THE great writer Victor Hugo said: “He who opens a school door closes a prison.” It’s a wonderfully concise view of the importance of education and summarises brilliantly the feelings of parents.
Every parent wants the best for their children. Some choose to take often substantial funds from their family budgets and dedicate these to the schooling of their children in private schools – and in few places is this sector flourishing so well as it does in Edinburgh.
For most others – either for reasons of personal conviction or simply driven by finance – we must rely on the state to provide a good education for our young people.
But in these days of school inspections, which are widely reported, and given that every parent has a right to request that their child attend a school outwith their catchment area, what happens if you can’t get your child in to your preferred school? Alternatively, what if you move to a different catchment area in the middle of the school year?
The issues of placing requests and catchment areas are thorny ones, and while not generally involving court proceedings, many solicitors are increasingly seeing clients who seek guidance through what can be a stressful and complex process.
That shouldn’t be surprising, given that Scottish Government statistics show that around 30,000 placing requests are made to local authorities throughout the country each year. It’s a big issue, for a lot of people.
Some law firms, Lindsays included, are now providing help for parents who have to pick their way through the process – including any subsequent legal appeals that may be needed.
So what are the issues?
A major selling-point for properties in certain areas is the presence of a highly regarded school. However, popularity often means that a school cannot accommodate all the children within its catchment area, and this can be a hugely unwelcome surprise for parents – particularly if they have bought in the area specifically for the purpose.
But you can take steps. The council can provide a catchment area map and let you know if your local school is oversubscribed.
You must prove that you live in the area: a council tax letter and utility bill will do. If you are moving into an area with an oversubscribed school, you should contact the school or education authority as soon as possible to notify them and ask for their guidelines on school admission.
House moves are often the catalyst for problems. If you move mid-term and the local school is full, you will need to wait until a space becomes available, with your child attending a different school meantime.
Parents do have a right to request that their child attend a school outwith their catchment area, and with information on school performance now widely available many parents do exercise that right.
The council has a duty to grant such placing requests if possible. Most authorities have a form to submit a placing request, as this must be done in writing and by the time limit. Contact the education authority to clarify all time limits and ask for a copy of their guidelines for allocating places. The council can only turn down your request on certain grounds and these generally fall into three broad categories: expenditure, such as if an additional teacher would be needed; educational reasons, if the education at the school is not compatible with the child’s age, ability or aptitude; and capacity, if the request would push the school over capacity.
If a council receives more than one placing request for a child relating to different schools, for instance, from separated parents, the school requested first is treated as the specified school.
The council must inform the parent of its decision within two months. There is a right to appeal within 28 days to the Authority Appeal committee who must confirm the council’s decision if satisfied that 1) one or more of the refusal grounds exist and 2) it is appropriate to do so. A parent can attend the hearing with a representative, should lodge any written documents in advance and may lead evidence. There is an appeal from the committee to the sheriff court within 28 days.
• Nina Taylor is an associate in the family law team at Lindsays. www.lindsays.co.uk