Hairy, and difficult to digest
This is a hairy one, and no mistake.
I mean, I have to agree, it certainly sounds a little disproportionate, and it's certainly unsettling. (It was also pointless, as the surveillance in this case took place after the cut off date for residence in the catchment area).
Unfortunately, it is now the case that parents are prepared to cheat real bad. Just asking to see council tax bills, etc, is no longer sufficient.
Utility bills and the like aren't enough either, because they can't prove that the named recipient actually _resides_ at the property, which AFAIK is the criteria. As someone mentioned above, some parents have been known to buy or rent property within catchment areas with no intention of actually residing there just to get their kids into their first choice school.
So if an LEA suspect fraudulent (or dishonest, or whatever) behaviour, less intrusive options just aren't going to cut it. They can be, and indeed have been, gamed.
The only real way to confirm a persons residence, if you feel that you can't rely on such paperwork as they produce, is to go and have a shufty. Which is exactly what they did.
This makes me uncomfortable, but I honestly can't see what choice the LEA were left with, and blaming it on RIPA is fallacious. They could easily have hired a PI to do this pre RIPA, but they wouldn't have had to get permission for it. RIPA did _not_ grant the 'power' to mount directed surveillance. It _does_ seek to define and regulate such 'powers' within a particular legal framework. Hence the name.
Whether following them around for three weeks was really necessary, or cost effective, is definitely an argument worth having (in this case it's a short one, because it was done after the cut off date, and even if it had been shown to be the case that they lived somewhere else, it would have been largely irrelevant).
Of course, if the education system wasn't so FUBARd, parents wouldn't resort to extreme underhand means, and there would therefore be no need to mount surveillance on them to make sure they weren't gaming the catchment system.
So it seems to be the case that a massive inefficiency in a state sector leaves it with little choice but to put citizens under surveillance. That's a scary fucking place to be whichever way you look at it.