Hertfordshire’s school catchment crisis explored
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Families have long been prepared to move across town or out of London to secure their child a place at a sought-after Hertfordshire school. But catchments are shrinking and competition is tougher than ever, as Richard Burton discovered.
Given that schooling is the reason many couples choose to buy a property in Hertfordshire, it's ironic that 2019 turned out to be something of a freak year that must have left quite a few wondering why they bothered.
While pre-schools and primaries were able to cope reasonably well with applications, a series of circumstances told a different story for those looking for secondary and upper schools.
Some 14,714 Hertfordshire children applied for places ahead of this September's new term, according to recent figures from Hertfordshire County Council - 539 more than last year. But only 11,072 of them were allocated their first choice.
Many others were allocated a place at their second, third or fourth choices but 1,604 had to settle for schools they hadn't listed - and 189 were left without any Hertfordshire school at all, something that had not happened since such statistics have been compiled.
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Several factors were behind this. More than 1,300 places were given to children from outside the county. And Herts County Council blamed the fact that 2007-8 had seen a rare baby boom that had skewed the figures by creating a "bulge year" that added 460 more applications this year than last.
Headteachers also point to the fact that central government funding for the proposed Katherine Warington School in Harpenden's Lower Luton Road came in too late for it to be included in the council's application process.
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All of which meant disappointment for thousands of parents who didn't get the school they wanted - and heartache for those faced with either appealing or registering their continuing interest in the hope that a place would become available somewhere in the county.
All children were eventually accommodated after the council sifted the applications to remove duplicate offers and both Samuel Ryder Academy and Townsend Church of England School in St Albans agreed to increase their allocations and take more to ease the pressure. Even so, 74 had to settle for places at schools they hadn't listed as any of their preferences.
All of which poses a dilemma for families who have traditionally allowed school catchments to influence, if not drive, their house-hunting decisions - and estate agents who routinely use them to promote properties they are selling.
"Schools are still something you'd mention in the first paragraph of the details, but you tread a very fine line when it comes to advising on catchments these days," said Paul Barker, an independent agent based in The Maltings, St Albans.
"The problem is they change from year to year to the extent that there's almost no such thing any more. You can't hand-on-heart say a house in Park Avenue will get you into Beaumont because that may not be the case next year."
He estimated that, at the very least, more than 50 per cent of buyers cited school catchments as a reason to move - and move again.
"I see many couples moving out of London to settle in the area and getting a place close to the station. Then a child comes along two or three years later and they find a house in the suburbs of the city and then, three or four years after that, it becomes all about the schools and that means another move.
"By then though, parents are generally clued-up when it comes to senior schools but it's usually all about a particular school. They become fixated on the one they want. They list it as their first choice and just pray they get it. The others don't really matter."
To underline the extent of the competition this year, the most sought-after school for the 2019 intake was Hockerill Anglo-European College in Bishop's Stortford which had 835 children chasing a mere 68 day places. In other words, there were 12.28 applicants for every available place.
The most sought-after secondary in St Albans was Beaumont School which saw 1,324 applications for 210 places - 6.3 applicants per place - followed by Sandringham where 1,280 competed for 240.
In Harpenden, there were 836 applications for 196 places at Roundwood Park and 889 for the same number at Sir John Lawes.
St Georges saw 744 applications - nine more than last year - compete for 170 places, the same number as 2018. And in Stevenage, 847 competed for 240 places at Marriotts School.
The county's most coveted primary was Maple in St Albans, with 273 applicants for 30 places - that's just over nine for each one.
For many parents, the ideal scenario would be to find a dream home with everything they wanted within the sound of the bell of their first-choice school. That's because, when determining distance, it's done by using a straight line - as the crow flies - rather than a likely route the child may take.
Academies, voluntary aided and foundation schools often have their own methods of measuring but many follow the same rules.
The official advice from County Hall is to "be realistic about your chances" when making applications but they have published in no-nonsense terms a warning to second home owners who may try to cheat the system by claiming, for example, that a flat they've been letting out close to their chosen school is their main home when it comes to application time.
Another complication lies in recent or new developments which have seen schools sell off land to developers to fund improvements. The homes that get built as a result are then snapped up by in-coming families who add to the competition for places forcing out some on the fringes who thought they were comfortably within the catchment.
At least they can console themselves with the knowledge that the newbies are likely to have paid heavily for the privilege. Two years ago, the Department for Education published its first research on how proximity to high-performing schools affected house prices and found that they could add 8 per cent to the price - about £18,600 on an average house at the time - in terms of primaries and 6.8 per cent to those close to secondaries.
Closer to home, the advice is more focused. Steve Walker, managing director of Collinson Hall told the influential SchoolGuru website it's not always clear-cut in terms of prices but added: "House prices are driven by supply and demand. It's impossible to say precisely how much extra you'd need to pay, but if there's the demand, then the price will be higher.
"Also, if you've found a house near a good school, you'll need to move quickly. Often the ability to proceed is as important to the seller as the price. If you're not ready, then you won't get to the starting line."
And what happens when the children have left home? Paul Barker added: "A friend of mine had a place in the city centre, moved out when they had children - and 25 years later, having made money on his investment, decided to move back into town."
Nick Doyle of Space estate agents in London Road, said: "It's long been a beauty contest between Sandringham and Beaumont in St Albans and parents have been prepared to spend a fortune on buying houses that secure them a place.
"But since the catchment goalposts have been moving, some have been forced to invest all over again just to be sure. They're very conscious of having to almost be on the doorstep to be sure of a place.
"In fact I've known some buyers with very small children take the long term view and buy close to the top secondaries if they can as they know the city centre has a very short shelf life."
And how disappointed did he think the ones who missed their first choices would be? He agreed with Barker on that: "Everything from second downwards is seen as a compromise."