Divorces are always messy when children are involved. But when the school gets dragged in things can get really difficult. Teachers need clear guidelines on how to deal with collapsed marriages, says Mike Fielding John," said the teacher, "your mother's in reception. She'd like to see you." The boy went ashen, got up, and, without a word, ran out of school.
The teacher followed, trying to reassure him he didn't have to see her if he didn't want to. John ignored her and ran all the way home. Within minutes his father appeared, angrily declaring, "You've no business forcing him to see his mother." But, we protested, there had been no question of force. "He's never coming back to this school and you'll be hearing from my solicitor," the father stormed.
John's parents divorced in considerable acrimony five years ago, and the boy, now 12, lives with his father and younger sister. His mother and an older girl live elsewhere. Every so often his mother gets the urge to contact John, and school is the obvious place.
We are in an invidious position. We know that the father gets angry at the mention of his ex-wife and will do everything possible to shield John from her. But we must respect her rights. So when she asks for reports or a school photograph, we supply them. And when she phones to ask if John's all right, we assure her he is.
But now we know there's a court order preventing her from any personal contact with the children. Nobody had told us before, which is why we were trying to be both helpful and protective over the visit. Now, unless the order is rescinded (and we're told about it), we shall not allow any contact on school premises.
This, of course, won't prevent the mother from waiting at the school gates or intercepting John as he goes home, but at least it makes our position simpler.
Using schools as part of the battleground is nothing new for estranged parents, but the schools need a procedure for dealing with these situations. Potential problems need to be identified early on - through the admissions information provided when the child first joins the school, and by regularly reminding parents to update their details. When this reveals they are divorced or separated, the one with whom the child is living should be discreetly asked if any legal barriers prevent the other parent meeting the child. Evidence of any court orders should be provided.
However, the parent with whom the child lives should be reminded that, under the Children Act 1989, the other parent is entitled to certain kinds of information. Details need to be entered on school records, and the office staff, who are likely to be the first contact with any visiting parent, briefed.
The records should be checked whenever a parent asks to see a child in school, unless she or he is known to staff. He or she should, ideally, be asked to contact the parent with whom the child lives to clarify the situation.
Even when there appears no legal barrier to contact, the parent should be asked to wait somewhere else while the child is found. He or she has a right to refuse contact.
If a meeting does take place, it might be helpful for another person - teacher or other staff member - to be present. This might prevent over-emotional responses from one or both parties and will make it more difficult for the parent to snatch the child or to place undue demands on him or her.
All staff should make a note of the meeting and its circumstances so that, should there be any recrimination from either parent, there is a clear record.
Schools can easily get caught in the cross-fire between warring parents. And usually it comes completely out of the blue. Which is why office staff, as well as teachers, need training in how to react.
When the sequence of events was explained to him, John's father recognised that we had done our best in the circumstances and he allowed the boy to return to school. His mother has also promised to stay away until the legal situation is sorted out. But another, similar, bombshell may drop on us any day. Let's hope we're better prepared.
Mike Fielding is principal of the Community College, Chulmleigh, north Devon