Sunday Insight: Schooled in the dark arts

Private investigator RonMcQuilter has assigned agents to keep an eye on school zone cheats. Photo / Doug Sherring
Private investigator RonMcQuilter has assigned agents to keep an eye on school zone cheats. Photo / Doug Sherring

Paul Vester is happy enough with his family's smart new three bedroom home near the foot of Auckland's leafy Mt Wellington.

However, the 35-year-old project manager isn't quite so pleased about shelling out an extra $120,000 to shift just a few streets to get his three young children into the zone for the recently-built Stonefields School.

When the state-of-the-art primary opened two years ago, Vester and his wife Rachel felt sure their old house in Monaco Place would be included in the catchment area.

It wasn't. So the Vesters joined forces with other frustrated neighbours to challenge the boundary mapped out by the Ministry of Education. The fight lasted almost two years. The parents lost.

In October, the Vesters bit the bullet. They dug deep and extended their mortgage to move less than 1km around the corner - and just 300m as the crow flies-into Harding Ave, a street within the zone.

"What else could we do? We have three children under 6 and our options were to send them to not such a good school further away or pay for private education, which was simply not affordable," Paul says.

"It was cheaper to pay more than an extra $100,000 for another house than do that."

Vester, who was baptised a Catholic, admits he even considered going back to church so the kids would have a better chance of attending one of the nearby Catholic schools. In the end, he played by the rules. He has little time for the growing numbers of scheming parents rorting the system by pretending to live within desirable school boundaries.

"In a way I can understand why people do it as they only want the best for their kids," he explains. "But it is not fair on families who legitimately live in a zone and have paid a lot ofmoney to do so.

"I wouldn't blame genuine residents for dobbing in cheats." There have been reports of private detectives knocking on doors across Auckland to catch out desperately ambitious parents trying to get their children listed at addresses within sought-after high school zones, such as the one for Auckland Grammar in upmarket Mt Eden. A Herald on Sunday investigation reveals the zoning battlefield has now extended to primary schools. Families are thinking further ahead and gambling on their children ending up at the desirable colleges via the feeder schools.

Primary principals in city suburbs such as St Heliers, Mt Eden and Ellerslie struggle to keep on top of the numbers attempting to circumnavigate the rules.

They say typical ruses pulled by out-of-zone parents include temporarily renting a small apartment and insisting it is the family home; producing counterfeit tenancy agreements; leasing cheap office space and giving that as their address; and pretending their children live fulltime with relatives within the catchment area.

And perversely, the parents' deceit not only sets an extraordinarily bad example for their young children, but it may not even improve the quality of the child's education. The most sought-after primary schools are those with the highest socioeconomic decile ratings - but Education Review Office reports reveal those are not always the best schools.

When parents are desperate enough to call in highpriced lawyers, small primary schools are forced on to the back foot. "The usual way people get caught out is by their children talking at school about where they really live or other parents turning them in," says John Faire, principal of the decile 10 Mt Eden Normal School. "People who feel a decision is unfair have the right to appeal this to the Ministry of Education."

Mt Eden had to call in lawyers to deal with a tricky enrolment challenge this summer. The school's board had annulled the enrolment of a boy who, the school said, did not live in the zone. The parents fought the decision and, last week, the parents won.

The ministry found there had been insufficient evidence to show a temporary residence had been used for the purpose of gaining enrolment, a spokesman said, so the board was directed to enrol the student. Faire says there was a "tremendous amount of time put into the process because the board wanted to ensure an objective decision was made. A major issue is students who are enrolled and then move out of zone. There is greyness in the law.

"You depend on the integrity of the parents. In these cases, it's always the childwho is caught in the middle."

The irony, Faire adds, is that half the time the parents battling so hard to get into a school's zone are misguided: they might get an equally good or better education from another school down the road that doesn't have such a high decile or National Standards rating.

At St Heliers School, principal Craig McCarthny is sick of it. Every otherweek he door-knocks people to make sure they live where they say they do.

His school roll last year tipped 770 - 100 more pupils than he believes is optimum. He hasn't taken any out-of-zone children for six years, yet people still try it on, hoping to eventually get their offspring into Glendowie College. "When a new family applies we scrutinise their application as carefully as we can," McCarthny says. "If we are suspicious we are honest with them. Most people vanish when they realise it isn't as easy as they think.

"I don't have the resources to employ private investigators so staff and I do follow-upchecks ourselves." In a typical year about 20 to 25 suspicious applications come to his attention, he adds.

It is not just the traditionally sought-after inner-city areas being targeted by out-of-zoners. Auckland now has 13 suburbs where the average house price has topped $1 millionand the best primary schools are packed to bursting.

