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Catford to Watford – only one letter but worlds apart

July 31, 2010 5 comments

This time last year we lived in Catford, south east London. Given that Jules had lived in that house for 20 years, I’d been there for 10, and it was plenty big enough to bring up a whole parade of children in, there’s been a fair amount of curiosity about why we moved house, and how on earth we decided on Watford, of all places. We’re 52 miles away from where we were, at the total opposite side of London and it’s definitely made it more difficult to see the friends we left behind – but believe me, there were a raft of very good reasons.

Firstly, our daughter Eleanor is now two, and even last summer we were (or rather I was) thinking about the future in terms of where we wanted to bring her up, and how we were going to deal with London’s famous supply/demand issues with decent state schools.

It may seem slightly forward to be worrying about schools before she’d even turned two, but during the previous couple of years I had been occasionally checking into our catchment area and what the future might look like, and it sent shivers down my spine. Seriously.

Most local primary schools were relatively OK, and this wasn’t the issue – my worry about schools is more about secondary level. Hormones can turn any normal teenager into a sullen freak, so they really need as much help as they can get to not go off the rails if at all possible (or just maintain it to slightly off the rails and keeping a vague hold on their education.) On checking the Ofsted website I found out two things:

1) The nearest excellent state secondary school was Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College in New Cross. 3rd best 16+ exam results in London – OK, sounds good. We also seemed to be in the official catchment area, so we could be looking good ……. or then again it could have

“the distinction of being the most over-subscribed state school in the country, with on average 2,500 applications for its annual intake of approximately 200 year 7 students

source: Wikipedia

Great.

2) Our closest secondary, Catford Girls School (now mixed sex, and also renamed after what the system calls “Special Measures” which sounds ominous enough) left a lot to be desired.
To give some context, on average 47% of state school leavers achieve 5+ A-Cs at GCSE level.
Catford school managed 19%. 19%!

Call me judgemental (I was the last year of O-levels after all), but I don’t see GCSEs as being the most stretching of exams, so in my book that means 81% of the schools’ 16 year olds are near functionally illiterate. Puberty is hard enough without dealing with a school that’s struggling, for whatever reason, and yes, I know that I am contributing to the unfair situation by emulating middle class flight and leaving the poor sods who don’t have the choice to suffer. In all conscience I just can’t risk my daughter’s future to make a stand for the ideal of a truly socially representative comprehensive system.

[Note: If you’re wondering how to get information on local schools yourself, I use Upmystreet, you just put in your postcode, it tells you what the neighbourhood’s, like, schools, your local shops etc – even whether you’re likely to be Guardian reader and own shares (From Mosaic and ACORN data – the marketers amongst you will recognise this, but for those who don’t – yes, big brother knows, or assumes a lot about you and your consumption habits – sorry!).]

So, the choice was – go private or move house to try to be closer to a good secondary school.

Now I’m a state school girl and am proud of it. We definitely had the view growing up that only thick people needed to pay for school (probably because the only person I knew who left our middle school to go to Leeds Girls High wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the box). It’s been a painful realisation that it’s totally different in London, so I’ve had to be more open minded about the concept of private schooling, whilst still underneath being thoroughly uncomfortable with Eleanor potentially experiencing an education that ensures she never meets a poor person.

Massively aware that I sound like a pompous rich bitch for saying all this – I have a full appreciation of how spawny we are to even be able to consider it. In case there’s any suspicion that this was ever thus, it wasn’t. I was the first member of my family to ever stay on at school for A-levels, never mind get a degree, so we are far from being the tabloid’s hated self-perpetuating middle classes.

The reality was that it was probably going to cost us an extra £1,000 a month on mortgage or school fees one way or the other, so with a bit of pressure from me (I’m definitely reverting to suburban type now I’m a mum) we plumped for moving house. That way we would *all* get the benefit of a nicer area, rather than Eleanor being the only kid from our street at that school/feeling embarrassed to bring her friends home.

