Is there a place for us?
Nicholas Conroy is five years old. He has just been turned down for St Peter and Paul, the local Catholic school in Dundee which his big sister Rebecca (aged seven) attends. Leah Steele is 12. She has been refused a place at St John's High, where all her friends are going. Her house is on the wrong side of the road, just outside the catchment area.
These children are two unhappy products of placing requests, the scheme which is intended to allow Scottish parents to choose their children's school. All over the country authorities are beavering away from January to May, trying to place young pupils in the school of their choice while their parents wait anxiously for the results. Talk to parents, politicians and teachers and most will tell you that they favour some degree of parental choice. But putting it into practice can be a nightmare for all concerned.
Dundee is one city which has severe problems. All the urban authorities in Scotland are swamped with placing requests - up by a third over the past 10 years to 31,000, but Dundee tops the primary table with 32 per cent of the Primary 1 roll putting in placing requests, compared to a national average of 18 per cent. The surge seems to be mainly due to the recent closure of four primaries and two secondaries.
Barbara Hughes, Dundee's education services manager, applauds the idea of parental choice. "But choice," she says, "sets up huge expectations and there can be frustration and resentment towards the authority because it is always subject to space."
Education convener John Kemp urges parents to think hard before looking outside their catchment area: "A school's reputation can be years out of date and a new head can change it dramatically." He says he would be prepared to send children of his own to any school in Dundee, and argues that parents frequently choose schools quite irrationally. "Often they like old buildings and the word academy. They don't see the qualities that are best for their individual child."
Schools can enjoy good reputations, not because they are performing better but because they attract parents who support their children more, he says. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The parents choose a school because they think it is good and it becomes good because it is attracting those families.
Morgan Academy is one of the city's most requested secondaries and has to turn down up to 80 placing requests each year (of which 20 to 30 will go to appeal). Headteacher Alan Constable says that only a tiny minority of parents come to visit the building and ask him questions before making the school their first choice. "They seem to decide on the basis of word of mouth."
"The Morgan", as it is known, is an inner city comprehensive with 1,000 pupils on its roll, and is not at the top of the exam league tables. But it is popular, Mr Constable believes, because "pupils are happy in the school and parents seem to like good academic standards, approachability, uniform, prefects, prize giving and a homework policy".
Sometimes parents are attracted by the school's long history, its proximity to a parent's workplace, or the fact that a relative went there. "Discipline is important to parents too," adds Mr Constable. "They want order, firmness and fairness for their child."
So who decides who gets into the school? In Dundee, it is the authority that makes the initial decision but Mr Constable has been involved in the subsequent appeals process. "I haven't had any parent in tears but some are very keen and will pursue it as far as they can," he says. "I would like to be able to take everyone who wants to come, but if I did that, I'd be overcrowded and lose the reputation the school has."
Placing requests can cause enormous inconvenience to schools and authorities. John Kemp admits the administration can be "a nightmare at certain times". But Mr Constable says: "We can't go back. Parents have a right. It was always there before. Now it is a structured legal process and more parents are doing it."
But how real is parental choice in practice? According to Independent Labour councillor Ian Borthwick, Dundee's problems can be put down to the council's going against the grain of parents' wishes in a hasty choice of schools for closure, because of acute financial pressures. "Parental choice is a joke," he claims. "It's just not there."
Talk to the parents, and many will agree. One angry parent, who asked not to be named, said: "I don't see why my son should be some sort of sacrificial lamb there to try and pull up the standards at a mediocre school. If the authority wants even distribution throughout its schools, it should make them all appealing to parents, not compel us to use them by gerrymandering with catchment areas."
As for Nicholas and Leah's parents, they feel let down by the system. Mark Conroy is disappointed that non-Catholics who live nearer the school are given higher priority than Nicholas: "I'm not blaming those families, but I find it hard that we've been turned down." Joanne Steele says: "Moving to secondary is a big enough step as it is. Leah is upset that she won't be going where her friends are going. I'm going to have problems getting her to go. This could easily set her back."
Both families are going to appeal.
HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD INTO THE SCHOOL OF YOUR CHOICE
Parents should follow the procedures laid down by the Scottish Office in its booklet Choosing a School: A Guide for Parents.
Nine steps to take: 1) Parents should find out all they can about the local school and visit it. Councils are required to publish information about their schools. This is available on request to parents; 2) If they wish to compare and contrast, check out other schools; 3) Check the date by which children have to be enrolled for the local or a different school; 4) If they wish to send their child to a different school, send the request to the council in writing. If the child is due to start primary or secondary in August, the council will write in December, January or February asking whether parents wish to choose a particular school; 5) If application letter reaches council by March 15, they must reply by April 30. (It is advisable to give supportive reasons for your request, eg, other children attend the chosen school); 6) If request is turned down, parent can request their second choice or appeal within 28 days to an appeal committee set up by the council, consisting of councillors or local people such as teachers (not employed at the chosen school or the one suggested by the council) and parents (with no child at the school of choice); 7) Arguments should be put in writing. The parent or their representative can also appear in person at the hearing arranged by the committee, normally within 28 days of receipt of letter of appeal; 8) Committee gives its decision within 14 days; 9) Parents can take a rejected appeal to a sheriff court, where the judgment is final.
Education authority procedures: 1) The council must tell parents: a) the name of the person to contact if they have questions about the handling of their request; b) a note of what the law says about the reason why your request may have to be refused; 2) The council can refuse parents' request if: a) They would have the expense of an additional teacher or classroom; b) If a child's education would suffer from another change of school; c) If education in the chosen school would not be suitable to the child's age, ability or aptitude; d) If the council thinks that a child can only be provided for in the chosen school at the expense of other children's education; e) If a child has been troublesome at school; f) If accepting the request would prevent the council offering a place to children likely to move into the area during the school year.