Michael Kelly: Why educational choice must be limited to provide equality

HOW far is the state entitled to limit parental choice in education? It would be a tough question on a political science exam paper. It's even harder for those at the sharp end of the education system who have to have a stab at it.

In particular, this is the practical challenge currently imposed by the courts on East Renfrewshire Council over its flagship denominational school, St Ninian's. The 25-year-old secondary has proved so successful its roll now stands at 1,731, with parental pressure threatening to push it further every year.

And it is no wonder these concerned middle-class activists send their solicitors to gather at the school gates waving writs demanding right of access. The school is extraordinarily successful. The most recent report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (HMIe) gave it an outstanding endorsement. It was praised for the excellent leadership of its head teacher and staff and for the "exemplary behaviour, hard work, courtesy and attainment" demonstrated by its pupils. Unsurprisingly, this led to exam results well above the national average.

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Who wouldn't make a placing request for their kid to go there? But, as the school announced on its website: "We simply cannot accommodate everyone who wants a place." There is the physical limit of the facilities. But, more importantly, there must be a danger that, by grossly increasing its pupil numbers, the very ethos that makes this such a successful state school will be destroyed.

East Renfrewshire Council's solution was to propose "pupils living within Glasgow City Council boundary would no longer have a first priority for a place at St Ninian's". Seemed fair enough. Surely our hard-pressed local authorities have enough to do coping with the needs and demands of their own residents without having to continue to accommodate across-the-border interlopers? But the courts decided that approach rode roughshod over parents' justified rights and expectations and threw the proposal out.

And that has been the direction in which the courts have gone every time parents have challenged state attempts to restrict their choice. It has happened in Edinburgh and East Lothian as well as East Renfrewshire. In the present case, the Catholic Church would argue East Renfrewshire has brought the problem down on its own head. It is one of the very few local authorities in Scotland that does not operate a priority-of-admission policy for Catholics to its denominational primaries.

Non-Catholic parents wanting their kids to end up in St Ninian's can sneak them into the relevant feeder primaries – which themselves are now heavily overloaded – guaranteeing them a place in St Ninian's. That's another policy that could end up before a judge.

But, there is another East Renfrewshire school – St Luke's – that HMIe marked as "excellent" in four of the five evaluations set by the Scottish Executive. It has a "hardworking and caring ethos" and provides an "excellent, broad and challenging curriculum both in and out of class". And its roll is only 638.

So, East Renfrewshire could simply accept the restrictions the court has placed on it in relation to its "Glasgow" families and redraw the catchment areas within its own boundaries for both of its schools without in any way diminishing the quality of education it offered.

But it will never do that. Because, if it did, there would be rioting in the streets of Newton Mearns.

Economically, socially and psychologically, this tiny local authority is split in two. Eastwood is middle-class. Barrhead is not. That's it in a nutshell.

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But rename the school St Aloysius' (South) and tell them the fees to non-Eastwood residents are 9,000 a year and they'd knock you down in their 4x4s in their rush to get there.

There is a further sound educational option locally. St Paul's in Glasgow is a school that the HMIe rates as a "good" school with high-quality accommodation and facilities. But it has a higher than average take-up of free school meals and lower than average pupil attendance – precisely the criteria that scare away aspirational parents.

The choices offered by these education authorities are ones that parents are not willing to exercise. They have an unreasonable view of their right to choose. But this is state education. You want more choice? Go private. In the state system, there are always going to be better schools. The shortage of high-quality state schools in parts of Scotland is mainly due to skewed demographics. Not that this applies to St Paul's, but you simply cannot have an effective comprehensive school in the middle of a sink estate.

In equity, the state should be spending proportionately more on schools in these areas by, for example, funding very small classes.

Instead of a small group of parents playing the system for their own selfish ends, we should expect responsible citizens to make sacrifices for the common good.

In Glasgow and Edinburgh, middle-class parents send their kids to the private schools of their choice, even although they have to cross the city twice a day to get them there. But ask those same parents to make shorter journeys to improve the social mix of a nearby comprehensive and they'd laugh in your face.

The most important factor in children succeeding at school is the socio-economic status of the parents. The middle classes can spend on tutors. They can give informed help with homework and projects. They know how to deal with teachers to get the best for their kids. And if that doesn't work, they can move to the areas where the best state schools are. On top of all these advantages, they are also savvy and rich enough to challenge in the courts any perceived threat by the state.

The state uses taxpayers' money to provide education for all. It cannot be held to ransom by small, unrepresentative groups of parents, however praiseworthy their vigilance in guarding the interests of their own children. Local authorities do not have the resources to respond to all the educational demands made on them. Nor can the state be an unlimited provider of educational choice. It is not a free or private market.

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In the absence of more money being readily available to help schools in poorer areas, what are needed, as a matter of urgency, are national criteria on placing requests, defining the grounds on which parents' wishes have to be considered. Such legislation would limit parental choice, though it would not stop legal challenges nor politicians succumbing to local parent power. It would, however, help local authorities currently floundering around in a sea of uncertainty.

Like all tough exam questions, until the results come out, you can never be sure you've got the answer right. But you've got to start by putting pen to paper.