Decisions about which school to enrol your child at and getting ready for school often cause disagreement when parents are divorced or separated. It is important to remember however that your child’s education remains your responsibility as the child’s parents, even after separation and divorce. The school cannot act as a facilitator or an arbiter when it comes to your child’s education.
Let’s look at a few of the common issues regarding the education of children and divorced parents. What does the law say? What can you do to make this less stressful?
The Family Law Act states that both parents have “shared parental responsibility” on “major long-term issues”. Decisions regarding your child’s current and future education are certainly major long-term decisions, whether you like it or not. Other major long-term issues include your child’s religion and changing your child’s name. So, under normal circumstances, you are jointly responsible for these decisions.
When the Court makes a parenting order, the starting point is that both parents have equal shared responsibility. Take note that this does not necessarily mean “equal time” or “significant and substantial time”. It simply means you are equally responsible.
The Act creates a presumption of this shared parental responsibility and it will be in place unless the court decides otherwise. If the court is satisfied that it should not be applied in your situation, or if a statutory exception exists the court can make an order giving sole responsibility to one parent. This would be the case where one parent is found to have abused the child, or he or she is guilty of family violence. In such cases, parental responsibility for major long-term decisions will be given to the other parent.
The decision to enrol your child at a new school or removing your child from their current school is a major long-term issue and therefore you are jointly responsible. Things like academic achievement, serious behavioural problems and suspensions or expulsion from school are all examples of major long-term issues where you are considered jointly responsible unless there is a court order to the contrary.
If you refuse to sign an enrolment form for your child to attend a particular school, you must understand that the school can still accept your child. The school is not precluded from accepting a child simply because the application was only signed by one parent. It is not the school’s responsibility to ensure that you comply with your parenting obligations under the Family Law.
However, there is another side to this story. If you decide to enrol your child at a school without involving the other parent or without the consent of the other parent, this may reflect negatively on you if your matter later ends up in court. Your unilateral action may affect your credibility in court; the court may decide that it shows a lack of willingness and ability to involve the other parent in your child’s life. It may demonstrate that you are not willing to encourage a relationship between your child and the other parent.
You must also remember that the Enrolment Application leads to a contractual relationship with the school. If only you signed the application, the contract is between you and the school. The school will generally not be able to request payment for school fees from the other parent then. From the school’s perspective, it is irrelevant if you and the other parent reached a private agreement about paying school fees.
The school will generally communicate with the “resident” parent. Information such as school reports, newsletters and any other documents regarding your child will be sent to the resident parent. Often, when the relationship between the parents isn’t good, the information does not get passed on.
If you and the other parent do not communicate well, you can request that the school sends copies of all relevant communications to the “non-resident” parent. This way you can avoid any conflict that may arise due to miscommunication of school information. The school can communicate directly with the non-resident parent. Some school may charge an administrative fee for duplicating the information. If you are not prepared to share such costs, the school may request the “non-resident” parent to pay for this.
Take note: If there is a specific order that grants sole parental responsibility to one parent, the school will not provide the other parent with information about the child, unless they have written permission from the parent with sole parental responsibility.
Changing a child’s name is a “major long-term issue” and it needs to be made jointly by both parents.
The court will not make an order to change a child’s name lightly. It will consider a number of factors and will only make an order if it is satisfied that it is in the child’s best interest.
Take note: If you decide to change your child’s name unilaterally, when you enroll your child at a new school for example, you will seriously affect your credibility in the eyes of the court. You need the consent of the other parent.
Some good advice
Don’t wait till the last minute to discuss these issues with the other parent. Discuss it well before the start of the new school year. If you and the other parent can’t agree, you need time to get independent legal advice about the steps you can take to move forward.
Don’t involve the school as a mediator. It is not the school’s responsibility to facilitate your parental issues. The school cannot decipher or enforce your Family Court order.
If you are unsure about your situation, get legal advice from an expert Family lawyer. Family Law is complex and sensitive, especially when you are dealing with children. Get legal advice about your options and assistance to obtain the best outcomes for all involved.