Finding a way in
It would have been an unprecedented case. This week, Mrinal Patel almost became the first parent in the country to be taken to court for school application fraud. Harrow Council accused Ms Patel of using her mother's address to gain a place for her five-year-old son at Pinner Park First School in Harrow, north-west London, in January last year.
During that academic year, 411 parents expressed a preference for Pinner Park, but only 90 places were offered, to children living less than a mile away. The council alleged that Ms Patel claimed to have lived at her mother's address for 14 years, when in fact she had only stayed there for four weeks. Ms Patel said she was under stress when she filled in the application form, and felt she had done nothing wrong. Her son is now at private school.
The case was dropped last Friday because it emerged that the council couldn't prosecute her under the Fraud Act 2006 because it only applies to property, rather than school places. But the circumstances of the case are all too familiar to admissions officers, and Schools Secretary Ed Balls has called for an investigation into how many parents falsify their details to get children into the school of their choice.
Matthew Paul, the lead officer for school admissions at the south London borough of Richmond upon Thames. Mr Paul has seen it all in the annual scramble for school places. Parents marching down the middle of a busy road with a trundle wheel, determined to measure the exact distance between their home and an over-subscribed school. Or those that battle through dense foliage, cemeteries or golf courses to find the most direct "footpath" to the school gates.
In a way, you can't blame them, says Mr Paul. All the borough's primary schools and half of its secondaries are "hideously over-subscribed". This year, the furthest distance a pupil can expect to live from one Richmond school is just 300 metres. The number of parents giving false addresses in Richmond has risen tenfold in recent years, according to the Local Government Association (LGA), from five in 2006-07 to 50 the following year.
Most of those will have given a false address near a popular school on their application form - usually that of the child's grandparents. Other couples will falsely claim to be separated and living back with their parents near an over-subscribed school.
"We have definitely noticed an increase in fraudulent applications," says Mr Paul. "Parents are becoming more creative, covering all the bases when we start to investigate."
This may include changing their child benefits or medical references to an address that is closer to a popular school. Or renting a property solely to get their child into a nearby school and claiming it as their main address.
"My mate Dave has rented a house for Pounds 1,400 a month in the catchment area of a primary that acts as a feeder for a good comprehensive," an anonymous teacher says. "They have moved in and are keeping their old house empty until the children are established at the posh comp."
Two other families allegedly completed a house swap for a year to get the "right" address during the application process. Another mother refused to accept that her child had been denied a place at an over-subscribed secondary. Regardless, she bought her daughter the school's uniform and sent her to the school in September. Incredibly, it worked and the girl stayed on.
Local authorities ultimately have the right to withdraw a pupil from a school if their parents have lied. In reality, they are usually reluctant to disturb their education or to punish the child for the sins of the parents.
In an increasing number of cases, it won't get this far. Richmond now has access to council tax records that indicate how long people have been living at given addresses. Other authorities conduct home visits. Poole Borough Council has even spied on suspect families, using anti-terrorism legislation.
But parents are still willing to risk it, figures suggest. Of 31 councils surveyed by the LGA last year, 24 had seen a rise in the number of parents who had lied on application forms. The numbers detected in 2007-08 were nine times higher than those two years earlier.
Margaret Morrissey, from Parents Outloud, a parent support group, is not surprised. "It's obviously wrong to break the law, but how much can you penalise parents for desperately wanting the best for their child?"
Even though most authorities give preference to pupils with older siblings at school, this does not always guarantee a place. "The most upset parents I speak to are those whose children are split up," she says.
One suggestion is to allow popular schools to expand when the demand requires it, adds Mrs Morrissey. An extra form entry would only increase a school's cohort by 20 to 30 pupils - not enough to lose the unique essence of the school, she argues.
Schools in Harrow do occasionally do this, says Heather Clements, director of schools and children's development in the borough, although a lack of space is sometimes prohibitive. It currently adopts a "cluster model" - where primaries "feed" given secondaries within their area - although a distance model will be introduced in the borough as of September next year.
"My fundamental job is to ensure that every school in Harrow is a good school," Ms Clements says. "Then it won't matter where your child is assigned to."
