Page last updated at 11:06 GMT, Friday, 3 July 2009 12:06 UK

Is there a school place loophole?

By Alison Smith
BBC News education reporter

Primary schoolchildren
Pressure on school places is increasing - especially in London primary schools

Should lying to gain the best education for your child be treated as a crime?

This emotive issue nearly came to trial.

There was the prospect of a fight between a council desperate to clamp down on fraudulent applications for school places, and an articulate professional mother who moved in with her own mother when her marriage broke down.

Mrinal Patel, from Harrow in London, spent four weeks separated from her husband, living close to a good infants school, and used this address on the school application form.

She denies intentionally lying and says she did nothing wrong.

However, Harrow Council tried and failed to use criminal fraud legislation to prosecute her under the Fraud Act 2006, saying she lied about her address and would have stood to gain dishonestly.

It now says it is exploring other avenues to punish parents who cheat to gain a school place if fraud legislation cannot be used.

I know lots of parents who have shamelessly used other addresses and lied about their circumstances
Tom, UK

There is apparently no legal sanction currently applicable to parents who lie or cheat to gain a school place.

But should these parents be punished, or praised for putting their children first in a system which many regard as unfair?

Generally, if a place has been offered at a school and it is then discovered that the parents cheated the system, the place is withdrawn.

'Shoplifting'

Recent evidence from the Local Government Association suggests more and more parents are prepared to lie to get a place at a good school, even though everybody says they want the admissions process to be fair.

David Ashton, Leader of Harrow Council, says local authorities have a responsibility to all the other parents who play by the rules, and to ensure they are not disadvantaged.

Withdrawing the school place is not enough, he says.

"We have to ensure parents have confidence in a fair system," he told the BBC.

"The problem is that there is no clear law as to what sanction applies if a parent puts false information on the form.

"Taking away the school place is not a punishment", he said.

"It's the equivalent of saying to someone who's shoplifting - 'put it back on the shelf'.

'Inaccurate'

Richmond Council in south west London is also experiencing a rise in "inaccurate" applications.

It says in 2005-06 it detected only five such forms, but by 2007-08 there were 50.

Mrinal Patel
Mrinal Patel denies doing anything wrong

A spokesman said the problem was testimony to the council's good schools, but added that sifting through the applications was taking up increasing resources.

Its cabinet member for education, Cllr Malcolm Eady, said: "We have been watching the Harrow case with interest, but will need time to digest its full implications.

"With no legal sanctions available we have put in place an extremely thorough checking system, we promoted this heavily and as a result have seen fewer false applications being submitted this year."

Some fear the failure of this action leaves the door open for parents to play the system - if they can.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, said: "It's something where the government may need to amend the law, because essentially, parental choice can never exactly match the places available, and there will always be this pressure to get into the 'good school'."

Hierarchy

Education campaigner Fiona Millar, who argues for a fairer admissions policy in England, describes the dilemma in different terms.

The problem according to her is that schools are presented in a hierarchy according to results, so parents may not want to send their children to their local school, even though it provides a very good education.

She favours a random allocation of places limited to geographical areas, and says this would give parents back confidence in their local schools.

"The incentive then to live as near as possible to a particular school would be trumped," she said.

At the moment, there is no fairness, she argues.

"Some parents have an advantaged position, especially if they have the money to move house," she says, "and this often disadvantages children from less well off backgrounds."

Ms Millar said she sent her children to their local school and they had had a very good education.

"I know people at the top of my road who moved house for a year to get a place at a secondary school and promptly moved back - and that is perfectly legal," she said.

But she added that parents must be warned about lying to get a school place.

"Don't under-estimate the resentment of parents if they feel somebody has got a place at a good or better school and they have been pushed out, even though they have been honest."



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SEE ALSO
School place 'fraud' case dropped
03 Jul 09 |  Education
Fraud and the school places form
11 May 09 |  Education
Mother denies school place fraud
29 May 09 |  Education
More parents lie to get schools
19 Mar 08 |  Education
Pressure on primary school places
15 Jun 09 |  Education

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