With more than a million children about to start life at a new school, this is an anxious time for families. Making the right school choice for your child is every parent's wish and for some, especially Daily Telegraph readers, it seems to have become an obsession.
At least you would think so given the paper's annual silly-season reports of rising house prices in areas close to high-performing state schools. This summer it carried two stories on the same day. The first reported that moving into the catchment area of a good school was the top priority for 37 per cent of prospective house buyers with children aged 10 or under. The second reported that properties near the "very best" state schools in Bristol, London and Gloucester now sell for 25 per cent more than similar properties outside of the catchment areas.
The Telegraph helpfully does the sums for parents trying to decide whether to pay a hefty premium on a home that will guarantee a place at a good state school or to pay independent-school fees instead. It concludes that, on cost grounds, paying an additional pound;50,000 for an average property near a top state school is a bargain for those who can afford it, especially if they have more than one child.
Not for the first time in the national press, however, The Telegraph warns that parents who buy a property near a good school risk losing out financially because some local authorities have introduced school lottery systems designed to get more children from disadvantaged families into popular schools.
The leading advocate of lotteries is Brighton and Hove City Council, which introduced its own controversial system in 2007. The idea was that in cases where schools were oversubscribed, families would draw lots for places rather than depend on proximity to the school.
But according to a study published last year by academics from London University's Institute of Education and Bristol University, Brighton's lottery system has failed in its key aim of giving deprived children equal access to better-performing schools. While the system has resulted in significant winners and losers, it has not markedly reduced social segregation, says the study.
Sir Philip Hunter, the former chief schools adjudicator for England, believes lottery systems such as Brighton's are not the solution to the national conundrum about providing genuine choice to all parents. Really, it is just "fiddling around", he says.
"The only way to improve the range of choice is to increase the number of places available and that is expensive. You have to set the cost of providing more places in popular schools against providing more teachers and books across the system.
"You can, of course, increase choice for some by changing catchment areas or introducing selection, but all that does is benefit some at the expense of others. You can, however, improve the process by increasing the amount of information about the schools that are available and by having a good appeals system."
THE COST OF A GOOD SCHOOL
- Moving into the catchment area of a good school was the top priority for 37 per cent of prospective house buyers with children aged 10 or under.
- One in four with a child aged 11-17 named proximity to a good school as a major concern.
- The average house price premium for moving into a good catchment area was pound;5,663
- Women were willing to pay a pound;7,300 premium to move into a good catchment area, compared with pound;4,450 for men.
Survey for Santander Mortgages quoted in a Daily Telegraph report.