We are often asked to advise on issues where parents have separated and the school finds itself stuck in the middle. How can the school navigate these situations? The answer to this thorny question is best answered by running through the series of questions set out below:-
- Do both parents have Parental Responsibility (PR)? Note: The mother will automatically have PR. The father will if they are married, or if his name is on the birth certificate, or if so ordered by the court. Occasionally you may have carers who also have PR through a live with order, special guardianship or adoption order.
- Are there any court orders that restrict the parents’ PR? For example an order that prevents a parent from removing the children from the other’s care?
- Does the parent’s request conflict with the other’s rights as a person with PR? For example are they asking you to change a child’s surname? This can only be done by those with PR consent, or if the child is old enough to do so themselves. If a parent asks you to do this check whether there is an agreement in writing.
- A parent may also ask you to not allow the other (or the other’s new partner) to pick up the child from school. There is no basis on which the school can (or should) prevent this unless there is a court order or an overriding safeguarding reason.
- A common issue parents cannot agree on is choice of school, particularly where one parent has moved location. Ultimately the school cannot admit a child without the consent of all those with PR or a court order determining the school of the child, in the absence of parental agreement.
What is PR? It is essentially a bundle of rights and duties. In day to day life the majority of the exercising of PR is done by the parent with care, however it is when we come to the “rights” that often parents will encounter difficulties.
Another common issue is consent to school trips, particularly residential trips. Often when parents have separated schools will find that one parent will seek to prevent something that the other has agreed. Again in the absence of any court order or agreement to the contrary then if you have a parent who specifically requests that their consent is sought for all trips, the safest course of action is to ensure that both parents do consent before a child is enrolled on a school trip.
Above all, remember that this is the parents’ dispute not yours and schools should not seek to get involved; instead encourage them to agree between themselves, consider family mediation and /or seek legal advice if they cannot agree, and ultimately they would need to go back to court for the issue to be determined. Schools should also be mindful of possible issues of data breach when sharing information between separated parents, relating to the other parent.
If you would like to discuss any of the issues arising in this article, please contact Rebecca Eels, a family law specialist in our independent schools team.