Moving house for school places: what the law says
Getting a place for your child at your first choice of school is something of a postcode lottery. In 2018, 91% of primary school children were offered a space at their preferred school, while just 82% of secondary pupils were allocated their chosen school.
Missing out on your first choice of school – or, in the worst-case scenario, not securing a place at any of your top three – can be a cause of serious worry and heartache.
It’s no surprise, then, that according to research by Santander, one in four parents of school-age children buy or rent a property to boost their chances of a space at their preferred school.
But is it legal to move house purely to gain a school place?
School catchment areas and distance criteria explained
Every school has its own admissions criteria, which they must publish on their website. You can also find out the admissions criteria for schools in your area by contacting your local council.
If a school is oversubscribed – that is, if there are more applications than places available – they’ll take into account factors including catchment areas or distance from the school when they decide who to offer a place.
Catchment areas and distance criteria are not the same thing. Schools with a catchment area have a defined geographical area that they will accept applications from. Children living outside the catchment area are unlikely to be offered a place.
You may find you’re within catchment for just one school, or several. It’s strongly advised that you apply for at least one of your catchment schools to be in with a realistic chance of a place.
Some schools, however, don’t have a set catchment area, but offer places to pupils from any area based on their distance from the school. How far you can live from a school and still be in with a chance of a place depends on its popularity. Some take pupils from several miles away, while at other highly oversubscribed schools, you may need to live within a few hundred metres.
Proving your address for school admissions
When you apply for a school place, you must use your child’s permanent address at the time of application.
You’ll usually be asked to provide at least two proofs of address, such as:
- Your council tax letter for the current year
- A copy of your tenancy agreement
- A copy of a benefits letter dated within the past 12 months
- Your TV licence
- A utilities bill dated within the past three months
- A copy of your child benefit letter
- A copy of a tax credits letter
Moving house or renting a property for school places: what the law says
Given the benefits of being educated at a good or outstanding school, many parents are willing to rent or buy a property close by to increase their child’s chances of getting a place, but it’s important to be aware of the legalities.
The address you give on your child’s school application must be their permanent place of residence. There’s usually a cut-off date by which you must have moved into your new property for that address to be used for your school application, and you’re usually obliged to still be living at that address when your child starts school.
If you move house during the application process, you’ll need to provide the admissions authority (either the local council, or the school itself in the case of academies and faith schools) with proof of your new address. This could be:
- A solicitor’s letter confirming the completion date of your house purchase (exchange of contracts is not sufficient)
- A signed tenancy agreement for at least 12 months
- Evidence that you have relinquished ties with your former place of residence
It’s not enough to just change your address on your online application form: you must provide the documentation to prove it.
What constitutes a fraudulent application?
If your preferred school tends to be oversubscribed, it can be tempting to play the system. But admissions authorities are alert to applications that use fraudulent addresses, and increasing numbers of parents are being caught out.
Examples of fraudulent applications include:
- Renting a property close to a school but keeping your previous property (NB: this can apply even if you move into the rental property)
- Applying from a relative’s address but keeping your previous property
- Renting close to a school but moving out before your child’s school start date
Admissions investigators have found people applying to schools from their child’s grandparents’ address, falsely claiming that they are having building work done at their usual address, and even applying from randomly chosen addresses that they have no connection with at all.
How do schools check addresses?
Local councils have investigators who look into allegations of fraudulent school applications.
They use a variety of methods, including cross-referencing applications with council tax records or the electoral roll, spot checks on addresses, and even checking social media for evidence of address fraud.
Some cases of fraud are discovered through random checks, while other councils rely on tip-offs – often from other parents with a child applying to or already at the school.
However, according to 2015 research by Schools Week, 21 councils say they don’t check applications at all, or have no formal process for checking.
What happens if you’re caught out?
The Department for Education says that they will ‘take action where appropriate’ if they discover address fraud has taken place. The likelihood is that your child’s school place will be withdrawn.
This applies even if they’ve already started school, so if you’re considering playing the system, it’s important to weigh up the benefits against the very real risk of your child having to leave a school where they’ve already settled in.