You can't pack them in like a sardine tin

The legislation on catchment areas and placings is in a mess and ministers must sort it out, says Judith Gillespie.

VERY year somewhere, parents take a local authority to court because their child has not been admitted to the school of choice. Sheriffs often rule in favour of the parent, requiring schools and existing children to shuffle up, squeeze in and somehow cope with the extra bodies. There may be calls for small classes, but given the choice between a small class and a school that does well in the league tables, parents opt for the sardine tin.

The recent case where parents from Winchburgh took West Lothian to court to secure places at Linlithgow Academy is unusual only in that they lived in the catchment area. After all, the catchment area system is designed to guarantee every child a place at a school within reasonable distance of where they live. Parents may choose to make a placing request to another school, their application may or may not be successful, but they can always fall back on their catchment area school - or at least that's the theory.

Such a system depends on school and catchment area being in balance. In recent years, falling rolls has made this relatively easy to maintain. Local authorities and councillors, who are charged with providing the right number of schools for their area, have more often had to cope with "rationalisation" or school closure as a result of falling populations rather than with adjusting catchment areas because of rising pupil numbers.

And, because making any change in school provision stirs huge opposition, councillors are minded to leave well alone for as long as they can in the hope things will work out.

Within that general picture there have been points of pressure, usually at popular schools where any spare capacity has been taken up by placing requests which then makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the school to accommodate any upward fluctuation in catchment area demand. Add in housebuilding around such popular schools and we have the seeds of trouble.

The pressure is fuelled by the belief, held by many parents and encouraged by exam league tables, that it is schools which deliver success, rather than pupils who earn it. Suddenly entrance to the school of choice becomes not only desirable but essential.

How can balance be restored? It requires politicians at both national and local level to bite the bullet and take unpopular decisions. Local councillors have the power and duty to revise catchment areas where necessary.

Yes, they will annoy people who find that their local school has suddenly been changed, but experience shows that such anger does not last long. Parents, as a group, have a remarkably short memory and quickly adjust to changed circumstances. Moreover, schools are good at building loyalty.

At the national level it requires a revision of the placing request legislation so that authorities can plan and accommodate fluctuating local numbers more readily. First introduced in 1981 to overcome a very rigid catchment area-only system of allocating pupils, placing requests have deliberately been promoted by politicians as giving parents a "choice of school". In fact parents only have a right to express a preference - their request may be turned down, if the school is full.

However, falling rolls have led to the majority of requests being granted - so persuading parents that choice is an absolute right. Politicians have been content to encourage this belief, thinking that it is a one-way street to popularity. They fail to appreciate that local parents are often very resentful when "their" school becomes too overcrowded, while parents and children who move into the area of a popular school are angry when they cannot get in because it is full.

It is time for a fundamental review. At the time of the last education Bill, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council urged the Scottish Executive to look at including the concept of "capacity" in the legislation, with "capacity" viewed not just in terms of the total roll but in terms of each year group. Spare capacity in the fourth year is not of much use to pupils in the first year. Moreover it is necessary to take account not only of the number of classrooms and teachers but of the social space needed by youngsters.

Finally, parents should be reminded that it is pupils not schools that sit and pass exams: that general support from home is far more important than shoehorning a child into an overcrowded school.

Judith Gillespie is development manager with the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

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