Tough new measures, including fines to punish parents who cheat their way into securing school places for their children, were demanded by the Schools Adjudicator yesterday.
Ian Craig, who is in charge of policing school admissions policies, revealed that up to 3,000 parents a year are conning their way into finding a school place by lying or bending the rules. He argued that the parents were guilty of "theft".
"They are depriving another child of their school place. It is theft of a school place which belongs to another child. The Secretary of State [Ed Balls] needs to launch a campaign to persuade parents it is wrong – it is not fair," said Dr Craig, who was charged with mounting an investigation into parental malpractice.
Among the suggested measures for tackling the "fraudulent and misleading applications" were banning younger siblings from taking advantage of their older brother or sister winning a school place, and warning councils to take tougher action by immediately expelling any child whose parents had tried to cheat the system. Fines could also be levied through civil court action. A survey of 123 authorities found 1,100 cases where a child had subsequently had a place withdrawn as a result of their parents supplying misleading information.
Its authors estimated that a similar number of cases had slipped through the net. Twenty-nine local authorities failed to respond to the request for information, but four out of 10 of those which did respond said criminal or civil court penalties should be introduced to deal with the parents.
A common way of deceiving schools was the use of a grandparent's address, which the parents could back up by providing utility bills with the same surname on them to prove residence. Another was falsely claiming that their marriage had broken down, with one parent having to move into the catchment area as a result.
However, Dr Craig stopped short of recommending new legislation to make it a criminal offence to mislead schools. Although his report pointed to the prospect of court action being taken against guilty parents, he said yesterday that this may not be successful.
"If they're willing to spend all that money on renting a flat, a fine may not work. Also, is it bending the rules to rent another flat in the catchment area? It is certainly not fraudulent," he said.
Mr Balls is known to be against moves which might criminalise parents, and has asked Dr Craig to carry out a further investigation to recommend ways of dealing with the cheats.
"I have always been clear that it has not been, and is not, our intention that parents should be criminalised," he said yesterday. However, his aides said last night that he would be prepared to consider civil action through the courts. Mr Balls also said he was "interested" in the idea of mounting a campaign "to raise awareness that each place gained by deception represents the denial of a place to another child".
Dr Craig also called on the Government to allow his office to rule on complaints over admissions to academies. At present, that power rests with the Secretary of State, a situation which he described a "daft".
"It seems to me if the Government wishes academies to be independent, it shouldn't be for the Secretary of State to decide," he said.
Case study: 'Parents of twins will be celebrating'
*The days of parents with twins facing the same dilemma as Jayne Gleed, a mother of four-year-old twins, could soon be numbered.
The Schools Adjudicator, Ian Craig, has demanded a change in school regulations to make it easier for primary schools to admit twins.
At present, government legislation outlawing class sizes of more than 30 for five- to seven-year-olds has meant that some schools have only been able to take in one twin and must turn the second away.
Dr Craig yesterday recommended that twins should be considered an exceptional case. This approach would allow schools to ignore the regulations and take in the extra child.
In addition, he urged all admissions authorities to make clear their policies on twins and multiple-birth families in their admissions code.
In the case of Ms Gleed, from Cliffe in Kent, her two children – William and John – were allocated places at schools four miles from each other.
"I just can't get my head around it," she said. "How can I manage to get them to the different schools? The twins are very close; they have always been together and have been at the same nursery school since they were nine months old."
Now the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, has accepted Dr Craig's recommendations. The decision was immediately welcomed by the Twins and Multiple Births Association.
Keith Reed, its chief executive, said: "Tens of thousands of multiple birth parents across the country will be celebrating the Secretary of State's promise to update the admissions code.
"This will ensure the splitting of twins, triplets or more across different schools, against their will, becomes a thing of the past."
School cheats: Ways the system has been played
*Using relatives' addresses, usually grandparents – often with the same surname – so that realistic utility bills can be presented (70 cases).
*Signing short-term rental or tenancy agreements for the duration of the application period (33 cases).
*Pretending that their marriage has broken down and that one parent has moved into the catchment area as a result (28 cases).
*Being genuinely separated, but falsely claiming that the child was living with the other parent (25 cases).
*Using an address owned by the parents, but which was not their permanent address – often rented out to others (24 cases).
*Using an address on the application form and then moving away, but not informing the local authority (21 cases).
*Using a commercial or business address in the catchment area as a "home" address (16 cases).
*Using the address of a friend within the catchment area, or even swapping addresses with them for a short period of time (14 cases).
*Using the address of an empty property, plot or house which did not exist (10 cases).
*One local authority reported that multiple false applications were all traced back to parents at the same pre-school.