High cost of the right to choose;Opinion

23rd February 1996 at 00:00
The task of the new councils would be easier if the parents' charter did not exist. Shifting populations would still create imbalances between school rolls, but these would be much less marked because place of residence would determine which school a child attended. That was the policy under the last Labour government, but it will certainly not be tried again if Tony Blair becomes Prime Minister.

The right of parents to choose a school is as politically assured as the right to buy a council house. The consequences have to be faced, not the policy changed. When George Foulkes was chairman of Lothian's education committee before becoming a Labour MP, he ran into legal challenges to rigidly applied catchment areas in Edinburgh, and the capital has always been seen as the battleground between social engineering and individual rights.

But, as a report in The TES Scotland showed (February 9), Glasgow is becoming as educationally divided as Edinburgh. There are magnet schools and largely deserted ones. An additional problem, not evident in the capital, is that some of the desirable schools are outwith the new Glasgow council boundaries. For all councils serving the cities and larger towns, however, there is the challenge of feast and famine - too many pupils or too few - coupled with an inability to plan on the basis of demography because no one can tell which schools parents will choose.

Strenuous efforts have been made by headteachers to increase the attractiveness of unfashionable schools. In recent years fervent campaigns have been mounted, especially in Glasgow, in defence of schools threatened with closure. But the effect, for example, on St Gerard's in Govan, which is again under the spotlight, has been minimal in terms of making the school educationally or financially viable. People still vote with their feet, and trample on the aspirations of committed teachers and community activists.

Magnet schools often contain a good social mix, as is pointed out in our Managing Schools feature this week (TESS2, page four). Their problem is of accommodation. Schools that are three-quarters empty find it hard to offer a broad curriculum. But their closure, arguable on educational grounds, is mooted only when the money runs out.

Strathclyde tried to argue the rational educational case for amalgamations several years ago. Because the move was not impelled by immediate penury, it failed. Now across the country parental rights are pitched against financial necessity.

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