A change is as good as a rest?

9th February 2001 at 00:00
As parents around the country lodge placing requests for next session, assistant head Sean McPartlin looks at the problems when pupils move secondary school

As a direct result of increased parental choice, the placement of pupils in our schools, particularly secondaries, has become what might euphemistically be termed "extremely interesting" for our local authorities and, ultimately, school management teams.

At S1 level, local authorities make the decision on who will be granted a request to attend a non-catchment school. This can be a tortuous business, sometimes ending up with men with pedometers measuring distances from house door to school door, or even appearing in court.

For school management, however, the pressure starts at the end of S2. It is possible to produce a number which equates, for reasons of accommodation and staffing, with S1 being "full". But after the choice of subjects for Standard grade, this number is less easy to divine. Pupils no longer move about in classes; each pupil is following an individual combination of seven or eight Standard grades.

This means there can be no easily assembled "waiting list"; the availability of a place depends on the combination of subjects being studied. If a place is to be available in S3-S4, the school needs to be offering all the chosen subjects, there needs to be no clash on the timetable as to when they are taught, and there needs to be space in each of those classes at the right times.

There are really only two reasons why a pupil will change schools at third year or later: either the family has moved into the area, or something has gone wrong at the current school.

Schools tend to be honest and professional in passing on accurate information, but this is not always the case with parents. "The teachers picked on him" invariably translates as "His behaviour was so outrageous that he came within an inch of permanent exclusion". However, even recognising this is no particular help. If the family live in the catchment area and there is space in the appropriate subjects, then a place must be offered.

It's often with a heavy heart that the assistant head recognises the extra workload he is instigating for his colleagues as he welcomes the school's newest recruit. On the other hand, most schools would want to give a troubled pupil the benefit of a fresh start if at all possible.

In our authority, and in some f the neighbouring councils, the "hosting" arrangement seeks to address this problem. If a change of school might be beneficial for a pupil, for whatever reason, an arrangement is made for the pupil to start attending the new school for a set period, usually three months or so, to see if the situation improves.

The pupil remains on the roll of his original school, whose youth strategy group monitors his progress. At the end of the time, all other things being equal, and with input from parents, pupil and both schools, an informed decision is taken as to which educational setting would be best.

Where there is no space, it can be even more awkward for the senior management team member who is handling the application. Normally, the reason for refusing a place into S3 or S4 is based on the fact that too few subjects are available. It is clearly not sensible to offer a place in S3 to a pupil who will only be able to study four of his chosen subjects. Yet, frequently, desperate parents will overlook this fact in their eagerness to gain admission.

"We don't mind him only doing four. Can he not pick up the others as he goes along? We want him to come here because you wear uniform," they say.

Though research and school league tables indicate that exam results are all important, personal experience suggests that parents are at least equally interested in the ethos of the school and whether their child will be happy there - though this, in turn, will surely contribute to results.

Gaining an impression of a school is an intricate business - ask any team of HM Inspectors - yet parents often rely on word of mouth, or the most arcane of recommendations, as witness applications received in our school from Oman, South Africa and Scandinavia.

However, if parents sometimes feel there is an injustice in the awarding of places, we should spare a thought also for the schools that are not deemed so "popular" as to have the problem of oversubscription, particularly those which for no reason of their own - through accidents of geography, politics or sociology - struggle to maintain their roll, with all the attendant grief that situation brings.

Difficult though placement requests might sometimes be, every assistant head is aware that being kept busy in this way is much better than the alternative.

Sean McPartlin is assistant headteacher of St Margaret's Academy, West Lothian

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