Rise of the 'super school' mover
Couples have started buying houses with the sole aim of getting into the catchment areas of the best schools
The couple who walked into the Foxrock estate agency office with their four-month-old baby had left nothing to chance. They were so eager to get their child into a particular Dublin 18 primary school in four or five years' time, they asked to be notified as soon as any house in the estate next door to the school came on the market so they could snap it up.
"They knew that living there would guarantee them a place in that school," said Rowena Quinn, managing partner of the Hunter's boutique estate agency. "There was nothing on the market at that time but, as it happened, a house did eventually come up for sale and they bought it."
The school around the corner is not quite the same, as Quinn has discovered by her own experience. She and other parents in the crèche that her four-year-old son attends had to queue outside a national school in a bid to secure a place. Quinn's son starts in September. She says: "The question on everyone's lips was: 'Did you get a place?'"
Getting a child into a sought-after primary or secondary school, especially in south county Dublin, has become something of an art these days with increasing criteria and a limited number of places. And parents whose offspring don't fit the enrolment criteria are going to extraordinary lengths to secure a place for their child in an over-subscribed top school.
Families may not fit the bill of having older children or family who attended the school, but those who can afford it are taking the one option they do have influence over - moving lock, stock and barrel to the heart of their preferred school's catchment area. Quinn, whose agency also has offices in Dalkey and in Dublin 4, regularly encounters such dogged determination amongst parents when she holds viewings for homes in upmarket enclaves.
"In the majority of instances, the first question we're asked when they come through the door is whether the property is in the catchment area of a certain school," she said. "If it's the first family home they are buying, or they have young children, they are very much aware they might need to be on a school waiting list, so they are doing the research.
"They are all very mindful of school league tables because they are listed in the papers time and time again. It's all about future planning of their children's education, and Montessori and national schools are ultimately chosen with a view to getting into a fee-paying senior school."
Tough economic times have made this path a necessity for ambitious parents in the leafier parts of Dublin. Faced with paying for both after-school childcare and a fee-paying junior school (both can cost €1,600 per month per child), more parents have opted to scrap the latter and set that money aside to pay for fees at favoured private senior schools. This has exacerbated waiting lists at public national schools that feed into that private system, Quinn believes.
"As I was saying, these days at the crèche, the most commonly asked question parents ask now is: 'Did you get a place in a national school?'" she said.
Last month's Irish Independent guide to house prices in Ireland found the availability of desirable schools is driving demand for properties in areas such as Clontarf, where buyers want homes that fall within the parish boundary so their children can qualify for the Belgrove schools.
Keith Lowe, chief executive of DNG Group, says this phenomenon is also widespread near Blackrock College and most of Dublin 4 and Dublin 6. Rathgar and Ranelagh, already among the capital's hottest markets, are all awash with well-to-do families keen to place their children in local private schools, including Gonzaga College, St Mary's, and Alexandra College.
"In Blackrock, for instance, if you drive down Booterstown Avenue at 8.30am on a weekday and see all the traffic, you will see why living close to those schools is worth a lot of money," Lowe said. "This effect is not limited to properties just beside the schools but those beside the Luas and Dart lines that will bring you to those schools."
The population of Dublin is increasing - there were 40,000 more people living in the city in the first three quarters of last year than the same period the year before. A lot of the new jobs that are being created are being filled by people coming to Dublin from other areas. All of this puts more pressure on schools.
Annemarie Wade, the owner of Schooldays.ie, an online schools resource for parents, says the primary school network in south county Dublin is now akin to a "mini-CAO system for secondary schools, with children's names put on the waiting list from birth". It can prove a real-estate minefield for families planning to move to the area. "We often get inquiries from families abroad who are relocating here," she said. "If they contact any school, one of the first things they will be asked about is where they will be living and if they will be in the school's catchment area."
Prospective buyers keen to live near a coveted school will have to pay dearly for the privilege. The largest premium in the country, at almost €25,540, is for homes within 200m of a primary school in south county Dublin, compared to similar homes more than 500m away.
On the other hand, homes near schools in Laois command a mark-up of just €780. That's according to a study published in November by Daft.ie and Trinity College, the first research of its kind in Ireland into how proximity to schools affects property values.
Across the country, living beside a Catholic school is also highly prized, with those homes attracting higher asking prices than properties near schools of other faiths or multi-denominational schools. Overall, the national average premium for buying a house close to a primary school was €4,681 and €3,631 for post primary.
Indeed, estate agencies like DNG are increasingly using schools as a marketing tool for family homes. Lowe says the agency plans to use a local national school as a "big selling factor" when it starts selling a new development of 69 three-and four-bedroom houses called Sion Hill Park in Drumcondra later this month.
Four years ago, when he set up his eponymous estate agency, Des Lalor began listing the local schools close to each of the homes the business sells in south Dublin and north Wicklow.
"Roman Catholic schools tend to restrict entry to children in the parish, so we inevitably get asked by potential buyers if the property we're selling is within the parish boundary," Lalor said. "Luckily, I'm familiar with most of them."
Even if parents do their geography homework when buying a house, there's no guarantee their strategy will work. Living in an area covered by a school is not always a passport to a spot for a child because top schools, mostly in the second-level sector, have operated selective admission policies that give preferential treatment to children based on historical family links.
Buying a home close to a school has been further complicated by removal of townlands from Dublin postcodes in An Post's address checker, service. Designed to maximise letter delivery efficiency, it is used by many schools to define address for applicants. Those who have had their addresses tweaked for better letter delivery have often found themselves indirectly 'decatchmented'.
At the same time, the School Admissions Bill is set to put even more emphasis on address.
Intended by the Department of Education to make entry rules clearer and compel schools to have an open-door policy, it is progressing at an advanced stage through the Houses of the Oireachtas, according to a department spokeswoman.
Ruairi Quinn, the former education minister who initiated the legislation, decided to cap at 25pc the number of children of past pupils who can be enrolled in a school. The proposed change stirred up anger from representatives of former students of Blackrock College and Belvedere College in particular. For his part, Lalor is more concerned a wholesale redrafting of school enrolment policies will lead to further price inflation for homes.
"If schools begin to enrol children solely on the basis of them living in the catchment area, then that will only shove up the cost of houses in that area," he said. "It's the law of unintended consequences."