For good schools, move now

It's the right house for you and the children, but is it in the right school catchment area?
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The Independent Online
If your oldest child has only just turned three, school probably seems as remote as a morning lie-in. But it is not. Many boroughs start all children in full-time school in the September after their fourth birthday. They decide which school your child will go to some time around Easter and you apply for that school in January. Six months from now you need to be living in a house in the right catchment area. And for the most popular primary schools in busy residential areas, the catchment area may extend only half a mile from the school.

Before you start panicking, it is not quite as bleak as that. There are appeal mechanisms and waiting lists which mean late arrivals may still get into a popular school. But it is certainly much easier if you are in place in time.

The same applies to parents looking at secondary schools. There is competition to get into the best comprehensive in every town in the country. Where a school is particularly strong, people will move into the area just for the school. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the areas that have kept their grammar schools.

There are about 100 grammar schools in England, many of them in the South and South-east. Hamptons has offices in most of the grammar school counties. Its chairman, John Brain, says: "In many of our offices, around half of the inquiries received for family homes in mid-price ranges specifically request property in school catchment areas. Hurrying along an exchange in order to qualify within a certain school year is not an unusual request."

The Chater family moved into their new house in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, on Monday, 18 months after they started looking to move. Selling their Victorian villa in Pinner, north London, was no problem, but finding somewhere to buy proved almost impossible. "People don't move out of Amersham," Janice Chater says. "The property market in our price range is at a standstill. There did come a time when we would have settled for absolutely anything big enough. Luckily, we have not had to compromise."

Schools were top of the family's reasons for choosing Amersham. They wanted to be in the catchment area of the South Bucks grammar schools and accessible to London for work. They started looking at the local first and middle schools, which are heavily over-subscribed, and decided they had to be well inside their tight catchment areas. Their son, Thomas, 5, will move from his church primary school to Chestnut Lane first school in September. His sister, Beth, five months, will follow when she is four.

When Stuart Goode was headhunted from Norfolk to Kent his priorities, and those of his wife, Frances, were first, good schools, second, the house, and third, the commute. The family was pleasantly surprised to find that Kent still had grammar schools and opted to live in Sevenoaks. "Being an ex-grammar school boy I wanted my children to have the same sort of academic environment," Stuart Goode says. Only last year they moved from King's Lynn to Norwich because of the independent day schools there. Now the Goodes, whose triplets, Thomas, Emily and William, are aged eight, will have a choice between the state and private sector. The down side is that property in west Kent is expensive. They are preparing to swap their seven-bedroom Victorian house in Norwich for a five-bedroom modern one in Sevenoaks.

The definition of a catchment area has changed in the past few years. A decision known as the Greenwich judgment means boroughs can no longer draw up a catchment area within their boundaries. Instead, the school must take those children who live closest to it, even if they are in a neighbouring local authority.

But despite the rule changes, parents normally want to live as close as possible to their children's school for practical reasons. They want to be on the school bus route; they want their children to have local friends.

The private sector is not immune from these worries. Even without catchment areas, parents want to avoid long and unpredictable car journeys with parking problems at the school gate. So, too, for the children's sake, do teachers. The headmistress of Chandlings, the heavily over-subscribed pre-prep school that feeds Cothill, near Oxford, has said she does not want pupils to live more than 20 minutes away by car.

Prices for four-bedroom family houses in good school catchment areas in the Home Counties start at about pounds 180,000. The cheapest are normally those built in the past 30 years. Hamptons office in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, one of the country's education hot-spots, is selling a four-bedroom, detached Sixties house in Chalfont St Giles for pounds 197,500 and a more recent one in Chalfont St Peter for pounds 210,000.

For a period house, or somewhere with more land, the price rises to about pounds 300,000. There is remarkable consistency across Kent, Berkshire, Hertfordshire and Essex, with Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Oxford slightly more expensive. In Kingston upon Thames, recently nominated the best place to live in Britain, Hamptons is selling a spacious four-bedroom semi with a large garden for pounds 225,000.

Prospective buyers should no longer expect to find properties described as being "within walking distance" of a particular school. That is disallowed under one of the more ludicrous rules of the Property Misdescriptions Act. However, the price may be a good guide as to how close the school is. The nearer the gates, the more you have to pay.

The importance of good schools has also impacted heavily on the lettings market. Parents may be determined to get their children into a good school, but they are equally determined to buy the right house at the right price. If it is not available, they would rather rent in the catchment area than buy badly.