Page last updated at 14:36 GMT, Monday, 2 November 2009

Crackdown on school place cheats

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter

Dr Ian Craig says deterrents need to be strengthened

Tougher action should be taken against the thousands of parents who lie to get their children into popular schools, England's school places watchdog says.

Schools Adjudicator Ian Craig said an estimated 3,500 parents lied on school application forms each year.

Local authorities should use all means open to them to deter parents from cheating the admissions system.

This includes removing places from the guilty and pursuing them through the courts, possibly using the Perjury Act.

In his government-commissioned report Dr Craig said currently people had "nothing to lose" if they lied to get a place, but he stopped short of calling for school place fraud to be made a crime.

It is a form of theft and surely we ought to be saying wherever we can that this is not right
Dr Ian Craig
England's Schools Adjudicator

He said he was not persuaded that the courts would use short-term prison sentences in such cases.

He added that fines would not be effective against parents who could afford to rent a second property close to a popular school.

However, he described lying to get a place at a good school as a "theft" because it deprived another child of that place. He called on the media to send a message to parents that this was wrong.

The detail of how parents could be deterred, and any sanctions to be taken against those that make misleading or false applications, are to form part of a second report ordered by the Secretary of State, Ed Balls.

In the meantime he urged councils to make use of their ability to remove school places from children whose parents had been found cheating.

This first report on "fraudulent or misleading applications" was commissioned by the government following the case of a mother accused of using a false home address to get her child into a popular school in London. The case was denied and later dropped.

False addresses

Dr Craig asked the 150 English education authorities to provide information on the scale of fraudulent or misleading applications their area.

Two-fifths of the 123 councils that responded to Dr Craig's inquiry said the problem was a growing one, with some authorities reporting as many as 100 cases.

In total 1,100 incidents where local authorities had taken action were reported by these 123 councils.

Dr Craig said if this was extrapolated across the remaining councils the number would be more like 1,300 cases.

Officers then said they believed they were only catching about half the number of school place cheats.

Dr Craig said: "The majority of parents are honest. If we put this in the context of the 800,000 reception class entries and about 800,000 children transferring to secondary school.

"That's 3,500 out of about one to two million school place applications."

'Marriage breakdowns'

He added: "It is a form of theft and surely we ought to be saying wherever we can that this is not right."

He blamed parents and not the schools admissions system for the problem, saying: "This is about the parents bending the rules and not telling the truth."

But he said there needed to be consistency between local authorities about what, for example, could be deemed a "permanent address".

Ways of cheating included using relatives' addresses and renting a property for the duration of the application. Parents also faked marriage breakdowns and used vacant properties

'Small minority'

Mr Balls said he was reassured that the vast majority of applications were honest, but he was concerned some places were being obtained by deception.

"I take this issue very seriously and it is vital that it is also taken seriously by schools, admission authorities, and parents.

"The small minority of parents who break the rules must understand that obtaining a place by deception is not fair to everyone else."

Shadow schools minister Nick Gibb said he did not condone parents making fraudulent claims but that the government was dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes of parental dissatisfaction.

Liberal Democrat schools spokesman David Laws claimed the government was in a complete muddle over the issue and considering a media campaign to highlight this issue.

"It is wrong for parents to cheat the system. However, the problem is more likely to be solved by creating more good school places than a daft media campaign."

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