Art. 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child describes the right of children to an education. For expat parents, the actual right to an education is not so much the issue as is choosing the right school, this in terms of best possibilities for the right diplomas, as well as creating a smooth transition – all keeping in mind the emotional well-being of the children.
Fortunately, many employers help them out by providing them with information on, or even by paying the costs of, international schools. Living in the Netherlands, however, opens a lot of choices, especially in the western part of the country. A luxury problem, not only for expats, but for anyone with children. There are French schools, British schools, American schools, international schools and an increasing number of Dutch (secondary) schools that offer fast lane English or tweetalig onderwijs tto (bilingual education). And of course there is a huge offer of language classes that children can attend after school. As expat parents are frequently academics whose children are equally as intelligent, these children are often able to cope with a challenging curriculum.
It is, of course, understandable that expat parents might want their children to retain or develop their national identity. However, they should realize that this will not necessarily make the transition all that much easier: one of the complications of moving abroad with children is that they are going through an internal struggle themselves, dealing with other norms in terms of social interaction as well as expectations of life, especially in secondary school.
When raising children in the Netherlands, it is good to be aware of the relatively open and relaxed Dutch attitude when it comes to this topic. Not only that; various international surveys over the last 10 years, including by UNICEF and WHO, have concluded that Dutch teenagers are most satisfied with their lives, and the happiest. Nonetheless, this openness and relaxed atmosphere can at times constitute a tempting life for teens coming in from abroad.
Education and Divorce
The luxury problem of the vast array of choices when it comes to schools and afterschool (language) courses often becomes an even bigger problem when expat parents separate or get a divorce. As a divorce lawyer and mediator with an international practice, I help parents deal with this dilemma quite often. And my first aim is to make the spouses think as parents when they have to make a parenting plan for after the divorce.
Parenting Plan and Children’s Rights
When I have the opportunity to sit with parents and draw up a parenting plan, I try to make them see that this plan, in fact, ties in to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The obligation for parents to come up with a parenting plan that protects the interests of the children is based on this Convention (Art. 5), and emphasizes the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents.
When making a parenting plan, the first issue is that of the right of the child to live with both parents or maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis (Art. 9 of the Convention). School in most cases comes next, based on Art. 28 of the Convention: the right of the child to an education. Schooling and education, however, can easily become a hot issue in (expat) divorce situations. Especially as expat children very often have two nationalities (sometimes even four) and in many cases speak several languages.
Language, culture – and therefore schooling – can easily become a major subject of contention in a divorce situation. What to think of the children who had a French father, a German mother, and who lived in The Hague? Their parents spoke French at home. Both children started attending a Dutch school at the age of 4, but switched to a German school later on, with additional lessons in French and the eldest also in Hebrew. After a while, the family had to move to Germany as both parents were posted there, but the parents divorced just before the actual move. The father wanted the children to attend a French school in Germany – as he wanted to avoid an imbalance between their French and German educations – and even started proceedings to safeguard this, despite advice to the contrary from the German school, as one of the children was dyslectic. The court judged that his request was not in the interest of the children. An obvious judgement for most people, I presume, but, unfortunately, not for all.
In a divorce, the au pair also can easily become a subject of disagreement, if only because you can’t split a human being into two… When the au pair is also hired to teach the children the language of their grandparents, it is not only their daily care, but also their language education that is at stake.
And how about the children who had a Chilean father, a French mother, and who also lived in The Hague; their parents spoke French at home, the children had an 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, including regarding the au pair, keeping things as smooth as possible for the children. Not seldom, however, 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 Spanish lessons have to be arranged.
When expats are looking for a school for their children, they generally aim to achieve a smooth transition, an educational program that leads to the desired diplomas – all with the emotional well-being of the children in the back of their minds. So why not in a divorce situation? With the benefit of some of my own expat experience, I can only advise expat clients in divorce situation to never to forget the right of the child to rest and leisure time (Art. 31 of the Convention).
Access to education is a children’s right, but not the only one!