Shielding Family Fined By Hounslow Council

Kept daughter out of school as father was receiving cancer treatment

Ava, Michelle, Scott and Oliver before the pandemic.
Ava, Michelle, Scott and Oliver before the pandemic. Picture: Michelle Whiteman

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A family who have been shielding since March to protect their father’s health are speaking out over the “unfairness” of being issued fines for keeping their daughter out of school.

Michelle and Scott Whiteman are both facing fines of £60 each from Hounslow Council for refusing to send their daughter Ava into Oak Hill Academy, in Feltham, as they fear any coronavirus contact could put her dad’s life in danger.

Scott Whiteman is categorised in the clinically extremely vulnerable group due to suffering from cancer, and was receiving treatment up until November last year for the illness.

Children, Ava, 7, Oliver, 6, and Shannon, 14, have all been home learning instead of going back to school since September, with the whole family becoming “recluses”.

But mother Michelle is confident they’re making the right decision in an emergency and is urging Hounslow Council and the school to give some local discretion.

“We are forced to choose between education and getting into trouble, or your health or potentially your life. I don’t think that’s fair at all,” the 36-year-old said.

“It’s not like we have been on a term-time holiday, we have been prisoners in our own home.”

According to Michelle the council and school are advising the family to register Ava as home schooled, as after 20 consecutive days of unauthorised absence in education this can mean children lose their place at the school.

She added: “Home schooling is a choice you plan for, you choose this, but in an emergency situation we had to do it rather than something we really wanted to do.

“It’s such a weird situation for everyone. I kind of get what they are asking, it can’t go on indefinitely, but what are we meant to do?

“I don’t know what the answer is but I wish they were a bit more…caring, I just want a bit of support.”

At home Michelle is a carer for Oliver, who has a severe cognitive disability, and has been picking up ideas from his speech and language therapists to help with learning ideas. She has also adjusted the tips to help teaching Ava, who is autistic, and needs extra support.

The family have invested in learning apps to help with their education and have done practical activities such as art and making sourdough. Michelle said initially the school offered for her to come and pick work up from the site for Ava, but she didn’t want to risk any exposure.

She also said she emailed the school each day reporting Ava’s absence.

While Ava has not attended school physically since the beginning of term in September, the fines issued by Hounslow Council are specifically for the period 11 November to 16 December.

If they are not paid by January 16, the fines will double for both parents, and the letter also states if the fine goes unpaid the couple could be summoned to court and prosecuted for the offence.

Michelle said: “My husband is getting quite worried about it, are we going to get dragged to court?…I was wondering would it be better to pay the fine, and then dispute the fine after, then they might leave us alone, or is it admitting guilt?

“We have come this far, we don’t think we have done anything wrong. We don’t really know what the best thing to do is.”

The family is hoping Scott will soon be able to have the vaccine, which is the “light at the end of the tunnel”, but Michelle still worries about her children, particularly Oliver, getting the virus after members of her family have suffered quite badly from the disease.

It is disputed between parties if Oak Hill Academy did grant any authorised absences for Ava at the beginning of term, accounting for why the fines were not issued earlier in the term.

But in an email seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service from Hounslow Council to the family on 8 January, an officer said the authority gave the family “leeway” and did not take any action until after October half term.

They added: “You were sent a penalty notice warning letter which indicated that her absence was unauthorised.

“As requested, I can confirm that your situation did not meet the criteria for any further discretion and I regret that the penalty notice was correctly issued and cannot be withdrawn.”

A spokesperson for Aspirations Academies Trust, which runs Oak Hill Academy, said that the school made numerous efforts to contact Michelle Whiteman and provide homework packs, but she would not engage with the school on a regular daily basis which made it “near impossible” to discuss Ava’s absence and further support her.

According to the school they did not authorise any of Ava’s missed days, a spokesperson added: ”The decision to fine Mrs Whiteman was made by an Education Welfare Officer, assigned by Hounslow Council, who has been investigating this matter since September 2020.”

Hounslow Council issued a statement saying: “We have every sympathy for the circumstances that many families are experiencing during these challenging times.

“The actions relate to a period of time – September to December 2020 – when the Department for Education required children of critically extremely vulnerable parents/carers to be in school and fines to be issued for non-attendance.

“In line with updated guidance following National Lockdown further periods of absence since January are not being recorded as unauthorised.

“Last term we were following the Department for Education’s guidance on attendance.

“The Council is seeking to address a long-term attendance issue. We work hard to offer support strategies to families before fines are issued. During communications with families we explore all options in way of support. Elective Home Education can be an option, however the final decision about any option rests with the parent.”


Anahita Hossein-Pour - Local Democracy Reporter

January 14, 2021

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