Parent Contracts – international issues

22nd February 2024

Independent schools typically require the parents or guardians of pupils to sign up to terms and conditions that govern the right and obligations of the school and the parents – and indirectly, the child.

In some cases, these contracts do not take into account issues where the parents are located overseas.  This article looks briefly at how to avoid this type of risk.

Some schools find it helpful to ask overseas parents to maintain a cash float with the school. Funds are only be released from the float with the express permission of a parent, and any balance is paid towards school fees or other costs. This is done to guard against the pupil being without access to funds and having no recourse to a local guardian. However, this needs to be handled carefully in case it becomes impractical to obtain this consent or if the school attempts to use those funds to offset fees without a clear legal basis.

Schools that host international students are required to hold sponsor licences and should seek to give an obligation to parents to clarify whether or not their child requires sponsorship from the school in order to obtain a visa. The school also needs to require the parents to give consent to the school to keep copies of relevant documentation, and care should be taken on this point as it could cover sensitive material such as the biometric resident permit of the child and sometimes the parents too.

An overriding issue relates to effective communication of the contract terms. Although it may be tempting to your legal advisors, it can be counterproductive to dump long and complicated contracts on the parents in the belief that covering all conceivable permutations of risk makes the contract “watertight.” Given that the parents are individuals, not corporations, a court or arbitrator would take a dim view of this, especially assuming the parents would not have the opportunity to negotiate the terms.

For this reason it is important to make an effort to treat the contract as a communication document.  This means (a) keeping it simple and short and (b) considering whether the contract should be bilingual.

Another issue relates to enforceability. If the parents live in a country that does not have a legal framework for enforcing UK court judgments, then it might be preferable to relay on an arbitration clause in the contract so that it can be effectively enforced.

Some attention needs to be paid to the source of funds of the parents. We do not support blanket bans by schools on individuals purely on the basis of their country of origin, which is both unfair and in some cases can lead to disputes. However, for certain high-risk countries, there is even a potential risk that sanctions have been placed on the individuals concerned. The choice of countries affected should not be dictated by personal political views, but instead on objective international designations of red flag jurisdictions or on government sanctions lists.

It is also possible for schools to go too far in trying to accommodate the values of overseas jurisdictions in an effort to entice students from certain countries. While it is laudable for schools to be sensitive to the demands or suggestions of overseas parents, this cannot be allowed to move too far from British values or the school’s traditional ethos. Even if such accommodations do not offend British legal provisions they can cause other unexpected difficulties, for example with regard to sex education, the teaching of history, religious tolerance and any number of subjects that can be deemed controversial. Parents need to be made aware in advance that the school’s pedagogical and pastoral duties might not be palatable to the parents but must nevertheless be provided. Parents should also consent to certain types of physical contact, including at the very least hand-shaking between individuals of different genders.

These are just some of the nuances that may affect drafting of parent contracts.  In some cases it may even be advisable to have two forms of contracts – one for use with overseas parents, and one for locals.