Why tug-of-love parents spell big trouble for schools
Warring couples can turn their children's education into a battleground, says Kim Bielenberg
Published 01/12/2011 | 06:00
Divorce and separation can be a minefield for schools as parents battle it out over their child's education.
Most couples who have split up organise their children's schooling in a civilised manner by agreement, but increasingly principals are finding themselves at the centre of acrimonious disputes.
Parents may disagree on whether to enrol a child, their child's subject choices, and even on the surname that is used by the pupil in the classroom.
One primary principal said: "Some issues can be extremely difficult to deal with. I had a case where a child was picked up by the father from the school bus when he did not have custody. I ended up calling the gardai, and they had to sort it out.''
Ian O'Herlihy, a specialist in education law at solicitors Mason, Hayes and Curran, said: "Increasingly schools have to consider that many children live in non-traditional families where the parents are living apart. It is important for schools to have policies in place.''
Recent figures from Eurostat show that nearly a quarter of Irish children live in one-parent homes. This has implications for how schools run their affairs.
In many cases schools now have to deal with both parents separately -- and send school reports and invitations to parent-teacher meeting to both parties.
Recently a separated father won a case at the Equality Tribunal against a community school on the grounds of discrimination.
He alleged that a school had failed to provide proper information about his kids' attendance at school, and that the school had also failed to facilitate him at parent-teacher meetings.
The issue of separated parents can be a complex one for schools, because their rights differ when it comes to education.
When parents have been married they are both legal guardians of their children, according to solicitor Ian O'Herlihy. Therefore they should both be consulted by the school, and receive information such as school reports and notice of meetings.
Unmarried fathers have fewer rights to information and consultation unless they are legal guardians of the children.
Solicitor Ian O'Herlihy said: "The best situation is when separated or divorced parents agree on their child's education.
"When they are at loggerheads it can cause severe problems in schools.''
The nightmare for schools is when they receive conflicting instructions from parents who are both legal guardians.
"I know of situations where separated parents could not even agree whether a child should be enrolled in a particular school,'' said Ian O'Herlihy.
"Parents can disagree whether a child should do its First Communion, have vaccinations or have religious instruction. At second-level they might disagree over subject choices.
"These situations can be very difficult to arbitrate. Ultimately schools have to operate in the best interests of the child.''
Sean Cottrell, chief executive of Irish Primary Principals Network, said: "As a principal I would have had situations where parents disagreed over which surname was used in the school.
"Typically we would have had a mother who wants her child to use her maiden name, and the father wants his name used.
"In that case I would have gone with the name on the birth cert.''
So what happens if parents cannot even agree on whether to enrol a child in a school and they both have guardianship?
Ian O'Herlihy said: "If the primary caregiver, usually the mother, wants to enrol a child in a school and the other parent is against it -- and they cannot reach agreement -- the advice would often be to enrol the child, because they are entitled to education.''
In Ireland many children are effectively looked after by their grandparents, and this can bring legal complications.
Ian O'Herlihy said: "They may be looking after the children, but their rights to make decisions about education may be limited. There are cases where an estranged father can have little day-to-day involvement with the children, but a school has to follow his instructions because he remains a guardian.''
The INTO has issued guidelines to its members on how to deal with separation.
Teachers are advised to keep in mind that parents, although separated after marriage breakdown, remain the legal guardians of their children.
An INTO spokesman said: "The key principle is 'once a parent, always a parent'. Guardianship gives both parents a say in matters affecting children's welfare.
"In the vast majority of cases parents of separated children deal with this well, but occasionally the school can turn into a battleground. These cases can be extremely difficult and time-consuming for schools.''
Parents, of course, have the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that their differences are not played out in the classroom. Ideally the important decisions should be agreed in advance.
"When they have a change of circumstance and they are going through a separation, it is vital for parents to keep the school informed,'' said solicitor Ian O'Herlihy.
"This can be handled discreetly and confidentially. If a child is going through a separation, it may help to explain a change of behaviour.
"The school should be kept informed for practical reasons as well. If there is a change of address, the school should know it, so that they receive important information.''