Margaret Glentworth on how schools feel the fallout of family disputes. Disputes between parents can raise difficult issues for schools and, increasingly, teachers are having to deal with matters for which they have no training.
The best way of equipping yourself to deal with a problem is to be prepared in advance. If you identify situations which might occur and formulate clear policies for dealing with them which all staff are made aware of, you are more likely to be able to contain a situation and deal with it effectively.
You may be asked by one parent to prevent a child being taken from school by the other parent. This is more likely to happen with primary school children. The circumstances can range from the dramatic (such as fear of abduction) to the more mundane (such as a dispute over contact).
It is good practice for a school to have a procedure, dealing with the removal or collection of a child from school within normal school hours, which is communicated to parents. The parent will usually be asked to report to the school office before taking the child from the classroom. This should ensure that if there is any dispute about the parent's authority to remove a child it is dealt with away from class.
A request to prevent the removal of a child should be referred to the head or other designated teacher, who should first check precisely what the school is being asked to do and what authority the parent has for making the request.
If there is a risk of abduction, it might be more appropriate for the child to be kept away from school until the immediate danger has passed.
There may already be a court order in force. The authority to act on the instruction of the parent requesting your help is derived from that order, but if there is no court order, you may find it more difficult to know how to handle things. In either case, you will want to avoid getting involved in the dispute. Indeed, if the situation appears to be getting out of hand, be prepared to call the police.
You may be required to decide whether or not to authorise a child's absence from school. In these circumstances you should explain the position to the parent seeking to remove the child, and tell them that you are not prepared to allow the child to go until the end of the school day without the consent of the other parent. In the meantime, it may be possible to contact the other parent and tell them what has happened. They will then have to deal with the issue, but it should be made clear that it is not acceptable for them to conduct their dispute on school premises.
Since the Children Act 1989 became law, orders for custody, care and control are no longer made as a matter of course in divorce proceedings. However, where there is a serious dispute between the parents, a court order regulating the position will usually be applied for.
When there are court proceedings concerning the residence of or contact with a child, one of the parents may request a report from the child's school. In such instances there is usually a conflict between what each of the parents is saying. They will both be looking to the school for independent evidence to support their case. After all, the majority of a child's time when he or she is not at home is spent at school, and so the child's teachers are the people who are most likely to have observed changes in behaviour or demeanour. You may be unhappy about providing information to one parent and appearing to take sides, and this may affect what you are prepared to say and reduce its usefulness.
School reports detailing a child's academic achievements will be available to both parents, but these will not give the full picture. A court welfare officer, who is independent of the parties, is usually appointed to investigate and report to the court. If you are asked for a report by one parent, you might feel that it would be more appropriate for you to report to the court welfare officer. You may then find it easier to give a fuller picture which will be of real assistance to the court.
You may at some time be asked, or instructed, by the parent with whom a child lives not to communicate directly with the other parent. A headteacher has a duty to report in writing about a child's educational achievement to each child's parent who, for these purposes, is someone who has parental responsibility for or cares for a child. Married parents will both have parental responsibility. An unmarried father can only get it by written agreement or court order. If the parents are living apart, both are entitled to receive the report. Neither parent can override the duty to report.
Each child's parent is entitled to stand for election and vote in parent governor elections and neither parent can exclude the other. All those eleigible must be notified and given the opportunity to participate but an election will not be invalidated just because an eligible parent does not receive the information.
The school should have a clear policy about how it will handle its relationship with parents who live separately from their child. You will have to consider the reason given for the request, and decide whether it appears to be in the child's interests to agree. Does it justify a departure from the normal policy? If not, you may refuse.
Where possible you should try and identify possible problems before they arise, decide who will deal with them and have a clear policy where appropriate. If a request is made, decide what you are being asked to do and whether you have the authority to act.
If you have any discretion, your decision should be guided by the interests of the child, and you should make it clear to the parent what that decision is.
Margaret Glentworth is a family lawyer with Eversheds Hepworth Chadwick.