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School choices for separated parents and the kids: navigating disagreements and finding common ground

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Attwood Marshall Lawyers Family Law Associate Laura Dolan looks at the complex factors that parents must consider when choosing schools for their children, and what options are available for separated couples who are struggling to come to a decision.

If your child is starting prep in 2025, you may already be thinking about school choices and preparing for interviews and enrolments.

Even though there’s a year to go until your little one wears their first school uniform, planning is crucial. For private schools, spots can be competitive, and it’s common for parents to register their child’s name right after birth. Interviews usually take place in March and April, with enrolment offers extended shortly after.

If you’re considering public schools outside your catchment zone, act early to secure a spot as most schools have limited capacity to accept children outside of catchment. Most government primary schools accept applications and enrolments from the second term of the year before your child starts school, around May.  

If you and your child’s other parent are no longer together, school choices can take on a whole new dynamic to an already challenging situation. Disputes over where a child should attend school are not uncommon, often stemming from differing opinions that can become entrenched if communication has broken down.

However, it’s vital to recognise that the choice of school is a “major long-term decision” that requires consultation between both parents, unless there is a court order in place granting sole parental responsibility to one party.

Schools may only require one signature from a parent or carer for enrolment, but acting unilaterally without the consent of the other parent may have repercussions in future proceedings.

A lot of the same considerations apply if you have older children and are considering moving them from their current school to a new one, or if they are due to start high school in 2025 and you have yet to come to a decision about which high school they will attend.

Here, we delve into the challenges, legal considerations, and decision-making processes facing separating parents with school-age children.

Is my child ready to start school?

One of the first hurdles that separated parents may struggle to overcome is deciding whether their child is ready to start school, or whether they should wait another year (if that’s an option in their state).

The name of the first year of schooling varies across Australia – for example it is known as Prep in Queensland. Not every state or territory treats this year as compulsory, but looking at the admission age is generally a good starting point for a discussion with your ex-partner about when your child should start school:

  • QLD: must be aged 5 years by June 30 of the year of attendance (prep)
  • NSW: must turn 5 on or before July 31 of the year of attendance (kindergarten)
  • VIC: need to turn 5 by April 30 of the year of attendance (prep)
  • TAS: must have already turned 5 by Jan 1 of the year of attendance (prep)
  • WA: must turn 5 by June 30 of the year of attendance (pre-primary)
  • SA: must turn 5 by April 30 of the year of attendance (reception)
  • NT: must have turned 5 by June 30 of the year of attendance (transition)
  • ACT: must have turned 5 by April 30 of the year of attendance (kindergarten)


(The above list is accurate as of the date this blog was published and may be subject to change.)

Other factors to consider when assessing your child for school readiness includes developmental milestones like social skills, emotional regulation, cognitive skills and abilities, as well as their behaviour at home and in social settings. Seeking professional guidance from paediatricians or child development specialists can help you in this decision.

Getting an outside opinion can also be beneficial if you are moving interstate during the school year and you and your partner disagree on which grade your child should be entering in the new jurisdiction.

Public schooling vs private schooling?

Another debate that can get quite heated between separated couples is over whether to send their child or children to a public or a private school.

For parents of older children, perhaps there was an understanding that your child would first attend a public primary school, but then transition to a private school for their high school years. But now that the time has arrived, one of you has changed your mind. The same scenario can apply no matter the age of your child.

Perhaps your child is currently at a private school, but since the separation and subsequent property settlement, it’s no longer an affordable option and so one parent is pushing for a change to the public sector.

If your child is entering school for the first time and you are in the throes of a debate between public or private school, it’s important to keep in mind the different enrolment processes for both.

How to decide

Consultation

Open, constructive conversation between both parents is essential in the decision-making process for your child’s education.

Think about what is most important for you and your child – is it the curriculum? The school’s reputation or academic ranking? The extracurricular programs on offer? And don’t forget to have a good understanding of the fees involved and if meeting these financial commitments is sustainable.

Then, it’s time to step up your research. Have you attended information sessions or open days at the school? Have you met with the principal? Talked to family and friends about your choices? Carried out comparisons with other schools? And how does the result weigh up against your preferences for what you value most in a school?

Take all this information to your partner and converse openly.

Mediation

If discussions falter and you feel like you would benefit from outside help, then the next step is to seek out mediation or another form of alternative dispute resolution. An experienced family lawyer can help advise you on your options.

Negotiations will likely centre on factors such as the current parenting arrangements, whether your child has friends or siblings at the new school, among other factors like how the fees will be paid.

Having a professional like a mediator in the room can foster a structured and objective discussion, allowing both parents to express their concerns. The mediator will guide the conversation, providing insights into the law and encouraging a collaborative approach for a resolution focused on the child’s best interests.

An Application to the Family Court

Seeking a court order should be a last resort, particularly when the courts can be subject to delays, putting families at risk of missing the strict deadlines that schools set for enrolment applications.

However, if all else has failed and you find yourself in court, here are some of the factors the judge will take into consideration:

  • How far the school is from home and the parents’ respective workplaces,
  • Any previous decisions on schooling,
  • How each parent demonstrates their attitudes to their child and parental responsibilities,
  • Cultural or religious factors,
  • The child’s wishes,
  • Fees payable and the ability of each parent to pay those fees,
  • If the child is already at school, how they are progressing.


The court can also consider how much research, thought and care each parent has put into their school choice.

If the dispute is between the public and private education system, be aware that the court holds the view that a parent should not be scrutinised on why they have elected to send their child to a public school, due to the court’s belief that Australia has a great public school system.

Conclusion

Grappling with educational decisions for your children after separation can be complex and challenging. Whether considering what age they should start, or whether to put them in public or private schools, it is a personal decision and open communication and careful consideration are key.

Start these conversations well in advance of the school year to avoid unnecessary conflict.

If, despite your best efforts, you and your ex-partner reach an impasse, remember that mediation offers a path to resolution outside the courtroom.

Involving the court, while sometimes necessary, should be a last resort due to the potential for delays and prolonging the dispute, sometimes for years.

Ultimately, every decision you make should be guided by one unwavering principle: what is best for your child’s well-being and future.

Attwood Marshall Lawyers – helping families negotiate effectively to reduce conflict

Our family law team practice exclusively in this complex area of law and are well-versed at handling children and parenting matters. We will ensure the best interests of your children are protected and act quickly so that you can have comfort in knowing your plans are set.

If you need assistance with a family law matter, please don’t hesitate to contact our Family Law Department Manager, Donna Tolley, on direct line 07 5506 8241 or email dtolley@attwoodmarshall.com.au. Our team are available at any of our conveniently located offices at Robina Town Centre, Coolangatta, Southport, Kingscliff, Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne.

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Laura Dolan - Associate - Family Law

Laura Dolan

Associate
Family Law

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Disclaimer
The contents of this article are considered accurate as at the date of publication. The information contained in this article does not constitute legal advice and is of a general nature only. Readers should seek legal advice about their specific circumstances. 

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