Schools and nurseries are neglecting the needs of parents who do not have custody of their children, making them feel like “an irritation” and “an afterthought” in their offspring’s education, fathers have claimed.
A new report calls on schools to ensure that they treat both parents equally, reminding them of the “significant benefits” for the child when they do.
Lawyers responding to the claims have also stressed that failing to treat parents equally for the duration of their child’s education could leave schools open to legal challenge.
Some parents feel excluded by schools from their child’s education, said Ian Maxwell, manager of Families Need Fathers Scotland, which produced the report in conjunction with Children in Scotland.
“Regrettably, we still hear regularly from some non-resident parents that they have felt excluded from communication around their child’s education, or are made to feel they are causing bother by asking for their own copies of newsletters and school reports,” he said.
“We hope this guide will help schools and education authorities work towards a more inclusive approach, for the benefit of all involved – our children above all.”
According to the report, a parent who lives apart from their child should receive copies of school reports and attendance records, and any information about welfare or disciplinary issues raised.
They should also receive a separate notification of parents’ evenings and both parents should feel able to make individual appointments with their child’s guidance teacher.
The report says: “The general assumption in policy and law is that schools should treat both parents equally and that they should be entitled to the same information about their child.”
However, the report also acknowledges there are circumstances under which schools should not share information with a parent – there might be a court order prohibiting it, or when the sharing of information could cause harm to the child or someone else.
Generally, however, the report stresses that “consent is not required from one parent for disclosure of information to any other parent”.
“The preferences of the parent with care should not be accepted as a veto,” it adds.
One father featured in the report talked about his frustration that the relationship he had with his child’s nursery was “contingent on the approval of my ex”.
“I still feel I am an afterthought and a bit of an irritation to them,” he said.
Another father talked about a school receptionist showing “hostility” when he called to give his new contact details because he and his partner had separated.
“I felt like I was suddenly a stranger – even though I was the same dad I was before – and now to be treated as suspect,” he said.
Marion Macleod, policy manager at Children in Scotland, said: “We appreciate that schools or other education bodies might find it difficult to manage differing parental expectations when families break down. We know that the child benefits immeasurably when clear, transparent and constructive involvement is achieved. This is the best practice we must strive for.”
Iain Nisbet, an education law expert at Cairn Legal in Glasgow, added: “If schools get it wrong, they could leave themselves open to legal challenge. But while it is important to get this right, no one is going to go to jail or face proceedings if they don’t.”
To read the report, “Helping Children Learn: involving non-resident parents in their children’s education – a practical guide for all those working within a learning environment”, go to bit.ly/NonResidentParents
‘Both parents have rights’
Prestonpans Infant School in East Lothian has been highlighted as an example of good practice when it comes to engaging with parents who live apart from their children.
The school’s first “pizza dough massage” for fathers marked the beginning of its work to engage specifically with them. The children learn different massage techniques by pretending to make a pizza and the fathers then come in for a massage.
Now that push – which started around four years ago – has led to better engagement with parents who live outside the family home, said headteacher Sheila Laing.
Today, the school makes sure it maintains an up-to-date list of all parents and, where parents are separated, it ensures both get school reports, are invited to parents’ night, are notified of events and receive newsletters.
Ms Laing added: “Separation can be really hard because often parents are in a lot of conflict and it takes a while for the equilibrium to be re-established and that’s a tricky point. But it’s important for schools to realise both parents have the right to information about their child’s learning. We want parents to support their children in their learning, but if a parent doesn’t know how their child is getting on in school, they don’t know how to do that.”
Handling a break-up
On admission, check both parent/carer names and contact details. If you don’t ask, you might not get both.
Establish the rights and responsibilities of each parent; eg, who the child lives with and contact arrangements.
Make contact with the non-resident parent if contact details are available.
If no contact details are available, work with other professionals, or one of your own, to establish contact.
Ensure that relevant staff know that there is a non-resident parent. Remind them on an annual basis.
Publish a leaflet with information about how non-resident parents can engage with the school. Put this information on the school website, too.