With the [Labour] party seeking to levy VAT on school fees, savvy parents are moving into grammar catchment areas.
Sebastian Gale has daughters aged six years, four years and 18 months respectively, yet he’s already choosing which grammar schools to aim for. Privately educated, he had assumed that his children would be able to follow the same path, but not now. “Paying three lots of school fees will be a big hit if we went independent — even more so if they go up under a Labour government,” he says, referring to the party’s proposal to strip independent schools of their charitable status and remove the VAT exemption on fees.
Gale and his family, who live in south London, have chosen to move to Kent for its unrivalled number of grammar schools. “We are house hunting between Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells — Tunbridge Wells Girls’ Grammar [aka Twiggs] and Weald of Kent Grammar are top of our list,” he says.
He is not alone in rethinking plans for his family’s education — nor in doing it so far in advance — as rising fees have been pricing families out of schools they could previously afford. The UK’s high inflation has added further pain, and this year independent school fees increased by 5.6 per cent, according to the Independent School Council (ISC) — the highest annual rise since 2009. The average annual fee for a day school is £16,656.
Labour’s plans for independent schools have changed the landscape for some buyers, says Claire Carter, head of the country house department at the agent John D Wood. “This year more of our buyers are looking for areas with non-fee-paying schools,” she says.
According to the most recent ISC survey, of 16,333 parents, 19 per cent said that they would have to withdraw a child from independent school if VAT was levied on fees.
A move from London or Surrey to Kent is a clear trend among buyers, Carter says. Kent offers no less than 42 grammar schools, according to research by Savills estate agents, with commutable towns such as Tunbridge Wells usually top of buyers’ lists.
Fiona Penny is a property finder helping a family with two children looking to move from Wandsworth in southwest London to Kent. “They were going to go independent, but now want Kent grammars as they’re uncertain of their financial position in five years,” she says.
In addition to those already mentioned, Tunbridge Wells and the Tonbridge area also offer Tonbridge Grammar, the Skinners’ School, Tunbridge Wells Grammar for Boys and the Judd School. The average house price in Tunbridge Wells for the past year is £522,794, according to the online portal Zoopla. “There’s a lot more room for negotiation right now,” Penny says. “But always choose the school before the house.”
Popular villages around Tunbridge Wells are Speldhurst, Fordcombe, Bidborough and Langton Green, where Lindsay Howard-Jones and her husband, Charles, who were living in southeast London, have just bought a five-bedroom house. It’s close to Langton Green Primary School (rated outstanding by Ofsted) for their children, Annabelle, four, and Monty, two. “In Crystal Palace we weren’t in the catchment area for a good school,” says Lindsay, 43, an accountant. “So we chose an area where there will be a good choice of grammar schools — or we could have ended up spending more than £200,000 in school fees. We are now in the catchment area for Twiggs.”
Ollie Marshall, a buying agent at Prime Purchase, chose Tunbridge Wells because there are good non-grammar state options as a “great fallback” if his two daughters do not get into Twiggs. He and his family moved to the town from south London last month. “We considered moving to Winchester or Marlow for schools too, but nowhere could compare with Tunbridge Wells,” he says.
Which counties have the most grammar schools?
● Kent: 42
● Lincolnshire: 15
● Greater London: 14
● Buckinghamshire: 13
● West Midlands: 11
● Essex: 8
● Devon: 7
● Gloucestershire: 7
● Merseyside: 7
● Greater Manchester: 7
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