Page last updated at 12:41 GMT, Monday, 11 May 2009 13:41 UK

Fraud and the school places form

By Alison Smith
BBC News education reporter

Primary school children
Pressure on school places is increasing

A London mother faces prison or a large fine if a court finds her guilty of so-called "address fraud" - lying about her address in order to get her child into a good school in a different catchment area.

She is thought to be the first parent to be prosecuted in this way.

But what are the rules regarding school applications, and why is giving a false address a criminal offence?

Mrinal Patel applied to the popular and highly-rated Pinner Park First School, in north-west London, for her child.

Harrow Council says she falsely gave the address of the child's grandmother, which was inside the school's catchment area, whereas her own home was not.

She will appear in court later this month accused of fraud by false representation - which essentially means misrepresenting the true nature of affairs.

'On the increase'

It might come as a surprise to some parents to find out that they could in theory face jail for lying about their address on an application form for a school place.

If they do so, they are contravening section two of the Fraud Act 2006.

Fraud is commonly thought to be deception in order to gain a financial advantage.

But it can be committed where other types of advantage stand to be gained dishonestly - in this case an "undeserved" place at a good school.

The Act says a person is in breach who "dishonestly makes a false representation, and intends, by doing so, to make a gain for himself or another, or to cause loss to another or to expose another to a risk of loss".

The maximum penalty for false representation is one year in jail or a £5,000 fine.

In practice it is unlikely Ms Patel will be jailed.

Local councils in England say bogus applications which give false addresses are on the increase.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said numbers of false applications detected by councils in the school year 2007-08 were three times higher than the year before.

It surveyed 31 local councils, and 24 reported increases in so-called "address fraud".

Richmond Council noted the largest increase in the practice, which it said was testament to its good schools.

The LGA said the increase was a "worrying trend".


Parents are required to provide proof of address when applying for a school place - such as a utility or council tax bill, and councils will often check addresses against HM Revenue and Customs records.

Where a council suspects parents of providing a false address, it usually withdraws the offer of a place without exercising the right to prosecute.

Harrow Council said it was choosing to prosecute Ms Patel because she "had failed to engage with them" to explain the apparent discrepancy of addresses, an official said.

Councillor Anjana Patel, Harrow's head of schools and children's services, said the council's first duty was to "ensure the system was fair and seen to be so".

"This kind of prosecution is something we bring with great reluctance," she said.

Ms Patel has said she was living with her mother at the time of the application because she was separated from her husband, but later she moved back to the family home.

She says she did not know this would have a bearing on the application.

There appears to be a greater squeeze on primary school places in London this year - a shortfall of 2,250 places in the capital this year is expected to rise to 5,000 next year, London councils say.

The LGA said it had heard anecdotally of similar problems in other parts of England.

It said it expected the problem of address fraud to increase. A spokeswoman said: "Parents are increasingly willing to fight hard to look after the interests of their child.

"With financial pressures and the increasing pressure on school places, we can expect more to be willing to try to bend the rules."

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