Page last updated at 15:43 GMT, Friday, 3 July 2009 16:43 UK

Check on school places cheating

Writing a form
There will be a report into the scale of admissions cheating

Schools Secretary Ed Balls has asked for a report on the problem of parents cheating to get school places.

England's Schools Adjudicator will look at the scale of the problem and whether there are enough powers to tackle cheats - and if they are being used.

The announcement follows a decision by Harrow Council in London to drop the prosecution of a parent it had accused of lying over her address.

Mrs Mrinal Patel said she was relieved and had never done anything wrong.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls has now asked the adjudicator, Ian Craig, to look at the issue as part of his annual report, due in November.

Mr Balls told BBC News he had asked him to look at:

  • whether the scale of this problem was more significant than thought
  • whether the powers authorities had to withdraw places were being used
  • whether those powers were sufficient to deter parents from unfairly playing the system and breaking the rules
  • whether further steps were needed.

He would report on that in November.

"So I want to reassure parents on the one hand we will make sure that parents and schools apply the admissions code fairly," Mr Balls said.

He added: "It's really important that parents who are properly playing by the rules aren't disadvantaged by some parents who break the rules or provide false information. That's not fair."

'Legal loophole'

Harrow was the first council to prosecute a parent over allegedly lying on an admissions form to get a child into a good school.

It abandoned the legal action after being advised that fraud legislation could not be applied to such cases.

It called on the government to close what it said was a "legal loophole" and critics of the system said the situation gave "a green light to cheats".

Harrow prosecuted Mrs Patel for giving her mother's address when applying to the popular Pinner Park First School for her son.

She said she lived there for four weeks, while she was temporarily separated from her husband, and her biggest mistake had been not telling the council when she moved out.

She admitted indicating on the form that this had been her address for 14 years.

She said this was because her mother had been living there for 14 years, and that she had been "under a tremendous amount of stress" at this time.

She said she had been honest with the council when they contacted her to check her application.

She added: "I still don't feel I have done anything wrong.

"My biggest mistake was that I didn't tell the council I had moved out when I did.

This case was never about persecuting mothers who wish to do the best for their children
David Ashton
Leader of Harrow Council

"When they rang to check with me and asked if I was still living there, I said no.

"I never tried to hide anything."

Mrs Patel said she was relieved and the decision not to launch a "disproportionate" action against her showed she was innocent.

Harrow Council said it decided to withdraw its legal action to avoid potentially expensive court costs when it was told the 2006 Fraud Act might only be applicable to property and might not apply in this case, something later confirmed by the government.

Council leader David Ashton told the BBC: "This seems to be a loophole. We can't in this particular instance and with this example use the Fraud Act 2006.

"But we are looking at other avenues and we'll be discussing it further. But it would help if the government considered this position, because it is a nationwide problem."

He added: "This case was not about persecuting mothers who want to do the best for their children.

All schools should serve the community in which they are situated
Chris Downing, Rothwell

"We took the view we should prosecute, because we have to ensure there is a level playing field for all parents.

"The difficulty is that there is no clear law of what sanction applies if parents puts false information on their application form."

Local authorities have the power to withdraw a school place from a child if they know the parents have lied about where they live to get it, but critics say that seldom happens.

'Tip of the iceberg'

Independent education advisor and former head teacher Peter Reid says the problem of cheating over school places is probably under-estimated.

"I actually think this sort of issue is only the tip of the iceberg.

"Parents are desperate to get places in popular schools."

Mr Reid said the sanction of taking away a child's place if the parents were found to have cheated was a strong one - it could happen a term after a child had taken up the place - but it was not being used.

"I rarely hear of this sanction being applied. If it was more widely applied it would be a deterrent to parents to break the rules," he said.

Last year, a survey by the Local Government Association suggested the number of cases of parents trying to cheat the system was growing.

The offer of a place for her Mrs Patel's son at Pinner Park First School was withdrawn. He now attends an independent school.

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