Why It Matters: Closing the school places cheat loopholes

Until any change is made to tighten the admissions criteria and a fair procedure is put in place to deter and detect fraudulent applications, it seems Ed Magee’s words will continue to ring true

A record 10 Eleanor Palmer Nursery kids didn't get a place at the school this year. Pic: Steve Franck

A record 10 Eleanor Palmer nursery kids didn’t get a place at the school this year. Pic: Steve Franck

“Life’s not fair.” That was the response of Camden’s head of Education Welfare Services, Ed Magee, to the concerns raised by parents about fraudulent applications in this year’s round of primary school admissions.

It turns out he’s right, life isn’t fair. Or at least not if you play by the rules. The problem is that the rules aren’t very fair. In fact they’re so unclear that anyone who wishes to bend them is able to do so with impunity. And those responsible for writing and implementing the rules (Camden Schools Admissions and the Education Welfare Services team) don’t seem overly concerned with such issues.

This year’s round of Primary School admissions have been worse than most, but are in no way an unusual scenario. For many years there’s been a shortfall in good education provision for local communities and school catchment areas vary annually, although the general trend is that they are shrinking.

Consequently the best performing schools are targeted by parents who are willing and able to exploit loopholes. Every year, families rent out their own homes while temporarily renting a flat nearer their chosen school. While there is nothing illegal about this practice, there is certainly a moral question mark over it.

Home Zone Ends copy

The council’s official stance is that they will investigate such applications and remove places if they were obtained fraudulently. They even have an audit team specifically charged with carrying out such investigations. The trouble is that they fall far short of any real attempt to establish whether families have temporarily rented in order to grasp an unfair school place advantage based on distance. What they investigate is whether the address provided on the application form is the address that the family occupies on the day that the form is submitted. Poirot, worry not!

In stark contrast to Camden’s admissions guidelines, Hackney’s are unequivocal. Their guidelines state “we can’t accept a temporary address if you still possess a property that was previously used as a home address”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly after pressure from parents, Camden have now stated that it intends to adopt the same wording as Hackney. This may put out a stronger message for parents contemplating temporary renting in future, but it doesn’t change things now. And there remains the cheaper but equally questionable option of faking your religious belief to obtain a place in a faith school. Perhaps parents of the nine children who weren’t offered a sibling place at Kentish Town School would be keen to pick up this thread?

No doubt, those families who do rent temporarily have any number of justifications for doing so – the inconvenience of building works at their regular address for example. The beauty of this system for those who get away with it is that they only need to do it once and any future children automatically get a place at their chosen school via the sibling criteria.

School sign

An example of this unfair allocation of primary school places can be seen in the way that admissions to Eleanor Palmer have been handled by Camden Council this year. While it is clear that a place in the Nursery class does not guarantee a place in the Reception class, this year a record 10 children will not move up from Nursery to Reception. The catchment area has shrunk year-on-year, reaching 0.1 miles for 2013-14.

This divides communities. Some parents have fallen into the dreaded “black hole” – offered none of their choices of six local schools. This is a very dark prospect to be faced with and watching people being offered places at your local school while being forced to consider a 90-minute round trip twice a day to a school on the other side of the borough is upsetting. Fortunately those of us caught up in this travesty have now finally, after weeks of angry telephone calls and emails, been offered places at schools relatively local to us.

But the fact remains that the system is open to abuse and the council, under its existing guidelines, can and has done little to stop it, all of which leaves a very bitter taste. So until any change is made to tighten the admissions criteria and a fair procedure is put in place to deter and detect fraudulent applications, it seems Ed Magee’s words will continue to ring true. Life’s not fair.

Words & pics: Steve Franck

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14 Responses to Why It Matters: Closing the school places cheat loopholes

  1. Lara May Jakob Monday 10 June 2013 at 10:33 am #

    The effect that this has is huge. By allowing the rich a monopoly on the good schools, other schools suffer and the poorer in society suffer as it stunts social mobility. Comprehensive education only works for all if all people go to their local school, the existence of private schooling already does enough to divide us.

  2. Kate Monday 10 June 2013 at 11:21 am #

    I’ve read some of the debate in the Camden New Journal this year and witness the number of children outside Eleanor Palmer being picked up by car when I pass the school on the way to swimming lessons every week, even though, as the article says, their catchment area is 0.1 mile. It doesn’t seem at all right or correct that people can cheat the system in this way, the system needs to be changed to stop it. I hope that Camden agree.

  3. Zakiyah Monday 10 June 2013 at 11:39 am #

    Ensure all schools are just as good as the next one…..and don’t give parents the promise of a school choice. There isn’t a point in that if the child then doesn’t get into any of the six choices.

  4. Annie Monday 10 June 2013 at 1:30 pm #

    Ensure there is enough places for every child! Then the problem will improve. There are many children in the area receiving little or no education because of this ridiculous situation. They have been forced to register as home schoolers when this is not their choice.

    • Zakiyah Tuesday 11 June 2013 at 9:57 am #

      I think the point is there are enough school places within Camden, just that the place given may not be one of the ‘choosen choice’, especially when a child can’t get into a school within walking distance from his/her house and has to attend a school somewhere else further in the borough. Also I believe ‘home schoolers’ children are receiving the education they need from their parents, at least the home schoolers whom I personally know living in the area.

