THE number of families refused a place at their first-choice primary school has hit a record high.
According to fresh data obtained by the Evening News, 541 P1 placing requests were refused in 2013 – up from 446 the year before.
At many pinch points, staff were forced to refuse all placing requests, meaning their schools were completely shut to non-catchment children.
Education chiefs have responded by launching a hard-hitting campaign aimed at convincing parents to opt for their local school.
But despite this, new figures show the total number of applications received is continuing to soar, with 1084 P1 placing requests processed in 2013 – a jump of nearly 15 per cent on the year before.
In a further bid to relieve the pressure, education chiefs have begun a dialogue with the Scottish Government aimed at tightening up regulations on school admission.
They want to see the rules changed so that out-of-catchment requests can be refused if every P1 class in a school has reached the legal limit of 25 or 30 if there are team teachers.
But parents and opposition leaders have criticised the squeeze on parent choice and say the current scramble for places is evidence of underlying weaknesses in long-term planning.
Councillor Jason Rust, education spokesman for the city’s Conservatives, said: “The principle has been established for a long time that parents have a right to choose to send their children to a school other than their catchment school.
“Obviously there are no guarantees and the council is bound by the national guidelines of the Scottish Government. But I have the sense that parent choice is not high up the agenda at the moment – I think there’s a lack of awareness that many parents still want to exercise that choice, which is their right.”
According to the figures, the number of placing requests processed and rejected is the highest since 2009 – the earliest year for which complete data is available – when there were just 152 refusals.
The information also reveals dramatic variation in the ability of different city schools to accommodate large numbers of requests.
Pirniehall Primary in the north of the city was able to absorb 21 of its 24 non-catchment applications, while in the east, Abbeyhill Primary had a rate of nearly 90 per cent after staff accepted 17 of 19 requests.
This contrasts with primary schools in popular middle-class neighbourhoods such as Stockbridge, Bruntsfield and Morningside, where catchment and overcrowding pressures are most intense.
The acceptance rate at Broughton Primary was zero in 2013, while Stockbridge Primary refused all but three of its applications. And at South Morningside, nine of the 11 requests were turned down.
The situation at many of the Capital’s most popular Catholic schools – where families often have to present evidence of baptism before children are admitted – was even more stark.
St Mary’s RC (Edinburgh) Primary rejected all 16 of the non-catchment requests made for places in its P1 classrooms, with St Mary’s Leith, St John’s and St Cuthbert’s following suit.
St Peter’s was able to approve only one of the 14 applications sent to its staff.
Cllr Rust called on education leaders to establish why such large imbalances in supply and demand had built up across the city, and what could be done to reduce them.
“The question has got to be asked as to why some schools are so popular in contrast with others,” he said. “There’s a failure of the administration to look at the wider situation and strategy going ahead. We seem to find ourselves in a similar situation every year.
“There’s a lot of cynicism, or doubt, because of the fact the previous administration closed schools on the back of a perceived reduction in catchment population in the north and west of the city, and now we are seeing accommodation problems in those areas.”
Frustrated city parents have echoed the call for more “joined-up” thinking and said a wide-ranging programme to expand Edinburgh’s most under-pressure primaries was too little, too late.
Bruce Doney, 45, with two children in P1 and P3 at East Craigs Primary, said: “I’m not sure how they’ve been managing the planning side of it – there doesn’t seem to have been much foresight applied at all.”
Mr Doney said there was growing frustration among parents at East Craigs, which last year accepted only one of 11 placing requests and where accommodation pressures are so intense that pupils have occasionally been asked to eat lunch on their knees.
“At the moment, it is struggling – they just need to expand the size of it,” he said.
“When the older sibling has a place but then the boundary changes and the younger sibling falls out of catchment, it’s pretty tough for families.”
However, education leaders have embarked on a city-wide campaign to reinforce the message that “the days when parents could pick and choose a school for their children are now gone”.
Councillor Paul Godzik, education leader, said: “I would always encourage parents to send children to their catchment primary and support their community by helping to create a thriving local school. Families will very soon be finding out whether their placing requests for this August have been granted and I hope they see the advantages of a school closer to home.”
City chiefs are pressing ahead with an ambitious programme to expand some of the most overcrowded primaries.
Last month, we revealed how they had admitted 81 new classrooms would be needed to address chronic space shortages across the Capital.