Upping sticks for the best schools
Popular catchment areas can be pricey, but for these families it was well worth the move, says Fred Redwood
It is the start of another school year, and young parents in London and the Home Counties will be scanning the property websites for those parts of the country where the price of a family home is not beyond the dreams of avarice. Many have made the move already. The number of people fleeing London in 2016 alone reached 300,000, according to Savills – 80per cent higher than five years ago.
These émigrés, most aged between 29 and 39, come in search of many things – open countryside, gastropubs and a solid community, to name a few. But the education of their children is of uppermost importance. Unlikely to be able to afford today’s independent school fees (approaching £40,000 a year for boarding), they assiduously seek out the top state grammars, academies and comprehensives instead. This comes at a price – a study by the Sutton Trust this March found a house price premium of 20per cent near the top comprehensives. Many believe it is money well spent.
If you want to judge which state secondary school is best for your child, help is at hand. Refer to the Ofsted reports if bland is your thing; The Good Schools Guide is more readable. For bare statistics, study the league tables of the percentage of pupils gaining five GCSE grades between A* and C, including maths and English.
Also seek advice from wellinformed locals, as Lindsay Heydon did when she and her family moved from Wiltshire to the wilds of Pembrokeshire. She found property search agent Carol Peett, who recommended Ysgol y Preseli, a school in the village of Crymych that teaches in Welsh, for daughter Grace. Heydon initially had misgivings about the bilingual teaching and the possibility of Grace, now 16, being cocooned from the wider world outside their rural idyll. She need not have worried.
“Grace was up to speed in Welsh within two years of extra lessons,” says Heydon, 56, who runs an IT consultancy and website design company with husband Jon Strangroome. “The school is very English-friendly, and the staff have been nothing short of inspirational. Grace has won prizes for English and IT, and the school organised a visit from Oxbridge for the high achievers. She saw her goal and she wants it now.”
Here follows some of England’s best-performing local education authorities at GCSE level, as well as a sample of the most sought-after secondary schools outside London. It is worth remembering that Buckinghamshire is a selective authority, which means about one in five of the local children is selected by ability. That’s fine if you are confident that your child will pass the entrance tests, but an area such as Newbury in West Berkshire may be a safer bet. There, the high-fliers at 11 have a chance of getting into the Reading grammars, such as Kendrick and Reading Schools, while others are likely to do well at some excellent comprehensives.
Kennet in Thatcham has been transformed by one of the nation’s “super-heads”, Paul Dick, and academy St Bartholomew’s in Newbury is an ex-grammar that even teaches lacrosse. Look for homes in outlying villages such as Bucklebury (where the Duchess of Cambridge grew up). Further south, in Winchester, King’s is the best-regarded comprehensive – deemed “outstanding” by Ofsted – and St Cross, where houses go for between £1million and £1.5million, is one of the more sought-after areas. Steeped in history, an hour from the coast and 40minutes from the New Forest, Winchester has plenty to offer outside school hours, too. In Cheltenham, Pate’s Grammar tops the GCSE rankings without being an examination factory: all Year 7s get a birthday card from the head. At Balcarras, a comprehensive in the Charlton Kings area, exam results are excellent, and it offers every sport from rugby (four pitches) to cycling on its own speedway track. No wonder it gets treble the number of applicants for its 194 places. It also explains why a four-bedroom, modern house within its tiny catchment area last month that was for sale at £695,000 immediately attracted eight bids, one of which was fiveper cent above the asking price. The same style house in the same road sold for a mere £470,000 in 2010.
In Bath, grammar schools Beechen Cliff and Hayesfield hold sway. Houses in nearby Poet’s Corner, a favourite with artsy and media types, sell for £500,000 to £600,000 for a threebedroom Victorian terrace. Successful comprehensives have created their