Jon Dell, owner of Dwell estate agency looks at how school catchment areas truly work and what homebuyers' money is actually being spent on.
Over the last 10 years there has been an inflation in the price of houses in close proximity to the higher performing state schools in a given area. This is due to the fact that living closer to a certain school increases your child’s chances of being accepted at that school, all other factors being equal.
This phenomenon has led to the concept of “catchment areas”, namely certain postcodes where residing in them supposedly ensures that your child will be accepted at a certain school. A few months ago The Times reported that some parents are paying a £290,000 premium to live in the “catchment areas” of certain top performing schools.
While it’s understandable that parents are willing to do what it takes to give their children the best education possible, is such a big investment money well spent? Let’s take a closer look at how catchment areas truly work, and what money is actually being spent on, to find out.
How Do School Catchment Areas Work?
The first thing to point out is that the concept of there being “catchment areas” where if you live at a certain postcode your child is guaranteed a place at a certain school is an urban myth. Yes schools do look at the location of your primary address when considering their intake, but it is not the only thing they look at. Other factors, such as having siblings at school and other nearby schools to your location are also considered.
In some of the most crowded areas of London, only 10% of children go to their first choice state schools, even when they live within a supposed catchment area.
When schools choose their intake, the way that they consider the location of a child’s home can vary from school to school. Some schools prioritise children for whom they are the nearest school to, whereas other schools have “priority areas” that they offer places to, regardless of other schools in the area.
Consequently catchment areas are vague and vary from school to school. Therefore, if you have your heart set on a particular school for your child, you should speak to an estate agent with local knowledge of schools to make sure that your choice of house is actually relevant to your desired school.
Are Houses in Certain Catchment Areas Worth the Money?
To calculate whether its worth moving to a home within a certain “catchment area”, you’ll want to consider a few factors. These include:
- The quality of other schools in the area
- The availability and cost of nearby private education
- The consistency in quality of your desired school
The Quality of Other Schools in the Area
Some of the inflation of house prices in certain “catchment areas” is due to parents wanting to send their children to the best performing school in the area without looking further into the other available schools.
Schools are assessed by Ofcom primarily on their exam results. When looking at available schools you may want to look further than simply the overall performance, but look at the actual difference between the schools’ scores.
It may be that people are paying a lot of money extra to send their child to a school with only marginally better results. This, in the majority of cases, will not be money well spent.
The Availability And Cost of Nearby Private Education
If parents are paying in excess of £100,000 on their home just to send their child to a certain school, it may be cost effective to send your child to a private school.
Many private schools cost less than £100,000 for the whole duration of a child’s time there.
However there is no guarantee that a private school can offer the same level of education as a high performing state school. Further research is needed before you make your selection.
Another alternative is private tuition. This can offer a much more cost effective solution if your child is struggling at certain subjects, or you feel that their schooling isn’t up to scratch in certain areas.
The Consistency in the Quality of Your Chosen School
When chasing catchment areas, it's important to remember that the quality of a school is not set in stone. Just because the school that you are moving closer to is performing well when you move, that does not mean it will still be performing well in five years time, when your child is taking their GCSEs.
It definitely is the case that some state schools consistently perform well and have done for decades. However it's imperative to do your research into the history of a school, and to talk to other parents of children there before you decide to make a move.
One Last Note on Catchment Areas
By far the biggest mistake that parents make with catchment areas is believing that a good school is sufficient in ensuring a quality education for their child.
While certain schools do get better results than others year upon year, the biggest factor behind a child’s academic success is parental input. This includes helping your child with homework, fostering their interests in academic pursuits, and getting in tuition in areas where they are struggling.
Neglecting this in favour of sending your child to a better school is generally not a good idea.
Jon Graham is an estate agent with over 20 years experience. He is the owner of Dwell in Leeds.