Whether you are looking for primary or secondary, private or state, here are the areas with A* grade schools to consider.
By Tim Palmer.
There’s a reason that education is always a big feature of the The Sunday Times Best Places to Live guides. Choosing the perfect school may not be a guarantee of future happiness but any parent who finds themselves living in an area with few good options will be all too aware of the stress that can cause.
Competition for homes in the best catchment areas is fiercest in the smartest locations. Exceptional schools and high property prices often go hand-in-hand. One piece of research published this week by the estate agent comparison site GetAgent.co.uk claimed that an Ofsted “outstanding” rating boosts property values in the surrounding area by £37,000. There’s a danger of taking this too seriously. It isn’t usually the school that causes a property premium but the reverse. It’s more likely the case that a school whose affluent pupils live in expensive homes will find it easier to achieve good results than one in a deprived area.
Whatever the reason, that’s still a big saving on the cost of putting a couple of kids through the private system, even factoring in the cost of a tutor to make absolutely certain that the little ones ace the necessary selection tests.
Caspar Harvard-Walls, a partner at the buying agency Black Brick, says that, with the cost of living crisis striking fear even among the wealthy, he expects buyers in the most prime areas to start looking even more closely at state school catchment areas. “If people’s income is squeezed, saving on school fees will become a massive issue, especially as 70 per cent of new Oxbridge undergraduates now come from state schools,” he says.
The list below highlights areas with a particularly good choice of top-performing schools. It’s based largely on the annual Sunday Times Parent Power guide, an exclusive league table showcasing the schools with the best exam results. But these schools are not the be-all and end-all. There are few bad schools in the UK — almost 90 per cent of state schools in England are rated “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted. And a high-achieving school doesn’t guarantee the best results for every child. Many psychologists recognise that it’s better for a child to be one of the cleverer pupils in an average environment than it is to struggle to keep up with a bunch of prodigies. So never mind if one of the leading schools mentioned in the list below isn’t for you — our Best Places to Live guide has many more places to put down roots, all with excellent schools and much more besides.
High house prices, crowds of tourists and an accompanying surge in the number of holiday lets pushed 2018’s overall winner off our Best Places to Live list last year. The city’s attractions — excellent train connections (London is about two hours away, Edinburgh half an hour further), beautiful surroundings and a superior selection of pubs, restaurants and leisure activities — are as beneficial to residents as they are to visitors.
York’s greatest asset, though, is its schools. It’s hard to find anywhere in the UK with a better choice of exceptional schools. Every secondary is rated at least “good” by Ofsted, and the city has no fewer than four comprehensives in the Sunday Times Parent Power list of the country’s top state secondaries. Pride of place goes to Fulford, chosen as the Sunday Times comprehensive school of the decade in 2020. Its villagey catchment area, close to the university and a couple of miles to the south of the city centre, is tight, according to Victoria Hunt, owner of White Rose Property Search, and competition for the best family homes can be fierce. Family-sized rentals, in particular, are hard to find, she says, because so many have been converted into Airbnbs, so don’t bank on being able to try before you buy.
If you can’t squeeze in here, no problem. Archbishop Holgate’s CofE and All Saints RC, not far behind Fulford in Parent Power, are close at hand. The north side of York has two further Ofsted “outstanding”-rated secondaries in Huntington and Manor CofE Academy. Private options are bountiful too. Venerable St Peter’s, one of the oldest schools in the world and the alma mater of Guy Fawkes (day fees, £6,850), is within the city walls, along with Bootham, Queen Margaret and the Mount, within walking distance of Bootham, whose grand Georgian and Victorian terraces offer the city’s best postcode cachet.
Average property price: £314,126 (source: Rightmove)
If anywhere can rival York as an educational hotspot, it’s this refined Regency spa town, famous for its festivals and surrounded by lush Cotswold countryside. Ofsted rates all but one of the town’s 34 schools as “good” or “outstanding”, but rather than good schools for all it’s academic excellence that’s on offer here. In independent Cheltenham Ladies’ College, selective Pate’s Grammar and comprehensive Balcarras, it has three of the very best schools of their type in the country.
Pupils at selective Pate’s — Parent Power’s state secondary of the year in 2020 — achieved almost 95 per cent grades 9-7 (A-minus and above in old money) in last month’s GCSE results, while Cheltenham Ladies’ College was Parent Power’s South West independent secondary of the year. Fees start at £9,340 per term and boarding is £13,950 per term, so a family with two girls at the school could save a total of more than £50,000 if they live nearby.
Meanwhile, the performance of Balcarras, The Sunday Times South West state secondary of the decade, has made the suburb of Charlton Kings, two miles from the centre of Cheltenham, one of the most fought-over catchment areas in the country. If you’re not within half a mile of the school gates, prepare for disappointment. The houses — mostly hefty, postwar family-sized jobs — go for the same price as the period eye-candy close to the station, shops and offices in the town centre. Don’t expect much change from £2 million for a generous detached with a big garden. Happily Balcarras is spreading a little of its stardust more widely, as sponsor of the new Leckhampton High School, which opened last week.
Average property price: £369,639.
