Don’t pay £100,000 for state education

Parents are spending tens of thousands of pounds more than they would to buy houses in the catchment areas of better schools. Merryn Somerset Webb asks if it is really worth it.

Getting a good education for your children in Britain isn't easy. Too many of our schools now focus on performance rather than on learning. As Google's chairman, Eric Schmidt, made clear last week, we worry endlessly about (increasingly pointless) GCSE results while rejecting the kind of polymath education that used to create people who were able both to "write poetry and build bridges". Worse, despite our "great computer heritage" (the world's first business computer was built by the Lyons chain of tea shops), we don't even teach computer science as standard in our state schools. So what can parents do?

The answer, as is usually the case in Britain, is to pay more for houses. According to research from, it costs £77,000 more on average to buy a home in the catchment area of one of Britain's top 50 state schools. That's 35% above the average cost of a house elsewhere. Some of this can be put down to the fact that many of the better schools are in the south, but it isn't just that. Property expert Henry Pryor notes that, in some parts of Camden in London prices are £100,000 more on one side of the road than the other. Why?The pricier side is in "the prescribed area for a good school". But none of this means it makes automatic sense to buy a house in a good catchment area. It may hold its value better than others. But if local councils change their applications process or their catchment boundaries, it may not.

Parents prepared to spend £100,000 extra on a house might ask themselves why they don't just buy a house where they actually want to live and spend the extra on a private education. The average cost of a day school is about £9,000 a year. So, leave your children in the state system until secondary school and then shift them into the private system for five years and your total cost per child will be £50,000 or so (I'm adding a little for uniforms and so on). Put two children through and it will cost you £100,000. So, if you had two children you could buy a house on the right side of the road in Camden for £100,000 over the odds and spend your days praying the council didn't change its policies. Or you could buy one on the wrong side, send your children to a private day school and spend your days fretting that they won't get the value from the education you would have got from investing in a house in a better location. Neither is ideal. But sadly, nor is the system as a whole.

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Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.