Splitting headache

24th July 2009 at 01:00
Divorce inevitably involves a fall-out between parents, but teachers are getting dragged in too. How can you avert a communications breakdown?

Nothing prepares you for the impact divorce can have on your relationship with your children, especially if you do not have equal custody. "You effectively go from being an actively involved parent in your child's daily life to every second weekend and half the holidays," says Darren Patterson, whose marriage broke up after six years.

His four-year-old son had just started at a private nursery when he and his wife separated. Despite being heavily involved in his son's upbringing, and working mostly from home, all the nursery correspondence went to Mr Patterson's former wife. "They produced a list of the children registered, with their mother's names and contact details," he said.

"On one occasion, (my son) had fallen over that day and cut his lip, and there was medical stuff in his overnight bag that they wouldn't give to me when I went to pick him up."

Having separated parents has become the norm for a quarter of the children in the UK and half of them have contact with both parents at least once a week. Despite the growing prevalence of this type of family situation, many separated parents feel they are being frozen out of their child's education.

This is partly due to an assumption that the mother is the primary carer. A recent survey by Families Need Fathers found that 79 per cent of its members felt schools were not doing enough to involve and inform fathers about their child's education. Craig Pickering, a spokesman for the organisation, believes the inequity isn't conscious, but it is there. "More common is that the school just continues to do what it always did. It's an unthinking discrimination," he says.

"If you asked the teachers, `Do you think the father has a right to be involved in their child's education?', they'd say `Yes'. If you ask them what they're going to do about it, there'd be a blank look and silence."

Communication is the main source of grievance with separated parents. Letters home or report cards are often found neglected in school bags by parents in a united family; when there are two homes, the likelihood of the information getting to both parents is slim. "If you give every child in the class a letter, you might think you've done your job. But when the parents are in two different places, possibly you haven't," says Mr Pickering.

Reports and parents' evenings are the primary means for parents to find out about how their children are getting on at school and provide a starting point for discussion about education, particularly if the pupil is older. It is vital for schools to record both parents' contact details and communicate with them both, says Mr Pickering, not just because this keeps them informed, but also because parental involvement will result in children doing better at school in the long term and making better choices with regard to their future.

Regardless of marital status, the majority of parents want to be more involved in their child's education. The most recent research, carried out in 2002 by the then Department of Education and Skills, found that 72 per cent of parents wanted to be more involved.

Teachers are much more likely to come into daily contact with parents of younger children, when they are leaving them at school and collecting them. Legal issues to do with parental access and contact are more of an issue for primary schools and nurseries, and claims about legal position ought not to be taken on trust, says Mr Pickering. He knows of one parent who managed to take a child out of school without the knowledge of the other parent and moved 200 miles away.

Mr Patterson feels that his son's nursery teachers took sides in his family's affairs. "My ex-wife was telling them things that were completely untrue," he says. "But either way, they had a duty of care to my son."

Teachers who are caught in the middle of couples going through problems would argue that their priority is the child, and appeasing parents should not be solely their responsibility.

One teacher in the United States was accused of not doing enough to include both parents when one couple separated. According to Elaine K. McEwan's book How to Deal with Parents who are Angry, Troubled, Afraid or just Plain Crazy, she wrote to her local newspaper to say: "Schools should not be demilitarised zones where children are exchanged like prisoners of war. Schools cannot do the business of schooling if secretaries and administrative staff have to repeatedly be briefed regarding whom they can talk to regarding an absence. Teachers cannot teach if they need a scorecard to keep track of parenting arrangements . in essence, leave the school out of your wars and battles."

If parents are separated when their child is enrolled at a school, this will go on record from the start. However, a school has no way of knowing that a relationship has broken down at a later stage unless they are informed.

Julian Costello, a music teacher in west London, shares custody of his two daughters with his former wife. His eldest, Emily, was at nursery when the couple split up, so he wrote a letter to the teacher explaining that she would be moving between houses. Now that the girls are at primary school, both parents have contact with teachers when they pick their daughters up from school on different days.

While Mr Costello understands the plight of parents who feel isolated from their child's education, he believes they need to "get stuck in", particularly at secondary level.

