Hot topic: Buying property to secure children a school place

Would you? Could you? Perhaps you have already ...

Falsify your address just to get your little ray of sunshine into the family’s school of choice, that is.

Some parents do it; others scheme about it and those secondary schools in their sights – such as McKinnon, BALWYN and Canterbury Girls’ – put strategies in place to make sure it doesn’t happen (often).

The pressure on some high-achieving parents to get children into schools of choice leads them to drastic measures. Some are said to fudge their addresses by bribing relatives, others change their mobile phone billing data, some wealthy parents buy a second property – with no intention of living there – just so they can have a postal address for school documents. Others make false statutory declarations – or rent properties for six months and then leave them vacant.

It seems nothing is too much trouble when a place in a class in the best school is on the line.

Getting in on the front foot, McKinnon Secondary College says it ‘’strongly advises prospective parents to contact the college before securing a leased property, or purchasing a property, to discuss enrolment options’’.

It’s a serious issue with strict criteria (take in map Only houses on the inside of boundary roads are deemed to be in-zone. If the zone is amended, the school says it will signal changes on its website and in the local press.

Enrolling students must live with their parents. Staying with a relative or friend does not qualify a student as a ‘’resident". And guardianship is not a criterion for enrolment unless supported by relevant papers endorsed by the Family Court of Australia.

BALWYN High School says its expectation is that a family will remain permanent residents within the zone for the duration of their child’s education. It says it cannot guarantee a child’s continuing enrolment if their residential status changes during that time.

It has been a long-term requirement that new enrolments sign a residency declaration stating the family’s intention to remain permanent residents in the zone as long as their child is enrolled there.

The purchase of property in certain areas to guarantee entry is taking its toll on some schools who simply cannot find a place for them. BALWYN High School says it is ‘’constantly liaising’’ with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development regarding its ‘’acute accommodation problem’’. It says it is investigating the possible placement of new students into other government schools as a means of alleviating its ‘’accommodation crisis’’.

But Victorian Education Department spokesman Liam Carter said there was no review and no state government policy in place to prevent parents falsifying information for school enrolments. ‘’It’s not much of an issue in Victoria as most schools take students from out of their zones anyway,’’ he said. ‘’Only a few schools have specific zones and they manage the issue themselves.’’

As an aside, he said he had heard of one principal who would go around to addresses he was sceptical of and check that a certain student did, in fact, live there. This is verified by an entry on the McKinnon Secondary College website stating: ‘’ Documentary proof of residence is required, and applicants may be personally visited without warning to verify habitation claims.’’

That’s one way to check. Other ways include providing evidence of the purchase of a property in the zone or a property lease from a licensed real estate agent for at least 12 months. The property and lease must be under the parent's name. Copies of a driver's license, utility bills – all in the parents’ names - are other items asked for as proof of address.

School zoning is also a dividing feature in the UK where a Parent Power survey, commissioned by education charity Sutton Trust, found a third of professional parents deliberately moved to an area with good schools, while one in five moved to the catchment area of a specific school.

The claims were made in the Mail Online which found that one-in-20 parents could afford to buy a second home just to use the address when applying for enrolment. This was more than double the 2% among parents in general.

Around 6% – double the average – admitted using a relative’s address on application forms. And one in 10 said they had started going to church to get their child into a faith school compared with one in 16 among parents in general.

And one in 20 – 5% - said they bought a second home to use the address when applying for a place at a specific school. This is more than double the 2% among parents in general.

Hocking Stuart Bentleigh’s Fran Harkin said property was ‘’definitely more expensive’’ in the McKinnon school zone which reflects the fact that parents will pay more for the privilege of sending their children there. Salesman Anton Zhouk said anecdotal evidence was that some parents bought second properties in the zone for a legitimate address to present to the school regarding their child’s enrolment.

‘’You hear of it going on but, of course, it’s never talked about,’’ he said. ‘’Some buy land - without a house on it - just to qualify.’’

Cashed-up Asians – who make up 80%-90% of buyers in the area – are especially keen to send their children to select schools. Many can afford to pay cash for their new homes.

‘’The zoning requirements have a marked effect on prices,’’ Zhouk confirmed. ‘’Centre Road divides the zone and properties on the ‘right’ side may cost $150,000 more. It’s certainly a good selling point.’’

Melissa Ryan, of Hodges Bentleigh, said ‘’very specific buyers, such as the Chinese, come to Australia to give their offspring a quality education’’ and this has a big effect on school zone land prices.

‘’They want their children to stand out amongst the rest and an Australian education has cache. So, in order to get their children into a good school, they will pay extra for it.’’

Ryan said the value of the Aussie dollar played a part in their strategy. ‘’When the dollar was high Chinese buyers left the market, so that houses in the school zone were selling for less than those outside. Now, with the dollar low, they are back in.’’

The return of the Chinese is certainly affecting prices, with Ryan saying they were ‘’even outbidding developers’’ on property where the minimum to buy in is around $1 million. ‘’Over the past two years – when the dollar was high - this has not been the case.’’

Ryan said the McKinnon/Bentleigh market was strong. ‘’This time of year people buy cars and houses. Anything that is still on the market is being snapped up quickly.’’

John Pollard, of Woodards Bentleigh, said school-catchment zones ‘’had a huge pull’’ on buyers and put a 10% premium on sale prices. ‘’And it is usually the starting point of the marketing campaign.’’

Pollard said planning ahead could pay dividends. He said a Chinese couple from THOMASTOWN with a pre-school age daughter recently bought a rundown property in McKinnon – in the school zone, of course – planning to rent it out until their daughter is ready for year 7, when they will move in.

NSW schools are equally strict about their enrolment criteria. Popular Willoughby Girls’ High School in the inner north lists ‘residential proximity’ as the main criterion for entry, with proof of a student's address to include originals of different documents, such as a council rates notice or residential lease and electricity bills with their parents’ names.

The school lists nearby suburbs in priority order according to their distance from the school, which is defined as a straight line point to point from the school to the nearest point on the suburb boundary. Parents can access a Residential Proximity map to see how far they are from the school.

Artarmon Public School – a few minutes away on Sydney's lower north shore – is reportedly the fifth-best primary school in the state. And that’s a sound reason for parents to buy in the suburb, says Jason Georges, of Ray White Willoughby. ‘’There are only a limited number of streets in the catchment and property there is always in demand, with three bedroom houses usually going for around a million dollars.’’

Killara High School – like all NSW public schools – has enrolment criteria insisting that children are designated to a particular school based on the permanent residential address of their primary caregiver.

It has to - as one of the few non-selective public schools to rank in the top 100 high schools in the state it has massive enrolment pressures.

The president of the Parents and Citizens Association, David Jordan, told Fairfax newspapers that growing housing density was putting huge pressures on the school. "You're getting a massive increase in population in the area but there's no money going into infrastructure in the schools. Basically, the school was designed for about 900 students. It's over 1500 now. We just can't afford to have out-of-area kids."

In 2002, only about half the students at Killara came from the local area. Now it is nine out of 10, he said.

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