Monday 23 October 2017

My Scottish upbringing was basis for decision on school choice

In my opinion by Fiona Ness

Fiona Ness
Fiona Ness

It's the crucial piece of post-natal advice given at every Irish maternity hospital: breast is best… and get their name down for a school before you leave the ward.

The Irish fixation with schools is topped only by the Irish fixation with property. What primary school your child 'gets into' really matters. In fact, their whole life depends upon it. No. Seriously.

This belief creates a feeding frenzy around admissions, with parents warring over school places and religious schools being accused of selection bias and 'baptismal bars' to admission.

Tipping its hat at the problem, the Education Minister last week asked parents to rate four proposals aimed at limiting or removing the role religion plays in the school admission process.

As a parent of school-going children in Ireland, I find I am an anomaly. When preparing to send my children to school, I identified the local state school, put my faith in the teachers, and sent my children there. No scruples about religion or feeder schools or performance rates or non-nationals (of which I am one).

My experience growing up in Scotland served as a template. I went to school in a mixed area served by 11 state primary schools - four Catholic and seven non-denominational. Today, three of the schools - one Catholic and two non-denominational - share a building, grounds, facilities and transport. Another two non-denominational schools have amalgamated into one. A failing Catholic school has closed and the children placed in the next nearest Catholic school. Few children are schooled outside the state system.

This is the Scottish way, and for Scottish children, it works. How does it work? Like this: Firstly, the state controls the schools. In 1918, the Church signed over ownership of schools to the state on the proviso that Catholic faith was sacrosanct within the curriculum. Catholic schools in every other respect - subjects that must be taught and standards expected, funding on a per capita basis and staffing ratio - are the same as non-denominational schools.

Populations are divided up into catchment areas, which include denominational and non-denominational schools.

Parents of children who live in a catchment area have an automatic right, regardless of religion, to send their children to whichever of the schools they like. It is against the law to deny a child entry to a school based on religion. In general, Scottish parents send their kids to the local school. Yet they also retain the right to make their own choice of school. They do this by submitting a 'placing request' to the education authority, not the school.

Parents can make the placing request based on their belief that a particular school is better than others in the area, although when making the request, parents would not normally give this as their official reason. This is because the other reasons have more weight. So, if you say, "I want my child to go to that school because it has a better attainment record", that is not seen as good a reason as the child being within walking distance of the requested school, and not as close to its catchment-area school. Other factors include working parents, grandparents who live near a particular school, and older siblings already attending the school.

Placing requests are granted on the basis that they will not impact the school's staffing entitlement - that is, the authority would not have to provide extra staff. Once all the placing requests have been submitted, the school is staffed to a pupil/teacher ratio based on the number of children in each school.

My mum, a retired Scottish primary school head teacher (in 2006 she received a medal from the prime minister as one of 'Britain's Best Educators'), attests to the strengths of the system. She found her school to be the subject of placing requests because it was a high attaining school in a mixed area - the same reason most Irish people try and place their children in specific schools today.

"Why shouldn't parents vote with their feet? Everyone wants the best for their child and if a school has a proven track record of high achievement, then all children should have the right to benefit from that," she says. "It may mean that the roll in one school rises while another school's roll declines. It's up to every school to ensure that they are providing the same high quality of education." In other words, it should be the standard of education, not the 'quality' of the catchment area, that defines the school.

Fiona Ness is Head of Magazines, Features and Supplements at Independent Newspapers

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