The parents who cheat for their children

Phoney addresses and religious 'conversion' help win school places
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The Independent Online
The rise in the number of cheating parents using false addresses and religious "conversions" to win places for their children at popular schools is forcing a clampdown by headteachers and local authorities.

Oversubscribed schools are now asking parents for proof of residence to catch out those who falsely suggest they live within popular school catchment areas.

Meanwhile, church schools are instituting more checks to ensure overnight converts with no church-going record do not jump the admissions queue.

A crackdown has been launched by secondary schools in Bromley, Kent, after a survey carried out this month revealed up to 82 families had given more than one address - and sometimes as many as four - in separate applications for places in September.

Schools in the borough, where some parents admit paying friends and acquaintances to "borrow" addresses near favoured schools, are already asking for solicitors' letters confirming exchange of contracts on a house sale or proof of long- term rental stretching back at least a year before admission. Parents found cheating will have offers of places withdrawn.

Next year, the schools are considering asking all applicants for proof of residence, such as a utilities bill or council tax booklet, or may cross-check addresses against the electoral roll.

The survey in Bromley, where every school selects at least 15 per cent of pupils, provides the first hard-and-fast evidence of a problem known by authorities to be on the rise country-wide but never measured nationally.

"Marie", a mother of three who lives in Bromley and who insisted on anonymity, was one of the cheating parents. Her son secured a place on the basis of a false address.

Last November, the season of applications for secondary places, Marie left her husband and three children in the family home on a council estate in St Paul's Cray and moved in with a friend in a more affluent area close to the school of her choice. She gave the "borrowed" address as her own on the school application form.

"I decided to use a bogus address after I had rung the school's admissions secretary and she told me I was outside the catchment area," Marie said.

"I know a lot of people who have bought addresses, sometimes for as much as pounds 180. I don't have that kind of money, but I would have cut down on food for myself and my husband to raise it. I'm a law-abiding person, but I would even have stolen if I had to."

Faced with the reality that one in five children is now denied their first choice of school (rising to one in two in London), parents desperate to squeeze their children into flourishing schools with high league table placings will resort to desperate measures. Their tactics include claiming they are on the verge of moving into an area, using a relative's address, or even temporarily splitting up, renting a flat for one partner close to the preferred school and registering it as the child's address, and then "reconciling" once an offer of a place is made.

Others are prepared to pay as much as pounds 2,500 a month in rent for property within a catchment area. To secure places in church schools, which generally score highly in league tables, parents will begin to attend church with pious regularity, and may rush to have their offspring confirmed.

St Augustine's Roman Catholic School in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, is typical of many popular church schools in introducing ever stricter criteria to try to sort true believers from sudden converts. Its key admission category - baptised Catholic children - has just been split into baptised and truly "committed" Catholics.

Priests are given a detailed form on which to record church attendance of prospective pupils and are now asked not merely for support for applications but "support on religious grounds".

The heavily oversubscribed school, where 78 per cent of pupils gain five or more A-C grades at GCSE, is so popular that one Catholic parent living outside its catchment area plans to send her child on a 44-mile daily round trip by taxi to attend.

The headteacher, Bob Cook, said: "Every year we look at our admissions procedure and see how can we tighten it up." Grant-maintained schools, which act as their own admissions authorities, are prepared to use home visits to parents as a last resort. Staff from Ecclesbourne School in Duffield, Derbyshire, have waited outside addresses offered on applications form to confirm suspicions that no child lives there.

Local authorities, like schools, confirm the number of parents prepared to deceive to get the school they want is rising, albeit often from a low base outside London. Calderdale, West Yorkshire, is typical in identifying an extension of parental manoeuvering to primary schools, as a means of securing progression to a favoured secondary.

The authority expects more shopping around during the next round of admissions as parents consider the new primary league tables published for the first time last month.

LEA leaders blame the growing trend on the Conservative government's deregulation of admissions and promotion of the concept of parental choice. Roy Pryke, chairman of the Association of Chief Education Officers, is calling for a summit with a new government on the admissions issue immediately after the election.

He said: "It is a matter of producing arrangements which still leave parents with the capacity to express a preference and wherever possible the right for them to have their choice, but at the same time to have arrangements which are much more co-ordinated than at present. At the moment, the weakest go to the wall. It is the children whose parents don't know their way round the system who suffer."

Letters, page 19