Catchment area is all ...

Seeking a house near a good school?
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The Independent Online
There is nothing like a discussion about schools to fire a gathering of parents. No matter if the children are three or 13, the choices seem hard. But whether driven by pragmatism or by principle, people agree on one thing: where you live matters. Not surprisingly, the annual Schools League Table, published this week, has become a Bible for the house hunting family.

Among those poring over it are parents who have always promised themselves a move out of the city. If we lived in the country, they say, we wouldn't have to pay for private schools. But some of those who have taken the plunge recently have found the dream team of free education and the perfect country house somewhat elusive. In areas where the state schools are excellent, parents who blithely inform an estate agent of their plans to live in a period house in a popular catchment area are likely to be met with raised eyebrows.

North of London, Bedfordshire's education system is the envy of the fee- paying parent. In certain areas it is the comprehensive schools that provide the pull. In the pretty Georgian market town of Ampthill, Nigel Croft, the headteacher of Redborne Upper School, is used to parents producing, with a flourish, the exact distance between home and school. Nor is it unusual to find "wanted" notices for houses in the area. "We try to match demand by expanding," he says, "but we cannot guarantee a place unless a child lives in the catchment area, although we haven't as yet turned people away."

In Ampthill, Tony Inskip, of Country Properties, has noticed that the school league tables have led to a greater demand for property in the area. "There is a waiting list for houses in the unspoilt villages and you would expect to pay about pounds 200,000 for a substantial family house." The Georgian houses in Ampthill rarely change hands, though. Meanwhile, north of Bedford, in the village of Sharnbrook, Sharnbrook Upper School has received Ofsted's highest accolade and is regarded as a competitor to the highly selective private schools.

Richard Jones, of Jackson-Stops & Staff, would himself consider moving into the Sharnbrook catchment area. "Those who want to save on school fees may find themselves spending more on a house than they expected. One couple who started looking at pounds 150,000 found themselves going up to pounds 225,000."

Price is not the main stumbling-block for those wanting to move to Kent. When Ros Smith left south-west London for the garden county and told agents she was looking for a house in the catchment area of Cranbrook School, a grant-maintained co-ed grammar school with boarding places, she was not given much cause for hope. "I could see them thinking, `oh, here comes another one'." Once the Smiths' 13-year-old son was accepted at the school, they decided to rent. "We now know that house prices are about 10 to 15 per cent higher in the catchment area and there are a lot of agents chasing the same properties. Some people spend more than a year looking for the right house, which is depressing," says Mrs Smith.

The Smiths are part of a continuous stream of families leaving London, many

of them drawn to Cranbrook by word of mouth. Local estate agent Oliver Fisher refers to it as "the dinner party circuit". "The local schooling has a good reputation across the sectors. The problem is, our supply of property is down 50 per cent on last year. People come down here with the ideal in mind of a quiet country house within striking distance of the school, and these are few and far between. One such couple eventually bought a modern house on a busy road , specifically to get into the catchment area." But even though people are frustrated by the house famine, particularly in the pounds 180,000 to pounds 350,000 bracket, they are not throwing caution to the winds.

Robin Tillet, of Knight Frank in Tunbridge Wells, says no one is prepared to pay silly prices. "We have a modernish house down a long forestry track, in the Cranbrook catchment area, on the market for pounds 255,000. We have had enormous interest in it. It is not yet sold , but we do have an offer on it." The half-a-million-plus market, he went on to say, is stronger than at any time in the past five years, but while buyers are prepared to make small compromises, they will not spend pounds 600,000 for a house on a main road. "They want a copper-bottomed investment with easy rail communications. This could be the family home for the next 20 years, and no one wants to make a mistake."

Indeed, compromise is something most newcomers to the Cranbrook area are familiar with. "When we bought two years ago, our house was described as `very tired'," says Catherine Scales. "We compromised on its condition and on the noise, but there again we needed to be on a bus route. A house for the same price in London would be meticulously decorated. We were definitely buying the lifestyle."

Meanwhile, Hilary Dickson, who snapped up her house privately, tries to block out the thundering traffic with huge hedges. "That is not what we planned when we moved to the country. The school propelled us here."

Cranbrook has a strict seven-mile catchment area for its day pupils. "A few sixth-formers have even been bought cottages by their parents," says Mrs Dickson. "Before we had moved in completely, we had to prove we were committed to buying here."