The surest way to start a protest march

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Ewan Aitken's comments (Viewpoint, February 6) on the redrawing of the Edinburgh school boundaries make interesting reading. They were all the more significant because I was catching up with my TES Scotland while travelling home from a Joan Baez concert. An uplifting experience it was too, not least because of Baez's ongoing motivation - at the age of 63 - to campaign for justice.

Children and their parents have rights when it comes to choice of school.

However much his rhetoric may disguise it, there is no escaping the messages of Mr Aitken's article. Parents should not have the right to send their children to the school of their choice. Parents must send their children to the school chosen by the local authority. It's selfish to want to choose.

Mr Aitken tries hard to boil this debate down to the dichotomy between two philosophical tensions - altruism versus possessiveness. The altruistic parents are apparently the ones who are prepared to send their offspring to the designated catchment area school, regardless of its quality. Mr Aitken, with his fondness for philosophical argument, might consider this: David Hume, for all his ardent philosophising, recommended that philosophy should be kept for after-dinner conversations (after a few glasses of wine) and that, in order to get on with the practicalities of daily living, common sense should prevail.

Memo to Edinburgh City Council and any other authority engaged in a similar exercise: consider just how powerful an emotion parental love is. However inadequate some parenting is - and it is for a plethora of reasons - all parents want the best for their children. In the face of mounting violent incidents in schools, poor levels of literacy and an unproved but sneaking suspicion that Scottish schoolchildren are among the worst-behaved in the world, parents most definitely want their children to attend what they consider to be the best school.

The best schools take a holistic approach, recognising the need for the child to develop as a whole person who will be ready for the real world outside school. Support systems within the school will be robust and a range of external agencies will be inextricably linked with the school. The contribution of parents to the formulation and maintenance of school policies will be welcomed.

Achievement will be actively celebrated and academic success, relative to the potential of each individual pupil in the school, will be regarded as crucially important. Not for these schools the cop-out mantra - Highers aren't everything. Very sensibly, parents will not be happy to send their children to schools that don't demonstrate these vital characteristics.

Well, I wouldn't have been. No amount of appealing to my altruistic side would have persuaded me that it was my duty to send my children to a school which performed less well than its counterpart down the road. Pretty much in the same way as I wouldn't voluntarily send my children to a hospital which has an inferior record to that of its neighbour. Is it selfish to want to send your child to the best school possible?

The solution? Employ the old cliche - don't put the cart before the horse.

Sort out the failing schools. Carefully assess where they need help, consider every possible option. Pour in massive support - financial or otherwise - but don't fondly imagine that you will sort out the problem simply by coercing Mr and Mrs Doing-Very-Nicely of Leafy Suburb to send their babes to school X rather than school Y.

It might be the cheapest solution but it's not the best option. In Edinburgh it will drive even more parents to scrimping and saving for the independent school option - and who can blame them? Parents need to see tangible evidence of improvements in all schools. Yes, it might take a long time but then Edinburgh City Council can talk business and the parents might listen.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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