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Schools and those with parental responsibility for a child
This note explains who may have parental responsibility for a
child and the main limitations that the courts may sometimes impose
on that responsibility. It sets out who schools must involve in
major and minor issues about a child’s education and who they must
keep informed about general school matters. Everyone with parental
responsibility has a right to participate in major decisions about
a child’s education, even though, for day to day purposes, the
school’s main contact is likely to be the person with whom the
child lives on school days.
Having parental responsibility means assuming all the rights,
duties, powers, responsibilities and authority that a parent of a
child has by law. It is defined by the Children Act 1989.
It gives parents the legal right to make decisions and choices,
such as where the child will live or go to school etc. If the
parents were married to each other at the time of a child’s birth,
or if they have been married to each other at any time since the
child’s conception, they each have parental responsibility.
Parental responsibility is a shared right and a shared duty
throughout a child’s life. If the parents separate or divorce, that
responsibility does not disappear nor is it reallocated to one
parent rather than the other. It continues to be shared. It is lost
only in Adoption.
It may be useful to note the position of the men who have
children outside of marriage. They are often not aware until their
relationship breaks down that, even if they are named as the father
on the birth certificate, they do not share the same rights as the
Under s 3 (1) of the Children Act 1989 parental responsibility
is defined as : "all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities
and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to
the child and his property".
- Mothers automatically obtain parental responsibility on the
birth of the child (s 2 of the Children ACt 1989).
- Fathers who are married to the mother of the child at the time
of the birth also obtain parental responsibility automatically (s 2
of the Children Act 1989).
- Fathers who subsequently marry the child's mother will
automatically get parental responsibility from the date of the
marriage since the marriage 'legitimises the child' (s 1 of the
Family Law Reform Act 1987).
Unmarried fathers must acquire parental responsibility by
- obtaining a parental responsibility from the court (s4(1)(a) of
the Children Act 1989) or
- entering into a parental responsibility agreement with the
mother (s4(1)(a) of the Children Act 1989) or
- after 1 December 2003 fathers who are named on the birth
certificate will automatically get parental responsibility(s 111 of
the Adoption and Children Act 2002 created s 4 (1)(a) of the
Children Act 1989).
Parental responsibility can be shared with others – for example
with the local authority – but it remains a continuing duty of
A specific issue order would allow the parent to agree, say, to
a pupil changing school against the wishes of the other parent. A
prohibited steps order would allow one parent to prevent a child
from attending a form or religious worship against the wishes of
the other parent. Sometimes others like the local authority may
also have parental responsibility for the child i.e. through a care
order. However, before a care order or supervision order can be
made, the courts must be satisfied that making a care order is for
the child’s welfare – which has to be the paramount consideration.
Once the child is the care of the local authority, they have a duty
to consult the parents about which school the child should attend,
as they continue to share parental responsibility, but it will be
the local authority who will make the decision which is considered
to be in the child’s best interests.
- A residence order says where and with whom should live, and
gives the holder parental responsibility for the child (if he or
she does not already have it);
- A contact order instructs the person with whom the child is
living to allow another person to visit the child, have the child
to visit or stay with him or her, or have contact by letter or
Details of court orders must be noted in a pupil’s record.
School staff will then know who can give parental permission for a
school visit, or be contacted if the child is ill, as well as what
to do in more difficult situations. For example, if a parent,
rather than a foster-parent, comes to collect a child in local
education care from school.
A parent’s action or proposed action may conflict with the
school’s ability to act in the best interests of the child. If so,
school staff should first try to resolve the problem with that
parent but avoid becoming involved in any conflict.
Sometimes parents (whether divorced or not) may not be permitted
to act independently despite having parental responsibility. For
example, one parent or the local authority when the child is in
their care, cannot change a child’s name without the consent of the
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