How to choose a school for your children if you are separating from your partner
With the deadline to apply for secondary school places fast approaching, it may be helpful for separating parents to be reminded of the best way to choose a school for their children.
It must be by joint agreement
Decisions regarding a child’s schooling should be made by all those with parental responsibility. In most cases, this will be just the child’s mother and father but this could also include step-parents or other family members.
Further information on parental responsibility and what this means for parents can be found here.
One parent’s parental responsibility does not ‘trump’ the other parent’s so the Court will expect them to work together to make decisions about schooling. Ideally, both parents would have the opportunity to research their child’s options, whether together or separately. This could include reviewing any Ofsted reports and meeting with the prospective schools to discuss their child’s academic future and how each school could best meet their educational needs.
In addition, if the child is already in school, their current teacher or guidance counsellor may be best placed to help guide parents towards a specific school based on their child’s academic history. Practical considerations such as location (including how the child expects to get to and from school every day), where the child’s other siblings go to school and affordability (if applicable) will also need to be factored in.
The child’s welfare must be the parents’ paramount consideration. The decision about schooling must therefore be made in the best interests of the child, rather than what is more convenient for either parent.
What if we cannot agree?
It is best for parents to make decisions about their children without the Court’s involvement. The Court will only make an order regarding children where the Judge considers it necessary to do so (the ‘no order principle’), and making an application to Court should be thought of as a last resort or made only in the event of an emergency. If parents cannot agree between themselves, they will be expected to consider alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation in the first instance.
Many separating parents have found mediation to be helpful to try and narrow the issues between them. Where communication is an issue, it can often help to have an impartial third party in the room with you to provide a safe and supported structure for discussions. Qualifying parents can also get a voucher for up to £500 to help with the costs of mediation through the Family Mediation Voucher Scheme.
If, however, alternative dispute resolution is not successful or appropriate, either parent has the option to go to Court to ask that a Judge make a decision about their child’s school (a specific issue order). This is only the case for children under the age of 16, unless there are exceptional circumstances.
When deciding which school is the most appropriate, the Court will have specific regard to factors such as the child’s wishes and feelings (considered in light of their age and understanding); their physical, emotional and educational needs; the likely effect on them of any change in circumstances; their age, sex, background and any other relevant characteristics; and any harm which they have suffered or is at risk of suffering (collectively known as the ’welfare checklist’). Parents will, therefore, be expected to bear all this in mind when putting forward their case for a particular school for the child.
Private education vs non-private education
It has been noted in case law that ‘private education is a luxury and must be balanced against the welfare and needs of the family’. As with all matters concerning children, the primary consideration will be the welfare of the child, taking into account all the factors of the welfare checklist. That being said, if school fees are no longer affordable due to a change in circumstances, it may well be appropriate for a child to be moved from private education. It could, however, be a valid argument to say that it would be appropriate for the child to be treated equally to their siblings in the event that their siblings attend / do not attend private school. In addition, if the child is already attending private school or plans had already been agreed for them to be privately educated, it could be argued that pulling the plug is not only unfair but also damaging to the child.
Who pays for the school if we agree on a fee-paying school?
Where both parents have the means to do so, it would be that they both contribute to the costs of any school fees. If, however, an agreement cannot be made about who pays what towards the child’s school fees, the Court has jurisdiction to deal with this issue as well.
Should you require any further advice about choosing a school for your child or the arrangements for your children generally, please contact our specialist family team to discuss how we could assist with your case.