Local Primary schools in my area

The parents who cheat at school

A generation ago, such measures were unheard of. Until the Eighties, the majority of children attended their nearest primary, then moved up automatically to the local secondary. Then two legal judgments – which outlawed the automatic allocation of places to children in catchment areas and established the right of children to go to schools outside local authority boundaries – changed the education landscape. The concept of “parental choice” was born.

“The tremendous competition we are seeing is due to a number of factors, ” says Prof Alan Smithers, an education professor from Buckingham University. “Fees for independent schools are so high, particularly in a recession, that fewer parents can afford them. We also have a much more qualifications-based society. You have to have the grades to get to a top university or get a job, so it makes sense that parents are more determined than ever to give their children a good education.”

According to Andrew Penman, every Sunday across the country churches are packed with non-believers, forced into the falsehood by the preponderance of local schools that use religion as a criteria for admissions. “I didn’t choose the selection criteria that meant that half the places were reserved for churchgoers, ” says Penman, author of School Daze: My Search for a Decent State Secondary School (published by Mogzilla). “In effect, it is discriminating against local families who do not follow this particular brand of religion.”

In a bid to whittle down numbers at hugely oversubscribed church schools, religious criteria is becoming ever more stringent. Faith schools across the country demand baptism certificates, while some in the South East, where the battle for school places is exceptionally fierce, want children baptised within six months of birth. At Sunday services, registers are signed to provide evidence for school application forms. Attendance requirements of at least 45 Sundays a year are not unusual.

One father was amazed at how many pregnant women were at the baptism classes he was attending at his church in the run-up to his one-year-old daughter’s christening.

“I suddenly realised that these parents were attending the classes for babies that had not actually been born, rather than for older siblings, ” he says. “Their haste was about getting the babies baptised as soon as possible to make sure they were within the school’s admissions rules.”

When schools use distance as the main admissions criteria, parents can employ other techniques. Those who can afford to will move house to be near a good school.

Claire Peters, an academic, sold her London townhouse and moved to a small village in Kent to be in the catchment of an outstanding grammar school. “I really debated about what to do. I didn’t have much faith in the state primary we were near, so I ended up choosing a private school, ” says the 42-year-old. “But the fees we would be paying for three children at senior school made us baulk. We decided to move for various reasons, not least because of the village environment to bring up the boys in, but one of the main reasons was to be in the catchment of a good school.”

According to the director of children’s services at one Home Counties council, this solution to the school place conundrum is a common one. “In my circle of friends, I know probably half a dozen people who have moved specifically to be in the catchment area of schools, ” he says. “It’s like a national disease. I make no judgment. The system is set up in such a way. Why would you want your bright kid, with all your family support, to go to a school that is not going to be able to improve their chances?”

But it is not just parents in the South East who have to worry. In other parts of the country, particularly those with high birth rates and chronic shortages of school places, families need to be on the ball.

One mother from Bristol – where an extra 3, 000 primary places will be needed by 2015 – warned that the battle for places in parts of the city is as feverish as in some London boroughs. “I got a horrible shock when I moved here, ” she says. “My daughter bagged the last place in the local school, and other children after her had to be bused miles out. Bristol has a very mixed bag of schools, with a few being totally unacceptable. I know that doesn’t sound very nice, but it is true. Parents have to be obsessive.”

Nearly 40 per cent of families would move to be near a good school, according to a recent survey for ING Bank. But selling up is an expensive business – costing an average of £10, 000, and double that in the capital.

Those who are not prepared to move permanently take a more complicated route to the holy grail of a good school place. The Webb family rented out their four-bedroom, recently refurbished, spacious house in west London and moved to a cramped, shabby rented flat next to the primary school of their dreams to ensure their son got in to it.

“A lot of people don’t approve of what we did, ” says Kate Webb, a mother of two. “But if not depriving a local child of a place at a good school means keeping your own child, who is only about 80 metres less local, at a bad one, what are you meant to do?”

Sarah Amberley, from Surrey, is considering a similar move. “There are two faith schools and one state school in the village, ” she says. “My house is 100 metres outside the state school catchment area – which is only 800 metres.

“We’re not religious, so we can’t apply to the other two schools. We don’t have much choice, really. We either do nothing and end up driving miles to the allocated school or get a flat nearer the school.”

The working mother-of-one argues that not enough is being done to ensure there are sufficient places in good schools. Free schools, run by charities, faith organisations and parent and teacher groups, which are the Conservative answer to the problem of competition for school places, are still few in number, with just 80 up and running.

Renting (and living) in a property near a school is within the rules – just. Providing an address on an admission form of a property that is vacant, or that of a relative or friend, is clearly not. Mrinal Patel became the first parent to face prosecution for allegedly lying about her address to gain a school place in 2009.

Harrow council, in north‑west London, accused the 41-year-old of giving her mother’s address when applying to an over-subscribed primary. Mrs Patel appeared in a magistrates court, but the council later withdrew its action on legal advice. The case did, however, focus the attention of council officials across the country on bogus applications.

This year, Hertfordshire county council investigated 455 applications, compared with just over 50 five years ago. “We are constantly on the lookout for parents who might be misrepresenting where they live, ” said Terry Douris, the council’s deputy cabinet member for education. “Renting or buying a property near a school is not a loophole or fraud in itself, as long as the family actually live there when applying for a place at the local school.

“But if it does come to light that the family was not resident at the address when applying, or moved away once a place is allocated, we always investigate and – if found to be fraudulent – we would remove the place.”


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