Can cheats prosper in the race to give their children a leg-up at school?

It is an extraordinary claim by any measure: rich parents, real live Hollywood celebrities among them, were named by the FBI allegedly paying between $15,000 and $75,000 in bribes and cheat fees to get their kids into university. Up to 50 people, including Felicity Huffman, are alleged to have taken part in a scheme that involved either paying someone else to take the entrance exam or bribing university coaches and officials to admit their children as athletes – even if the student had never played sport.

William “Rick” Singer, CEO of “life coaching and college counselling” company The Key, is claimed to have orchestrated the operation, earning around $25m. It’s currently unclear what will now happen to those privileged students on campus, whether their parents are found guilty or not. But one thing is certain: parents have always used nefarious and sometimes illegal means to get their kids a better education. Here are just a few…

The ‘climb any wall’ approach

Parents are often keen to impress the value of good exam results on their kids. This is the sort of gung-ho, gritted-teeth spirit that says if you work hard enough, any mountain can be conquered. If you kick hard enough, any door can be knocked down. And if you’re climbing the wall to success, be prepared to do so literally – as in the case of some 300 parents in the Indian state of Bihar. In 2015, as more than 1.4 million students across the eastern state prepared to take their school-leaving exams at more than 1,200 centres, hundreds of parents were caught scaling two- and four-storey buildings to pass answers through the windows. Students were seen copying answers from smuggled-in note sheets while police posted outside test centres were bribed to look the other way. The scandal saw at least 750 students expelled. The then state education minister PK Shahi argued that it was too difficult to conduct fair exams. “Is it the responsibility of the government alone to manage such a huge number of people and to conduct a 100% free and fair examination?” he asked. Well, quite.

Brasenose College, Oxford, glowing in the golden hour light on High Street.

Brasenose College, Oxford, glowing in the golden hour light on High Street. Photograph: Tracy Packer/Moment Editorial/Getty Images

The ‘how’s your father?’ sub-plot

It’s one thing having enough wealth and privilege to gloss over low grades and still get into your Oxbridge college of choice. It’s quite another to boast about it. And yet, in his 2001 memoir, How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, Toby Young did just that. Having missed the marks to make it into Brasenose College, Oxford, Young received a letter suggesting he had got in anyway. A second letter saying that he had not got in followed. And so his father, Michael Young, Lord Dartington, made a phone call to the admissions tutor to complain. In delicious or unfortunate irony, depending on your view, Young senior was the sociologist and politician who coined the term “meritocracy”. He founded the Open University, the Consumers Association and Which? magazine, and shaped Labour’s manifesto for the 1945 general election. He also ensured his son, Toby Young, would win his place at one of the world’s most prestigious institutions.

The ‘finding God’ moment

Many life-changing events can lead people to find solace in religion. Marriage; death; and the race to ensure a child secures a place at the local faith school. In 2012, a YouGov poll indicated that 6% of atheist parents had attended church services simply so their child could attend a well-performing church school. In 2015, a similar poll conducted for ITV programme How To Get In To A Good School found that the number had doubled: one in eight parents was faking religion to get their children into popular, oversubscribed Church of England schools.

One journalist, Andrew Penman, got a book deal for his efforts and published School Daze: Searching for Decent State Education. He wrote: “I faked being a Christian to get my children into the local Church of England primary school. My plea: guilty. I am an atheist, but for at least two years before my son reached primary-school age I went to the local church, along with my wife. And so it came to pass that our son got the school place.” Penman blamed the state of education. “It’s an abhorrent situation,” he wrote. “And one that is made worse when parents are forced to play a system that they didn’t create and are then accused of being odious, despicable hypocrites.”

The catch of the catchment area

If you build it, they will come. And so it proves with parents moving heaven, earth and home to be near the best schools. Research shows that one in four British families have moved house to obtain a school place for their children, paying up to 18% more for a property to do so. However, one in six families say they have deliberately bought or rented a second property to do the same. A Sutton Trust report last year found that almost one in three parents from higher socioeconomic backgrounds knew a parent cheating the system to gain access to a particular school, be it by using a relative’s address or by temporarily renting a second property. Ten years ago, one mother became the first parent in the country to be taken to court for alleged school application fraud. That case was dropped but the practice remains rife.

The ‘family matters’ method

In the US, family connections have always helped students get into Ivy League universities. Students dubbed “legacies” – predominantly white and wealthy young people with a parent who had attended the institution – are 45% more likely to be admitted, as they are widely seen as a reliable future source of alumni donations. According to a 2011 study by a Harvard researcher (a university with a 33% acceptance rate for legacy students versus an overall acceptance rate of 6%), the impact across 30 elite universities is dramatic: the system openly discriminates in favour of affluent, privileged children. Overall, students from the top 1% of the income scale are 77 times more likely to attend the best American universities than those from the bottom 20%.


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