Milli Davey considers the issues facing co-parents when term begins
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused stress and uncertainty for many, particularly those who are co-parenting and have been juggling work, home-schooling and childcare between two households. As lockdown began to ease in the UK, so did the need for home-schooling as schools gradually reopened from 1 June 2020. At this stage, attendance was not compulsory and parents were not met with a financial penalty for a child‘s failure to attend. This undoubtedly led to disputes between co-parents unable to reach agreement on what to do
Currently, schools are set to reopen on a compulsory basis in September 2020. Parents of children who do not return to school in line with government policy will face a financial penalty ‘unless there is a good reason for absence’. No guidance on what would constitute a ‘good reason’ for non-attendance has been given. However, this will almost certainly relate to any health conditions which the child(ren) or a member of the household may have which would require shielding.
There is, of course, the potential for a second COVID-19 spike, in which case the government guidelines in relation to attendance may change. This could again lead to disputes between co-parents who fail to reach agreement on a return to school. Some parents may not feel comfortable with the potential risks – for example, the inability to social distance in a classroom coupled with the fact that it is unlikely that teachers will be able to enforce a ‘frequent hand washing policy’ among the students.
By contrast, other parents may feel that the risk is outweighed by the potential impact on the children caused by missing even more school. Studies show that less than 65% of primary school children with an average of 15 days of absence per year will achieve good results in English and Maths. This statistic could be concerning given that children have already missed four months of school. The particular worry is with students at exam level not being able to achieve their full potential in their GCSEs or A level as a result of their time out of the classroom.
Some parents may also wish for a return to school as they may feel that home-schooling has been largely unsuccessful. This may be the result of: the amount of time parents can devote to teaching (particularly those working from home), the amount of knowledge possessed by the parents and the resources available to each household, this could particularly impact low income households.
Further, children from low-income households are entitled to free school meals and these families may be experiencing financial hardship and as a result are unable to provide these meals whilst their children are not attending school. Of course, there could be a significant difference in income between the co-parents therefore this may effect one parent but not the other. If there is a disagreement as to whether to return the child(ren) to school, there are several options available to parents to reach a solution.
If you find yourself in this situation, you should begin by communicating your views with your ex-partner and try to understand each other’s opinion. The child(ren)’s welfare is paramount and any agreement reached should revolve around the best interests of the child(ren). You may also wish to communicate with the school to determine what safety measures they will have in place, which may give you peace of mind.
Parents may wish to consider private arbitration whereby each parent’s concerns are assessed and a decision will be made on whether the child(ren) returning to school is reasonable. Alternatively, mediation could be effective as it may assist the parents to have a neutral third party aid the communications.
If, unfortunately, agreement cannot be reached, you may make an application to the court for a Specific Issue Order. A hearing would take place, potentially remotely, whereby each parent would present their reasoning before a Judge who will consider all relevant factors – which may include whether a return to school is compulsory and shielding guidelines – to make a decision in the best interests of the child(ren).
However, it should be noted that Family Courts are currently prioritising urgent matters and a hearing could be delayed.
For guidance and advice in relation to any Family matters, please contact Manisha Raja, Senior Associate, in Axiom Stone’s Family Department on t. 0208 951 6983 or e: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: the information contained in this article is accurate at the time of publication on 1 September 2020. The remarks in this article are not a substitute for legal advice on the specific circumstances of any case.