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It's cold up North... but less complicated?

Flora Napier Flora Napier | 12:29 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010


Watching The Big School Lottery, it was the children that my heart went out to. Following the families as they puzzle, debate, hope and nail-bitingly wait I wondered if every parent across England involved their child to the same degree as the parents featured. Although most of the children in the programme seemed unfazed, I could only imagine my 11-year-old self feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all.  

I‘m more than happy that, for my family here in Ayrshire, Scotland, the path through education will be more straightforward. If and when there is a choice to be made it will be a question of “here’s the school we’ve been allocated - not bad, but that one over there looks good too”. No entrance exams, no weighing up of a myriad of complicated factors and no sleepless nights for myself or my weans. Our boys will get a say in which secondary they go to, but it will be a simple choice governed by ’factors’ along the lines of where their pals are going.

For the majority of families in Scotland the secondary school enrolment system will be equally straightforward. It was the same for me growing up in the 70s and 80s. I went to the one-and-only wee local primary then transferred to the nearby secondary school. I well remember my first nerve-racking day at ‘the big school’ …half believing in the hinted-at ordeals awaiting new S1 pupils. The anxiety of my first day was definitely tempered by the familiarity of classmates’ faces and the closeness to home. 

Roughly speaking, in Scotland each secondary school is paired to one specific catchment area and also linked to several feeder primary schools. Choice does exist; parents can submit a placement request to an alternative state school. There are independent schools, denominational schools and niche choices such as GME - (Gaelic Medium Education) and Centres of excellence for Music, Sport and Dance.

There is no denying there are educational black spots in Scotland where there is an uphill battle, against issues of poverty and deprivation, to provide children with a good education. Outwith these black spots however, it seems to me, as a parent, that the Scottish system works reasonably fairly. It’s doubtful any catchment-based system could be perfect but certainly in my local area the social mix across schools is fairly well balanced. This can be attributed partly to careful planning on the council’s part, but also to the positive attitudes of parents towards local schools.

There are some issues with the system in Scotland. House-prices can be inflated close to popular schools. There have been a number of high profile catchment disputes over the past few years. In my own community I have heard parents discuss a highly praised secondary which is over 10 miles away despite there being a host of good local options. 

So, does this reflect a shift in attitude amongst parents? I hope not. If parents who are empowered enough to make a choice choose to stay and support good local schools hopefully we won't end up going down the same route as that portrayed in the programme.

The 'Big School Lottery' is part of BBC Two's School Season.

Take a look at the BBC Learning Scotland blog entry 'A Highland Education' by Bruce Munro and Claire O'Gallagher's blog 'A Scottish Lottery?'.

Flora Napier works for BBC Learning Scotland.




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