Romana Roeg searched for "the perfect house" for nine months. It had to have a side entrance for her landscape gardening business but, more important, had to be near the school of choice for her daughter, Ava.
She found her dream home, in the right borough and only a couple of streets away from the Telegraph Hill school, in south London, but was shocked when Ava didn't get in. She says: "Even though we're close, we're nearer to another school. Ironically, if we'd bought somewhere down the road, and further away, we would have got in because there's no other school nearby."
Ms Roeg found that siblings get first choice and children new to the area are offered a place at their nearest school, as long as their parents apply. Borough lines are irrelevant. She appealed: "It was horrendous. I felt the headteacher was sitting there grinning like a Cheshire cat knowing we wouldn't get in." Her house no longer felt perfect. Eventually Ms Roeg found a school she liked further away which, happily, had a place for Ava. Her advice to other parents? "Do your research properly."
Stephen and Joy Darwen did their research. They found an idyllic retreat in Coulsdon, in Surrey, with a nearby school for daughters Sara and Ruth. They put their Crystal Palace town house on the market, got a buyer and told the local school that their children were leaving.
When the buyer dropped out the Darwens became nervous. After the second buyer dropped out they panicked. "At the worst point, I registered with 12 estate agents, advertised in every publication going, had a saleboard made and gave A4 colour posters to 30 local shops. A lot of shopkeepers wouldn't put up the posters until they'd looked themselves. They thought I was so desperate it had to be a bargain but even then they didn't want it," says Mr Darwen.
After five buyers dropped out, Mr Darwen found himself driving halfway across the country in search of the origin of one of the many long chains in which he was involved, but even that didn't help. The Darwens became exhausted by the daily 24-mile trip to the new school. "The children thought it was bizarre. We'd drive past their old school, they'd see their friends and demand `Why can't we go there?' I just gritted my teeth, I thought it would go on forever," says Joy Darwen. The family finally moved eight months later.
Schools do not generally take children before their housing situation is resolved despite parents' pleas. Peter Coleman, head of Goodrich School, in East Dulwich, London, received over 200 applications for 90 places this year and has seen it all: "Parents show letters from estate agents [or] solicitors. One even slapped his cheque book down and said `how much?'"
Not even a "donation to school funds"' guarantees a place: "We won't consider you until exchange of contracts." Mr Coleman links desperation to the family's particular circumstances: "It's acute when people move into the area with three school-age children and have to find a house and three places simultaneously."
Diana Hamilton at Roy Brooks, a firm of estate agents with offices in south London, describes buyers who are also looking for schools: "They come in and you can see anxiety on their faces. We've all been there, they're desperate. If you've got a property very near to a good school they'll pay more and be prepared to suffer one room less or a small garden just to get in." In fact, another agent admits that, in its view, it may be cheaper to pay for private schooling rather than buy an overpriced house for its position.
Parents should be wary of taking estate agents' advice on catchment areas as local authorities use different criteria. Mr Coleman explains: "It's convoluted. Priority areas were abandoned in favour of distance to the school, as people assumed they would get places and didn't.
"We can't offer places to people who live nearer another school." He blames estate agents for misleading parents: "They advertise houses as being in our `catchment area' but there's no such thing. Parents buy on the strength of estate agents' blurb and it's just not true." So why say it? "Because it shifts houses," says Mr Coleman.
John Thorogood, a Battersea estate agency, recently got a ticking off from a local school for advertising properties as being in its "catchment area". The marketing ploy was effective as an alternative to "betwixt the commons", but the school said it could never guarantee places even for houses in the same road.
Parents denied places at schools often sacrifice their homes for education. Mr Coleman tells of parents he's turned down who immediately put their house on the market and others who are prepared to rent just to get in.
Fraudsters should beware: "We catch people who don't live where they say they do and we can withdraw the place." Mr Coleman meticulously measures the more contentious areas around the school but parents still challenge his measurements for - largely unsuccessful - appeals. As I left Goodrich School an anxious-looking man panted past. I couldn't be certain, but I think he was wearing a pedometer.
John Thorogood: 0171 228 7474; Roy Brooks: 0181 299 3021; Goodrich School: 0181 693 1050.