Michael Segal investigates how far a school can intervene when divorced parents disagree over an educational matter QUESTION:
How far can a school intervene when divorced parents disagree over an educational matter?
ANSWER: Respond to parents with tact, but recognise that the court has the final say. In M v M Specific Issue: Choice of School)  1 FLR 252, the father of a boy, seven, was an enthusiastic cathedral chorister. The boy lived with his mother. Such was the antipathy between the divorced parents that almost every point that could arise between them concerning the boy had been litigated. There were disputes about residence and contact, and a child psychiatrist had been involved.
At a particularly acrimonious court hearing in October 2005, the father applied for leave to take the boy to a voice trial at the cathedral school at which he, the father, was a chorister. The mother was strongly opposed to a change of school. The judge gave permission for the father to take the boy to a voice trial, but made it clear to both parents that this was for the limited purpose of ascertaining whether a scholarship would be awarded.
The voice trial
The father was informed that a voice trial would take place on 18 November 2005, and he immediately told the mother's solicitor, who replied that the mother, in breach of the judge's order, was adamant that she did not want the voice trial to proceed. Acting on a letter from the mother, the boy's school refused to release him to attend the voice test. The judge therefore arranged an urgent hearing on 25 November 2005 to decide the matter. Counsel for the mother tried to persuade the judge to change his decision, but he would not, the mother having had a full opportunity at the earlier hearing to set out her objections. But, because of the possibility of an appeal, the judge gave his reasons in a short judgment.
The school gets involved
The additional documents produced at this hearing included a letter from the mother to the boy's present head teacher, and the head teacher's reply. The mother said that the boy did not wish to become a choirboy, that she could not force him to go to the voice test, and that she felt that she had to protect him from unnecessary emotional harm and anxiety, and make a stand for him to uphold his rights, since the court had failed to do that for him. The head teacher’s reply said that the boy had not wanted to go to the voice trial, did not want to be in the choir, did not want to go to another school, and wanted to stay with his friends and not do lots of singing.
- A further objection was that if the father, who was making no contribution to the boy's maintenance, failed to pay the difference between the scholarship and the fees, the mother could be liable.
- She also argued that the father's application was part of a sustained campaign to change the boy's residence, and was an 'outrage'. Her agitation was evident in court.
Child's interests paramount
The judge began with two propositions — first, that the boy's welfare was the court's paramount consideration and second, that the father genuinely wished to give him the chance to attend a cathedral school of high standing. The mother's response had been disproportionate. It might be that it was not in the boy’s best interests to change school, but one voice test, even if it were to cause minor apprehension, did not threaten or undermine his placement with the mother. The judge said: 'It is right and in the boy's best interests for the father ... to make an application for a change of school. It may turn out to have little merit; it could, on the other hand, be for his advantage. I am clear ... that the mother should not be permitted to prevent the application being made by refusing one voice test. 'This would deprive the father of an opportunity to make an application on which he holds strong views. The potential upset to the boy of taking one short voice test would be small. The potential disadvantage to the father's application and the ability of the court to adjudicate between rival positions would be very considerable.'
Who decides in the end?
This case is a sad but typical example of the acrimony that can exist between parents in education disputes. No doubt both had the boy's best interests at heart but they ran the risk of harming him emotionally. What nobody seems to have considered was the possibility of the boy taking matters into his own hands by deliberately failing the test.
Michael Segal is district judge in the family division of the High Court
While it is hoped the answers given here are helpful, they should not be relied on without seeking proper advice as to their application to your own circumstances.