David Gordon looks at the problem of fraudulent admissions applications and provides a set of common ruses to look out for

Do you know how to deal with fraudulent admission applications?
‘Every place obtained by a parent through deception, has the consequence of depriving another child of their “rightful” place.’

Those were the words of Ian Craig, the Chief School Adjudicator, in a hard-hitting report on fraudulent or misleading applications for admission to schools delivered to the Children’s Secretary, Ed Balls, November 2009.

He had been asked to investigate the extent of the problem following a high-profile case in Harrow in which a mother had been charged with providing a false address in an attempt to get her son into the reception class of an oversubscribed state primary school.

Although Harrow Council withdrew the action at the last minute amid confusion over whether the Fraud Act 2006 covered this type of case, the incident drew attention to a growing belief that increasing numbers of parents were prepared to commit fraud to get their children into popular state schools.

More than a year earlier, the Local Government Association had expressed its concern after its own investigation showed a large increase in the number of parents unlawfully giving false addresses to get their children into high-performing schools.

The LGA surveyed 31 councils, 24 of which said they had experienced an increase in the numbers of parents found to be lying on application forms, mostly by using false addresses. It believed that lying about where you live in order to get a place at a school was illegal and that parents did risk prosecution under the Fraud Act 2006.

The London borough of Richmond upon Thames recorded the highest rise in fraudulent applications over the previous three years. The most common examples the LGA uncovered were: parents stating the address of the child’s grandparents as being the child’s home; parents stating the address of a property which they owned but were renting out to other people; and parents who owned more than one property not giving their correct home address.

Ian Craig carried out a similar exercise across the whole of England and received responses from 123 of the 152 local authorities. Close to half the authorities considered that fraudulent or misleading applications were a problem in their area and some small and medium sized authorities reported more than 100 such applications that they were aware of from the previous admissions round.

Nevertheless, the true scale of the problem is hard to ascertain. Of the 41 LAs who were prepared to answer the ‘unanswerable question’ and estimate how many fraudulent applications were taking place that they were not aware of, most guessed that there were at least twice as many again. One authority thought there were at least 100 hidden cases for each one it knew about.

At the other extreme, a number of LAs – some quite large – reported that they were not aware of any fraudulent or misleading applications in their area.

Where LAs were aware of a problem, many considered that fraudulent applications were increasing year on year, although this could have been an indication that LAs and schools were getting better at detecting them. Greater media interest was thought to contribute to this increased detection, but many LAs also reported that they had tightened up their checking procedures over recent years. Clearer descriptions and definitions in admissions booklets had also made it easier to identify fraudulent applications.

Admission authorities looking for ways to uncover fraudulent applications for places may well find themselves playing detective. Council investigators in the Harrow case used tax records to find a discrepancy between addresses. Meanwhile, some local authorities have got themselves in hot water for over-intrusive detective work, literally resorting to spying on parents to check whether they were giving their addresses truthfully.

Where schools are their own admissions authorities, governors will not have access to the same resources as local authorities for verifying information, but they can still take care to look for discrepancies within their own records and work with their local authority wherever possible.

A checklist of some of the ruses most commonly used to get round admissions regulations gives a good idea of the things to look out for. These are the most common forms of fraud reported to the adjudicator, with the most frequent at the top of the list:

  1. Using the address of relatives – usually grandparents. They often have the same name, so utility bills and other documents can be presented that appear to match the name of the pupil with the address on the application.
  2. Taking on a short-term rental or tenancy agreement merely for the duration of the application period.
  3. The parents’ marriage is said to have broken down. This subsequently proves to be untrue but the story provides the cover for one parent (usually the mother) to move to an address within a catchment area for a short time.
  4. Parents genuinely have separated, but it is claimed that the child is living permanently with the other parent.
  5. The application uses the address of a property that is owned by one or both of the parents but is not their permanent address. Often it is just a property they let to others.
  6. After giving a valid address on the application form, parents subsequently move away but do not inform the LA of their change of address.
  7. One or other of the parents has a commercial or business address within the catchment area, which they use on the application as their ‘home’ address.
  8. A friend’s address is used. This can be given credibility by swapping addresses with them for a short time – sometimes with a short-term tenancy agreement in place.
  9. Using the address of an empty property or plot.

Once a fraudulent application is discovered, admission authorities currently seem to have no stronger course of action to take than to withdraw the offer of a place. Ian Craig’s report suggested that this meant parents have nothing to lose by lying and he concluded that additional sanctions – possibly through the Courts – were necessary.

At the request of the Children’s Secretary, Ed Balls, he is now investigating what sanctions might be effective in deterring fraudulent applications.

‘The small minority of parents who break the rules must understand that obtaining a place by deception is not fair to everyone else,’ wrote Ed Balls in a letter to the chief adjudicator. He added: ‘I understand that some local authorities have suggested that criminal or civil penalties could be used to sanction parents that undertake deceptive behaviour. I have always been clear that it has not been and is not our intention that parents should be criminalised. But I recognise that is a serious issue, and accept your conclusion that we need to look at further sanctions.’

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2010

About the author: David Gordon is an author, writer, editor and qualified lecturer and has also been a parent governor. He has been the editor of School Governor Update since its launch in 2000