How the middle classes are gaming the school system

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Spend time on the forums of parenting websites like Mumsnet and you’ll soon discover just how heated the debate is on issues such as whether it makes more sense to pay for private education or pay above the odds to move near a desirable public school. (“You pay for education either way,” says one commenter. “Either directly through fees or indirectly through house prices plus mortgage payments.”)

Disputes also revolve around the ethics of lying on admission forms, about the likelihood of being caught, and about whether it’s right to report someone you know has lied. “Cheating the system is not without victims; costs another child a place in school. If I was sure someone cheated, I would report it,” says a frustrated parent.


However, it’s not always that easy to be sure: a child may have special educational needs that prioritize them, or there may be another reason for a special waiver. I spoke to John Pique, a private investigator based in London and Manchester who has sometimes been hired by parents to investigate other parents.

Instead of following them, it takes “a more static approach to surveillance, with the property listed on the application kept under surveillance for several days,” he explains. “Evidence is then collected, consisting of activity logs, photographs and video footage.”

Ultimately, if you’ve lied about where you live, it’s pretty easy to tell. It is now standard practice for authorities to not only request multiple proofs of residency, but also check it against municipal tax records and even credit reference agencies. Some local authorities check that you live at an address up to three times. Camden City Council, in north London, warns that it “will also review the application of any family who decides to move after taking up the school place up to one year after the closing date”.

Merton is even stricter. It states: “Where an applicant rents a property and has ownership of an alternative property, the rented property will only be used for admission purposes if the child has resided outside the property for a period of three years or more at the time of closing. application submission date.

Local authority websites have hotlines to report rule-breakers, while some schools send governors knocking on doors on weekends. The tone of communication with parents can border on suspicion, even aggressiveness. “I had a client who was applying for a place at one of the best elementary schools in the country,” says Coatman. “They insisted that he was fraudulently trying to get a place at the school, because he owned two properties and hadn’t leased the one that was further away. He was genuine, but he’d had trouble letting it out. They were so nasty to him.”

If discovered, a child can be withdrawn from school, but even if they are allowed to stay, younger siblings may find their priority revoked when they apply. Some local authorities have even tried to take parents to court, but it is not that easy to prosecute. In 2009, Harrow City Council dropped a trial case against a woman who was accused of lying about her address to secure a place at school for her son, a charge she denied. After being told it was unclear whether the fraud legislation covered such cases, Harrow backed out.

Of course, there is another kind of rule-breaking that is perhaps even more ethically dubious: pretending to be religious. A 2018 YouGov poll found that 56 percent think it is “unacceptable” for parents to attend church specifically to get their children into an affiliated school.

In the ‘black hole’ area of ​​South London where I live, there is an outstanding Ofsted religious school. A neighbor told me about a non-believing friend who was determined to get her son to school, attending church every week with ever-bigger hats to make sure she was noticed. She worked, and soon she was asked to take care of the church nursery.

Several years later, after her two children were admitted to the school, my neighbor asked her friend why she was still attending. She smiled beatifically and replied, “I find it rewarding.” It may have started out as a lie, but in the end, she was as religious as it sounds.

Would you consider gaming the system to get your children into a better high school? Please let us know in the comments below.

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