08/12/2015 04:34 GMT | Updated 04/12/2016 05:12 GMT

Shrinking Primary School Catchments

The BBC reported this morning that, at almost a hundred primary schools in the UK, a family must live within 300m of the school gates to guarantee a place for their child. This came as no surprise in our household, as we had come up against this very issue two years ago and it was an unexpected shock at that time.

When we bought our house, we talked almost jokingly about getting in the right catchment area, as if putting that criterion front and centre were the kind of thing middle-class fusspot parents might do - not cool kids like us! But we were cautious enough to land ourselves in the catchment of a highly regarded school that had educated the children of friends and colleagues to their immense satisfaction. Neighbouring us to the west and east were the catchments of equally reputed primaries, which would serve as perfectly acceptable insurance choices. So when the time came in the winter prior to the academic year in question, we put those three schools down as our choices: 1) Our catchment school; 2) School to the West; 3) School to the East.

Ominously, we were promptly sent a letter explaining that our chosen schools had experienced a high volume of applications and on 18 April that year, we were sent a letter informing us that our son had not been allocated a place at any of the three schools we had chosen. The reason given was the same for all three schools:

"Under the admission criteria the admission number was reached with offers made to pupils living closer to the school"

We were upset angry, frustrated and worried. I contacted the Authority and asked for clarification of how this had occurred and was informed that the school places for our favoured school had been filled by applicants residing within 476m of the school and we lived 513m away.

So imagine these three schools each sitting as the nucleus of their respective neighbouring catchments. Now imagine a ring around these schools roughly 1km in diameter which does not reach as far as the catchment boundary. Each school had filled its places with applicants from within these rings, so anyone outside the rings but within the catchment areas would be left without a place at any of the three schools and would have to be placed outside the tri-catchment area. And this is what happened with our son Alex. It's not always good enough to buy a house within your desired catchment - you may have to ensure that it is at the centre of that catchment.

My first instinct was to appeal the decision and I set about researching how I could go about this and what our chances might be. I read the lengthy guidelines for local authorities and tried to pick at the edges of its leaden logic. I kept coming back to the line in the letter we had received, and it's this ineluctable, dull slab of a fact:

"Under the admission criteria the admission number was reached with offers made to pupils living closer to the school"

No argument I could make about my child being wrenched away from his nursery buddies, about the busy road he would have to cross, about the fact that all three of our preferences had been seemingly cast aside - no such argument could make any difference to that bald fact. No well reasoned appeal could create an extra school place for my son where there was none.

I began to become suspicious - did each of these successful applicants truly reside within 476m of the school? It seemed crazy that there could be so many 4 year olds in such a small area. Could school admissions fraud, where parents lie about their address to win a place for their child have been a factor in denying Alex his place? An investigation by the Schools Week website found that that the number of admission investigations launched by local education authorities had nearly tripled from 2012/13 to 2014/15.

To fill three reception classes at our preferred school, there must have been 90 applicants within the 476m radius. I drew the ring on the map and guestimated the number of residences within that area, and divided the 90 four year olds by the number of residences to give the average number of four year olds per household in that area.

I then went onto the ONS website to find the number of children born in 2009 in the UK and divided that by the number of households in the UK to find the national average number of four year olds per household.

It turned out that there was supposedly over three times the national average number of four year olds living within 476m of our favoured school.

It's a family area, but still that seemed significant - my suspicions began to run wild!

I put the possibility of admissions fraud to the head of the Pupil Access Team at my local authority. His response was that, while the Pupil Access Team does not check every application, they do carry out random checks and that the local community is "very good at informing the Council when they have suspicions of parents using false addresses" ie. People shop each other to the authorities! He assured me that places are withdrawn where fraud this is proven. He also hinted, though, that the Data Protection Act means that they can only use the data in certain ways and that he was investigating ways in which addresses could be checked through Council Tax records within the Data Protection Act, but that this was not currently possible.

The story did end happily for Alex when he won a place at the start of year two. We achieved this simply by repeated applications, both at the beginning of each academic year and "in-year". Alex eventually rose to the top of the waiting list and a place became available. When he did start at the school, we came to realise that there were five other kids in Alex's year living between our house and the end of our road, so maybe the seemingly far-fetched local demographic bulge in kids of Alex's age was a real thing after all!

My younger son started in the reception year at the same time and his teacher and learning assistant visited us in our home as part of his induction - further reassurance that address fraud is of concern to the actual school itself, as well as to the local authority.

So we now have two sons at the same school in whose catchment area we live - which sound like such a basic expectation for parents such as us, but which was a hard-fought and sometimes upsetting battle. It seems that if you really have set your heart on a particular primary, you may have to live closer to it than you think.