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Phased opening of schools – what does it mean during these uncertain times?

Schools closed on 20 March 2020, except for key workers’ children and vulnerable children, as COVID-19 spread in the UK.


As half term draws to an end, there will be many parents contemplating whether to send their children to school for the summer term.

No doubts parents have read and listened to the numerous debates being played out amongst the experts about primary schools re-opening on 1 June 2020, as part of the Government’s phased plan. Pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 are due to return.

Secondary school pupils taking exams next year may get at least some time with their teachers before the holidays. Although, this is not due to happen before 15 June 2020.

Ultimately, it will be the decision of Councils and schools whether they can open their schools safely.

Parents will be faced with difficult decisions to make including where they have more than one child in different year groups and it is envisaged for some to return and for others not to return yet or at all.

At present, if parents decide not to send their children to school, even if their year group are part of the Governments phased plans to return, they will not be fined for non-attendance at this time.

What if the parents cannot agree what to do?

The starting point is to look at the Children Act 1989. Under 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.’

The intention is that parental responsibility reflects the everyday reality of being a parent, and emphasises the responsibilities of all those who were placed in that position.

In practice, it can often mean that schools, doctors, hospitals, social services, and other organisations may not deal directly with you unless you have parental responsibility.

Do you have parental responsibility?

A child’s mother obtains parental responsibility automatically. A child’s father will only have parental responsibility for a child if:

  • You are married to the child’s mother – this is automatic
  • The child was born after 1st December 2003 and you are registered as the child’s father on the birth certificate
  • You have subsequently obtained a court order in respect of the child which confers parental responsibility
  • You and the mother have subsequently signed a ‘parental responsibility agreement’

If the father does not share parental responsibility, the child’s mother does not have to consult with him on important decisions about the child.

As a father, if you do not have parental responsibility for your child it is still possible to obtain it, either by way of an agreement with the child’s mother or by way of order from the Court, or re-registration of the child’s birth.

Step-parents can also obtain parental responsibility for their step-children. For step parents to be eligible they must however be married to, or be in a civil partnership with the child’s parent.

If both parents share parental responsibility but cannot agree on an issue about the child’s upbringing it may be that the court would be invited to intervene and make the decision for them.

Where does this leave us?

The decision about whether a child should return to school should be made in the child’s best interests given all the circumstances, including the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals within their household.

If your child has an existing health condition, you are pregnant, or someone in your household has a health condition that makes them vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19 then you should follow the Public Health England medical advice.

One thing is for certain, school will not be as children remember it pre the COVID-19 lockdown. Parents, children and teachers alike will begin to come to terms with the “new normal”