For most children whose parents do not live together, the ideal situation is one where both father and mother are fully involved in the child’s life both in school and in their separate homes. Since October 2014, the law has emphasised a presumption of continued parental involvement, unless it is harmful to the child. In this article, the assumption is that the father has parental responsibility (which all mothers have). If not, then it is usually not difficult to obtain.
Choosing a school – the big decisions
Both parents have an equal say:
• In choosing the school
• In having both names as contacts for the child on the school register
• In standing for lection or vote as a parent governor
• To be notified of a right of appeal if your child is excluded
• To withdraw a child from religious or sex education or collective worship
• To be involved in obtaining a statement of special educational needs.
Choice of school – and what about non-payment of fees or extras?
The law does not prefer one system of funding over another. The fact that one parent wants private education and the other does not is not decisive. Nor does it prefer a faith school over one of no faith. It depends on which school best meets the needs of the child.
The important things to consider include:
• Provision of equality of opportunity
• Encouragement to have aspirations
• Equipping the child to make life decisions.
(per Munby J in 2013, when deciding between one Jewish school and another).
If a child is registered at a fee paying school, there is a contract between the parents and the school for the fees to be paid. This contract is usually enforceable against both parents together, or against only one, as the school chooses. Non-payment usually results firstly in interest being demanded as on any contractual debt, and eventually the child is not allowed to attend that school.
If there is a dispute, then the parent who wants the other to pay must go to court. This is not a decision based primarily on the welfare of the child, but more on the ability to pay and the reasons for non-payment.
If there is any dispute, it is really important to have a clear definition of what extras can be included. What about things that go on the bill? What about expensive foreign trips? Often uniforms and specialist equipment for games and other hobbies add considerably to the cost of school. Schools can give a clear idea in advance of anticipated expenses so that parents can make agreements and provision to meet expenses.
The day to day stuff
The school should have contact details for anyone who has parental responsibility (for example, this can include step-parents) and have a copy of any relevant court orders. Most teachers really welcome getting to know the parents where possible, which is usually easier during primary school than secondary school.
Children are usually quite clear what their names are, and it is important that unless both parents agree, the name that is used is the name on the birth certificate, unless there is a court order to change it. A child of 16 or over can choose to change his or her own name without parental consent, which can be confusing for schools.
Schools don’t want to become involved in resolving issues such as who should collect the child at the end of the day. Both parents have the right to attend parents’ meetings, but if there is any smaller incident, the school will often deal with the parent with whom the child lives most often. If the other parent wants to be involved, ideally both parents should be informed equally. Both parents have an equal right to receive information about a child’s education, and to receive school reports. Many schools now use email or websites to give out information, which makes this much easier.
Step-parents or partners without parental responsibility, grandparents, nannies etc have no particular standing with the school, unless there is a specific court order.
Whilst there is quite a bit of law (mainly found in the Children Act 1989 and decisions made applying this statute), it is usually better to try to resolve difficulties privately rather than go to court. Court hearings are expensive, in terms of delays and time devoted to the proceedings, even before you pay lawyers (there is no legal aid for such court applications, and courts do not often make awards of costs against one parent or the other unless there has been clear unreasonableness).
Schools do not want to be caught in the middle, although if there is a court case, head teachers will sometimes write straightforward reports about attendance or any other issues such are performance. Schools usually work closely with their Local Authority education department and their own solicitors before any statement is given.
Many schools have counsellors, who will meet with parents if it will help the children to get the most out of education.
Mediation has proved very successful in sorting out worries over schooling. Legal aid is sometimes available for mediation. The courts promote the use of mediation, and it is almost impossible to issue a court application without attending a meeting to advise about options and to assess for mediation. Some mediators will bring in family consultants (usually counsellors) or parenting co-ordinators who remain involved, sometimes for months, to nip in the bud the tensions over things like supervision of homework.
Courts will work through what is known as ‘the welfare checklist’ when considering any arrangement for a child. This includes the wishes and feelings of the child (which become more influential as the child gets older) and also the ability of each parent to meet the child’s emotional and other needs.
Advice from family lawyer, Hazel Wright, partner at Hunters Incorporating May, May and Merrimansby