Last year saw the largest percentage increase in the number of couples separating, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
And with divorce cases continuing to soar in 2021, schools across the UK have resumed the responsibility of navigating the sometimes-tricky waters of managing disputes between separated parents – particularly at pick up times.
A good place to start is by defining who is the parent to your pupil(s). While this might seem straightforward, legal definitions vary.
Family law determines legal parents are the biological parents, as well as those named on the birth certificate, whether married or not, adoptive parents or a person who is determined to be a parent under the Family Law Act with particular reference to artificial conception procedures.
Meanwhile, education law states legal parents are biological parents, whether married or not, but also any person who, although not a biological parent, has parental responsibility for a child.
This could be an adoptive parent, a step-parent, guardian or other relative. Any individual who, although not a biological parent who does not have parental responsibility, has care of a child or young person can also be deemed ‘a parent’ under education law.
Parental responsibility (PR) is all of the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority that a parent has in relation to the child.
A person with parental responsibility can make decisions about the child’s upbringing and is entitled to information about their child.
Therefore, everyone who is a parent, as recognised under education law, can participate in their child’s education and the decisions made within it.
Child arrangement order
Court orders under section 8 of the Children Act 1989 (also called section 8 orders) settle areas of dispute in relation to the exercise of parental responsibility, or a child’s care or upbringing, and can limit how an individual exercises their parental responsibility.
Child arrangement orders, meanwhile, set out with whom a child is to live, and when, and the persons with whom they spend time and have contact.
You can request a copy of the most recent court order from parents, to support the school’s duties in respect of child safeguarding. But be aware, that parents may first need to seek permission of the court to share orders with third parties, including the child’s school.
School report and parents evening
Receiving a report or heading in to meet the teacher is already a stressful time for any parent.
When parents are separated, it’s important they continue to receive the same updates. They must have joint and equal rights to all information provided by their child’s school, and you are obliged to send out duplicate reports, letters etc. to keep everyone in the loop.
Both parents should also be invited and aim to attend parents’ evenings – either together or separately depending on the circumstances.
Even where one parent may be more involved with the school than the other, it’s crucial to ensure that no one is missed out.
School residential trips
It’s a well-rehearsed scenario – the child is excited for a weekend away with friends. One parent has given permission and paid for a trip, and then the second parent finds out and rings the school in frustration.
For trips outside of England and Wales, both parents, where they have parental responsibility, need to give written consent. This is important because failure to do runs the risk of breaching the Child Abduction Act 1984.
Where there is a child arrangement order, it can be the case that the trip falls during time with the live-in parent and that only their consent is given.
But, referring back to parental responsibility in education, any information or decisions within school should be shared by both parties.
Generally speaking, it’s better to involve both parents in most situations and work in harmony for the sake of the child.
For trips within the UK or local visits, the rules are less strict, but I would still advise caution and always involve both parents in any decisions.
Pick up and drop off
However difficult the situation, parents should be encouraged to take their disagreements away from school, to avoid a detrimental impact on their children.
Parents need to have a set routine for pick up and drop off times, and to respect them. Any disputes should be resolved away from school, so they don’t escalate on the school premises.
But, when they do, try to diffuse a situation and ask the parents to resolve problems elsewhere.
It might be good to encourage the parents to get professional advice through mediation or legal advice.
However, if it is a recurring problem, and children are being affected, schools can consider getting the local authority involved – ultimately, the needs of the child must be considered first and foremost.
Where you have pupils with parents who are not seeing eye to eye but are still involved with their child’s education, the school can be at risk of becoming a battleground.
Parents may use the school and its staff as a way of contacting or disputing with the other party, and it’s important for schools to try to stay as neutral as possible.
As children spend a substantial amount of time with their teachers and other school staff, parents may see this as a way to unload concerns, or look for ways to bring the school ‘on side’.
It’s important to remember that any requests made to the school need both parent’s consent, for example changing a child’s surname.
You should also be cautious about any details being shared about disputes, particularly if the court is involved in an ongoing divorce settlement.
Keeping track of any ongoing problems, having regular contact with parents, and potentially others with parental responsibility, can help prevent issues or enable quick reactions in the event of a problem.
Sometimes a school may be ordered by the court to give a statement or evidence as part of a custody trial, or over concerns about child welfare.
This is perhaps the only time when the school has a right to be involved, but it is important to stick to facts, not opinions, and to stay impartial.
Education and family law specialists can sometimes help with more difficult situations, and may be able to offer advice, or approach the parents’ solicitors if problems are starting to encroach on the school.
Whatever your concern, a school’s top priority is the safety and wellbeing of its pupils and staff.
Keeping them at the forefront of any decision regarding parents will hopefully ensure the school is not dragged into external and domestic issues.
But, on top of this, the school has a responsibility to ensure the right people are involved in a child’s education, and this is done through effective communication.
Melanie Bridgen is partner and solicitor in family law at Nelsons Solicitors. For more information on Nelsons’ education law expertise, visit nelsonslaw.co.uk/education-law