Heads should not be hiring private investigators to catch parents trying to cheat the admissions process, the chief schools adjudicator said this week.
Ian Craig said schools were not required to go to the lengths of one head who hired a professional snoop to see if parents were telling the truth when applying to his school.
Norman Hoare, headteacher of St George's School in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, employed the detective after receiving a tip-off that the parents were using a false address.
Mr Craig said such measures were not necessary for heads, but acknowledged that they were in a "difficult position" when it comes to admissions.
Speaking at the launch of the annual report from the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, he said: "Heads are the people who are going to be closest to the parents and have the best idea where they live. But the problem is, they often don't know until the child has joined the school, and by that time it's too late.
"Heads are in a very difficult position as they have to protect these children as soon as they start at their school. They have to be able to see the names and addresses as soon as possible so they can inform the local authority before the child starts."
Mr Craig was forced into an embarrassingly quick U-turn after he suggested parents should face prosecution such as court orders or fines if they were caught cheating the admissions system.
On Monday, he distanced himself from the idea of taking parents through the courts and deemed fines unlikely to act as a significant enough deterrent from making false applications.
Mr Craig said Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, should look into the best possible sanctions for parents breaking the rules. But in a letter released on the same day, Mr Balls asked Mr Craig to find suitable penalties.
Responding to the chief adjudicator's recommendations, Mr Balls said: "I have always been clear that it is not our intention that parents should be criminalised. But I recognise that it is a serious issue, and accept your conclusion that we need to look at further sanctions.
"I would, therefore, like you to provide me with recommendations on how the problem should be addressed, including proposals on how to strengthen the deterrents, bearing in mind the need for any sanctions to be legitimate and proportionate. I would appreciate a further report from you by the end of February 2010."
The Liberal Democrats said the Government was confused about whether fraudulent applications were a major issue or not.
David Laws, Lib Dem education spokesman, said: "The Government is in a complete muddle over whether the problem of fraudulent applications is a big concern or an issue affecting only a few pupils.
"The schools adjudicator claims his report paints a gloomy picture, while Ed Balls appears to be playing down the extent of the problem."
The Conservatives said the Government's approach failed to tackle the root of the problem. Nick Gibb, shadow schools minister, said: "Of course we cannot condone parents making fraudulent claims about their situations in order to get their children into a particular school. But the Government is dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes of mass parental dissatisfaction."
ADMISSIONS OF GUILT
- 1,100 pupils' fraudulent applications identified
- Further sanctions to be investigated to act as deterrent
- One-third of councils said problem was increasing year on year
- 40 per cent of local authorities do not feel current sanctions deal with the problem sufficiently
- Almost all of the 40 per cent suggested prosecution for fraud or perjury as a punishment
- Changes to rules recommended so that twins are never sent to different schools against parents' wishes
ARE YOU SURPRISED HOW MANY PARENTS CHEAT?
Mean Average Joe
"1,100 out of 1.6 million is not too bad. For some it's the way to get parental choice."
"Duuuuur. What do they expect? Set up a national testing scheme. Publish it so parents know which schools get the 'best' results. Act surprised that schools with good results are oversubscribed. Get cross when parents try to get their children into the good schools."
"I would cheat too if it meant getting my child away from an unsuitable school. Threat of prosecution will not stop the good and active parent."
"I don't think there are enough houses in our catchment area to account for the number of applications received."
"I've just heard some guy on Radio 4 say he would lie and say he and his family were Muslims if it meant that his child could get a place in a good school. The man is obviously mentally ill."