Harrow is well on track to achieving this. None of its schools are currently in special measures or on Ofsted's cause for concern list. That's not to say parents don't still have preferences, though, and they are not always the ones you'd expect.
"Some of our outstanding schools are under-subscribed and some of our good schools are over-subscribed," says Ms Clements. "Many parents make judgments based on league tables, but others are looking for schools in what they perceive to be better or more aspirational areas. Some make decisions on what they heard about a school 10 years ago."
M s Clements suggests parents visit a school before they make up their mind, but some remain adamant: it's either their choice or nothing.
"I would have home educated, despite my misgivings on social grounds, rather than have my children contaminated with the social mores and attitudes at `Hell High'," maintains one mother.
"We skinted ourselves to move into an area with good schools and I'm glad we did. Kids need to fit in, and the danger of getting in with a bad crowd in a school where prison is a common family experience is too much of a risk."
The concept of choice is fraught with difficulties, though. In theory, parents can send their child to any school of their choice, the Government has pledged. In practice, it's more of a preference than a choice. It is the over-subscribed schools that can cherry-pick their intake, critics argue.
Since the 1988 Education Reform Act, twice as many schools have become their own admission authorities: from 15 per cent in 1988 to 33 per cent a decade later, according to government figures. Most of these will be academies, foundation or voluntary-aided faith schools or city technology colleges.
With the ability to set their own criteria, some tend to "cream skim" their cohort, says Anne West, professor of education policy at the London School of Economics and co-author of the secondary school admissions report, published in March.
The presence of a private tutor may appeal to some selective schools, while others will be looking for a level of religious devotion. When a school demands it, parents can become very godly very quickly.
The only parents with any real choice are those who can afford it, argues Dr Anna Vignoles from the Institute of Education. Only they can afford houses near a popular school, a private primary that is focused on helping pupils pass the 11-plus entrance exam, or private tutors.
Although interviews are explicitly banned in the schools admission code, some schools still hold pre-admission meetings, according to Professor West's report. Supplementary Information Forms (SIFs), which are used by some over-subscribed schools, can also weed out less "suitable" families, either through length or probing questions.
It all leads to socially segregated schools, according to the Sutton Trust. Just 5.6 per cent of pupils at the 200 highest performing comprehensives are on free school meals, according to a survey by the trust in 2006, compared with 11.5 per cent at neighbouring schools and 14 per cent nationally.
Choice advisers, who help less advantaged parents navigate the system, reinforce the message that a good education is the responsibility of individual parents, adds Margaret Tulloch from Comprehensive Future, which campaigns for the abolition of selection by ability and aptitude. Instead, the Government should be responsible for providing a strong framework of good local schools regardless of parental preferences, she believes.
So is a fair and equitable system - one where parents don't need to bend the rules - ever possible? One argument is to get rid of league tables, which "set in stone" misleading differences between schools, says Dr Vignoles.
"If parents look at the value added scores to distinguish between cruising and improving schools, they can be helpful," she says. "But most parents just look at the absolute scores, which exacerbates the problem."
But if league tables aren't published, as in Wales, parents will still make judgment calls on local schools, argues Simon Burgess, professor of economics at the University of Bristol, who has written extensively on school segregation.
"Parents won't suddenly stop caring," he says. "They'll just use more informal information, which won't always be accurate. Ultimately, they will still want schools that are full of `people like us'."
Professor Burgess recognises, however, that the league tables do encourage schools to select their intake. His research with doctors and teachers shows that they both respond to the incentives they are given. So if a school is judged, recognised and rewarded by how many A*-Cs it receives at GCSE, it will either try to get better results by improving its teaching or recruit pupils with higher previous attainment.
Getting higher achievers on board is the easier option, he says. "Headteachers may also be reluctant to expand their school in case it dilutes the educational quality of their cohort. It's crazy to berate schools for responding to the system they find themselves in."
A simpler, clearer and more transparent admissions system, run by either a local authority or a body with no vested interest, will ensure procedural fairness, argues Professor West.
There are four feasible ways of doing this within the current system, says Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham. They are: ballots or lotteries; selection of some kind; banding a range of abilities, or allowing schools freedom to do what they want.
