The St Albans and Harpenden school place race
- Credit: Archant
Hertfordshire parents are prepared to go to great lengths to secure the most sought-after school places for their children, as Richard Burton discovered.
When chef Sophie Wright and her husband left London in search of a family home, they found a roomy five-bed detached in Welwyn for themselves and new baby Bertie.
But within two years their vision of him spending his early years in the Hertfordshire countryside was dashed by the one issue that shapes most couples’ thinking when it comes to housing in Herts – schools.
The good news was that their village home had Ofsted ‘outstanding’ primary schools on either side in St Mary’s and nearby Codicote. The bad news was that their home was outside the catchment area for both.
The anomaly meant taking Bertie and, later, new sister Betsy out of the village and driving to Welwyn Garden City every day, or moving house.
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“We had a home that was more than double the floor space of our old one but we’d fallen into the trap of paying all that stamp duty and not buying in the right catchment,” said Sophie.
“We decided that, if we were going to move again, we needed a ‘slam-dunk’ and Harpenden was the obvious choice.”
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Like most people who make the move, they didn’t find it the easiest transition, given the prices, the number of homes available and the competition.
Luckily, High Street agent Strutt & Parker showed them a four-home development on a new close Jarvis Homes were busy carving into a patch of land behind Wood End Hill.
The house was ideal for Sophie. She’s the author of five recipe books and a longstanding member of Radio Four’s Kitchen Cabinet. Not only was the open-plan kitchen big enough for her to shoot her popular cookery videos, the Ofsted ‘outstanding’ Wood End School was less than 50 yards from the end of her drive.
And, what’s more, the equally celebrated Roundwood Park secondary was a mere half a mile the other way.
And it was that, rather than the high-spec four-bed, three-storey home with a basement cinema, that was the driving force behind the decision to buy.
“Bertie starts at the nursery class at Wood End in September which is perfect. I’m commuting back and forth to Welwyn Garden City for the next few weeks because I wanted him to complete the term,” said Sophie.
“But I’m looking forward to being able to walk to school in a place which has such a strong community, feels calm and tranquil and where you can see kids taking their cycling proficiency on roads with no traffic issues.”
Sophie and husband, Tom, a director of the business networking site, LinkedIn, are anything but alone. Every year, thousands of couples flood into the town as they do St Albans and elsewhere seeking a home with the potential to raise a family and give them the school they want.
But the dynamics can sometimes be cruel. In Sophie’s case, they were compromised by geographical boundaries and made the move early to address it. Others find themselves unwittingly trapped by the ever-changing face of expanding towns.
Families on the fringes of catchments for quality schools such as Beaumont in St Albans have found their hopes of automatic inclusion compromised by new developments.
When Taylor Wimpey won the right to build 348 homes on land that belonged to nearby Oaklands College, the deal gave the college £51 million to improve many of its buildings.
Similarly, developer Charles Church gave a much needed cash boost when it bought land from Beaumont to build Kingsbury Gardens, a development of high-end four and five bedroom homes.
But such new homes also raise the prospect of many new families moving in and being closer to the school, at the expense of some of those on the fringes.
“What they thought was the inner circle has suddenly become a grey area,” said Nick Doyle, Operations Director of Aitchisons in St Albans.
“There are lots of hard luck stories out there of people who thought they had bought something in the right catchment a few years ago and, closer to the time they need it, find they are not.
“But parents can be incredibly ambitious and aim really high. They’re switched on, do their research well and use whatever they have to to get the school they want. And they want certainty. They don’t want to take chances.”
So does that mean compromises?
“Absolutely,” he said. “At one time they may have looked forward to the utopia of a walk to the station and the best school they could get. These days they’ll think nothing of wearing out another pair of shoes on a longer walk or grabbing a shuttle bus as long as they get the school.
“That’s what it’s all about. I guarantee that if you go to any coffee shop in St Albans the talk will be about schools and little else.”
Little wonder then, that there have been those prepared to bend the rules to improve their chances.
Stories abound – often anecdotal, though rarely apocryphal, of secular families becoming church regulars to tick an entry box for an oversubscribed faith school.
Or, the well-heeled buying strategically-placed second homes and others even renting in the right area for a few months to amass the requisite utility bills and pretending to live there.
11 years ago, Norman Hoare, the then head of the sought-after St George’s School in Sun Lane, Harpenden, hired a private detective to gather evidence - and even visited suspect addresses himself looking for activity at key times of the day. As a result, several applications were rejected and others were withdrawn.
A poll conducted for Teachers TV at the time found that nearly half of parents would consider giving a false address inside a secondary school catchment area or pretend to be religious.
For those legitimately renting – and there are many professionals who do just that to buy them time to find a home – life has been getting tougher, especially for those not backed by corporate relocation packages.
Rental costs of three-bed family homes in Hertfordshire have increased by 22 per cent over the past four years, according to figures from the Valuation Office Agency.
Sally Noakes, a director of Strutt & Parker’s Harpenden office, estimates that 60-70 per cent of the house-hunters she sees are coming for the schools.
“It’s not just those coming into the town - but those already here who are prepared to move just a few roads away to be close to the specific school they want,” she said.
“We’ve had a lot of London buyers coming since the beginning of the year, all looking for the same reason. Areas such as Cowper Road are particularly popular as there’s a strong mix of properties, including period family homes that remind them of home in London and of course they’re so close to the station.
“And it’s not just in this area. The fact is, all the schools are so good and they’re increasingly harder to get into so the new one on the horizon will help.”
She was referring to the soon-to-be built Katherine Warington School, a secondary planned for Lower Luton Road backed by a trust comprising the existing three already-stretched secondary schools, the University of Hertfordshire and Rothamsted Research.
And it can’t come too soon if the Office of National statistics is anything to go by. Latest figures show the population of St Albans alone will grow by 6.3 per cent over the next eight years, slightly less than the national average but in real terms, it still means an extra 9,200 people.