The education of an expat child during divorce in the Netherlands
Van Hilten de Vries van Ruitenbeek Advocaten & Mediators (HVR) in The Hague is a law firm specialising in family law and general practice.
Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child describes the basic right of all children to an education.
Though most expat parents do not concern themselves too much with this issue in a fundamental sense, many will attest that choosing the right school for their children is an arduous process.
It requires taking into account which diplomas are offered, as well as the capacity of the school to support expat children in their transition, all while ensuring that the child’s emotional needs are looked after.
Employers often provide a helpful source of advice and information, and in some cases are even willing to cover the costs of international schools.
A first-world problem
The Dutch school system offers a wealth of choices for parents, and navigating them can be a challenge not only for expats, but also for local families.
There are French schools, British schools, American schools, international schools and an increasing number of Dutch secondary schools that offer fast-track English or tweetalig onderwijs (bilingual education).
In addition, there is a huge range of language classes that children can attend after school. As expat parents tend to be relatively well-educated, they are often able to support their children through a challenging curriculum.
It is, of course, understandable that expat parents might want their children to retain or develop their own cultural identity. However, they should consider that this will not necessarily make the transition easier for the child.
One of the challenges of moving abroad with children is that they are going through an internal struggle themselves, dealing with new norms in terms of social interaction and life expectations, especially in secondary school.
Expats in the Netherlands may notice that the Dutch are relatively open and relaxed when it comes to raising children. What’s more, various international surveys over the last 10 years, including some by UNICEF and WHO, have concluded that Dutch teenagers are the most satisfied with their lives, and the happiest.
This may seem a tempting new life for teens coming in from abroad, especially as many expat parents tend to forget the right of the child to rest and leisure (Art. 31 of the Convention).
The problem of the vast array of choices regarding schools and after-school (language) courses often takes on greater significance when parents separate or divorce.
Divorce lawyers and mediators encounter this issue quite often when dealing with international clients. The key to creating a successful post-divorce parenting plan is ensuring that the spouses think first and foremost as parents throughout the process.
Parenting plans and children’s rights
When I have the opportunity to sit with parents and draw up a parenting plan, I try to make them understand that their plan needs to conform to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The state’s interest in requiring parents to come up with a parenting plan that protects the interests of children is based on the Article 5 of the Convention, which emphasizes the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents.
When drawing up a parenting plan, the first issue to address is that of the right of the child to live with both parents or maintain personal relations and direct contact with each on a regular basis (Art. 9 of the Convention).
School in most cases comes next, taking into account Art. 28 of the Convention: the right of the child to an education. Schooling and education, however, can easily become a central point of contention in expat divorce situations, especially as these children very often have two nationalities (sometimes even several) and in many cases speak more than one language.
Multicultural families: an example
Concerns surrounding the language, culture and schooling of children frequently dominate divorce proceedings. The following case concerns a French father, a German mother, and their children, all living in The Hague.
The parents spoke French at home. Both children began attending a Dutch school at the age of four, but switched to a German school later on, with additional lessons in French and, for the eldest, Hebrew. After a while, the family planned to move to Germany, as both parents had accepted job postings there, but the parents divorced just before the scheduled move.
The father wanted his children to attend a French school in Germany, hoping to avoid an imbalance between their French and German educations. Despite advice to the contrary from their German school, especially regarding the case of one of the children, who was dyslexic, he started proceedings to safeguard this.
The court judged that his request was not in the interest of the children. This may seem an obvious judgement to most readers, but, unfortunately, not to all.
In a divorce, an au pair can also become a subject of disagreement. What does the divorce mean for the au pair’s work and living arrangements?
When an au pair is hired to teach children the language of their grandparents, a divorce jeopardizes not only their routine daily care, but also their language education.
Illustrative of this is the story of a family, also living in The Hague, which consisted of a Chilean father, a French mother and their children. The parents spoke French at home, but the children had a Hispanic au pair. One child attended a Dutch kindergarten and the other a French primary school.
When these parents divorced they managed to reach an agreement at my mediation table. This included a new role for the au pair, so as to keep things as smooth as possible for the children.
Not infrequently, however, and especially when these cases make it to court, the only solution is that the au pair leaves, the children go to after-school care, and additional (e.g. Spanish) language lessons have to be arranged.
Putting children first
When expats are searching for a school for their children, they generally aim to achieve a smooth transition, an educational program that leads to the desired diplomas, and, first and foremost, to keep the emotional well-being of their children in the back of their minds. Why should this be any different in a divorce situation?
On a final note, I would like to draw on some of my own expat experience and remind divorcing parents to never forget the right of the child to rest and leisure time.
Access to education is an important children’s right, but not the only one!