Parenting disputes: choosing a school

Joint parental custody means that both parents need to agree on a school for their child. Choosing a school can be problematic, not just in divorce situations. Dutch law permits parents to request the family court to resolve any disputes that may occur. This article explains how the courts generally come to a decision when deciding what school is best.

In the Netherlands, the courts can decide any dispute between parents regarding parental custody. This not only encompasses choosing a school, but also medical care (vaccination), moving house with the children etc. The law states that the court must decide what is in the best interests of the child. This is distinctly different from deciding which parent is right or wrong.

Moving with the children

A request for permission to enrol a child in a new school is commonly paired with a request to move house with the child. Often the move itself is the main dispute. If permission to move to another town is granted, mostly the request to move schools is a given. However, this is not always the case. The courts usually hold that children should not be burdened with long travel times. However, if there is a care arrangement in place that allows the other parent acces on school days, the court may deem it in the children’s interest that they remain at their old school to continue this arrangement. That is if the travel time from their new home is feasible for the children. The parent moving home is expected to do their utmost to continue the existing arrangement or to offer a fair alternative.

An interesting example is the following case:

The parents separated soon after the birth of their son. They agreed a co-parenting arrangement with multiple exchanges of the child during the week. Both the mother and the father later moved away from their original hometown. It would seem they moved in opposite directions. The child continued to go to school in the old hometown. After the birth of a daughter with a new partner, the mother requested that her son be enrolled in a school in her new hometown. Travel to school had become too burdensome for the family in this new situation, according to the mother. The father argued that this would mean that the co-parenting arrangement would cease and he could only see his son at weekends.

The appeal court of Den Bosch held that as the child was happy in his current school, he would not be enrolled in a new school immediately. The court ruled that the child should remain in the same school for the coming school year. Nor did it decide where the new school would eventually be. The parents were given a stern lecture by the court. As they created the current problems themselves by moving in different directions, they therefore need to find a solution together.

Location of a school

Logistics often play a role in choosing a school. Ideally a child should not have to travel too far, so they make friends in their neighbourhood. However, there is no legal definition of ‘too far’. Children living in rural areas often travel quite far to the nearest school, while city dwellers have a choice of schools within walking distance. If a parent insists that the child go to a school that is further away than other alternatives, then there has to be a good reason behind this. The court must then decide which school is best based on the best interests of the child. In border areas, the most logical school may even be in another country!

Religious schools

When parents have different outlooks on religious upbringing and education, this can lead to conflict between them. Religious matters are a difficult matter to find compromise on. In The Netherlands particularly, there are different streams of Protestantism that range from ‘mainstream’ to extremely strict. There are also schools available in broadly the same spectrum. The courts regularly have to decide when the parents cannot agree.

The following case illustrates that the courts take other factors than just religion into account:

The court of Gelderland was requested to make a decision on a school for a divorced couple. Both parents adhered to a different form of protestantism. They could not agree on either what church the children should go to or which schools. The court explained the dilemma it faced:

The court states first and foremost that it has been asked to make a decision on subjects that concern very personal choices of the parents, because these decisions are strongly related to their religious beliefs. The court cannot determine for the parents which religion they follow. Nor can the court determine that one denomination is more or less in the best interests of the children than the other. (…)

The court must base its decision on the best interests of the children, which are primarily determined by the social consequences of choosing a particular church and school and not primarily by an upbringing in one faith or the other.

The final decision choosing a school was based on a practical approach. The children are mainly cared for by their mother. There is a school nearby the mother’s home that matches the mother’s faith. That school’s ideology does not contradict the father’s faith. The children would have a local social and church circle. The court therefore held that this school was suitable.

Special needs schools

Conflicts can also arise regarding whether a child should go to a ‘normal’ Dutch school. Some parents see their child as a prodigy that needs to be constantly stimulated to reach their full potential, while the other parent feels the child should be a child and take things at its own pace. This is also the case for children with learning difficulties. One parent may want the child to go to special needs education while the other thinks that mainstream education (with some extra help from school) will be enough.

International schools

International schools are not always easily accessible if parents do not live in one of the bigger cities in The Netherlands. They also come with high school fees that are not always reimbursed by an employer. Parents may differ as to whether a child should have more social contact in its own area by going to a local school. Or a parent may feel the child benefits more from being in a school with an international curriculum. Both opinions have their merits.

The child’s opinion

Last but certainly not least is the child’s opinion. For young teenagers, having a say in where they go to school is important. However, sometimes a child can get so conflicted between their parent’s opinions, that they cannot freely voice their own opinion. Children from 12 years of age are given the opportunity to have an interview with the judge. They can tell the judge without their parents present what they think. The judge will consider the child’s point of view when making a decision.

Dutch divorce lawyer

At Dutch Divorce Lawyer, we regularly advise on, mediate and, if necessary, litigate parental disputes. If you have a (potential) dispute about choosing a school or any other subject you want to discuss, please feel free to contact us for more information.

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Parenting disputes: choosing a school
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