What to do when parents split up

4th December 2015 at 00:00
Schools can become unwitting agents in family disputes – but you can avoid this

My children go to a good primary school: Ofsted says so. I used to say so, too.

However, something happened three years ago to change my opinion drastically, and gave me cause to regret my choice of school for them. My husband and I separated.

While we retained joint custody, I was the one who moved out, leaving them to stay with him during the week. I moved to the next city, stopped doing school runs, and lost contact with almost all the parents who had been my friends before.

I ignorantly assumed that my husband would explain the situation fairly to the school in my absence, but it appears that he did not.

The upshot of this was disastrous. I received no information whatsoever from the school for the first year. In the midst of moving house, emotional turmoil and financial strain, it was one more thing I didn’t follow up. I hadn’t realised how fragile the ties to school were until they were abruptly severed by my not picking up or dropping off my children for a year.

Worse, on one occasion when I phoned the school to check whether I could drop something in to my daughter at lunchtime, I was point-blank refused, as it “might be disruptive to her”.

The school had got it badly wrong, and intervened in my relationship with my children when they had absolutely no right to.

Separation and divorce is, of course, very common. It is likely to affect between 40 and 50 per cent of all children during their time at school. Prioritising children’s needs is a must for schools. Admittedly, it is not always clear how this should be done.

Best practice

Help is at hand. Many schools are now writing a specific policy for dealing with separated parents, which focuses on good practice for retaining communication links and remembering that the school must remain objective and not favour one parent over the other. Some of the best ideas I have come across include the following:

1. Have a separated parents policy, and send it out to all parents new to the school. Debate and review it at least once a year with all staff.

2. Be accessible and encourage parents to tell you about any change in their circumstances, reassuring them that you will not judge, but reminding them that it is their responsibility to keep you informed. Refer specifically to separation, divorce and new partners.

3. If you know parents are separated, encourage teachers to take the initiative to meet with or contact both parents at the start of the year, and ask about the best means of keeping in touch. At this time it may also be a good idea to agree a set of rules for who is picking up the child when, and what to do in an emergency.

4. It is reasonable to expect that separated parents share information, but be prepared for cases when this is not happening. If not, ensure that information is being sent via email where possible. This is also where having an up-to-date website or social media page can come in useful; direct parents to it.

5. Assume, unless specifically sent a court order restricting access, that both parents have equal rights to their child. Treat both parents equally and give them equal rights when decision-making.

6. Prepare for the eventuality wherein you have to get the consent of one parent to release the child to the other. Have a clear, written set of instructions on what to do. Don’t forget to include what happens if the headteacher is absent.

The writer is a former teacher, now a freelance journalist

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