20th February 1998 at 00:00
The Court of Session has once again reminded parents that choice of school is + not an unfettered right.In his judgment on the unsuccessful attempt by two + families to get their children into Downfield primary in Dundee last August, + Lord Cameron rebuked a sheriff who had ruled in favour of the parents for + straying into the preserve of the education authority. The outcome of the case + was keenly awaited by authorities concerned that Sheriff Richard Davidson's + ruling would destroy school catchment areas and open the floodgates to + unrestricted parental choice. The case led the Education Minister to announce a+ review of the placing request arrangements. Elizabeth Maginnis, the + authorities' education spokesperson, commented: "Councils want to accommodate + the wishes of parents as far as possible, but this cannot be open-ended. The + capacity of buildings and the rules about class sizes have to be taken into + account also."The decision was welcomed by John Kemp, Dundee's education + convener, who regretted the experience which the parents and their children had+ to go through. But he said the sheriff's ruling "would have resulted in chaos + on placing requests throughout the country and led to similar distressful + situations many times over". Councils have been pressing the Scottish Office to+ remove the right of appeal to a sheriff in favour of the English system of + fixed intakes. Bill Coyle, a consultant who has been involved in 300 disputes + between parents and education departments, has dismissed court proceedings as a+ "pantomime".Lord Cameron stated in his judicial review: "The statutory right + of parents to choose where their child will be educated is qualified in that an+ education authority shall have regard to that principle so far as it is + compatible with the provision of suitable instruction and training and the + avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure."Dundee City Council estimated + that if the two boys had been admitted to Downfield primary this session, it + would have cost an additional #163;100,000 for extra classroom accommodation. + Lord Cameron said decisions on priorities were a matter for the council not the+ sheriff. Sheriff Davidson accepted that #163;100,000 "is plainly significant + expenditure" but upheld the placing requests on two grounds - that the journey + to the boys' zoned schools was "patently far too hazardous for children of + primary 1 age" and that children from their area had gone to Downfield for at + least 20 years.Although Liam McKenzie, then aged four, and Iain Muir, who was + five at the time, live respectively 600 metres and 750 metres from Downfield, + they are not within its catchment area. The sheriff was exercised that the + council proposed to send Liam to Dens Road primary, 1,750 metres away, and Iain+ to Clepington primary, 2,645 metres from his home.The sheriff said the + boundary arrangement s were "just plain daft" on the basis of "plain simple + geography". He did not share any "diffidence" on this matter arising from the + fact that the fixing of catchment areas could not be challenged through the + courts.Lord Cameron ruled that Sheriff Davidson had gone "far outwith the remit+ which was given to him", saying he had made unwarranted assumptions about + hazardous journeys and the historical expectations of parents.His Lordship + observed that Dundee's school boundaries had been redrawn following public + consultations. "What the sheriff has done is no more than to use the + opportunity in these appeals to force upon the authority properly charged with + the matter of determining the proper allocation of resources and priorities + within such resources, as well as the delineation of boundaries for each + school's catchment area, changes in the policies which had been adopted or + founded upon in refusing the placing requests."While the sheriff recognised + that health and safety matters were paramount as far as classroom accommodation+ was concerned, "he appears to have taken no account of the effect of his + determination in that regard". Sheriff Davidson "failed to take proper account + of the extent of his jurisdiction" and therefore acted unreasonably.Neither boy+ is attending their parents' or the authority's chosen school. Liam is + continuing to attend Jessie Porter nursery while Iain is at St Peter and Paul's+ primary.