When parents separate, it’s not only the children who can find themselves stuck in the middle. School staff can all too easily end up drawn into private battles around who can and can’t collect the children from school, or even custody.
In difficult situations such as these, how can schools help children when parents are separating or divorcing?
No airbrushing: should schools maintain a relationship with both parents?
There are often instances where both mum and dad have parental responsibility for their children, or are classed as a ‘parent’ for educational purposes, but one parent is the main carer and is keen to ‘airbrush’ the other parent out of the children’s lives.
In these circumstances, conflict often arises if – for example – mum is the main carer, dad wants to collect the children from school and mum tells the school they can’t allow that. Or dad might contact school asking for information about the children and mum tells school not to release it.
In situations like these, unless school staff feel the child would be at risk, then generally they should not take sides. It is important – and also in the best long-term interests of the children when both parents have parental responsibility or are classed as a ‘parent’ – that the school maintains a positive relationship with both parents.
Custody queries: should the school get involved?
We often hear from schools who have been contacted by one parent asking the school to write a letter to the court in support of a custody application. As a rule of thumb, our advice to the school is not to get involved, however every case is different and legal advice should be sought.
As time moves on: a new partner’s parental rights
Often, as time passes, it’s inevitable that one or both parents will meet a new partner. This can create issues for schools, when one parent doesn’t want a new stepmum or stepdad to be involved in their children’s lives and asks the school to intervene.
For example, mum might not want her ex’s new wife or partner to collect the children from school, or be involved in parents’ evenings. However, if the children’s new stepmum is a ‘parent’ for education purposes, this comes with certain legal rights and responsibilities. In some cases it can be a bit of a minefield to try to untangle who has legal rights in relation to a pupil and who doesn’t, and this is something that our team can help you with.
What’s in a name: the politics of changing a child’s surname
Another area that can leave school staff in a tricky situation is name changes. People often change their name following a separation, and advise school that they would like their child or children to be ‘known as’ their new surname.
Sometimes the desired ‘known as’ name is different to the child’s legal name; when this is the case, our advice would generally be to resist the change. If parents wish to change their child’s name, we generally advise that schools request written authorisation from everyone with parental responsibility. If a school has historically agreed for a child to have a ‘known as’ name, this can create difficulties for the school at a later date and we can advise, should you find yourself in this situation.
The examples we’ve outlined here are intended as broad guidance, and individual situations should be checked, as every situation is different. Our experienced helpline team of dedicated education law specialists deals with queries like these, and many others, on a daily basis. We understand the legal duties and challenges schools face, and we are well-practiced at helping you deal with them.