Leading article: Our education system sullies all

Share
Related Topics

It is a reflection of the monstrous inequalities that still dog our education system that parents are prepared to go to almost any length to get round the rules in order to enter their children into the best available school. It is also a reflection of our times that local councils are prepared to go to increasingly intrusive lengths to catch out the "benefit cheats", those who abuse the recycling programmes and those, most importantly, who would disguise their true abode in order to claim residency in the catchment area of a good local school.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal was therefore not wrong yesterday to rule that Poole Borough Council's use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to spy 21 times on a family suspected of trying to cheat a school's admission policy was improper and unnecessary. Yet having said that, two questions remain: when it is right for local councils to use such surveillance powers? And how should society prevent parents cheating over school catchment areas?

Its critics have dubbed Ripa a snooper's charter. Poole council, which is controlled by the Conservatives, tailed Jenny Paton and her family round the clock and spied on them at various addresses to find out where they really lived. Other councils have used Ripa powers to spy on people suspected of fly-tipping, illegal trading and benefit fraud, with one man who claimed £22,000 in disability payments secretly filmed competing in events at an athletics club. But people have also been spied on after being accused of dropping litter, not clearing up dog mess or putting their bins out on the wrong day.

It is hard to see in many such cases that a proper sense of proportion is in place – and hard to resist rhetoric about a Big Brother state. Investigatory powers were introduced in 2000 to allow surveillance by police, security services, Customs and local councils where serious crimes, including terrorism, are suspected. It is hard to see why local councils were included in that list. Yet councils in England and Wales have to date used the laws more than 10,000 times – a number which risks bringing Ripa into disrepute by seriously undermining public trust and confidence in the measures.

Such powers should only be used where there is a danger to life; and they should require a magistrates' warrant. Local authorities should tackle smaller anti-social offences using wardens, fixed-penalty notices and encouraging the public to report offenders, record their vehicle licence plate numbers or snap photographs of offences on their mobile phones. The paraphernalia of the police state has no place in that.

The question of parents who lie on schools' admission forms is more difficult. The ideal solution is to improve the quality of schools across the board to a degree where wide disparities do not exist between them. That will not happen in the short term; indeed Michael Gove's proposals to allow some schools to apply for Academy status is more likely to increase the problem than ameliorate it.

Some have suggested allocating school places by lottery, to give all children an equal chance of getting into the best schools, around which houses cost on average £25,000 more than comparable homes outside the catchment areas. But that too is problematic. A school may end up rejecting a pupil who lives next door while bussing in children from the other side of the town. Social engineering by bussing does not have an attractive track record.

Still, a child who gets a place in a sought-after school as a result of parental dishonesty takes the place of a child of honest parents who haven't tried to fiddle the system. Headteachers and those who administer admissions policies must apply and invigilate them rigorously. But they can do it without resorting to hidden cameras and private detectives.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside  

Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps

Howard Jacobson
Is tackling child abuse in the courts the best solution?  

Child abuse and the moral entrepreneurs who cash in on it

Boyd Tonkin
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice