Bid to keep sheriffs out of placing cases

Sheriffs should be kept out of disputes between parents and councils over choice of school, according to Dumfries and Galloway, the first authority to back the Government's review of placing requests.

The council suggests that current legislation in the 1980 Education Scotland Act could be repealed, with councils forced to provide places for all children in a catchment area and asked to use their discretion in offering places for pupils who live outside. Councillors could rule on contentious cases.

"It may thus be possible to translate what is proposed into workable legislation which still meets the parental expectations built up over the last 16 years," the council states.

If the current legislation remains unchanged, parents could be asked to justify requests, it is suggested. The council's submission states: "This might help to make parents think more closely about their action and to take advice on how to find the best school for their child, rather than exercise their right to choose in order to avoid the school in their catchment area."

Dumfries believes it should "ultimately have the right to refuse extraterritorial placing requests where these conflict with the interests of local pupils". Requests could be rejected if there was a risk of overcrowding. Officials say a relatively small number of refusals cause considerable problems for the education department and councillors, and stress for parents and children.

Research has shown there is only a marginal benefit to pupils placed outside their local areas but a significant detrimental effect on the whole system. Schools serving pupils in disadvantaged areas have lost many pupils to schools with higher socio-economic status.

In Dumfries, 21 per cent of the primary intake and 9.5 per cent of the secondary intake are on placing requests. Virtually all primary requests succeed while all those for the secondary sector are granted. But legislation has created magnet primaries, causing class sizes to rise, "a somewhat perverse outcome for parents seeking better educational provision for their children", the council comments.

It points to several sources of tension in the current system, including the April 30 deadline for requests. As magnet schools are filled early, children are squeezed out if they move into the catchment area during the following three to four months. The 1996 legislative amendment to prevent overcrowding in rural schools does not help all schools, the council says.

Class restructuring in primaries during the school year is another unpopular side-effect, Dumfries maintains. Children can be accepted if there is spare capacity in a school, even if the space is not in the right class. The council wants this anomaly ended.

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