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By Sarah Coles

Wednesday, September 16, 2009.

The scramble for school places every September is always a fairly desperate affair, as parents jump through hoops to secure a place for their child at the school of their choice. Around one in 10 faces disappointment, and in some parts of the country, as many as one in five fail to get into one of their preferred schools.

This year the situation has deteriorated even further. The increased pressure is a result of a a rise in birth rates combined with the pressure on household budgets, meaning that fewer parents can afford to send their child to private school. In the London Borough of Richmond, for example, there has been an 8% drop in the number of children going to private school.

Some councils are short of places overall. A report by London Councils reveals a shortfall of 2,250 places in this financial year. The Government has announced extra funding, but as there are unlikely to be any simple solutions in the short term, the pressure for schools will be greater than ever.

The best schools, of course, are even harder to get into. A Guardian survey in March this year into secondary-school choice found that roughly 100,000 children don't get into their first choice of school. But this varies across the country: in Suffolk, for example, 99% of pupils go to their first-choice school, while in Wandsworth it's only 53.3%.

Primary schools can be difficult too. A 2009 Press Association survey shows that more than 16,800 children failed to get a reception class place at their parents' preferred school.

So how can you find the best school for your child? The fight starts with research. The Government has a website where you can feed in your postcode, and it will tell you which schools are closest. It will also have a link to their Ofsted report and the school website, where you can find out more about the school's ethos, and its strengths and weaknesses, as well as its academic results.

Some schools have details of the catchment area on their website, but with others you will have to phone the school itself. Catchment areas are calculated simply by distance as the crow flies. The size of the area depends on how densely populated the locality is, and how many children live there.

Move home or go private?

But what can you do if you don't like any of the schools in your catchment area? Then you have the difficult choice between moving in order to be considered for a school you prefer, or sending your child to a private school.

The decision seems simple if you just look at the figures. The average fee for a year at private school is £12,000 - if you were to take primary education alone, the cost would total £84,000.

So if the move costs £10,000, including stamp duty, estate agents fees and mortgage fees, your new home would have to cost at least £74,000 more than you sold the first one for, in order for the move to make less financial sense than going private. If you were looking at both primary and secondary education, the difference in house prices would have to be £158,000.

However, the comparison is less clearcut than these figures suggest, because your house is an investment that is likely to increase in value over the long term, whereas school fees amount to 'money down the drain' in purely financial terms.

Moreover, the sums are complicated by the fact that the difference between the value of homes in areas with good state schools and those without is at least 12%, according to research by Savills and Halifax. So if you're in a situation where you don't want to move far, and you want a house that is similar to the one you're in at the moment, be prepared to pay an additional premium as well as moving costs.

Of course, this is based on averages, so the amount will vary. In some cases, house prices are even cheaper in a catchment area as it's seen as less desirable than the surrounding area, while in others, house prices are anything up to a third higher, which will start to make moving less worthwhile financially.

However, if you're prepared to move a little further afield, you could end up paying no more for a home in a different area with a better school. So, it is usually cheaper to move to a better catchment area than to opt for private school.

This was the route Sarah Godfrey, a 37-year-old communications manager from Southwark in London chose. Her daughter Beth is eight, and Sarah was worried about the local secondary schools: "The primary schools were lovely, but the secondaries were terrible."

She considered private schools, but the maths didn't add up. "It's not just the fees," she says, "it's the uniform, the trips, the musical instruments and all the rest of it. Also, we lived in a pokey flat - it didn't make sense to keep on living there while spending all that money on a private school."

Sarah decided to move two miles east to a different borough, fairly near her favoured school. Beth is still not guaranteed a place, but Sarah says: "We stand a better chance here than where we were. If she doesn't get a place, the alternative state schools are better, and if we end up having to go private, these schools are cheaper round here too."

Of course, the decision whether or not to move isn't always entirely financial. You may be tied by family or work commitments, by a stagnant housing market, or for sentimental reasons.

For example, Helen May, a 40-year-old consultant from Somerset, is keeping a close watch on the progress of her local secondary schools. "They aren't absolutely terrible," she says, "but they aren't a patch on the local primary schools."

But she doesn't want to move. "We decided when we moved here that this was our home for life. It's a great area, it is perfect for work, and the kids are very happy here," she says.

Helen's eldest child is seven, and she has started putting money aside in case her daughter ends up at private school. In the meantime, she says: "Four years is a long time in the life of a school, so I'm hoping things change before I have to make a decision."

Risky practices

If you don't want to move, and can't afford a private school, your options are limited. We have all heard of someone who has cheated the system by claiming they live with a relative who happens to be in a good catchment area, or by temporarily renting a home within their favoured area when they apply for a school place.

The authorities have been trying to crack down on cheats, calling into addresses, and even following parents home. If you're caught, your child will lose their place, and you'll be left struggling to find a place elsewhere.

In the worst case scenario, you could be prosecuted for fraud, although when Harrow Council withdrew from the first fraud case in July because of concerns that the case might not stand up, it weakened the threat of this particular action. Nevertheless, trying to get around the rules remains a highly risky approach.

If you move, of course, there's still no guarantee your child will get into your choice of school. There's also a danger that the catchment area could change, leaving you out in the cold. If a school is continually oversubscribed, its catchment area will be reduced, while a change of council could signal a new approach altogether.

For example, from 2010, a number of schools in Maidenhead will ditch traditional catchment areas and consider children from all over the borough.

Changes in admissions rules

You also need to consider the policies of the particular school you have in mind. Since February 2007, the School Admissions Code has laid down the rules. It says that although normally catchment area is crucial, schools should prioritise children in care, and may also take into account medical and special-needs requirements. They can also prioritise siblings of children already in the school, and set an entrance exam and select by results.

The London School of Economics (LSE) found 5% of schools select some pupils by aptitude, which may include a talent for music, science or sport. In addition, church or faith schools may ask for confirmation that you attend the relevant place of worship.

You'll need to know the admissions criteria of any school you are considering. These should be listed in the school's prospectus, along with an idea of the number of applications last year. This will tell you whether being in the catchment area alone is likely to secure your child a place at the school.

Unfortunately, even the best research is no match for the system. The School Admissions Code allows some highly popular schools to randomly select from a list of applicants, with no reference at all to catchment areas. This is known as the 'lottery system.' The LSE found that 6% of schools now use this as part of their admissions process. The Conservative Party is considering bringing the system in across the board.

So it's worth doing your homework and making your decisions very carefully. Just bear in mind that a change of Government at the next elections, or a change in a council or the school's admission policy could undo all your good work. It's little wonder parents are so desperate.

Should buy-to-let landlords opt for catchment areas?

If you rent out a family house in a good catchment area, you will always have high demand, especially if it includes one of the top 10 schools. However, there are a number of caveats.

Firstly, the property will cost more in the first place - estimates suggest 12% more. You'll recoup this when you come to sell, as long as the catchment area, the reputation of the school and the admissions process itself haven't changed.

But as none of these can be guaranteed, and as any changes would have a dramatic and immediate effect on house prices, Steve Hilton, a spokesperson for the National Landlord's Association, says it's a risky strategy.

"Landlords would be ill-advised to buy on the basis of catchment area," he adds.


With thanks to Interactive Investors


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