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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+ Kemp urges parents to think hard before looking outside their catchment area: + "A school's reputation can be years out of date and a new head can change it + dramatically."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.

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