So where on earth to live? When we first had Eleanor we had a core of friends who lived close by, including my brother Lee and sister-in-law Nic (with handy nephew only two months older than Eleanor) but this local gang was gradually reducing in size as people moved away/made plans to do so for similar reasons as us, so we embarked on researching a pretty wide potential area, with the following criteria:

1) Commuting distance to central London, and easy access to train station.
The plan was to have a train journey of 30 mins or less, and to be within 10 mins walk/drive of the station so that the door to door journey would be an hour-ish. This is dictated not by our desire to sleep in, but the fact that most nurseries/childminders open around 7.30am and close by 6.30pm at the latest, so the drop off/pick up rush was going to be a factor even with a relatively short commute.

2) Within the catchment area of good/excellent secondary school that we had a sporting chance of getting into.
There are clearly lots of decent schools out there, but judging by the over-subscription rates of most within the inner London boroughs, it seemed you would have to be practically next door in order to be guaranteed a place.

3) Within budget.
We are very lucky in that we had a lot of equity in our Catford house, so were able to stretch a lot further than many people at this stage in their lives, but in usual London style, it was looking like the going rate for a family sized house near a decent school was getting on for £750,000!!. This was *way* more than anyone without some independent means/help/a silly salary could ever expect, so we clearly had to find another solution.

Schools, commute and money- we were in competition with every other family with London commuter parents, and without an unlimited budget- No pressure then 🙂

Priority 1 – schools.
Since this is what had kicked off the whole search, this was the bit we had to get right. You can find out about your local schools in various ways (Dept for Children, schools & families, Oftsed) but if you don’t have a specific search area then something like the Good Schools Guide is the best bet. Predominantly about independent schools, it does cover good state schools also, and you can do a wider county-level search to give you a general idea of where to look. £35 for a year’s access, but I signed up for a month online at £9.99. Bargain.

I searched across all London boroughs, plus the Home Counties, for good secondary schools. There were about 17, as I remember, so then began the process of checking each of these for catchment area, and how over-subscribed they were. Some were just pointless even looking at – The Tiffin School in Kingston, for instance (10:1 applications to places ratio).

While I was at it, I made a point of checking that the nearest primary schools were also good or excellent, and the shortlist began to take shape.

This I then cross referenced with house prices (aaargh). The shortlist got ever smaller.. Being near to a decent school obviously impacts house prices (estimates are from 5 to 15% of the value, depending on the area), and since we were looking for a house to live in for the next 20 years (otherwise why bother with the secondary school yet?) we were aiming for a nice big pad. 4 bed detached, of preference – greedy yes, but we thought we may as well go all out as we wanted to stay put – this was to be our forever house – or as near as possible to it.

Where I grew up (in a relatively nice bit of Leeds) I had a lot of the same friends throughout my school career, and a couple of them are very close friends still, so I was hoping for a house that would see us through Eleanor’s entire school years and possibly beyond. I’ve also come to appreciate the benefits of nice neighbours who say hello and feed your cat when you’re away on holiday.

So, the dwindling shortlist of where we could afford was further cross checked for train times, and after all of this, there remained two possibilities at the opposite sides of London- Orpington in Kent (south east) and Watford, Hertfordshire (north west).

Both have lots in common in terms of being commuter towns and close to the M25, and the thing that probably kept them both vaguely within financial reach was the fact that the schools involved were partially selective – which means that there wasn’t a total guarantee of your child getting in no matter how rich you were.

Orpington was much closer to where we lived, being a few miles further south east of London- and is coincidentally where Jules grew up, but his family no longer lived anywhere close, and in fact were now clustered around Cheltenham, around 100 miles west.

Add to this the fact that my extended family were still in Leeds (north, for anyone who didn’t already know that); my dad by now lived in Chesham, Buckinghamshire (north west, 20 mins from Watford) and Lee was planning to move away from south east London as soon as finances allowed, the decision became a lot easier.

So Watford it was. It took all sorts of further effort to choose and find the best area, find the house and then compete to get our offer accepted (7 offers in one day, of which at least 2 were over the asking price – what housing bust?) but we did it, we’re in, and it’s everything we hoped for.

I just hope Eleanor doesn’t spend her teenage years saying it’s boring and she wishes she lived somewhere more urban and cool. 😉