False addresses, fake religious conversions and phoney family relationships are just a few of the frauds desperate parents use to get their children into the right school. In the week the Government's new code of conduct on admissions comes into force, Wendy Wallace finds out how far some people will go to get the place they want
Sleepless nights, loss of appetite, tears and temper tantrums are part and parcel of that major life event called starting a new school. Gazing gloomily at the league tables, pacing out the distance from the front door to the school gate and discovering God are other common symptoms. Of course, children usually find it much easier, but for parents, the quest for a place in a must-have school can be a major trauma.
With some of the United Kingdom's best and worst-ranked schools, London provides the most over-heated admissions atmosphere in the land. The best-known aspect of the problem is the barrage of tests forced on suffering 10-year-olds by parents vying for a place in selective secondary schools. "It has been one of the most fraught periods of my life," says mother of two Sally Armstrong, whose son last autumn started at a well-regarded Barnet grammar school five miles from his home, having taken six exams for four separate schools.
She says: "Your child has all this tutoring - a year of English and eight months of maths in our case - at pound;35 an hour. If the tutor says he needs extra you think 'oh, all right'. But you try to play it down with the child, saying 'we'll just see what happens'. Come February half-term, and your child hasn't got in. He's asking 'have we heard yet?' People go completely bonkers."
Some parents - and nobody can realistically claim to know exactly how many - do their best to work the system. Liz Harris was sufficiently keen on a particular Camden primary school to move - temporarily - into its catchment area. "We rented a tiny flat near the school about three months before she was due to start, although not before we made the application. I felt entitled to do it, on her behalf. But the difficult part was where she stood in terms of the deception. We told her we were going to buy a house in that area - although we soon realised prices there were way beyond us."
Liz Harris and her family suffered for that reception place. They stayed in the one-bedroom flat for nine months, sharing a bathroom with other tenants and making daily trips "home" to feed the cat. "It was dreadful," she says from the spacious home they moved back to halfway through the first academic year. "I had an irrational fear that the school might suspect, and once or twice at the school gate there was mention of people getting in under false pretences. It was excruciating. But my daughter loved the school, and that was much bigger than any surrounding circumstances."
Faced with droves of that frightening species, the middle-class parent in pursuit of its child's perceived best interests, headteachers are perhaps understandably tempted to throw up their hands in surrender. David Wallis-Jones is head of high-performing Fitzjohn's Primary School in the heart of Hampstead. "I've visited houses and been told the family wasn't known there," he says. "But I haven't the time to do that any more, so many more probably slip through the net now, but it distresses me because it means someone else is denied a place."
Head of Fitzjohn's for more than 20 years, Mr Wallis-Jones already has about 60 applications for the 15 places available in his school for next September. "There's always been a tendency to cheat to get what you want," he says, "but it seems much more accepted now." In accordance with Camden's admissions policy, he gives priority to children with particular special needs, then to those with siblings already in the school, with remaining places allotted on the basis of distance from Fitzjohn's.
Schools and local authorities tend to stop short of ejecting children once they have started at school - few educationists want to punish children for the hopes and fears of their parents. But the Government's new code of practice on admissions, which came into force yesterday, restates the principle that admissions authorities may withdraw a school place even after the child has started if it was "fraudulently obtained". The code notes that "the length of time the child has been at the school should also be taken into account".
Alan Milsted of Haringey local education authority - where three secondary schools are heavily oversubscribed and others struggle to attract pupils - is hoping for some precedent-establishing court cases. "We do withdraw offers two or three times a year but we haven't yet withdrawn a place once the child has started," he says. "But that could be useful to let parents know we are serious about wanting to be fair." Mr Milsted accepts that levels of fraud are probably higher than his figures indicate. "We occasionally go and knock on doors," he says, "but it takes a lot of time and there is a fine line between justice and invading privacy."
The most enthusiastic policers of admissions scams are local families, who tend to know who lives where and, more importantly, stand to lose out if their own child is denied a place. Local authorities and over-subscribed schools sometimes receive tip-offs, usually anonymously, about families using false addresses or manufactured marital breakdowns to get into particular schools.
Fiona Ahmed discovered she had been shopped when she turned up for the first day of school with her four-year-old son and found he was the only one who had no peg with his name on it. Although she had been living locally when she applied for and accepted the place, she had since moved - and been informed on by another mother. The LEA accepted her story when she provided proof of the date of the move, and the child started later that week.
Church schools' admissions policies - usually based on church attendance and a reference from the vicar - are famously subject to manipulation. The church authorities are well aware of the many families who become enthusiastic - if temporary - attenders of services in the hope of a school place, and the fact that some genuinely religious families are excluded by forward-looking and well-organised secular ones.
Interviews are particularly contentious. Some Hammersmith parents were livid when Tony Blair's daughter Kathryn won a place at the heavily over-subscribed Sacred Heart High School six miles from Downing Street, while local Catholic girls had been turned down. The right of church schools to interview parents is addressed in the code of practice, which states that now although they may interview it must be only "to assess religious or denominational commitment".
Peter Wilkinson, head of schools services at Camden, says:"Parents are acutely aware of the possibility of somebody edging in front of them." Of the unorthodox applications he becomes aware of, Mr Wilkinson says most are "soft fraud". He adds: "The address given may not be pure invention, but the grandparents' or an aunt's."
Camden officials keep a copy of the electoral roll in the office, and require primary heads to verify addresses on secondary applications. Although the rules are strictly followed, Mr Wilkinson understands parents' frustrations. "There is a lot of hard feeling in Camden that we have some good schools and people can't get into them." The authority hears about 200 appeals for secondary places a year, of which around 25 are upheld.
Graham Lane of the Local Government Association says parents caught making fraudulent applications should be pursued through the courts and fined pound;2,000 - the cost of a year's state schooling. In the London borough of Newham, where Mr Lane is chair of the education committee, some parents are reportedly transporting children up to 20 miles to attend one particular primary school. "The school has a good reputation but it is predominantly white and we believe it's a racist thing," says Mr Lane. The school's roll is being audited.
Mr Lane welcomes the code of practice but will lobby the Education Secretary on fining parents. "Courts should take a much tougher line," he says.
But in more affluent areas, even a hefty fine would be little deterrent. In the south London borough of Wandsworth, Honeywell Primary School is, as the estate agents put it, "much sought-after". Headteacher Dick Cooper says: "A reputation tends to grow. The myth spreads that some schools are sensational and others are rubbish."
For many local parents, the choice is between getting Amelia or Amanda into Honeywell or going private. It makes financial sense, then, to rent a place within the 500-yard catchment area for six months, particularly if little Arabella and Anoushka will then be assured of places too. "For some parents it's well worth renting a property in the immediate vicinity for six months, getting proofs of address and making an application that in their own terms is correct," says Dick Cooper who is indignant about the complexity that deception creates. The cost, he reckons, can be up to pound;8,000 - a tidy investment compared to fees at a London prep school, averaging pound;6,000 a year.
Unbelievably, people have even tried to cheat on the priority given to siblings at Honeywell, passing off a cousin as a brother. "It's terribly sad really," says Dick Cooper, "because the kids can't keep up the pretence."
Whether the new code of practice - with its emphasis on local determination of admissions procedures - will help remains to be seen. "There can be nothing more difficult for a Secretary of State for Education and Employment than the balance to be achieved in providing guidance on admissions," says Mr Blunkett sagely, in his introduction to the new code. That, at least, is uncontroversial.
All parents and children's names have been changed