As the summer holidays draw to a close, thoughts inevitably turn to the new school year. A new school bag and pencil case, a new timetable, and perhaps new contact arrangements for children who have separated parents.
It is inevitable that contact and living arrangements for children will change as they grow older: what is suitable for three year old will be very different from an eight year old, and again from a thirteen year old.
The start of a new school year may be an appropriate point to re-negotiate child arrangements. But what should parents bear in mind when they consider proposing a change to child arrangements?
A new school year and all the change it brings can be a lot of children to take onboard. This might not be the time to actually introduce new arrangements for contact on top. However, that’s not to say that negotiations can’t start now.
It is important to understand what the child’s timetable will be once they start or return to school. What time is pick up and drop off, when are after school clubs and what do they involve, how much homework will they have? All these factors will influence what arrangements are appropriate for the child or children in question.
Beginning to think about arrangements towards the start of the term means any changes have plenty of time to bed in before the first school holiday in October, or the longer Christmas holiday in December and January.
The child’s own needs and wishes
With child arrangements, there is very rarely an answer that will work for all families because each child, and each family’s circumstances, are unique to them. As well as taking a child’s timetable into account, parents need to think about the child’s own personality and characteristics, and where appropriate, their wishes and feelings.
With teenage children, it may be appropriate for them to be involved, to a degree, in what their arrangements are.
Involvement in school life
Each parent has an equal right to make decisions about a child’s education and to be involved in their nursery or school life (notwithstanding those rare cases where a Court has made an order to the contrary). If a parent is concerned that they aren’t receiving communications from nursery/school, maybe meaning they miss out on events like Sports Day or Parents’ Evening, now is the time to get in touch with the school to address this.
Schools are very used to accommodating separated parents so in many cases will readily agree to issue duplicate communications to both parents at the same time, and in some cases will agree to two sets of Parents’ Evening appointments if joint appointments simply aren’t possible.
If it’s not feasible for parents to attend school events together, now is the time to agree who will attend what so children can have clarity and feel reassured.
How to reach an agreement
Ideally, agreement would be reached between parents directly, referring to a calendar, timetable and term dates. However, for some parents their circumstances mean this simply isn’t possible. Where this is the case, it may be necessary for a mediator or a solicitor to become involved.
A mediator is an independent third party that can lead discussions between parents to help them reach a decision on aspects of parenting and arrangements for children. Generally a handful of sessions will be needed to settle arrangements for the year, or years, ahead.
If mediation isn’t working, or it simply isn’t suitable for the case, a solicitor can help by proposing arrangements on one parent’s behalf, either to the other parent or their solicitor, and negotiating until an agreement is reached. If it isn’t possible to reach agreement, a solicitor can advise on what other legal routes are available.
Recording the agreement
Once agreement is reached, it’s important that both parents (and other childcare providers) are clear on what those arrangements are.
A shared calendar may be helpful. Online tools like Google Family Calendar can be used to draw up a joint calendar. Apps like Our Family Wizard can be used to share a calendar and other associated information between parents. Some even allow older children to view the calendar on a ‘read only’ basis so they can keep up to date with their schedule.
It might be helpful to set out an agreement for child arrangements in a Parenting Plan. This is not legally binding but gives clarity as to what the arrangements are and provides a document that can be referred to in future:
Furley Page’s family law team has extensive experience advising on child arrangement matters.
Please telephone 01634 887 326 and speak to Megan Bennie or a member of our team for assistance.