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Councils swamped by placing requests

Parents' right to choose their children's school, hailed as a major triumph of Conservative education policy, is continuing to cause severe problems for Labour councils.

Scottish Office figures for 1995-96 show 31,000 parents used parental choice legislation. In primaries, 18.4 per cent of pupils were on placing requests and in secondaries 12.9 per cent. The figures rise sharply in the four cities to an average of around 25 per cent.

Councils say the "Balfron High" amendment introduced by Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary, to allow popular schools to retain places for late entrants will not end overcrowding. Some local children who apply after spring deadlines will not gain entry to their local first choice school, they maintain.

John Stodter, director of education in Aberdeen, which has the greatest combined percentages of placing requests in the primary and secondary sectors, said: "Authorities should have more flexibility to determine where they should retain places. We should maybe be allowed to reserve around a dozen places in schools where there are problems."

Critics have suggested the legislation was framed specifically for the particular problems at Balfron High within Mr Forsyth's Stirling constituency. Places can be reserved where there is not an alternative school within two miles for primaries and three miles for secondaries. Mr Stodter said Aberdeen had primaries within two miles of other schools which were also full.

Edinburgh is being forced to spend Pounds 1 million before next session on easing acute overcrowding at nine primaries. Elizabeth Maginnis, the city's education convener, said that despite the "mini-crisis" she recognised the importance of parental choice.

The capital has dropped plans to admit only baptised Roman Catholic children to three popular denominational primaries after being advised it would be illegal to prevent other children taking up a place. Local children will retain first option.

Ken Corsar, Glasgow's education director, said placing requests had exacerbated dilemmas in the south side of the city where the council is waiting on the Scottish Office to confirm that John Bosco's Secondary will not be allowed to opt out. The city wants to merge it with Holyrood, Scotland's largest secondary. Parents had "voted with the feet", Mr Corsar said.

The city is poised to reveal a major overhaul of schools after the general election.

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