A nursery owner who lied about children’s dates of birth so she could fraudulently claim more than £37,000 of taxpayers' money has been given a suspended sentence.

Sarah Tolner, formerly of Flower Lane, Mill Hill, altered 58 birth dates to make it appear that children attending her privately-run nurseries were entitled to free early years provision between 2007 and 2012.

The national scheme entitles children between three and five years old to 15 hours of free part-time education each week.

Nurseries, playgroups, children’s centres and child-minders submit forms to the council each term to claim the cost of providing services.

An investigation was launched by Barnet Council’s corporate anti-fraud team in 2011 when the council’s children’s service identified irregularities in a form submitted by the 55-year-old, who owned North London Montessori in Flower Lane, Mill Hill, and Country Cows Montessori Nursery in Watford Way, Mill Hill, at the time of the fraud.

The Country Cows nursery has been under new ownership since 2011.

Wood Green Crown Court heard that as well as falsifying claim forms, Tolner had falsified attendance records and registration forms, including forging some parents' signatures.

In one case, a claim was made for a child who had never attended the nursery.

In total, Tolner received £37,191 of funding she was not entitled to. She was ordered to repay the total sum as well as £18,227 in costs.

Tolner was sentenced at Wood Green Crown Court on January 6 after pleading guilty at the same court in October last year.

She was sentenced to ten months in prison, suspended for 18 months, and ordered to carry out 200 hours of unpaid work after pleading guilty to 15 counts of fraud by false representation and having a further two offences taken into consideration.

Leader of the council Councillor Richard Cornelius said: “This was a brazen attempt to illegally pocket a great deal of taxpayers’ money.

“Our corporate anti-fraud team and children’s service did an excellent job in initially spotting something was wrong and then successfully investigating the full extent of this fraud.

“I am also glad to see that the vast majority of the money claimed illegally, and the council’s costs, have already been repaid.”