For most parents the beginning of September brings a mixture of excitement and nervousness as children start school for the first time or return to school after the summer break

The first day can be an emotional and tiring day for children. For parents it is invariably a day remembered vividly as they can struggle to overcome anxieties which often match or exceed those of their own child who is entering a whole new world for the first time. For some parents who are separated, September can bring anxieties and even trauma for very different reasons.

Unfortunately it is not uncommon that parents who separate can be at loggerheads over the care of their children. These disagreements can impact around schooling for children.

Where parents are in dispute about the care of their children, arrangements are generally put in place whereby each parent has care of the children on specific days and at specific times. These are commonly known as custody and access arrangements. Rights of custody and access however can be confused with guardianship rights which relate to the right to be consulted and involved in decisions as how the children are reared, in particular in relation to medical, educational and religious matters.

Guardianship rights would include the right of each parent, if a guardian, to have an input into a child’s education including matters such as choosing a school, receiving school reports and generally being informed of matters relating to the child’s education. However such rights do not extend to who drops or collects a child from school. That is an issue for the custody/access arrangements between the parents.

Sadly disputes can arise as to who will bring the child to school on his or her first day or who can attend school activities and events which fall outside defined access arrangements. The majority of separated parents are able to resolve these issues, typically by agreeing that both parents can involve themselves in such events. However, for a minority of separated parents where there is a high degree of conflict, such sensible cooperation is not possible. This conflict can be hugely increased where one parent’s extended family are involved in schools activities while the other parent is excluded completed. Alternatively where both conflicting parents attend school events the conflict between them can come out into the public arena, which is obviously very damaging for the child.

To avoid these potential difficulties, parents might follow some simple steps as follows:-

  1. Determine whether or not the relevant school event falls within your designated access times.
  2. If not, see if you can reach agreement with the other parent that you can attend at the event also
  3. If necessary, agree “ground rules” with the other parent as to how both will manage and behave during the event.
  4. If such agreement cannot be reached, then the parent would need to decide if they felt the event was of such importance to them and your child that both parents must be there. If so, then the parent may have to consider applying to Court to vary access arrangements. However Courts are very reluctant to have to make these decisions for parents and therefore, the Courts use all means to encourage parents to resolve these issues directly.

Parents should also be mindful of the difficulties which schools have in dealing with separated parents, particularly parents who are not co-operating in the parenting of a child. The school does not wish to get involved as a policeman or referee between parents in parenting or access disputes, nor can the school be expected to do so. In some instances the school may not even be aware of the parents’ separation. Parents are therefore strongly advised not to come in conflict with the school, even if a parent feels that the school does not sufficiently respect their guardianship rights. Parents who are separated and who have issues with the other parent in terms of the care of a child are advised to do the following:-

  1. Notify the school of the separation and if necessary indicate that there are ongoing difficulties between the parents regarding the care of the child, although such difficulties should not be specified.
  2. Ascertain from the school whether they have policies, written or otherwise, in dealing with children of separated parents.
  3. If there is a policy, then ask for a copy of the written school policy and read it carefully.
  4. If there are any shortcomings which are identified in the policy, then explore with the school whether or not they can deal with such shortcomings. For example, many schools might operate a system whereby they notify parents of events affecting the child by putting such notification in the child’s schoolbag. However such communication from the school would only be received by the parent who collects the child after school on that day and the other parent would not be notified
  5. Investigate ways in which the school policy may be changed to cover any concerns which you might have as a parent. If necessary you might suggest that your proposal would be put to the board of management of the school.
  6. At all times engage constructively with the school to address issue of concern, while being mindful of the limitations placed on the school as regards specific decisions concerning a child.

Conclusion

Issues around schooling can be a huge source of conflict for parents who have separated. For such parents it is essential firstly that they understand their rights both in terms of access and guardianship rights. Secondly they should engage constructively with the school as to how those rights can be implemented. However above all else, parents must understand that they have an obligation to the child to ensure that any conflict which they have with the other parent should not be inflicted upon the school and more particularly, should not inflicted upon the child, whether in school or at home.