Best of the Rest
Altrincham, Greater Manchester
Before the arrival of the inspirational market and food hall that lifted Altrincham from suburban dead zone to on the 2022’s Best Places to Live list, big houses, the handy tram link and exceptional schools had kept the town squarely in the sights of well-to-do families seeking a safe berth just far enough from central Manchester.
The new buzz about the town has done nothing to dampen the educational offering, which is the best in the North West by some distance. There are more than 15 Ofsted-“outstanding” primary schools within three miles, and its three selective secondaries are in the top five in the region, according to Parent Power. Altrincham Grammar School for Girls was Parent Power’s North West state secondary school of the decade, with the boys’ grammar its only serious challenger. Loreto Grammar and non-selective Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic College (2013) are also rated “outstanding” by Ofsted.
Average property price: £578,531.
Why do London parents seem in a constant state of panic? The capital is the very opposite of an educational minefield. Getting a place at your preferred school can be tricky — less than 70 per cent in inner London get their first pick, according to figures from Savills. But that’s no disaster as the general standard of schools in the capital is so high. Almost a third are rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, way above the national average, and only a tiny handful aren’t up to scratch. Even an area such as Newham in east London, which has very high levels of deprivation, has more than its fair share of the inspirational primaries and some exceptional sixth-form options too.
But for those parents determined to exercise their tiger tendencies, we suggest the leafy borough of Barnet. The commute to the centre of London can be gruelling from this far north, and the streets aren’t the cleanest, but educationally it’s hard to fault. Parent Power’s two top state secondaries in London are both in the borough — the highly selective Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar (boys) and Henrietta Barnett School (girls), with St Michael’s RC Grammar in Finchley (also girls) also in the top ten.
Better still, there are plenty of excellent secondary schools that don’t require an entrance exam. The Archer Academy, the Compton School, Wren Academy and the Hasmonean High School for Boys (there’s a girls’ school, too, but that hasn’t been inspected yet) are all comprehensive and rated “outstanding” by Ofsted. There’s an even better choice at sixth-form level. Woodhouse College is one of the top 10 sixth-form colleges in the country, according to Parent Power, and pupils can also travel a few miles into Hertfordshire to take A-levels at Dame Alice Owen’s, Parent Power’s South East school of the decade.
Average property price: £789,805.
Like the city itself, Birmingham’s education system can be hard to navigate. At primary level, it’s easy. The prime suburbs of Moseley, Bournville, Kings Heath and especially Harborne all have “outstanding”-rated primaries. Keep a close eye on the catchment areas for these and you won’t go far wrong.
After that, the star turn is the King Edward VI Foundation, which runs two independent secondaries, six grammars and three comprehensives. All are excellent performers, though it’s the selective grammars and the independents that dominate the league tables. Five of the grammars are in Parent Power’s 20 best state schools in the West Midlands and the two independents are in the region’s three best private schools. This means entrance exams or school fees are hard to avoid for Birmingham’s most ambitious parents.
The Edward VI Foundation’s leading schools are dotted around the city and pupils take one standard entrance exam, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to think about where to live. The foundation has recently introduced a geographical element to encourage more pupils to pick a school close to home; traffic in Brum can turn a straightforward-looking school run into a daunting daily expedition.
Sarah Briggs, head of sales at Knight Frank’s Birmingham office, recommends that families should base themselves around Edgbaston or Harborne to be reassuringly close to many of the best performers.
Average property price: £233,078.
Down-to-earth Chelmsford has always scored highly for commutability — Liverpool Street is 35 minutes by train — and the arrival of John Lewis in 2016 put what was then Essex’s only city on the map as a shopping centre. However, it’s the exceptional selection of schools that’s the biggest draw here, according to Jamie Stephenson, a director of Jackson-Stops estate agency, with high-performing options across all sectors.
The two selective grammars — King Edward VI Grammar (boys, mixed sixth form), known as Kegs, and Chelmsford County High School for Girls — are in Parent Power’s top 25 state secondaries in the country. Comprehensives, such as Moulsham High, The Boswells and St John Payne, which also features in the Parent Power table, are all rated “good” by Ofsted. Primaries such as Beehive Lane, rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, and Perryfields have the kind of reputations that get parents poring over catchment-area maps, while good independent secondary schools include New Hall, where this year’s A-level cohort achieved 54 per cent of grades at A* or A.
Average property price: £260,486.
There’s a mixed picture for education in the North East. The number of schools rated “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted is slightly above the national average and a higher proportion of applicants — 96 per cent — get their first-choice school here than in any other part of the country. On the other hand, fewer people go on to university from the region and it has the smallest representation in the Parent Power rankings of the nation’s best secondaries.
The ancient university city of Durham, however, is a match for most places, largely owing to the extraordinary performance of Durham Johnston, a comprehensive whose results — more than 52 per cent A* or A grades at A-level — put it ahead of more than half the country’s selective grammars. An address within a couple of miles of the school gives you a decent chance of a place. Failing that, Framwellgate and St Leonard’s Catholic are also in Parent Power’s regional top 10, though a critical Ofsted report on the latter in January raised issues about leadership and provision for pupils with special educational needs.
