Sins of the Father

By Donald Thomson* 

The impact of Covid-19 on all lives, at home and abroad, has undoubtedly been beyond the imagining of even the most pessimistic of us in March of 2020. There have been restrictions placed upon our liberties, once presumed to be sacrosanct in the western world. The disproportionate impact of these restrictions on the lives and minds of children has been widely documented.[1]

The BBC this week reported on the story of a Headteacher at a primary school in Oldham threatening pupils with the withdrawal of their places if they are found to have been flouting coronavirus restrictions.[2]

This raises the moral juxtaposition of a child’s right to education[3] against their obligation to follow coronavirus restrictions.[4] The Headteacher’s position appears to rest upon the basis that not only are children wholly responsible for their actions, but they are also, by extension, accountable for the actions or inactions of their parents in adhering to lockdown restrictions. It should be noted that neither The Coronavirus Act[5] nor any other pertinent legislation makes provision for such a course of action.

Shakespeare’s caveat that the “sins of the father are visited upon the children” must surely be taken to be just that, a warning of the effect of this unjust absurdity, realised in this reactionary measure posited in the name of safety.

This leads us to a number of questions which, in light of the threat of exclusion, ought to be at least posed if not answered.

Can pupils of such a young age be held to be responsible for criminal breaches of the restrictions?[6] If so, what kind of evidence would be required? Would statements from (very young) pupils suffice to set in motion such a drastic course of action? These restrictions are the constant subject of change and revision, which are difficult to discern from guidance and which, even for many adults, are complicated to follow.[7]  Specific restrictions on contact for adults and children are different; would a breach of adult restrictions or children’s restrictions be enough for the school to consider the withdrawal of a place?

Is it the duty of the parents to ensure that children are behaving within the guidelines? If a child does not attend school it is against the parent of that child where remedy is to be found; by way of parenting orders Education Supervision Orders, School Attendance Orders and fines.[8] It is stated in the Coronavirus Restrictions that an adult being responsible for a child who is thought to be repeatedly breaching those rules to:

“secure, as far as reasonably practicable, that the child complies with the restriction”[9]

This would certainly appear a much less draconian approach than the removal of their primary school place. It ought to be clear that the actions of parents cannot be grounds for the exclusion of a child.[10] Much more apt here to consider the Book of Deuteronomy’s position on the sins of the father; “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their father, each for his own sins”[11]

Restrictions have already undermined the child’s right to an education[12], particularly for those in disadvantaged areas. Ed Pennington noting [13]“strong evidence that the majority of children at state schools are doing very little formal learning each day”.

The deprivation of a school place from a child is more than just their physical ability to attend. Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that education should help to develop a child’s personality, talents, and mental and physical abilities to the full.[14] Article 31 recognises the child’s right to take part in cultural and artistic activities[15], not easily realised at home.[16] Harder still once deprived of a place at school. It is in school where the tell-tale signs of abuse may be recognised, another safeguard relinquished by exclusion from school. It is, above all, the welfare of the child which must be the paramount consideration. England does not yet benefit from the incorporation of the UNCRC as Scotland does, but it is the rights contained therein that must prevail against actions taken precipitately which have the capacity to create a dangerous and damaging precedent.


* Donald Thomson is an LLB (Graduate Entry) student at Edinburgh Napier University.

[1] <https://www.gov.scot/publications/report-covid-19-children-young-people-families-september-2020-evidence-summary/> accessed 29 January 2021. See also <https://data.unicef.org/covid-19-and-children/> accessed 29 January 2021

[2] ‘Covid: Oldham school to withdraw places for lockdown-breach pupils’ (BBC, 27 January 2021) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-55809975> accessed 29 January 2021

[3] Human Rights Act 1998 Protocol 1 Article 2, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Art. 28.

[4] Coronavirus: The Health Protection (Coronavius, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020 Part 4 Schedule 3A.

[5] Coronavirus Act 2020

[6] ‘National Lockdown Stay At Home ‘Meeting Other People’’ 2020 <www.gov.uk> accessed 29 January 2021

[7] Only 51% of adults responding that they understood the majority of restrictions, Dr. Daisy Fancourt, Prof Andrew Steptoe; Covid 19 Social Study 2020 University College London <www.nuffieldfoundation.org> accessed 29 January 2021

[8] ‘School attendance and absence’ <www.gov.uk> accessed 29 January 2021

[9] Coronavirus: The Health Protection (Coronavius, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020 Part 3 Regulation 9

[10] Department of Education “Exclusions from Maintained Schools, Academies, and Pupil Referral Units in England; Statutory Guidance for those with Legal Responsibilities in Relation to Exclusion s.13

[11] The Bible, Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 24 Verse 16.

[12] United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Article. 28

[13] Ed Pennington, ‘The Numbers Behind Home-schooling During Lockdown’ (Children’s Commissioner 11 June 2020) <www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk> accessed 29 January 2021

[14] United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Article. 29

[15] United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Article. 31

[16] Martin Lennon, ‘How the Covid-19 crisis has affected children’s right to an education’ (Children’s Commissioner 15 June 2020) <www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk> accessed 29 January 2021

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