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“Toxic” school attendance ruled against by Court

parenting disputeToday the Courier Mail reports upon a decision of the Federal Circuit Court regarding a child’s attendance at what his mother asserted was a “toxic” private school.

The decision, properly reported as Peak & Castles [2018] FCCA 3705 was a decision of Her Honour Judge Jillian Williams wherein she determined a dispute between the child’s parents about his High School attendance.

The Father was seeking the child attend a private single sex school because:

  • A private school education is inherently preferable to a government school education;
  • The father was privately educated and as a result of that, he is aware of the long-term life benefits of that style of education;
  • It would provide him with “routine, discipline and support”;
  • The fees were substantially less than other private schools, making it affordable for the parties;
  • The parties had agreed to send the child to a private school (albeit a different one) during the relationship;
  • The school was close to the father’s home and accessible from the mother’s home by public transport; and
  • That he would pay all of the fees, 40% of the uniform costs, 25% of the text book costs and stationary and 50% of overseas trips during the child’s attendance.

The Mother, however sought attendance at a public co-educational school because (amongst other reasons):

  • It would teach him to “understand and relate to both sexes in a much better way than single sex schools”;
  • Single sex schools can develop toxic cultures arising from male chauvinistic attitudes which laud AFL and the machismo culture associated within the sport;
  • The school had a reputation for elevating sporting achievements over academic ones;
  • The football culture is not a good fit for the child;
  • The mother was an atheist, the father is not religious and the child was not baptised;
  • The mother’s chosen school had no religious affiliation and the children were not required to receive formal religious education whereas the father’s chosen school had an intensive religious instruction program, which would have the result of overtly or subtly pressuring the child into adopting the Catholic faith;
  • She would not and could not support the school’s requirement for the parents to commit to support the school’s religious ethos and activities;
  • It was closer to her home where she had lived for four years as well as being a school at which a lot of the child’s primary school friends would attend;
  • The public transport travel to the father’s chosen school was approximately one hour each way; and
  • She could not afford the proposed fees.

Now, the family law courts rarely get involved in the public vs private school debate and does not get involved in an analysis of the benefits of two competing, yet appropriately satisfactory schools.   However, disputes as to the particular school at which a child attends is a common dispute.  Those disputes can extend to costs of an agreed private school, two competing private schools or a private vs public debate.

Ultimately the Court must (and did in this matter) revert back to a consideration of the relevant s60CC factors and what was in this child’s best interests.

Case authority such as Blitz & Breugelman [2013] Fam CA 578 commented in relation to these disputes:

  • That there is no blanket presumption or preference to the views of the “residential” parent;
  • That the court should not engage in an assessment of the relative merits of the schools, particularly where they are both satisfactory (at first blush); and
  • Ordinarily it would be best for a child to attend a school close to his or her residence, without ignoring the convenience of the non-residential parent.

In this matter, the Court placed significant weight on the religious affiliation (or lack thereof) of each parent.   It commented that, in accordance with authority, an Australian Court cannot commence with any premise that as a matter of public policy one religion is to be preferred to another or that a religious upbringing is to be preferred to a non-religious one.

The Father accepted that he had not made any enquiries about the religious requirements of the school, nor its religious education program.  He was also unaware that the school’s acceptance agreement required the parents to support the school’s religious ethos and activities.

Noting the parties position on religion, Her Honour was significantly concerned that attendance at the Father’s proposed school may well lead to difficulties for the child because his everyday school life would be a stark contrast to his home life in both households.

The other most significant basis for the Court finding favour in the Mother’s proposal was the Father’s position on travel, which the Court found were unrealistic and onerous and favoured the child attending a school in close proximity to his Mother’s home and with his friends.

If you have a current dispute regarding where and how (i.e. religious or non-religious) your child or children are to be educated, or any other matter pertaining to their living arrangements, our Accredited Specialist led team of experienced and compassionate family lawyers are available to meet with you promptly.  We will work with you to resolve your dispute in the most practical and child-focused way.  Contact us on 07 55260157 for a discussion and to make an appointment.

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