Fathers & schools

Fathers & schools

Divorced and or separated fathers can sometimes feel that schools are not giving them the co-operation needed to keep track of their son’s or daughter’s progress at school.

Is this you ?

Do you feel like there is an insurmountable brick wall or a culture of indifference by the school your children attend ?  Then be assured there are legal measures already in place to help you overcome some of the problems.

The terms ‘resident’ and ‘non-resident’ parent’ are used to distinguish between parents who do and do not live with a child. Under our present court regime most fathers are the NRP (‘non-resident’ parent’) – and for this short commentary it is assumed you are a reasonable and sensible father who has not been in any sort of trouble.

You have rights

Sometimes because you are the ‘non-resident parent’ you are made to feel like an outsider with no rights whatsoever. When this occurs the school’s Principal or class teacher needs to be calmly, firmly and very politely reminded of their statutory duties under the various Education Acts and similar family law Acts.

Over many years all Governments have provided all schools and teachers with ‘guidance’ regarding fathers, i.e. ‘non-resident parent’ – but it is quite common for these obligations on schools to not be enforced (or even not known about by most teachers).

So the following is intended as a helpful guide for fathers when dealing with schools and Local Authorities but should not be treated as a complete and authoritative statement of the law.

Information Sharing

Often a source of irritation is the lack of school reports, or exam results, or notifications of events, school trips etc. happening at school and affecting your son or daughter.

Schools have an absolute obligation to keep all ‘non-resident parent’ (male or female) informed at all times about these very topics (not once every 12 months).

But this right to be kept informed hinges on you (the ‘non-resident parent’) having ‘parental responsibility’. If you do not have this then you may have to apply to the courts for it (see ‘What is Parental Responsibility ?’ below).

Both divorced parents (spouses) automatically have ‘parental responsibility’ during and after their marriage. If the parents were unmarried only the mother is automatically granted parental responsibility and the father has to apply to the courts for it or to have signed the birth certificate.

The Dept. of Education has made it plain to schools that it is important that schools balance the requests of parents with their legislative duties (i.e. to have regard for the child’s best interests). Having parental responsibility does not allow one parent to obstruct a school from carrying out their duties under legislation (but this does sometimes happen).

So, for example, a mother cannot persuade a school to withhold School Reports, or the notification of a school play. The proper procedure for schools is that they should inform the natural parent who is objecting that they cannot comply with that request.

Under The Education (Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2005, schools are required to provide access to, or copies of a child’s educational record when requested by a parent. Therefore, if the school were to abide by the request of the objecting / obstructing natural parent the school would be in breach of their obligations under education law.

Defining ‘Who is a parent ?’

It may be useful at this stage – if you are unsure – to see which category you are in, i.e. whether you are a parent and have parental responsibility or not.

It is as important for you as it is for schools and local authorities that they are aware that parents may be recognised differently under education law than under family law.

For instance, for the purposes of education law, section 576 of the Education Act 1996 defines a ‘parent’ as:

  1. all natural (biological) parents, whether they are married or not;
  2. any person who, although not a natural parent, has parental responsibility for a child or young person (this could be a step-parent, guardian or other relative);
  3. any person who, although not a natural parent, has care of a child or young person.
  4. A person has care of a child or young person if they are the person with whom the child lives and who looks after the child, irrespective of what their relationship is with the child.

In 1/. above if you are or have been married then both are parents and both have parental responsibility. In the other instances, 2/, 3/, and 4/, a person can be a parent but not have parental responsibility.

Further clarification can be obtained at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/dealing-with-issues-relating-to-parental-responsibility

What is Parental Responsibility ?

Defining if you have it

In family law, ‘parental responsibility’ means all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority that a parent (mother and father) equally has in relation to the child. [1]

Where a child’s father and mother were married to each other at the time of the child’s birth they each have parental responsibility for the child. Where the parents are not married to each other, the child’s father can gain parental responsibility in the following ways:

  1. by registering the child’s birth jointly with the mother;
  2. by subsequently marrying the child’s mother; or
  3. through a ‘parental responsibility agreement’ between him and the child’s mother which is registered with the court; or
  4. by obtaining a court order for parental responsibility.

Additionally, a local authority can acquire parental responsibility if it is named in the care order for a child.

More than one person can hold and exercise parental responsibility for a child. The parental responsibility of one party does not stop simply because another person is also given it. So, in some cases several people may be regarded as being the ‘parent’ of a child. This might arise when a child is taken into Local Authority care because of abuse or neglect.

However, schools know that other people – other than a child’s natural parents – can acquire parental responsibility due to:

  • being granted a child arrangements order determining that the child should live with him or her, or if the court determines that a parent should only spend time with the child, the court may also decide to grant parental responsibility;
  • being appointed a guardian;
  • being named in an emergency protection order (although parental responsibility in such a case is limited to taking reasonable steps to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare);
  • adopting a child;
  • (in the case of step-parents) in agreement with the child’s mother (and other parent if that person also has parental responsibility for the child) or as the result of a court order.
  1. Civil partners have parallel (as far as possible, identical) rights to married people. The same provisions for married people apply to them in terms of acquiring (i.e. in the case of adoption, agreement with their civil partner or by an order from the court) or holding parental responsibility.

