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The catchment conundrum

Adrian Mourby despairs of a des res in the right area sample head 2 lines

After divorce and bereavement, house-moving is said to be the most stressful experience modern man has to endure. It isn't particularly pleasant for his wife either. The first time we did it, a seasoned solicitor warned us: "Selling and buying houses has replaced warfare as the most effective way for human beings to inflict cruelty on each other." Certainly gazumping, contract races and irritants such as turning up at your new property to discover that the previous owner has not just removed the light bulbs but all the fittings, the carpets and half the floor-boards, too, do tend to lower the human race in one's estimation.

But, unbelievably, in recent years moving house has become even worse. With the publication of league tables for state and independent schools the whole business is now twice as grisly and three times as protracted. Returning to the fray after several years of domestic stability, my wife and I have noticed the dreaded word "catchment area" appearing on estate agent particulars. And we know damn well that this has nothing to do with methods of trapping rain-water on the roof. Oh no. These catchment areas are crucial things that make one res infinitely more des than any other.

For those lucky people who do not have children of school age, buying a house is still relatively simple. You just locate yourself midway between two significant points: where you do the things you like and where you work in order to pay for the things you like.

For us parents, though, life is not that simple. At the moment we're looking to move to the Welsh borders, because we have set our hearts on bringing up our children in the healthy, stress-free countryside. As a result, our weekends are taken up driving through muddy lanes, particulars in hand, yelling down the mobile phone at estate agents because "Delightfully Restored Rectory A" doesn't seem to be in quite the same bit of nowhere that we have ended up in.

The rest of the time my wife is on the phone to various education authorities asking if our "Delightful Rectory A" happens to be in equally delightful catchment area B and, if it isn't, what are our chances of making a special case for the said delightful catchment area, given that awfully good school C is just what our children need.

Invariably, alas, we find that our perfect family home with its trees, rolling lawns and period French windows happens to lie slap bang in the middle of the catchment area for St Vandals, which has had the inspectors in twice this year, achieving about as much as their United Nations counterparts in Iraq.

The last time four registered inspectors went in to St Vandals, only three came out, and one of those subsequently had a nervous breakdown. Suddenly we realise why "Delightfully Restored Rectory A" has been on the market for so long.

Of course, it never occurred to the previous owners of "Delightfully Restored A" that they were living in the wrong area. Portia and Petra both went away to school, so what did it matter? But now that we have turned up, with our strong ideological commitment to avoiding school fees if at all possible, "Rectory A" has problems - and so have we. Already our children are playing on the old garden swing, climbing the trees and falling in love with the "bestest" house they've ever seen. Suddenly for us the price of "Rectory A" has gone up by Pounds 4,000 per annum in school fees - or the lifetime of heartbreak that arises from having sent your dearly beloved infants to the worst school in the world, just so that you can look out on rolling hills while they're miles away learning nothing at all.

There is another way, of course, of going about this houseschool conundrum. If you are willing to let your head rule your heart, like our friends the Wisemans, you sit over the kitchen table and draw up a list of acceptable catchment areas from the league tables. And this, rather than your heart, is what you present to the local estate agent: "I'm not looking at anything that doesn't have four bedrooms, two bathrooms, en suite wc and the best free education this side of Offa's Dyke."

Estate agents have become increasingly used to dealing with this kind of customer. In fact people like the Wisemans make life easier for everyone concerned - including the people who have a cramped, dull little house in the middle of catchment area B, who just know they're sitting on a gold mine.

Adrian Mourby's new book, Whatever Happened To ...? is published by Souvenir Press at Pounds 7.99

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