School places rule leaves poor children behind

13th May 2016 at 00:00

While a rejection of Thatcherism and all that the former prime minister stood for is a badge of honour among many Scots, one piece of legislation passed at the start of her first term has had an enduring appeal: the right to request a place for your child in a school other than the most local establishment.

Whatever you think about parents making difficult decisions based on incomplete information, in my opinion, the right to choose schools has fallen victim to the law of unintended consequences.

Specifically, the consequence of the widening of the gulf between high achievers and the rest, as pupils cluster in what are deemed to be good schools, creating healthy competition and an ethos of hard work, while their peers are left behind.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon may think that the attainment gap can be narrowed by the reintroduction of standardised testing (no, me neither); however, a more productive approach would be to end this legislation, thereby stopping parents from requesting a different school for their child.

The number of placing requests is not insignificant. Throughout the noughties – the most recent figures available on the government’s website – requests were made on behalf of around 18,000 primary and 10,000 secondary pupils annually, with about eight in 10 being successful.

For some local authorities bordering others that (on paper) seem to be performing better, hanging on to their school-age residents becomes more difficult if the parents perceive there is an advantage in moving.

Furthermore, as schools have the right to reject an applicant on the grounds that they may negatively affect the education or educational wellbeing of other pupils in the school, they can select the children they think are most likely to achieve good exam passes.

It baffles me that some parents actually believe that all of the good teachers work in a few select schools or local authorities. I don’t remember a transfer window being introduced in which a wealthy school could snap up all of the good prospective teachers on an enhanced salary.

In fact, success in a school is built on a mixture of being situated in an affluent area where tutors are the norm, an intense focus on results and having engaged parents. It is a pity that the promise of success can draw some parents across catchment areas in the hope of guaranteeing a good set of exam results, when their children could have acted as role models for their peers if they had stayed put.

Ironically, the government’s new national tests might encourage more placing requests, since they promise parents more evidence for comparing schools – which in turn would further widen the gap between these schools.

Gordon Cairns is an English and Forest School teacher in Glasgow

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