One of the most frequent questions we are asked to advise on involve the application of parental responsibility.  Staff in school have often not kept up with changes in legislation and the current interpretation of parental rights and responsibilities and are understandably confused as to how they apply in a given situation. In this article we will look at what parental responsibility is and what the most important issues are that you need to be aware of.

Put simply, parental responsibility is a bundle of rights and duties which are inherent with being a parent. With it come a number of duties, for example to ensure a child receives an appropriate education. Although the duties are relatively simple, it is the bundle of rights that most often causes the difficulties for schools.

Consider, for example, the not uncommon situation where a mother, with whom a child is living, asks the school not to allow the father to collect their child from school.  Where a father has parental responsibility, ie he is named on the birth certificate if the child was born post 1st December 2003, is / was married to the mother, or has been granted it via a court order, the school cannot legally prevent the father collecting the child. It can only comply with the mother’s wishes if there is either a court order to prevent this or if some urgent safeguarding issue has arisen where the school has taken advice from the LADO and been told not to allow a parent to collect. If these do not apply, the school can do no more than to advise the mother that they will ring her should father try to collect; but that they cannot prevent it.

The other area that often causes difficulties for schools is a request for a change of surnames.  This may be asked for by one party where a marriage or relationship has finished or a child him or herself may request it. It seems simple, but it is not. Leaving aside practical difficulties with examination entries, the change of a surname cannot be effected unless all those with parental responsibility consent.  Even for a school to allow the use of a ‘known-by’ name would be seen as a change of name and should not take effect unless everyone with parental responsibility consents. 

If you are faced with a request from a parent, always check first if the other parent has parental responsibility. If they do, encourage the parents to resolve the situation amicably together.  It is not for the school to get involved in disputes but for the parents to decide together.  Remember that a simple assumption of a new surname in the school register, even if children are entered for exams in their birth name, would still be a circumstance in which all those with parental responsibility would need to consent.

These are just two examples of where problems can arise. The golden rule in these situations is ‘If in doubt, ask.