Education: choice of school and payment of school fees
To most parents, after their child’s health, there is nothing more important to them than their child’s education. Getting your child into the school of your choice can be more challenging if you are separated or divorced from the child’s other parent.
As a children lawyer I have helped many parents resolve where their child should be schooled, and sometimes just as importantly, who should pay the school fees. The sorts of issues that parents can disagree on are:
- whether their child should be state or privately educated and if privately who should pay the fees;
- whether their child should be home educated by one parent;
- whether their child should attend a school with a religious affiliation;
- the specific school, with issues over school catchment area and parent’s homes and the feasibility of mid-week contact visits if the school choice is some distance away combined with debates over the Ofsted rankings of potential schools;
- whether a child should board or be a day pupil;
- whether a child should be mainstream educated or attend a specialist school to address health concerns such as a child being on the autistic spectrum or dyslexic;
- whether a child should move to a new school, for example if a parent’s new partner’s children attend a different local state school or are being privately educated.
Who decides on the choice of school?
Both parents have equal rights and responsibilities for their child if they share parental responsibility for their offspring. Parental Responsibility means parents have an equal say in the choice of school.
If parents can’t reach an agreement after discussion or mediation then ultimately the Court can decide and make a specific issue order identifying the school that the child should attend.
The Court decision is based on what the judge thinks is in the child’s best interests taking into account a range of statutory factors. That is why it is important that the judge knows your child’s personality and their likes and dislikes, as if your child is sporty and not academic that might influence the judge in deciding that a school with a focus on exam results might not be the best environment for them. When presenting an argument for a particular school pastoral care can be as important as a focus on sports or academic achievement.
Who pays the school fees?
Most parents’ fear on separation is that their child may not be able to go to the planned private school or may have to come out of private education and move into the state system.
The Child Maintenance Service can’t order a parent to pay school fees but the Court can make a school fees order to make one parent either pay or contribute towards private school fees and ‘extras’, such as uniforms, music lessons or the annual school ski trip.
The Court looks at a range of factors when making a decision about whether or not to make a school fees order, including the affordability of private education.
The new school year, the graduation from nursery to primary school or from primary to secondary school may seem a long time away but all of a sudden choice of schooling will become a pressing issue. That is why it is vital for parents to start to talk early and do their research on suitable school options to hopefully reach an agreement on what type or specific school is in your child’s best interests. If agreement can’t be reached then, after mediation, either parent could start Court proceedings. The Court will try to make a decision as quickly as it can but inevitably Court timetables aren’t as quick as parents ideally want. That means that it pays to think and talk early so the judge has time to make a decision on the choice of school or payment of school fees well in advance of the new school year.