The poisoned chalice of choice

16th January 1998 at 00:00
Pressure is mounting on Dundee as parents protest at new catchment boundaries, reports Neil Munro.

Dundee's unhappy experiences with school reorganisation are continuing as parents protest over a major upheaval in catchment areas that involves 25 primaries and six secondaries in one of the most comprehensive exercises of its kind.

The city is a case study of how temperatures are raised when a combination of placing requests, population shifts and falling rolls forces councils to reallocate pupils, involving longer travelling distances often to unpopular schools.

The Scottish Office is currently digesting responses to a review of the placing requests system, following the well-publicised case at the start of the session when two Dundee children were turned away from Downfield primary, which their parents regarded as their local school although they did not live in its catchment area.

A judicial review of that case is due to be heard in the Court of Session later this month following a sheriff's criticism that the coun-cil was "just plain daft" in not including the district where the children lived in Downfield's catchment. The latest row involves a major change in Dundee's school boundaries in which the main priority for entry to a secondary school will be that pupils have attended one of its feeder primaries irrespective of where they live.

This, together with extensive primary rezoning, prompted John Fyfe, chairman of the Hillside primary school board, to characterise the changes as "choose your secondary school at the age of four". Instead of magnet secondaries, there would be magnet primaries.

Hillside parents, whose school is being linked to Menzieshill High instead of the highly regarded Harris Academy, are particularly aggrieved as 70 of 350 pupils live in the school's catchment area.

Dundee's Labour administration has attempted to mollify parents by agreeing that primary pupils who have older brothers or sisters at a secondary would have a higher priority for admission, in category two rather than three as initially proposed. The concession would be for a transitional seven-year period only, to cater for all pupils currently in the primary school system.

"This shows we have been listening to what the parents have been saying," John Kemp, Dundee's education convener, states. He also points to the decision not to transfer St Ninian's primary from St John's High to Lawside Academy as originally proposed. "There will always be aggrieved parents under any placing request system."

Anne Wilson, Dundee's director of education, said most of the priority two pupils would secure a secondary place on current figures. Priority for pupils who do not attend an associated primary would be given to those who live closest .

The irony is that parental choice legislation no longer guarantees entry to the school of choice. Mrs Wilson said children could be denied entry even if other families moved into the area. "That is why we and other authorities have been pressing for places to be held in reserve," she said.

But Mr Fyfe at Hillside argues that the city's moves make "a mockery of the Government's publication of information for parents on exam results, truancy levels and the rest which is supposed to help us make up our minds about the schools to which we should send our children".

He also rejects Dundee's argument that more structured links between primaries and secondaries will bring greater coherence to the 5-14 programme.

Some parents are particularly incensed that they are being denied a place at Harris Academy when it is to become the designated secondary for Invergowrie primary, just over the border in Perth and Kinross. Three other Perthshire primaries, Abernyte, Inchture and Longforgan, have been rezoned to Menzieshill High. Neil Sword, another Hillside parent, believes Perthshire parents on the edges of Dundee will now opt for Invergowrie to clinch a place at Harris Academy, putting the viability of the other primaries at risk.

The retention of school links across council boundaries is one of the many consequences of local government reorganisation, particularly in the cities. But Jacqueline Anderson, whose five-year-old son attends St Joseph's primary, objects "in the strongest possible way to Invergowrie primary children having priority over my children who live less than a five minutes walk from Harris Academy".

The authority is prepared to live with its "small minority" of disgruntled parents. The parents, for their part, say the battle is not over yet as the Secretary of State has to approve the rezoning proposals for three secondaries and four primaries because his consent is required for changes to any school that is more than 80 per cent full.

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