If you're moving within an hour and a half of London with a young family, securing a prep-school place can be harder than finding the right house to buy
If you want your child to attend a good prep school such as Elstree, Berkshire (above), you should make this your priority and the search for a suitable property your secondary consideration
It’s an ironic twist of fate. Families planning to leave the London rat race to give their children a good education in the countryside are finding it increasingly hard to secure a prep school berth because many country preps within an hour and a half of the capital are completely full. ‘There is a huge lack of places,’ confirms Charlie Wells, managing director of propertysearch agents Prime Purchase (020– 7881 2386).
Susan Clarke, headmistress at Rowan Preparatory School in Claygate, Surrey, explains that there’s a crucial difference between seeking a school place at a standard entry point, such as 7+, and looking for an occasional spot (www.rowanprepschool.co.uk; 01372 462627). ‘At 7+, a lot of pupils are sitting assessments for a number of different establishments, so entry is relatively less competitive than it seems. You can register for two or three schools or, if you’re still deciding between, say, moving to Surrey and moving to Berkshire, you may want your child to sit two or three assessments in each county.’ Occasional places, by contrast, are much harder to come by. ‘It can be especially tricky to accommodate siblings,’ explains Mrs Clarke. ‘It’s often the case that one child can get in, but another can’t, which is very frustrating for parents.’
Edward Cunningham of Knight Frank comes across this problem on a regular basis (020–7861 1080). ‘My area, which is Hampshire and west Berkshire, has many well-regarded preps, such as Cheam, Elstree and Farleigh, plus the Winchester schools. People looking at houses in these locations often need to be within 20 minutes of two or three different schools because they find that no single prep can accommodate all their children.’
Several factors are contributing to this drought. The baby boom of the last decade is the main culprit: the number of births in 2010 was 21.6% higher than in 2001, according to the Office for National Statistics, and this is putting pressure on both the private and the State school systems.
Shifting parental preferences are also playing a role. These days, a prep-school education is right at the top of many families’ priorities, according to James Mackenzie of Strutt & Parker (020–7318 5190): ‘It seems that the prep school can quite often be more important than the public school. Many people feel that values, morals and manners are implanted between the ages of seven and 13, and prep schools have a fantastic reputation for teaching children how to look after each other and how to look after themselves.’
However, many parents now tend to bypass traditional boarding preps in favour of day schools or flexi-boarding, making it particularly hard to secure a space—especially if they’re non-selective and co-educational. ‘Co-ed is often preferred because it makes it easier for parents to drop off siblings,’ Mr Wells says. In addition, many preps now have their own pre-prep: pupils moving up within the school get priority places, which means there are even fewer spots available to incomers.
For these reasons, agents are advising families to be savvy when planning their move to the country. Even though the supply of good-sized properties close to London is relatively limited, Mr Wells recommends that people initially focus their efforts on finding a prep place. ‘The school must come first and then the house should follow.’ As Mr Cunningham explains: ‘These days, sellers often call agents just a month or two before the date they plan to put their property on the market, so opportunities to buy the right house do come up. However, you need to give yourself time to sort out schooling, so that when a suitable property does become available, you can take advantage of it.’
If you have managed to get a place at a good prep, but you still haven’t found the right house by the time school begins, you could also consider renting for a while. For example, Charles Davenport of Knight Frank, who specialises in the Cobham, Oxshott and Esher areas in Surrey, is currently working with a few clients whose children have been enrolled in local prep schools to start next September, but haven’t yet managed to find a good property to buy (01932 591600). ‘Their only option may be to let out their home in London and then rent in their desired area.’
How to secure a prep-school place
The key message from both estate agents and education professionals is to start your school search early. ‘The families that contact us 12–18 months in advance are more likely to get a place because their child’s name goes on the waiting list early,’ explains Mrs Clarke.
To boost your chances of finding both a school place and a suitable house, Mr Wells also suggests that parents register their children with several schools in as many locations as possible. ‘Your best bet is to put your children’s names down with three or four preps, then base your property search around those areas.’ For example, explains Mr Cunningham, ‘in counties such as Hampshire, where the market is primarily domestic, there is little turnover. People who have two or three children are often tied to a specific school—and their family home—for 10–15 years.’
By contrast, turnover is usually higher within the M25 corridor, because families who live there are often international and tend to move relatively more frequently, thus freeing up school places outside the usual exit points of Year 6 and Year 8. If you can be reasonably flexible on location, register your children with preps in both Hampshire and north Surrey.
However, advises Mrs Clarke, it’s also important that you don’t spread yourself too thin, because you need to forge and nurture a relationship with your preps of choice. ‘Keep the dialogue going with the registrar. It’s important to respond to a school’s questions, but you should also check in regularly to let the registrar know you’re still interested in a place if it becomes available.’ Once every half-term is a reasonable timetable for making contact.
Above all, don’t make concessions on the quality of your children’s education, even if it requires delaying your move slightly or putting up with logistical complications. ‘Always go for the school that’s right for your child,’ says Mrs Clarke. ‘I have a girl starting after half-term, but her family couldn’t get her brother a place in a good, conveniently located boys’ school, so they’re having to compromise on geography.’
Finally, if you find a school you love, keep at it. Mrs Clarke quotes the example of a girl who recently joined Rowan Prep in Year 4. ‘Her name sat on the waiting list for six months, but, eventually, we were able to offer her a place. There’s always some movement, so if you feel passionate about a school, and the school can see your child thriving there, put their name down and persevere. Get a back-up option as that’s a sensible precaution, but don’t give up.’