA).