Catching School Place Cheaters with Private Investigation

School admissions can be a competitive business. Every year, families across the United Kingdom submit their applications

School admissions can be a competitive business. Every year, families across the United Kingdom submit their applications, hoping that their child is allocated a space in the school of their choice. For many, this is a simple process – visiting the educational institutions within acceptable distance and choosing between them. Deciding factors include Ofsted reports, local reputation, and examination results from previous years. But, for some, the desire to secure a space at a specific school can become the overarching consideration, and this regularly gives rise to fraudulent school applications.

In England, just over 4000 of 25,555 schools and colleges boast an ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted[1], making this small percentage of institutions among the most sought after in terms of admissions. The criteria for the allocation of places are not straightforward, however. Some schools administer admissions tests, some require proof of participation in a particular religion, some are based on catchment area alone, and some use a combination of these strategies. While it is incredibly difficult to cheat on an admissions test, and challenging to fake adherence to a religion, the catchment area criteria is often subject to the most attempts at cheating of all admissions processes.

Catchment area cheating strategies

There are three common methods used for fraudulent catchment area-based school applications, and all involve lying about the primary place of residence.

  1. Using a different address

Where an over-subscribed, highly rated school has a strictly enforced catchment area, families have been known to list an address other than their own on school application forms. It could be that the family has relatives that live in the right spot, or friends who are willing to allow their address to be used. It could be that a business owned or operated by the family is registered in the catchment area, or even just the place of work of one of the parents involved. None of these situations meet catchment area criteria, however, as this rule of eligibility specifically requires that the primary residence of the child be within a stipulated geographical area.

  • Renting a property in the area for the purpose of getting into the school

Families that live outside of the catchment area in question have been known to rent secondary properties inside the catchment area, in order to become eligible. While this sometimes involves moving the family into the rented property, and letting out the primary residence, it has also been known to involve families leaving the rented property essentially vacant, and simply using it for the address privileges it provides.

  • Buying a home in the area for the purpose of getting into the school

Families with the means necessary have been known to purchase property inside the catchment area of a highly regarded school in order to be eligible. In many cases, the school catchment area is a perfectly valid consideration when buying a family home – even when the need for a school place is year away. Proximity to desirable schools is often included as a selling point when properties are placed on the market. This is sometimes exploited, however, with families being known to buy up property inside desirable catchment areas without using it as a primary residence.

What’s the problem?

Parents naturally want the best for their children and want to provide them with every possible advantage in life. When it comes to highly rated schools, these advantages are not limited to examination results. They often include the broad range of experiences provided by robust and well-funded extra-curricular programmes, and the life-long connections made through alumni schemes and networks of influence. In the U.K, attending a particular school can still make all the difference – even from the youngest age – in academic, social and economic terms.

In these respects, from the perspective of the parents, the submission of fraudulent school applications is in some ways understandable. However, these types of infractions are termed fraudulent for a reason. School spaces are a finite resource, and every time a family secures a school place through manipulation of the rules, a legitimately eligible child misses out on a school place. Looking at such fraud in more detail also reveals significant economic inequity. In deploying financial advantage to fraudulently secure a school place – by renting a second property inside the catchment area, for example – a space is potentially taken from a child whose family has no such advantage but is just as deserving of the school place.

How are Private Investigators used to combat school admissions fraud?

In dealing with fraudulent school applications, Private Investigation services are often engaged by both Local Authorities and private individuals alike.

  • Local Authorities – The Local Authority responsible for the allocation of school places can engage the services of a Private Investigator where suspicions have been raised about the residential situation of an applicant.
  • Private individuals – Parents have been known to engage the services of Private Investigators where their child has missed out on a space at their desired school, and there are suspicions that the space in question was secured by another family using fraudulent means.

In both circumstances, the role of a Private Investigator is to confirm the truth. In the course of these professional enquiries, the residential details included with the school application will either be confirmed as true or proven to be false. Where the application is proven to be fraudulent, the family in question can sometimes face a financial penalty from the Local Authority in question, and retraction of the school place. The strategy used by Private Investigators dealing with suspected school application fraud is to gather proof of residence. To do this, both surveillance and in-person questioning are used to determine the truth.

In cases of suspected school catchment area cheaters, it is not usually necessary to surveil the applicants themselves – usually the parents – on an individual basis. Instead, a more static approach to the surveillance is taken, with the property listed on the application kept under watch for a period of several days. Evidence is then gathered, consisting of activity logs, photographs, and video footage. The purpose of this surveillance approach is to confirm who, if anybody, is living permanently at the address in question.

The reason this is required is that, if the property is actually the residential address of friends or relatives, or if it is not actually the primary residence of the family making the application, then this will become clear through watching the property. Recording who arrives at the address, who leaves, at what times these activities occur, and with what regularity means that fraud can be accurately proved or disproved. This is particularly important in cases where families are aware of the potential for surveillance and are purposefully trying to mislead neighbours and investigators through planned activity.

In support of surveillance, Private Investigators are also likely to ask questions of people. This may include people who are local to the property listed in the school application, such as neighbours, and people who are known to the family making the application, including friends. Questions would also be asked of those who have raised the suspicions of fraudulent applications, too, whether that is the Local Authority, the school, or private individuals. The purpose of this is to ascertain the basis of the suspicions, and the veracity of any rumours.

How is the evidence used?

When you hire a professional, reputable Private Investigation firm, their objective is always to provide you with comprehensive and irrefutable evidence that is admissible in a court of law. This means that, in the case of suspected fraudulent school applications, evidence gathered from surveillance and in-person questioning is compiled in a clear and actionable way, which can then be presented to the Local Authority. Where the Local Authority has hired the Private Investigator, this evidence can be used to deal with the allegations of application fraud as necessary. Where the Private Investigator was hired by a private individual, the evidence can be used in support of an applications appeal.

The integrity of the evidence gathered is of the utmost importance for any case of school application fraud. For this reason, it is crucial that the Private Investigation firm hired is qualified, professional, and operating to the strictest ethical and legal standards. The Private Investigation industry is currently unregulated, so it is incumbent upon the client to undertake the necessary due diligence.

OpSec Solutions boasts a team of security and intelligence experts, all of whom come from military, police, corporate or government backgrounds. They provide a wealth of experience in all types of surveillance and investigation and perform their roles to highest standards of professional conduct. This is demonstrated by the accreditations held by the firm, including those from the Association of British Investigators, the Institute of Professional Investigators, and the Professional Investigators Network. OpSec Solutions is also registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office, so you can be confident that your information, data, and evidence will be handled with absolute discretion, sensitivity, and confidentiality. Call OpSec Solutions today to discuss your concerns about school catchment area cheats.


[1] https://www.compare-school-performance.service.gov.uk/schools-by-type?step=default&table=schools&region=all-england&for=ofsted&orderby=OFSTEDRATINGCODE&orderdir=asc

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