Separation and children’s education
The start of the new calendar year means that for many children, it is time to prepare for the “move to big school” next Autumn. For schools in the state sector, places will have already been allocated. For those in the private sector, exams will have taken place and the lucky pupils will have been offered interviews.
But what if separated parents do not agree about the choice of school, or the other essential factors in their children’s education? Since October 2014, the law has emphasised a presumption of continued parental involvement, unless it is harmful to the child.
In 2013, when giving a judgment in a case where two parents could not agree on which Jewish school their child should attend, Mr Justice Munby, President of the Family Court judges, declared the most important factors to consider as:
- Provision of equality of opportunity
- Encouragement of aspirations
- Equipping the child to make life decisions.
The law does not prefer one system of funding over another. The fact that one parent wants private education and the other does not is not decisive. Nor does the law prefer a faith school over one of no faith. It ultimately depends on which school best meets the needs of the child.
If a child is registered at a fee-paying school, there is a contract between the parents and the school in regards to payment. It is therefore of the utmost importance that there is a clear agreement, or court order, about how the fees are going to be met before either parent enters into such a contract.
It is also extremely important to have a clear definition of what extras can be included. What expenses go on the bill? What about expensive foreign trips? Schools should be asked to provide a clear idea in advance of anticipated expenses in the case of separated parents.
Whilst there is quite a bit of law surrounding disputes arising from a child’s education arrangements (mainly found in the Children Act 1989), it is usually better to try to resolve difficulties privately rather than go to court.
Court hearings are expensive even before you pay the lawyers, in terms of delays and time devoted to the proceedings. There is also no legal aid for these types of court applications. Whilst you can go to court without a lawyer, it is a very daunting experience, and seldom allows parents to focus properly on what is best for their families.
As an alternative resolution, many schools have counsellors, who will meet with parents if it will help the children to get the most out of education, as well as parenting programme providers.
Mediation has also proved very successful in sorting out worries over schooling. Some mediators will bring in family consultants or parenting co-ordinators who then remain involved to deal with tensions over issues such as attendance at parents’ evenings or supervision of homework.
In 2016, a new scheme was introduced which allows parents to choose Child Arbitration. An arbitrator decides the outcome of the dispute, but not as a formal court judge, and is quicker than filing court proceedings.
There is ample evidence that children do better at school and later in life if their parents have a good relationship with each other, and talk about problems rather than being hostile. Ultimately a court might intervene, but that is not the preferred starting point as far as the child’s wellbeing is concerned.
Hunters incorporating May, May & Merrimans