There are good independent options in Durham High School for Girls and Durham School, and more than 20 primaries are rated “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted.
Average property price: £209,326.
Ilkley, West Yorkshire
It’s not the choice of schools so much as the lack of it that makes this year’s overall best place to live such a reassuring base for parents. Three of the five primaries are rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, the other two are good. Best of all is the fact that pretty much everyone attends Ilkley Grammar, rated “outstanding” by Ofsted and the seventh-best state secondary in the North of England, according to Parent Power.
This doesn’t just spare parents the sharp-elbowed stress of fighting for places (leaving more time to enjoy the town’s magical scenery or its lively high street), it also brings everybody together in a tangible way, adding hugely to Ilkley’s unique sense of community. The nearest independent alternative is Bradford Grammar (day fees, 11-18, £4,511 a term), also in the Parent Power guide.
Average property price: £485,274.
Ottery St Mary, Devon
Colyton Grammar is the big name around here. It’s the second-best state school in the region and one of the top 15 in the country. The only selective secondary for 40 miles, it attracts pupils from all over East Devon and Dorset, including Ottery. However, live here and there’s no reason to make the 11-mile journey to Colyton if you don’t want to.
The town has its own “outstanding”-rated comprehensive in The King’s School. The choice of primaries includes West Hill, one of the top 250 in the country according to Parent Power, and Feniton CofE, rated “outstanding” by Ofsted. Ottery’s other big advantage, according to Oli Custance Baker, head of country houses at Strutt and Parker estate agency, is a handy location close to the A30. “It means you’re also within range of private schools in Exeter. There’s a lot going on in the town, you’re right in the countryside and close to the east Devon coastline,” he says.
Average property price: £375,663.
Stratford-upon-Avon, West Midlands
Shakespeare may be Stratford’s biggest tourist attraction, but for househunters it’s his old school that’s top of the bill. In a dozen years, King Edward VI School has risen from 93rd to 22nd in the Parent Power ranking, making it one of the top three schools in the West Midlands, behind Birmingham’s top two King Edward VI schools (no relation). It also has an excellent reputation for sport, music and — naturally — drama.
Along with the equally impressive Stratford Girls’ Grammar (fifth in the region according to Parent Power), the Ofsted “outstanding”, centrally located Stratford-upon-Avon Primary and “good”-rated comprehensive Stratford upon Avon School, the state sector has all bases covered. So much so, says Paul Houghton-Brown, an associate director at Hamptons estate agency, that many of the area’s affluent parents are now choosing to save on years of school fees by paying a tutor to secure success in the grammar selection tests.
However, the private-school tradition remains strong, with a well-trodden path from the Croft Preparatory School in Stratford to nearby Warwick School or King’s High in Warwick, then possibly on to Rugby School a few miles further north.
Average property price: £381,532.
Cowbridge, Vale of Glamorgan
With its chichi cafés, designer handbag shops and plentiful Pilates classes, this plush, lush country town is a strong contender for the title of Wales’s most bougie address. No surprise, then, that Cowbridge also has its best state secondary in Parent Power. Cowbridge Comprehensive — non-selective — has easily the best GCSE averages: 44.5 per cent of pupils achieve grades 9-7 (equivalent to A*/A). Not surprisingly, it gets an all-round “excellent” verdict from inspectors at Estyn.
Even better, there’s no race for a place as the catchment area stretches right across the fertile Vale of Glamorgan to the outskirts of Cardiff in one direction and the edge of Bridgend in the other. Primaries Y Bont Faen (English medium) and Ysgol Iolo Morganwg (Welsh) are both rated “good”.
For families keen to avoid the short but slow commute into the centre of Cardiff, the city-centre locations to aim for are Cyncoed and Roath Park, well placed for the tight catchment area of highly regarded Cardiff High (universally “excellent” according to Estyn) and Llandaff, home to two of the best private options, Howell’s School and Cathedral School.
Average property price: £496,686.
It takes only the briefest glance at any Scottish schools league table to realise that this collection of suburbs on the fringes of Glasgow is the country’s educational powerhouse, in the state sector at least. As the flood of primary-age families heading a couple of train stops south from the city testifies, moving here is pretty much a guarantee of a place at a high-scoring school.
Three of the top ten Scottish state secondaries in the Parent Power Guide are here: Mearns Castle High in Newton Mearns, St Ninian’s High in Giffnock and Williamwood High in Clarkston. Nearby Eastwood High and Woodfarm High are no slouches either, both featuring in Scotland’s top 20.
For anyone used to the hustle and bustle of Glasgow, life here can seem sedate but transport links are good. Glasgow Central is only 15 minutes by train from Giffnock, for example.
Other Scottish hotspots can be found in the north of Glasgow, where Jordanhill School tops the Parent Power table and Bearsden Academy is seventh. For anyone looking to get away from the city and breathe some fresh almost-Highland air (while remaining safely within commuting distance), Dunblane is the best bet. Dunblane High School is second in the state secondary league table, with 75 per cent of students attaining the “gold standard” of five Highers.
Average property price: £303,308.