School admissions season – What happens if we disagree?

January is never an easy month. It is one of the few times in the year where two 31-day months follow one after the other, spring feels like a lifetime away and pay day even further. On top of that, it’s school administration season. Here, Michael Compston looks at what happens if parents cannot agree on a school and how the choice can be made both inside and outside the court.

The local authority deadlines vary from authority to authority, but generally primary school deadlines are in place for the middle of January. Miss that deadline and your child runs the risk of not being accepted into their first-choice school and the application being considered as a late application.

Secondary school applications tend to run on a slightly different timetable, with deadlines being earlier in the academic year. However, we find that secondary school applications follow a more structured process as children/parents tend to be guided through this by the primary school during the child’s final year.

Children getting ready for primary school do not always have that information or guidance readily available, so this blog aims to consider how to resolve any issues arising out of primary school admissions.

Most if not all Local Authorities now process these applications online. The process is fairly straightforward; you go to the prospective schools, decide which ones you like or do not like, then select those schools in preferential order.

But what happens if you and the child’s other parent disagree? If you both have parental responsibility for a child, then it is incumbent on you both to come to a decision together. One of you may favour the school with strong academics or greater extra-curricular provision, whereas the other favours the school with more green space or a better pupil to teacher ratio. If you cannot agree on the preference order, how do you resolve matters?

Outside of court

The first solution is a simple one. Talk to each other. It might sound simple but actually discussing your preferences and why you think one school is better than the other can open up topics for discussion that you might not have considered.

If you are not able to reach a decision by discussing the matter between yourselves, then another option is to attend mediation. Mediators are trained to facilitate discussion between parents across a broad range of matters, not just limited to discussions around child contact. They can offer a neutral perspective and encourage back and forth discussion between the two of you.

Court proceedings

Should mediation not work, then the last recourse is to ask the court to make a decision by making a Specific Issue Order to decide that specific point. Alternatively, if the other parent is refusing to allow you access to the application and is preparing to submit the application themselves, it could be an application for a Prohibited Steps Order to prevent them submitting the application. Either way, both applications would be considering the same thing – what is in the best interests of the child.

This can be a costly exercise and a time-consuming exercise too. You are essentially asking the court to make a decision that, ultimately, is about what is best for the child. The court has not met your child, the court does not have the knowledge of the schools that the parents have, so you must think carefully before asking the court to intervene and make a decision that will have a long-lasting effect on your child’s education; if the child remains in their school, they will be in primary for seven years or secondary for five, so it is an important decision.

If you do end up in court proceedings, the court must consider what is in the child’s best interests. The court would almost certainly say initially that this is a decision that the parents should come to themselves; after all, the parents know the child better than the court. You would most likely both need to prepare witness statements on why you consider that your order of schools is the most suitable and then be prepared to argue your case in front of a judge.

Whilst this is very much a last resort, it is important to remember that this is the last recourse for the court. If you cannot agree, the court will likely want order you both to give evidence. It is far, far better if you can resolve matters between yourselves, with or without the help of a mediator, rather than reverting to the court process.

One Final Thought

Throughout all of these avenues for resolving any dispute on school choices, it is important to remember that the ultimate decision on where a child goes to school is down to the Local Authority in terms of state schools. The order of preferences is still important, as it will help to inform the decision of the Local Authority, but the decision is ultimately one for them.

If you need advice on this topic, or any other matters concerning divorce or family law, please get in touch with our team at McAlister Family Law.


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