"If the main objective is to make the system fair, then it has to be admission by ballot," he says. "If the main objective is freedom of choice then it has to be some form of selection. We have covert social selection now. It would be much better to be open and honest about the method of selection to be used."
Ballots achieve a better mix of children across schools, he believes, minimising the risk of sink schools serving the poorest members of society. Brighton and Hove became the first council to introduce a ballot element to its school admissions system in 2007, which kicks in once catchment areas have already been taken into account.
Only one school in the area, Cardinal Newman Catholic School in Hove, regulates its own admissions code. More than 90 per cent of parents already got one of their preferred choices of school, says Rob Nicholls from Brighton and Hove City Council. Now 98 per cent do.
"Some still don't think the system works for them as they perceive it," says Mr Nicholls. "It's a bit like wanting to park outside your house at all times - it's not always possible. But at least it's a transparent, clear system that is creating a fairer balance in each school."
P arents' first reaction to ballots tends to be negative. But a survey conducted by the Sutton Trust suggests that this perception changes if alternative options - such as admission by distance or religion - are explored and explained. "Random allocation is then viewed as at least as fair as the other methods of deciding over-subscribed places," says James Turner from the trust.
However, some remain put off by the seemingly random nature of ballots. Haberdashers' Aske's Federation consists of two academies, with a third in the pipeline. Its Hatcham College in Lewisham, south-east London, consistently receives 12 applicants for every place. Its Knights Academy in Kent receives four times as many applicants as places.
They both rely on non-verbal reasoning (NVR) assessments that place applicants into one of nine ability bands - ideally with an equal number in each. "It ensures an entirely comprehensive intake reflective of the boroughs that we serve," insists Sharon Oliver, the federation registrar.
Like every option, there is a downside. A school in a leafy, middle-class suburb is likely to get a different profile of applicants from the one in a disadvantaged area. The former will get more applicants from the top ability band. The latter will receive more from the lowest.
Ideally, school access should be entirely divorced from income, says Dr Vignoles. But in the real world, a more pragmatic approach is required, she adds.
Currently, 7-8 per cent of children in Britain are educated in private schools. If parents find the admissions policy unacceptable in the state sector, that number will rise, regardless of the financial sacrifices that may entail. To keep them in the system, a level of parental choice is inevitable, says Dr Vignoles.
"Some parents will simply not be willing to take the risk of a lottery system. If you push too hard, they'll opt out altogether. But equally, unlimited choice has unwelcome outcomes, such as unpopular schools being forced to shrink and then close."
Similarly, a vouchers system - an option considered by the Conservatives, whereby parents can pay for a school of their choice - will create incredibly socially segregated schools, she adds. Instead, socially mixed housing should result in socially mixed schools, she suggests. Each would then have to cater for a fair cross-section of abilities.
Again, this may be wishful thinking in many parts of the country. Richmond is an expensive place to live. Normally 30 per cent of reception aged children are in private schools there, the highest in London.
Mr Paul predicts this figure will drop to 22 per cent this September due to the recession. That will lead to an even greater clamour for places in state schools, with even more middle-class parents determined to get the school of their choice.
Each will be thoroughly checked by Mr Paul and his colleagues, who profess to be fine-tuned to suspicious applications. He is not entirely hardened to their cause though. "I have a degree of sympathy for parents," he says. "They've been told they can have whatever they want and that simply isn't the case."
Ballots do offer a fairer, less segregated way. But once parents have been offered the world, will they ever settle for what they are given?
Harrow Council has dropped its case against Mrinal Patel, who was accused of using her mother's address on an admission form; estate agents such as Foxtons know how important living near a good school is to parents.
Criterion: Percentage of schools
- In care: 99
- Siblings: 97
- Distance: 93
- Catchment area: 61
- Medicalsocial need: 60
- Statement of SEN: 53
- Feeder school: 38
- Religion: 17
- Exceptional factors: 10
- Random allocation: 6
- Partial selection by aptitude: 5
- Ethos: 4
- Difficult journey to another school: 4
- Banding: 3
- Non-statemented SEN: 2
- Partial selection by ability: 1
- Interview parent: less than 1
- Interview pupil: less than 1
Source: Secondary school admissions in England: Policy and practice, March 2009.