THE automatic right of Scottish parents to choose a school for their children that is not their local one should be scrapped, a leading academic has said.

Brian Boyd, Emeritus Professor of Education at Strathclyde University, Glasgow, said the provision for families to use placing requests had led to increasing inequality.

The system was introduced by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in 1980 as part of moves to create greater social mobility. However, critics argued it was also intended to create a market in state education, which would force less popular schools to close.

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It meant parents who did not want to send their children to their local school were able for the first time to secure a place elsewhere, so long as there was space.

Previously, placing requests would only have been granted in exceptional circumstances.

Mr Boyd argues that the policy has polarised communities and exacerbated differences between comprehensive schools in different areas.

He highlighted exam results published in December that, once again, show some secondary schools greatly outperforming others just a few miles away.

In addition, the data published by the Scottish Government show there is virtually no social mix of pupils in many state-run secondaries - a key element of the comprehensive ethos.

Mr Boyd said: "The effect of the introduction of placing requests was to undermine one of the strengths of comprehensive education, where there is a social mix at the school.

"Prior to the Thatcher legislation you still could get a placing request, but you had to make a case and it was only granted under certain conditions.

"Now it is the local authority that has to make a case for the placing request to be refused and that has distorted the system and made it much less equal."

Mr Boyd said returning to a system where placing requests would only be made in some circumstances would ensure a better social mix in schools in future and greater parity between schools.

He said: "It is time to act because there is an increasing body of research that shows the more equal a society is the more prosperous it becomes, and to achieve that we need a better balance of society represented in every school."

However, parent groups opposed the proposed changes arguing the system was much fairer than it had been in the past.

Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said: "The current legislation was drafted to ensure that every parent had equal access to choice of school and if the situation were to be reversed we will go back to the days when only articulate parents who have the time and ability to take forward a placing request will do so.

"Our sense is that this would be a negative development and not something that is currently required."

However, Ms Prior said the reality of parental choice was still very patchy.

She said: "As school rolls are growing, the options for parents are often very limited as places may simply not be available and this is made more so by the limits on class sizes in the first year of primary.

"Many parents don't fully understand the full implications and, for instance, assume a child attending a nursery attached to a school will automatically have a place at the school, but that's not necessarily the case. This difficult situation is only going to get worse as our population rises."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "We support parental choice and parents' rights to make a placing request."