General principles for schools and local authorities

School and local authority staff must treat all parents equally, unless there is a Court order limiting an individual’s exercise of parental responsibility.

Everyone who is a parent, as defined under education laws (whether they are the resident parent or not, with or without parental responsibility – see, Defining Who is a Parent, above) has a right to participate in decisions about a child’s education and receive information about the child (even though, for day-to-day purposes, the school’s main contact is likely to be a parent with whom the child lives on school days).

Individuals who have parental responsibility for, or care of, a child have the same rights as natural parents; for example:

  1. to receive information, e.g. pupil reports;
  2. to participate in statutory activities; e.g. vote in elections for parent governors;
  3. to be asked to give consent; e.g. to the child taking part in school trips;
  4. to be informed about meetings involving the child; e.g. a governors’ meeting on the child’s exclusion.

All parents also have legal obligations; for example: to ensure that a child of compulsory school age receives a suitable full-time education. [2]

Where a parent’s action, or proposed action, conflicts with the school’s ability to act in the child’s best interests, the school is obliged by Dept of Education directives to try to resolve the problem with that parent but avoid becoming involved in the conflict itself. However, there may be occasions when a school needs to decline requests for action from one or more parents.

In cases where schools cannot resolve the conflict between separated parents, they should advise the aggrieved parent to pursue the matter through the Family Court.

What are the benefits of ‘parental responsibility’ ?

The key effects of a father acquiring parental responsibility are as follows:

  1. he becomes a ‘parent’ for the purposes of adoption legislation and can therefore withhold consent to an adoption;
  2. he can object to the child being accommodated in local authority accommodation and remove the child from local authority adoption;
  3. he will automatically be a party to care proceedings;
  4. he can appoint a guardian;
  5. he can give valid consent for his child’s medical treatment;
  6. he has a right of access to his child’s health records;
  7. he can withdraw a child from sex education and religious education classes and make representations to schools concerning the child’s education;
  8. his consent is required if the child’s mother seeks to remove the child from the jurisdiction;
  9. he can sign a child’s passport application and object to the granting of a passport;
  10. he has sufficient rights in relation to a child to invoke the international child abduction rules;
  11. he can consent to the marriage of a child aged 16 or 17.

Fathers need to know

For administration purposes, and compliance with the law, the Headteacher has to ensure that he /she:

  1. ask parents or guardians for contact details, including names and addresses, of all parents when they register a pupil;
  2. ensure that names and addresses of all parents, where known, are included in the admission register and also in pupil records and are available to the pupil’s teachers;
  3. ensure that the school has details of who to contact in the case of an accident or medical emergency;
  4. ensure that contact details, including names and addresses, of all parents are forwarded to any school to which the pupil moves;
  5. ensure that details of Court orders are noted in a pupil’s record.

Changing a Surname

This can be the trigger for much disagreement and aggravations between parents. It can occur when the mother wishes to cut all ties, make herself less traceable and start her life afresh.

A change of surname is, strictly speaking, a private law matter and should be resolved between parents. Where the parents have divorced, schools should ensure that the surname by which a child is known should not be changed without written evidence (independent of the parent seeking to make the change), that consent has been given by the ‘other parent’ (the father), or by anyone else who has parental responsibility for the child.

Regulation 5(1)(a) of the Education (Pupil Registration) Regulations 2006 requires a school to record the full name of every pupil in alphabetical order in the admissions register. This is generally interpreted to be the child’s full legal name and not any other name that the child is known by.

However, there may be circumstances where a name change has already been effected by the school and it would not be in the best interests of the child, who might be known by a new name, to refer back to a different name. Ultimately it is a matter of policy for the school to decide but the ‘best interests of the child’ must be the paramount consideration when making a decision.

Where a child is subject to a special guardianship order there are particular considerations in cases where a school receives a request to use a different surname for a pupil.

Conclusion

Schools are under a legal obligation to ensure that the welfare of the child must be their first and paramount consideration. It is sometimes all too easy for them to see a caring parents as ‘too difficult’ and a persistent parent as one who is ‘disruptive’.

If a schools feels it is unclear how it should act then the Dept. recommends that independent legal advice should be sought to ensure that a parent’s rights and responsibilities (i.e. yours), are not infringed and the actions of the school are compliant with education law.

If the situation is handled properly by you the father the above situation should not arise. It is always better to seek compromise and agreement than a clash, conflict or deadlock.

 

Postscript;

Under the principles of the Data Protection Act 1998 (the DPA 1998), children and young adults can assume control over their personal information and restrict access to it, should they be of sufficient age or maturity to exercise their will in this matter. However, this control is not extended to cover information which is held within a pupil’s educational record. Parents are entitled to request access to, or a copy of their child’s educational record, even if the child does not wish them to access it. This applies until the child reaches the age of 18. This is however, subject to information that the school could not lawfully disclose to the child him/herself under the DPA 1998 or in relation to which the child him/herself would have no right of access under that Act. [3]

References: For more detail see: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/dealing-with-issues-relating-to-parental-responsibility

Footnotes:

[1] Section 3(1) of the Children Act 1989

[2] Sect.7 of the Education Act 1996 – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-attendance

[3] Education (Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2005 (SI 2005/1437), regulation 5(4)

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