Many parents think that school fees are covered by child support. That is a reasonable assumption as, after all, if your child attends a private school then the school fees are part of the financial support that they need. 

The types of family maintenance payments

Child support and family maintenance can be rather confusing as a parent can receive any of the following: 

  • Child support through an assessment by the child maintenance service; 
  • Child support through a top up child support court order – this order can only be applied for if the child maintenance service has carried out a maximum child maintenance service assessment;
  • Child support through a family court order to cover any additional costs a child with a disability may incur;
  • Payment of school fees through a court school fees order;
  • Maintenance paid to a parent, referred to as spousal maintenance ; 
  • Maintenance payable to help support a child and a parent and therefore a combination of child support and spousal maintenance. Global maintenance is paid through a court order.

Are school fees covered by child support?

School fee payments are not included in any child support payments that are determined by the child maintenance service. If the court makes a child maintenance order the school fees will not be included in the maintenance amount. 

When the child maintenance service calculates child maintenance , they use a strict mathematical formula. This formula does not consider the costs incurred in caring for the child, or school fees, but focuses on the income of the parent liable to pay child support.

If a child attends a fee paying school or a parent wants to enrol a child at a private school then either the school fees are paid:

  • On a voluntary basis by the separated parent ; or
  • An application is made to court for a school fees order.

Will a school fees order cover the full amount of the school fees?  

The school fees order will not necessarily cover the full amount of the school fees. A parent could be ordered to pay all of the fees or to contribute towards the school fees.

The court will decide how much a parent should pay toward school fees based on both parent’s respective incomes and reasonable outgoings. The court will look at the affordability of school fees, taking into account the child support and any spousal maintenance payments that are payable as well as the payer’s other financial commitments, such as their mortgage payments.

What happens if a parent says they cannot afford to educate a child privately?

Prior to a separation or divorce, a child’s parents could have decided that it would be best for their child to be educated privately. Sometimes a parent will decide that they can no longer agree to their child going to a fee-paying school when the child reaches primary or secondary school age. Alternatively, a parent may say that the child should be withdrawn from their current private school and enrolled in state education.

If the parents of a child cannot agree on whether their child should go to a private school or be state educated either parent can apply to court for a specific issue order.

A specific issue order will state what school the child should attend. If the objection to private education is purely based on the affordability of the school fees then an application for a school fees order may be more appropriate.

Can the court change a school fees order? 

If the court makes a school fees order either parent can apply back to the court to vary the order, for example:

  • A parent ordered to pay all the school fees may say that he or she should only pay 50% of the fees now that the other parent has had a pay rise and is on a similar salary;
  • A parent ordered to pay all the school fees could apply to the court to terminate or stop the school fees order because of his or her suffering a reduction in income or an increase in their reasonable outgoings making the continued payment of school fees unaffordable. 

The interplay between the child maintenance service, the court and child support, spousal maintenance and school fees orders can be tricky for parents to grapple with. It is always important that the topic of private education is raised early so that parental decisions can be taken jointly, or if parents cannot reach agreement, there is time to ask the court to make a specific issue order or school fees order before the start of the school term. 

For advice and information about applying for a specific issue order, a school fees order or on any other aspect of children law please call me on +44 (0) 1477 464020 or  email me at [email protected]