Schools: the top consideration for parents in property purchases?

Date Published 29 September 2018

Choosing where to live once you have children can be a headache. While factors such as employment opportunities, transport links, and average wages and salaries still remain important, new considerations are added into the equation. Facilities such as parks and green spaces, child-friendly museums and galleries, and the availability of extra-curricular activities are all points to bear in mind, but it is schooling that usually tops the list. Unless you're planning to home educate, the quality and accessibility of an area's schools is of paramount importance.

Catchment areas
Living within catchment for a desirable school has never been more important. Recent news shows that almost a third of families know someone within their own social circle who has moved house in order to secure a place at a particular school. While most families sell an existing home and buy a new one, or move to a new rental property, anecdotal evidence suggests that a third group attempts to use a relative's or friend's address in an attempt to get the school of their choice. Needless to say, this last approach is frowned upon by local education authorities and other parents alike. Anyone found to have obtained a school place via underhand methods risks having that place taken away from their child, even where the child has begun at the school. Even a legitimate move is not guaranteed to result in a place at a particular school. Catchment boundaries are not immutable. A high number of older siblings can affect the number of places available for children without a sibling link, and new housing developments, particularly "in-fill" developments, can mean that not all children will secure a place at their catchment school. Moreover, Ofsted ratings can change and a new headteacher or high staff attrition rates can all alter a school's profile. So, when picking where to live, how best can parents guard against these risks?

Think hard about moving into an area where there is only one very desirable school. Ask yourself if you would be happy with any of the alternatives. Make sure you have visited all the options and, when it comes to applying, ensure you use all your choices. Deciding against listing a particular school does not guarantee that your child will not be offered a place there. It also may make it more likely that you will offered a place at a school that is further away and perhaps perceived as even less desirable.

Remember that just because you are paying a premium for a property in the catchment area of a particular school, it does not guarantee that you will receive the same premium when you come to sell. It is common for sold property prices to fluctuate in line with the rise and fall (or fall and rise) of a school's popularity.

If you cannot afford to buy the sort of property you want within a particular catchment area, consider the viability of buying a smaller property and extending it. Alternatively, on the basis that engaged and supportive parents can do much to influence their child's educational outcome, you could accept a different school and put the money you would otherwise have spent on a more expensive home towards tutoring or extra-curricular activities.

Even if you are wedded to a particular school, do check its Ofsted history. Has its rating fluctuated over the years? Schools that have always been rated good or outstanding are statistically more likely to stay there. It's also worth checking how long the headteacher has been in post and whether or not there is any suggestion that they are about to leave or retire. A change in leadership is one of the riskiest moments for any school.

Think about how long you plan to stay in your new home. For most people, it makes little financial sense to make a short-term purchase in an area with the sole aim of securing a place at a particular school. With the cost of moving (stamp duty, legal fees and the like) adding thousands of pounds to the average property purchase, it may make more financial sense to rent. However, do check that your child will not subsequently lose their place if you move out of catchment. Even if this is not the case, bear in mind that moving out of a catchment may affect a younger sibling's chances of getting a place at the school. In addition, you must make sure that any rental is a genuine rental. This means that your family must move into the property. You can expect your local educational authority to request proof of any move, in the form of council tax bills and the like. Such is the demand for school places in some areas that many local authorities also initiate more in-depth investigations following any tip-offs that a family's address change may not be genuine.

Buy a property you can future-proof. This means choosing a property that is either large enough to meet your family's needs or one that can be extended to do so. The ability to avoid unnecessary house moves is the best way of ensuring that you can ride out any dips in average sold property prices.

Think ahead to secondary school. It is all too easy for parents of young children to focus on primary school places, to the exclusion of secondary.

In-year applications
If your child is already at school in one area, but you need to move somewhere else, you will need to make an "in-year" application. If you are coming from abroad, you will need a UK address before you can do this. While you can, of course, research the local schools, bear in mind that not all of them may have vacancies in the right year groups, even if you buy a house in catchment. You will need to phone your local education authority to obtain a list of schools that have vacancies. You can accept a place at one school and choose to go on the waiting list for another that is currently full.

Private schools
Parents considering private schools usually have a different set of considerations, most of which are not related to property. However, anyone planning on turning to the state sector in the event that their child does not get a place at a particular private school needs to plan for this eventuality.

Source: Nethouseprices 09.18