Parents desperate to get their children into Britain's leading state schools have created property "hotspots" across the country by paying over the odds for homes within top comprehensives' catchment areas.
Some of the parents are people who would once have used their money to get their children into private schools. But others admit that while they believe in comprehensive schooling in theory, in practice they use their financial clout to secure their child an above-average education by "buying" a place at one of the "premier division" of state schools - those that head the school league tables - through their home's location.
According to a straw poll of estate agents, the premiums in some towns for a house in a top school's catchment area are so high that families are paying up to 30 per cent more than they would for a similar property in an adjoining neighbourhood outside the catchment area.
Among the areas where schools are having a marked impact on house prices are London, the West Midlands, Hertfordshire, Essex, Surrey, Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire and Merseyside.
Although it is Government policy to allow parents to select any school for their child, in practice some schools are heavily oversubscribed, and many families have realised that moving house is necessary if they are to have more than a fighting chance of getting their children into their chosen comprehensive.
Catchment areas vary from school to school depending on town hall policies, demand and population density. For some areas, it means parents need to find a property within a few miles' radius, but for others it can mean children have to live within a few hundred yards of a school's front gate to be considered for a place.
Figures published last week by the Halifax Building Society showed that house prices are back to the levels they achieved at the start of the decade, with November prices 7.2 per cent higher than a year ago. But the Independent on Sunday survey reveals that the overall picture of price rises is influenced by the development of hot spots, caused by schools.
Tommy de Mallet Morgans, who runs a branch of Savills estate agents in Guildford, Surrey, said that the desire to be within certain schools' catchment area was having an unquestionable impact on house prices.
"Buyers come to us with a range of demands to get their ideal home. They want to be away from the roar of traffic, from pylons and railways lines. But they want to be near a good road and a good school. The trouble is that there are lots of parents chasing such houses, but not enough of these houses coming on the market. When people buy a house like this, they stay in it for some time."
Mr de Mallet Morgans said a family house costing pounds 300,000 could easily sell for pounds 330,000 if it was within the catchment area of George Abbot comprehensive school.
In St Albans, Hertfordshire, local agents have spotted the same effect on prices from local comprehensives. Parents are particularly keen to get their daughters into St Albans Girls School, which was the fourth most successful comprehensive school in the ratings of schools, measured according to the number of pupils achieving five GCSEs with grades A to C.
Jeremy Smallman of Strutt and Parker's St Albans branch said: "The state schools in this area have been good for some time but buyers are really waking up to it now. In the late 1980s parents who were reasonably well- off would pay school fees but now they ask themselves if there is any point when they can find as good an education at a top state school."
Top comprehensives in the Home Counties are affected by two queues of parents wanting places for their children: one consists of local people wanting to move to get into a school's catchment area, while the other is made up of families moving out of London, searching for a better education for their children. A survey by the Economic and Social Research Council, published last week, shows that 600,000 people have left London since 1982, with better schooling one of the prime attractions for leaving the capital.
Roland Brown and his wife are typical of the parents who can afford to move to find the right school for their children, aged six, four and one. They left Finsbury Park, north London, for a pretty, four-bedroomed Victorian house in the middle of St Albans. Keen to leave behind the dirt and pollution of inner-city London, they found exactly what they wanted in the Hertfordshire city - a fast commuter train line linking them to the capital, as well as a pleasant town and schools that impressed them because of their educational standards and the commitment of the staff.
As parents who are committed to the state system, they wanted to find the best public-sector schools for their children.
"We started to think about moving when our oldest child reached school age," said Mr Brown. "We did not want them to be privately educated and we wanted to stay within the state system. We did feel that we were deserting the schools system in London - but the answer has to be massively more funding for state schools, not for us to stay there."
While a location near a comprehensive school that features at the top of the school league tables for GCSEs is one of the most significant factors in choosing a home, the desire to place a child in a highly regarded primary school - often one with an outstanding report from Ofsted inspectors - is also having a marked impact on prices. This is particularly the case in areas where primary schools act as "feeders" for specific comprehensives.
Sue Harrison, head teacher of Strand on the Green junior school in Chiswick, west London, said parents regularly phoned her asking about catchment areas and the school's general admissions policy.
"I have even had pregnant mothers calling and asking where they need to live to get their child into our school," said Miss Harrison.
In some areas, properties can also become less desirable because they are not in the right area for schools. In Liverpool, parents have pulled out of purchases of houses after catchment area boundaries changed, and picked different houses within the newly designated area for Deyes High School, in Maghull.
"Schools with a reputation second to none add value to a house. A school like Deyes Hill will add a 5 per cent premium," said Ian Jansen of Black Horse.Reuse content