A mother of clinically extremely vulnerable twins has revealed how she was taken to court eight months after her children returned to school having previously withdrawn them at the height of Covid due to concerns for their health.
Michelle Bulloch, a mother-of-four, tells i she kept her twins Tommy and Nathan, who have a rare health condition, off school due to fears Covid would prove life threatening to them. Around the time of the first lockdown they received shielding letters from the Government, classifying the twins as Clinically Extremely Vulnerable.
Even though the twins, who both went to separate special needs primary schools, returned to school almost a year ago, after their parents felt they were safer having been vaccinated, they were pursued with court action by Medway Council for unauthorised absence and poor attendance.
It was only after an intervention from their local MP, that they were informed the legal action had been withdrawn – just hours before they were due to attend court.
Michelle, who is married to Jason and has children Joshua, 17, twins Tommy and Nathan, 12 and Jay Jae seven and lives in Kent, now wants to share her story to highlight the situation she says other clinically vulnerable families are facing across the country.
She believes many are being “bullied” into either taking their children out of school or sending them back despite feeling there is a real risk to their lives due to the threat of looming prosecution.
“There are other families who are being taken to court so are too afraid to speak about it and are worried they won’t be able to afford the fines,” Michelle says. “But now the prosecution against us has been withdrawn, we want to be a voice for families in our situation and highlight the terrible way people are being treated for wanting to protect their children.”
Michelle explains that her identical twins Tommy and Nathan have a rare chromosome disorder called 6p deletion and when they were born, doctors told the family only one in 30 million people worldwide had this condition.
It has led to numerous health and development issues for both boys. They were both born with cleft lips and palates and kidney issues and have global development delay which affects their speech and learning and they were both late to walk at three-and-a-half.
Nathan has epilepsy and Tommy has hydrocephalus, which is fluid on the brain, as well as asthma.
Both boys were going to separate special needs primary schools. However, only months before Covid hit the UK, the family became concerned about Tommy’s health when he was rushed to hospital in August 2019.
“Tommy has a shunt and plastic tubing in his brain which drains the extra fluid in his head into his stomach and basically keeps him alive,” explains Michelle. “Tommy was rushed to hospital with suspected shunt failure and the paramedics noticed he had a crackly chest.
“Tommy was in hospital on oxygen for two days so when Covid came around six months later, we thought we couldn’t possibly send him to school. If a cold had landed him in hospital, then what would this virus which people knew so little about do to him? Alarm bells rang and we knew we had to keep our children safe.”
The family took all four of their children out of school around a week before the first lockdown as they did not want to risk bringing the virus into their home.
Soon after, they received shielding letters from the Government for Tommy and Nathan classifying them as clinically extremely vulnerable.
“We completely shut down as a family,” recalls Michelle. “Even when the rules started relaxing, we did not let anyone near us. We didn’t know a lot about Covid at this point and it was easier to keep everyone away and not risk the twins catching anything.”
Michelle says her husband Jason was working as a site manager at the time and was going out to work, but kept away from everyone and wore masks and as soon as he got home each day, he bagged up his clothes and went straight in the shower.
When schools returned in September 2020, Michelle says they sent their children back a few weeks later after putting safe arrangements for transport to school. However, soon after their return, the twins received a second shielding letter and stayed home.
In April 2021, when the Government announced there was no longer a need for shielding, Michelle says they asked the schools to put precautions into place so they would feel safe sending them back to school. “Nathan’s school put everything in place to make us feel safe about sending him back in April 2021, so he went back from the April until the July.
“We asked for things like for staff to be vaccinated and for any that had not been vaccinated to stay away from them and for them to only have lunch with their class and for them to not attend assembly. Basically, so they would only be in contact with their class and no outsiders.
“However, Tommy’s school said they could not put in place what we asked for so he did not go back to school.”
Michelle says the real problems arose after September 2021 when Nathan’s school said they could no longer put the precautions in place and the family decided it wasn’t safe to send either Tommy or Nathan to school.
“The Government was saying basically no one was clinically extremely vulnerable anymore and that all adults who wanted to be vaccinated were vaccinated. But at this point, no children had been vaccinated,” says Michelle.
“We couldn’t understand how all of a sudden the twins could be safe and we refused to send them back unless the schools could take the precautions we asked for – but they both said they couldn’t.”
Michelle says she homeschooled all her children while they were off. “It was easier for me to teach them all together rather than individually, so they ended up doing extra work and I was always in touch with the schools. Tommy actually learned to read and write while he was learning at home.”
Michelle says things came to a head after September 2021 when the schools began saying the twins should be back at school and that if the family didn’t send them, they would have to take them to court.
“I desperately wanted my children to be at school, but I just did not feel it was safe,” says Michelle. “We had a preliminary meeting with the schools over Zoom and it got quite heated,” says Michelle. They said if I did not send them to school, they would take me to court.
“They kept saying the Government said they should be back at school. But I said: ‘The Government doesn’t know my children.’”
Michelle explains that in this situation, some parents may feel they have no choice but to remove their children from the school register to avoid being prosecuted for keeping them off.
The practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without a formal, permanent exclusion or by encouraging a parent to remove them from the school register to home school them is known as off-rolling, when the removal is primarily in the interests of the school, rather than in the best interests of the pupil.
The Department for Education says off rolling is illegal and fines for parents should only be used where support has not been engaged with or is not appropriate, such as term-time holidays.
If a child has an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) and is attending a special school, permission must be sought from the local authority to remove them from the school roll, so Michelle knew as her boys were both at special schools, removing them from the school registers would be a more complicated option for her family.
In January 2022, the family had a pre-proceedings meeting with the schools and Medway Council which was a last resort before deciding to take the family to court. Michelle says: “In that meeting, I told them I had a plan to send the kids back to school after Easter in April 2022.