Until a few months ago, he worked at Chiswick Community School, which kept a computer record of all the parents' details and notes of any child contact order.

"There was a boy in my class who was very musical, but had started misbehaving," Mr Costello says. "He talked about his dad a lot, so when I clicked on his name and saw a mobile number for his mum and dad, I called the dad, because I'd heard this boy talk about him." When he got through, the son's father told Mr Costello that his son lived with his former wife, who wasn't coping, and that he wanted his son to come live with him.

"Obviously I have my own personal feelings about that and the system, but I had to distance myself from that," Mr Costello says.

"What ought to happen is that the head of year is notified about what is going on. He or she can then notify the relevant teachers, so that we can be sensitive."

"From being on the teaching side of things, I don't see how else it can be done, other than relying on the parents to pass on information to the head of year," he said. "There is a big pastoral emphasis on schools, but it is the parents' responsibility."

Teachers often first become aware of pupils' problems at home through their behaviour. Changes in behaviour - whether that is becoming more insular or more aggressive - are a key indicator, says Christine Northam, a counsellor for Relate, one of the biggest UK charities to support family breakdown. "The pupil you have known for years will start being different," says Ms Northam. "Perhaps they show a lack of attention in the classroom, or they start playing the fool and trying to entertain other people, which is unusual."

This isn't necessarily deliberate and the children are often just reacting to what is going on. "All the normality at home has changed," says Ms Northam. "It may be that the parents are very angry with one another; there's tremendous tension at home, and so the pupil will act out that tension."

Family breakdown is just one issue in the pressing debate about the extent to which teachers and schools should involve themselves in pupils' pastoral care. At the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' annual conference this year, pupils' emotional wellbeing was acknowledged as a growing problem. More than 70 per cent of 700 ATL members said they helped pupils with emotional or mental health problems at least once a week.

There were calls for more robust counselling services in schools, but teachers also wanted parents to take more responsibility. One teacher from a state secondary school in Greenwich, southeast London, said: "Emotional issues need to be seen as a parent's responsibility, with schools supporting. Schools are assuming the role of parents by seeing themselves as wholly responsible."

Divorce can also have a crushing impact on pupils' education. A survey by the London law firm Mishcon de Reya, published this month, found that 39 per cent of pupils' grades fell during and after their parents' break- up.

Phil Whalley, the ATL Wiltshire branch secretary, raised a motion at the association's 2008 conference about looking into the extent to which chaotic home lives and family breakdowns are damaging the educational prospects and future life-chances of children. "We know that no matter how brilliant the lesson, or how much has been spent on rebuilding the school, if a child comes in angry and in emotional turmoil because of their family life, they will not learn . Family stability or the lack of it is an important determinant of a child's education outcomes," he told delegates.

However, the best a teacher can do is to have a good relationship with both parents and involve them in their child's education. Caroline Kolek, a special needs co-ordinator at an 11-16 comprehensive in Somerset, has put a number of policies in place to help children and parents going through divorce. "We do all we can to work with both parents. After all, they're divorcing each other, not their children," she says.

It is the parents' responsibility to inform the school of their situation, but in turn, the school sends copies of all correspondence to their two addresses, arranges to see parents separately at parents' evenings if necessary, and both parents are invited to all meetings and annual reviews.

"Form tutors and heads of house are also proactive in supporting our pupils within our pastoral system," Ms Kolek says, "and we have a parent and family support adviser who can also liaise with families, if necessary."

It makes things much easier for teachers if parents are able to put aside their own feelings. This also means that they will put their children's needs first, says Ms Northam, even if this proves difficult.

"Human beings are very resilient and lots of people survive separation and divorce, but the way it's handled is crucial," she says.

Teachers can't do much about how parents get on and how they bring up their children, but they can make it as easy as possible for parents to remain actively engaged with their child's schooling and to help their pupils through the transition.

"It's parents' responsibility to look after their child . but teachers can help by observing changes and getting the pupil into the pastoral system," says Ms Northam. "It's likely that their academic performance will suffer at the time, but it doesn't have to be terminal."


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