The great school catchment conundrum

16 February 2012

The rising cost of living, coupled with reduced, or at best stagnant, incomes, is hitting lots of us - but families with children are feeling the strain hardest. The average cost of bringing up a child in the UK from birth to age 21 is an astonishing £210,848, according to insurance provider LV=.

After childcare, school is the second-biggest cost. LV= calculates the average school-related expenditure during a child's primary education is £12,022 and £10,898 during secondary years. But, of course, these costs don't factor in getting your child into a particular school.

So just how much do you have to pay to get your child into a good school? In the second part of Moneywise's Defending the British Family campaign (last month, we looked at how families can survive the squeeze), we examine the problems and costs parents face sending their children to the school they want to.

Competition for ‘good' school places is fierce - one in six applicants for state secondary schools fail to get into their first-choice school, according to And the figures are much worse in popular areas. The upshot of this is that more parents are buying or renting homes in their desired school's catchment areas in the hope of increasing their children's chances of securing a place in a preferred school.

More than a third of prospective homebuyers with children aged 10 years and under, say moving into the catchment area of a good school is their top priority, according to a Santander survey.


While being located close to a sought-after school is not a guarantee, Ralph Lucas, editor of, believes it is the best chance parents have of securing that all-important school spot. "Geography is certainly the biggest factor because you can control where you live," he says.

Parents know this, and as a result, they are increasingly willing to pay higher house premiums in order to snatch up top school places. "Being located within the catchment area of a good school can increase the property value considerably," says Phil Cliff, director of Santander mortgages. But while Santander's survey reveals some buyers are willing to spend an extra £12,000 on a house in a desirable catchment area, the true cost could be far higher than they'd ever imagined.

Property prices in the areas surrounding the UK's 50 top-performing state schools are on average 35% more expensive than the rest of the country - that equates to £77,000 more on average, according to The property website reveals that the average asking price on a home close to one of the top 50 schools is £298,378, compared to the average UK asking price of £221,110.

The same goes for rental properties too, where monthly rents are typically 7.8% higher in the top 50 school spots than the rest of the UK.

While some idealists may pine after a utopian system where the government enforces a cap on house prices in popular catchment areas to ensure housing prices stay affordable, of course, this is nothing more than a pipe dream.

As a Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson puts it: "There would be riots in the street if government tried to fix the housing market." Moneywise agrees that regulating the housing market is impossible but there is concern that high house prices in the best catchment areas create a scenario where the richer families are able to get their children into the better schools because they can afford to move, while other families find themselves left with no choice.

However, the DfE spokesperson disagrees: "The best way to improve the choice for parents is to drive up standards of all schools. We are bringing in a major reform programme - including intervening directly to turn around weak and failing schools, and expanding the academy programme."


And, of course, buying or renting a house right next door to your preferred school is no guarantee of a place. For instance, some families have found themselves in the position of having moved home for the express purpose of gaining access to a particular school, only for the catchment area boundaries to change.

This has recently happened to Hannah and Ian Mundy, from Leicester. "There used to be about four good schools within our catchment area and we'd chosen our house because it was close to a local school we really liked and wanted our daughter Olivia to go to," explains 29-year-old Hannah. "But the boundaries are now changing and by the time Olivia goes to school we will no longer fall into the same catchment. We will instead be within the Leicester City catchment area."

It doesn't make things easier that local authorities can also adjust their catchment conditions (such as church affiliation, priority to siblings or special educational needs) each year, according to applications and school circumstances.


Some parents are so desperate to get their children into a particular school that they'll do anything. While some measures are borderline dodgy, there are other ways that are perfectly legal.


It's a common (and entirely acceptable) practice for families to rent a property for a short time close to the school gates and then move on elsewhere.


Parents are often keen to get their children into faith schools - and not just because of their faith - as some have very good academic reputations. Parents will have to attend a corresponding place of worship for a reasonable period to get an endorsed recommendation from the appropriate institution though.


Children tend to be guaranteed places at schools where their siblings are already attending. So if your eldest is in a good school, chances are their younger siblings will get a place their too.

While the Mundy's have time to move again, as Olivia is only eight-months-old, who's to say the catchment areas won't have changed again by then?


One solution would be to completely disband catchment areas and instead allocate places by random selection.

"For many years now, the challenges of the catchment area-based lottery for state schools have vexed millions of parents across the UK," says Nigel Lewis, property analyst for "One council, Brighton & Hove, has partially abandoned the catchment area system where places at oversubscribed secondary schools are randomly allocated as a tie-breaker," says Lewis.

Whether this system is fairer or not probably depends on who you ask, but Brighton & Hove's move highlights the arbitrary nature of the system as a whole.

Among other anomalies is the example of the oversubscribed St George's School in Harpenden (a state school), Hertfordshire, where boarding pupils come from as far as Reading and South London. Or Camden Girls School, which accepts pupils from the local area, but also bands admissions by ability. "That means you could live half a mile away and get in because you fall into the bottom band but live a quarter of a mile closer and still not get in because the top band is oversubscribed," explains Lucas.


Obtaining as much information as possible gives you the best chance of fi nding a suitable school. "OFSTED [the offi cial body for inspecting schools] and local authority websites provide information about what system is in operation in local areas and how near you're likely to have to live to a school to be successful, and, of course, parents can get tips from other parents on forums such as Mumsnet," says Justine Roberts, co-founder of the website and support network for mothers.

Ralph Lucas would also like to see the available information written in more accessible language: "The local authorities print booklets of information but there's lots that goes unseen by the parents. A national website, breaking down all the admissions information for the different catchments would be useful too."

And while catchment areas are certainly the biggest headache for parents, there are still other financial costs for parents to consider. School uniforms, transport, extra curricular activities and school trips all add up. Although not compulsory, there can be a pressure to pay up so you don't feel like you're letting your child down, explains 37-year-old Freya Sykes. "The secondary school my two boys go to ran a coach trip to go carol singing. It cost £9 just for the transport and while we were told it wasn't compulsory to go or pay if we couldn't afford to, you felt bad not to."

Moneywise wants the government to help parents by ensuring schools don't put undue or indirect financial pressure on parents for extra activities. The DfE spokesperson we spoke to agrees, saying: "Schools should clearly be very sensitive and careful in the language they use around asking for voluntary contributions." But they added that schools themselves are "best placed to judge how to communicate properly with their parents".

It seems that the government is happy to let British parents battle on themselves with school costs and the catchment conundrum. Like the lottery, you could play the system and win - but you've got just as much chance of losing out as hitting the jackpot.


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