On 17 September 2021, the Department for Education published guidance for schools on the vaccination programme (available here) (the "Guidance"). We are continuing to receive enquiries from our school clients regarding communications from campaign groups and individual parents who are opposed to 12-15 year olds being vaccinated against Covid-19 so this article sets out some legal considerations in light of that Guidance.

The Guidance reinforces the message that it is healthcare staff, not schools, that are responsible for ensuring that consent has been obtained before a pupil is vaccinated.  As with any school-based immunisation programme, schools will have a role in sending out information to parents and providing space in school for the vaccinations to take place.

It is very important that schools do not get drawn into any dialogue with parents about issues relating to consent.  In circumstances where a parent and a pupil disagree and / or where parents are separated and have opposing views, the school should signpost parents to the local School Age Immunisation Service (SAIS) provider who will be responsible for dealing with such issues.  Senior leaders should remind all staff that this is the protocol they should follow.

As the school will be responsible for identifying the contacts who should receive information about the vaccination programme, it is very important that information and the relevant consent forms are sent to all parents – not just those who the child lives with for the majority of their time or who have day to day involvement with the school.  In cases where there are court orders in place which restrict the information a parent can be given or if there are child protection issues, you should speak to the SAIS team to seek their advice on how to handle such issues.

If a school knows that parents have separated or that parents have differing views about vaccination, it is our view that parental consent will not be obtained until all parents have given consent (subject to any court orders in place).  As above, if there are differing views (for example, one parent gives consent but the other refuses), it will be for the SAIS team to ensure that they have consent, not the school.   However, if a school does not send the relevant information about the vaccination programme to a parent who is entitled to receive it before the vaccination occurs, this could result in a serious complaint against the school.   We recommend that you discuss how to manage issues surrounding parental separation with your SAIS team before communications are sent out to ensure that you are clear about the protocols for ensuring that all parents are involved in the decision and to ensure that the SAIS team are aware of circumstances when a parent has not responded or has refused consent to avoid any miscommunication.

The Guidance notes that there may be some circumstances when parents and a pupil disagree about whether they should receive the vaccine.  Again, it will be for the SIAS team to assess whether the pupil is 'Gillick competent' to give consent and will handle any further conversations with the parents in this regard.

Schools will also need to prepare for the possibility of further communications from parents about the vaccination programme and even the possibility of protests outside of the school gates which may, in turn, lead to media interest.  The school's main priority must be to safeguard the welfare of pupils who may find the experience frightening if there are protests outside of school.   The Guidance states that schools are advised to get in touch with the SAIS team to understand what security planning they have in place, and what, if any, actions they recommend the school carries out ahead of vaccinations in the school.  If there is a protest or any disruptive activity, the Guidance states that schools should alert the SAIS provider, Local Authority and police contacts to discuss the best way to manage the situation.

Further details, guidance and templates about managing security in school, including a template risk assessment, is available via the following link:  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-and-college-security .  It is hoped that for most schools, vaccination day will pass without event but we recommend that schools consider this guidance before your assigned day to ensure that you are prepared and that appropriate measures are in place if there is any disruption near the school.

Schools should also brief staff, particularly any front of house staff, about how to handle any enquiries from the media.  A log of all enquiries should be made and passed on to the relevant senior leader within the school.  "Monitoring the school's social media platforms may also provide an early understanding of parental concerns or discussions that maybe taking place online" says Aimee Monteith, Managing Director at education marketing firm Grebot Donnelly .

Finally, schools should be mindful that any decision about whether or not to obtain the vaccine is sensitive personal data and should therefore take reasonable steps to preserve confidentiality.  In practice, given that the vaccination is happening in a school environment, pupils are likely to quickly work out who has been vaccinated and may well share this information amongst themselves but teachers should be reminded to ensure that they use discretion in terms of how they handle this information.   Some pupils may feel concerned about peer pressure if they or their parents do not give consent so, again, we recommend that schools speak to the SAIS team about how such issues can be handled in school.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.