  5. Simon G Tuesday 11 June 2013 at 11:12 am #

    People will always want the best for their kids and moving house to get into a school is nothing new. Camden obviously need to up their game to stop people taking the mick, but you can’t really blame people for following the rules (which apply equally to all). Some people have greater means than others, thats just a fact of life. Some people are just more prepared to make bigger sacrifices than others. When my kids are old enough to go to school I will move house if necessary, as is my right to do so.

    photographing people’s properties like that seems a bit extreme

    • shiel Tuesday 13 August 2013 at 11:27 pm #

      you frame dishonesty as a sacrifice. It’s a bit like any of the big political scandals – perhaps following the ‘letter’ of the law but seriously flouting the spirit of it. My concern in all of this is that we are losing sense of community – by which I mean a sense of what is best for the good of all of the people in an area – and instead it becomes each man for himself and we are supposed to swallow that anything is acceptable or indeed honorable if it’s for the (perceived) benefit of our children. This seems to be a peculiarly british attitude towards school admissions. Are these the values people want to instill in their own offspring. depressing. A test case for legal fraud needs to go through the high court to change the situation, so that it is recognised in law that something has been materially lost by the families/children who don’t get allocated a school place where they would otherwise have done, because of the action of an application that is less than transparent. The stakes then are hopefully high enough to deter a majority of chancers. A genuine commitment to a new home in the area of choice is of course a different matter altogether.

  6. Poppy Tuesday 11 June 2013 at 1:31 pm #

    I think you will find most home educated children receive a good standard of education and achieve better results than their peers in state run schools. I think the statement children are receiving no education as they are forced to be homeschooled is very unfair and perpetuates the myth that home schooling is not a good choice for children. Home schooling is a default it’s what you do from the minute a child is born its not a second, third, fourth or what ever place choice.

  7. Hosay Wednesday 12 June 2013 at 9:45 pm #

    what is new about this story? school entry has long been unfair. at the moment we ration by house price or rent – the good schools cost more to live near. just look at house prices near Camden school for girls, with houses going for almost £2m just because they are in the catchment area. if you clamp down on renters you will just stoke house prices. i agree with Zakiyah. just make all schools good and get rid of this fallacy of choice…

  8. Kerry Friday 14 June 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    Simon. Are you suggesting that parents who don’t cheat are less committed to their kids?
    The people who fiddle the admissions system aren’t sacrificing anything themselves when they’re temporarily renting. It must be such a hardship to have the means to leave your main home empty or make money renting it short term, while you decamp round the corner next to the school playground. Trampling over legitimate residents as you do it.
    It’s stealing. And sets a dreadful example to your children. It’s ok to dick over a contemporary to get what you want.
    Nice. Just the sort of middle-class people with a moral bypass I want my kid to grow up with.
    Eleanor Palmer isn’t a community school, as the real community becomes ever-more excluded by the shrinking catchment area. It’s a smug self-selecting state-funded prep school.

  9. Joanne Friday 14 June 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    Hey Simon why don’t you do a bit of reading on the effect of early years education and life outcomes? You might save yourself a whole lot of angst and money. Just send your kid to the local primary school, get involved a bit, maybe bake a cake for the summer fair and you too might have a “good” local school. Here’s another tip, renting an additional temporary property to gain an advantage for your application to a particular school is misleading. That would not be following the rules Simon, even if it is because you ‘want it more’. You may end up having your place removed from you like the family in the front page story of the CNJ this week.

  10. londonandproperty Sunday 16 June 2013 at 9:23 am #

    With Real wages struggling to grow I foresee more parents who would have chosen the Private school route, opting for good state schools and investing some if the fees they will save, upfront into bigger mortgages (http://londonandproperty.com/childrens-schools/) So the problem will only get worse and the rate of “catchment area shrinkage” will accelerate. The governments new Help To Buy scheme means from next year it won’t just be temporary renters, but a new wave of demand from new buyers into good catchment areas. There are only 2 answers: Bigger class sizes & more schools.

  11. octopus Saturday 22 June 2013 at 10:45 pm #

    We see numerous middle class wealthy families renting out their big houses in order to rent temporariy by the schools with the best reputations. Camden School for Girls is full of such families who are renting flats on the doorstep of the school to then move back to their big houses outside the catchment. Pushing out the families who have lived near the school for years who now don’t live near enough because of these families cheating the system for their own selfish gain. Instead of supporting their local comprehensives in their catchment they selfishly elbow their way in to the so called top schools, cheating the system but some how arrogantly justifying it to themselves and their like minded friends and then claiming to be left wing liberal and fair minded. Just another example of a particular strand of the middle classes as having a complacent sense of being entitled to everything and using their privelige at the expense of others. It just goes with the hollow selfish neo liberal climate that these hypocritical snobby parents pretend they dont aspire to- whilst simultaneously undertaking this morally corrupt action of renting their houses out and elbowing their way in to the school of their choice by renting temporarily. It is pernicious and pathetic and they are not setting a very good example to their children about how to behave in a soical context. I am delighted to hear Camden will be adopting Hackney’s wording. This should have happened long ago.

  12. Jo Sunday 20 October 2013 at 8:31 am #

    Little update – Evening Standard did a great piece on the legal loophole allowing parents to get away with this dishonest type of school application. http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/revealed-the-legal-loophole-letting-pushy-parents-rent-the-best-state-school-places-8878941.html
    To date two of the parents who won places through temporary renting moved back to their real homes over the summer, the council still stand by their decisions stating that legally they have no option but to accept these type of applications as valid. The Local Authority Ombudsman have upheld the decision stating they consider Camden’s admissions process entirely appropriate!

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