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27 September 2019

Choosing a new school for your child? What happens if you cannot agree this with your ex?

With the school term well underway parents of 10 years olds up and down the country are starting the process of considering the next steps in the children’s education. With many local authorities requiring applications for secondary schools to be submitted by the end of October, parents have a little over a month to consider their options and make their decisions.

Just like other important decisions about children the selection of a school (at any age) is a matter that needs to be agreed by both parents. This is regardless of who the child lives with or whether and how long the child spends time with each parent. This is a legal responsibility as a result of both parents having Parental Responsibility for their children. Mothers gain Parental Responsibility automatically on the birth of their children. Fathers obtain Parental Responsibility via either their relationship with the child’s mother, being named on the child’s birth certificate or a specific order conferring this legal obligation upon them. However Parental Responsibility is obtained it is an obligation that must be respected and not something that can be simply ignored. This can, therefore, lead to difficulties when parents do not agree, so what happens when there is a disagreement? It can also lead to issues where one parent is absent or simply will not engage.

In situations such as these the Family Court will need to make a determination. Under the Children Act 1989 the court can be asked to deal with any single application concerning children as a ‘Specific Issue’ and make the orders it feels appropriate in the circumstances.

For many parents the choice of the best school for their child will be based on the school’s academic record, Ofsted rating, extra-circular activities and the way the school deal with any relevant additional needs that their child has. When the court considers matters it is no different, as the court has to assess what is in the best interests of the particular child in question given their specific needs. The court is required by law to consider all the relevant circumstances and weigh these up when coming to a decision. As a result, the decisions between the different schools put forward are often finely balanced. Where the differences between the schools are about whether continuing with private (fee paying) schooling is appropriate the court will also undertake an analysis of the parent’s financial resources.

So what should you do if you are trying to agree your child’s schooling with your ex?

  • Start the discussion with the qualities that are important to your child rather than focusing on particular schools themselves – often parents are agreed on the qualities that they would like their child’s school to have but these agreements can get lost in discussions where the focus is placed on specifically named schools. Also make sure the qualities that you are focused on are things that really matter to your child, ie if they do not enjoy and have no interest in sports it is unlikely to be relevant that one of the schools has a world class athletics programme that sponsors Olympic athletes.
  • Do your homework – it is vital that you know absolutely everything about the schools being considered. Put together as much information as you can about the schools being considered, attend open evenings/days, ask current parents their views, consider Ofsted reports, etc.
  • Be objective – what are the plus points and negatives points of each school? There is no point trying to gloss over any imperfections of the school you prefer as these will need to be addressed.
  • Don’t ignore your ex’s views – often these matters end up in the court because parents simply stop talking to each other. Putting your shutters up and refusing to continue any discussions is often the quickest way to entrench the other person in their position, so keep talking to each other.
  • Take good legal advice – our greatest skill is knowing the details and information that the court will want to understand. Therefore, we can ensure that your case is presented in the best possible way. It can also help to talk things through with someone unconnected to the situation to ensure that you are being objective in your considerations.
  • Do not delay –where needed the court can act quickly to deal with a specific issue, but the court does not take kindly to parents bringing matters to the court at the 11th Therefore, if yours and your ex’s views are so opposed that it is never going to be possible for you to reach an agreement seek advice early so that applications can be made in good time before any school application deadlines.

If this is something that you are struggling with and would like to discuss your position in more detail then do not hesitate to contact a member of our highly experienced family team, who will be able to assist you.

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