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Primary School: What If Separated Parents Can't Agree?

The deadline for applying for a primary school reception place is 15th January. Parents will need to list their top three schools in order of preference when they submit the application but what do you do if you are on a different page (or reading from a different book) to your co-parent?

It is not uncommon for separated parents to struggle to reach an agreement about which school to put as the number 1 spot especially if they live in catchment areas for different schools. 

What is the legal position?

If you have parental responsibility for your child you should be involved in all decisions about your child’s education including which school the child goes to and whether their place is deferred to later that year or even the following September for summer born children.

If you are the birth mother you will automatically have parental responsibility. If you are the father, you will have parental responsibility if you were married to the mother on or after the child’s birth, are registered on the child’s birth certificate or have a court order that confers parental responsibility.

What if we can’t agree?

For parents who can’t agree about the choice of school or any other issues concerning the child’s education there are various options:

  1. Discuss these issues directly with the help of a third party or specialist family mediator. This is a great first step and can help to resolve the issue quickly, amicably and cost effectively. 
  2. Seek legal advice. Your solicitor will help you negotiate and advise you how the Court is likely to decide the issue. 
  3. Ask the Court to decide the issue for you, this is called a Specific Issue Order, or to stop the other parent progressing an application, this is called a Prohibited Steps Order.
  4. Ask an Arbitrator to decide the issue. This has flexibility not offered by the Court process and can happen much more quickly. It is only an option when both parents agree to submit to arbitration as the decision will be binding on you both.

The primary consideration for the Court or Arbitrator will be the best interests of the child taking into account things such as:

  1. What school is the best fit for that particular child considering their unique needs, personality and characteristics.
  2. Any special educational needs and how these would be catered for by each school.
  3. Where the child lives for most of the week.
  4. Where any siblings go to school.
  5. The likely impact on the child of any change in circumstances
  6. What the child’s wishes and feelings are (in light of their age and understanding).
  7. Any harm or risk of harm the child might suffer.
  8. If the fee is school paying, who will pay the school fees?

Our Complex Children Team of Excellence have significant experience in dealing with these sorts of disputes and will be able to advise and guide you through the process. 

Our Public Law Team can also advise if you have been offered a school place but wish to appeal against the decision.