Simon Short, regional area manager for Bayleys real estate agency in Auckland, says: "People are now buying outside the double and triple grammar zones at Mt Eden and Epsom and on-the-rise suburbs like Sandringham, Kingsland, Mt Roskill and Pt Chevalier.

"They are trying to future-proof their children's education by buying or renting in areas that have desirable primary and intermediate schools as well as having access to the good colleges."

At Ellerslie School, which supplies the emerging One Tree Hill College, principal Chris Magner fends off dozens of bogus applications every year from some of the "hundreds" of out-of-zone parents who work at the nearby Central Park business centre.

"They will produce receipts from a doctor in the area, thinking that will suffice," he says. "It is also not unusual for someone to pay to have Sky TV installed at a mate's house in the zone so their name appears on a bill. We would have 500 extra kids here if we didn't enforce the rules."

Business consultant Soon Lim works hard at his job in the city to support his family and pay for their four-bedroom house in Beatrice Ave, on the fringes of Takapuna. The family moved there last year thinking the street was in the zone for Westlake Boys' High School. He was dismayed to discover it was marginally outside.

He was fortunate his son was near the top of the out-of-zone waiting list so the family stayed put. However, next year his 11-year-old daughter, who attends Takapuna Intermediate, will be of age for Westlake Girls'.

He is seriously considering selling the house and renting in the zone for several years, because the cost of buying there is prohibitive. "It was our fault for not making sure we were in the zone but we thought we were within the boundary because it looked that way on amapon the school website," Lim says. "I would rather rent than try to find a way to fraudulently apply for the school. I don't know how people can do that because if you are caught, it is the children who suffer."

Ironically, the cheats and the honest families like the Lims may be misguided in pushing to get their children into desirable schools like Westlake Girls' and Westlake Boys', both decile 9.

An ERO report into the nearby decile 7 Glenfield College says staff and students are proud of the continuing progress the school is making in the quality of education available and the provision of student support. Soon Lim says: "We just felt Westlake Girls' is a better school in terms of its learning environment and discipline."

Ten minutes' drive up the coast from Takapuna the views of Rangitoto Island from the playground at Murrays Bay primary school are stunning but the prospect of the other Rangitoto - New Zealand's biggest college - just up the hill on the East Coast Rd is far more attractive.

Ken Pemberton, principal at Murrays Bay, is now having to play amateur sleuth to weed out dodgy applications. "People think if you get into the primary they'll automatically go to our intermediate and from there it is a ticket to Rangitoto College.

"We are trusting by nature and the vast majority of parents play it by the book but what people should realise is that if they get caught out somewhere down the line it could have major consequences for their child's education and social life."

Sitting in a wood-panelled side office within the hallowed walls of Auckland Grammar, fulltime director of enrolment and external relations Deborah George admits high schools are now liaising more closely with junior schools over enrolment issues.

"We have been sharing more information so that red flags can be raised at an earlier stage," she says. "Some people might think because they have been accepted at a local school they will as amatter of course get into the Grammar.

"However, if there are any question marks over an enrolment of this nature we will investigate it." Surreptitiously tailing teenagers to and from school is not something Auckland-based Ron McQuilter, director at the country's largest firm of private investigators, Paragon, really likes doing.

His company has taken on several jobs for schools and he admits he has assigned agents to conduct surveillance on zone cheats.

He cites a recent case where an investigator followed a teenage boy for a week as he was picked up and dropped off at a well-known city college before returning to his home, half an hour's drive away.

"In that case, the family had given a bogus address within the school boundary. We had to observe them leaving their real house and be there first thing when the bedroom curtains were being opened."

McQuilter points out that many parents choose to ignore the fact that when they enrol at a school they are often asked to sign a statutory declaration which has to then be rubber stamped by an official. "As far as I am aware no one has been prosecuted for telling lies to a school but it is only a matter of time before someone is made an example of."

Auckland YouthLaw solicitor Manawa Pomare has seen a noticeable increase in young people seeking free legal advice about being kicked out of school over enrolment issues. "The law says that a student who lives in the home zone of their local school is entitled to enrol at that school, and that school cannot ask a student who was in zone but has moved out of zone to move, unless the student and their family used a temporary address to gain entry to the school," she explains.

All of these line calls on school enrolments fail to go to the heart of the real issue: will children really get a better education at more affluent state schools? Some parents have an ingrained attitude towards getting their children intowhat they perceive as being the "right school" at any cost, according to Jill Corkin, president of the Auckland
Primary Principals' Association.

Corkin believes a mind shift is required to steer people away from focusing on the importance of decile 9 or 10 schools. "If people decide that a school is desirable based on how hard it is to get into then it is a false judgment," she says. "There are plenty of great local schools where children will get an equal education as at schools that are perceived as being popular or fashionable."

- Herald on Sunday

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