“This is because their age group was due to be vaccinated in February 2022 and 12 weeks after that, they would be able to have their second dose of the vaccine.
“We said we would be happy to send them to school after they had had both doses of the vaccine and would have protection against the virus. Although the schools seemed happy with that, the attendance officer decided that didn’t matter and that they were still going to send us to court.”
As planned, after the twins had been double vaccinated, the family sent them back to school in April 2022 and they have been back ever since and began secondary school in September.
In December 2022, the family received a letter saying they had to be in court on December 23. However, they say they only received three days’ notice, which was blamed on the postal strikes.
Michelle claims that in a side room with the prosecution, they were advised to agree to a guilty plea – but she says she was adamant they wouldn’t. “It felt like they were trying to scare us as they said without medical evidence, we wouldn’t have a case.
“But we said we wanted to postpone the case because we did not feel we had had enough time to prepare and that we wanted to get legal advice and get a solicitor and consider our options.
“By this time, the twins had been back at school about eight months as they had been vaccinated.”
The case was postponed until 3 March and the family sought legal advice. Michelle also contacted her MP Kelly Tolhurst who contacted Medway Council and at 530pm the day before the court hearing, Michelle was informed by her solicitor that the prosecution had been withdrawn.
Michelle says: “As the twins were already back at school, what was the point of taking us to court?
“I always said I would be happy to send them back once they were vaccinated – and I did. We would have sent them back earlier if the schools had followed what we wanted to make it safe, but they weren’t willing to do that.
“It was never a case of not wanting our boys to be at school – we just wanted them to be safe at school.
“I understand the need for the law when there are parents out there who don’t send their children to school because they can’t be bothered or whatever. But when it comes to medical reasons, I think attendance needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
“When parents are regularly contacting the school and asking for help and support and trying to work out a plan to get their children back to school safely, they shouldn’t be taken to court.”
Lara Wong, founder of the Clinically Vulnerable Families support group, tells i that it is “farcical” that Michelle and her husband were pursued with court action when their twins were already back at school and she says many clinically vulnerable families are facing a difficult situation where they fear being prosecuted for not sending their children to school.
The Clinically Vulnerable Families support group says the families they support would like to see measures introduced in school to make them feel safer about sending their children there such as having air filters to clean the air in classrooms; better ventilation systems to draw sufficient clean air in and for children at both primary and secondary schools to be supported in mask wearing if that’s what they and their family choose to do and not feel discriminated against.
“Michelle’s case was unusual in that she was facing historic charges and fines long after the event had occurred. She wasn’t even able to make the choice to withdraw her children from school because they have special educational needs and this would have been a more complicated and lengthy process for her.
“This puts families like this in an even more difficult situation because they have even less options available to them.”
She highlighted a recent survey of around 200 clinically vulnerable families in their group where almost one in five (18 per cent) revealed they had had no choice but to withdraw their child from school due to a lack of education and threats of fines and prosecution.
“If you’ve got children who are persistent non-attenders, in the school’s view, that child isn’t learning or gaining anything from the school and it is a big negative for them to not have that child in school as they are not getting those positive attendance figures,” she says.
“Schools are being put in a difficult position by the Government and are choosing their attendance figures over the children’s rights to remain attached to that school and continue their education.
“Fines and prosecutions are being used as blunt instruments because schools are under huge amounts of pressure for attendance.
“They are squeezing children out of schools – not because they necessarily want to, but because they have no option because of the guidance they’ve been given by the Government.
“As a result, there are children missing out on vital assessments and essentially being locked out of education.”
In the survey carried out by the Clinically Vulnerable Families group, 56 per cent of families said they had been advised by their school or local authority to consider withdrawing their child from school since the start of the pandemic.
Ms Wong says: “Very often, it is these families who are the ones feeling forced out of education with no route back and no real way of taking those vital assessments. Once you’re out of school, there is no easy option to take exams and it is expensive as you have to pay lots of money to take these exams. Unless you are incredibly affluent, there is no opportunity for these families.
“The vast majority of our families will have made that critical decision to either withdraw their children from school when they were threatened with court or return them to school. These are not people who have chosen to be in this situation. They are not trying to be rebellious as all they want to do is keep their family safe.”
Kelly Tolhurst, Conservative MP for Rochester and Strood, says: “I was very pleased to hear from Medway Council that they have decided to drop legal action against the Bulloch family after my intervention.
“I would expect Medway Council and local schools to work with parents to overcome any barriers to attendance, rather than take this kind of action, which I believe is totally unnecessary.
“The Covid-19 pandemic presented an extremely difficult challenge for parents of clinically extremely vulnerable children.
“It is important that children go to school, especially when schools are open and I welcome the news that the boys have now returned to school and the prosecution has been withdrawn.”
A Medway Council spokesperson said: “We work with schools and academies across Medway to ensure children go to school regularly as it is important for children and their education.
“We issue education penalty notices for unauthorised absences during the school term, in line with the Department for Education’s current legislation and guidance.
“We fully investigate the reasons why children may be absent from school, on a case-by-case basis, and work with families, medical professionals and partner agencies to find a solution.
“Court action is always a last resort. This case has been withdrawn as the children’s attendance has now improved.
“We are committed to helping all children and young people in Medway achieve their full potential.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “All pupils should attend education settings unless they have been advised by a health professional not to.
“We continue to work closely with schools, trusts, governing bodies, and local authorities to identify and support pupils who are at risk of becoming, or who are persistently absent, and our guidance is clear that fines should only be used as a last resort.”
The department says off-rolling is illegal and fines for parents should only be used where support has not been engaged with or is not appropriate, such as term time holidays.