Commuter towns for top-rated state schools

London parents are moving to commuter towns for top-rated state schools
£900,000: the Granary, a five-bedroom home with gardens in Salisbury (01722 426820)
£900,000: the Granary, a five-bedroom home with gardens in Salisbury (01722 426820)
Harassed parents may only just have finished sewing in the name tags for the start of the new term, but their work is far from over.

As autumn begins so does the annual scrum for next year's senior school places and that scrum will be even more ferocious as cash-strapped parents unable to pay school fees for public schools search out the best state schools within commuting distance of London and plan a cunning move into the country.

Most state seniors invite applications from September, with a deadline of November or December, and you can bet your expensive Latin tutor that alpha mums and dads will be rehearsing their arguments and priming their offspring well in advance in order to get them into the best possible school.

According to the latest school league table the UK's three top-performing state schools are within commuting distance of London - in Salisbury, Orpington and Chelmsford. And although the average premium for living close to a top school currently stands at £77,000 the maths add up for parents wanting these precious postcodes.

With house prices holding up in London families can afford to move knowing that a house in the country will cost less and compensate for the move, the rising train fares and even help ease the household expenses in this recession.

"The 6.45am train is standing room only, full of people heading to London for work, but who have come to Salisbury basically for the schools," says Paul Cadge, an estate agent based in this delightful cathedral city which boasts England's top-performing school.

£399,950: grade II-listed cottage in Salisbury (01722 337577)
£399,950: grade II-listed cottage in Salisbury (01722 337577)

Salisbury, Wiltshire

If you want a shot at a place at the UK's best performing state senior school for your child, the decision you will have to make is whether you want to commute a tough one hour and 22 minutes (annual season ticket from £4,360). Fine if you want to use the time on the train to learn a language or study for an exam. The reward is Bishop Wordsworth's Grammar School (boys). Girls can opt for the almost equally well-thought of South Wilts Grammar School.

And here is the really good news. The average house price in Salisbury currently stands at £286,112 but Cadge, a partner at Myddleton & Major, says the best homes are to be found to the south and west of the city, particularly in the Harnham area. A five-bedroom Georgian townhouse in St Anne Street, one of the best, would cost about £850,000, while you could pick up a four-bedroom Victorian cottage in Harcourt Terrace or Mill Road for about £400,000. With the recession holding local people back, exiting Londoners will have less competition for the top family homes.

Salisbury is small and pretty, the pace of life is slow and the atmosphere relaxed, and it is surrounded by beautiful Wiltshire countryside. You can be at the coast in 40 minutes. Wives might suffer from the shops, though - locals head to Bath or Southampton. And if you are used to good food, the Haunch of Venison has masses of character and Grasmere House has a charming conservatory restaurant.

Orpington, Kent

If you want to stay closer to London then Orpington has St Olave's and St Saviour's Grammar (boys, with a mixed sixth form), considered the second best state senior in the UK, while parents with daughters fight to get their offspring into Newstead Wood School.

£2.85 million: quaint Thirties family house in Farnborough Park, Orpington (01689 813333)
£2.85 million: quaint Thirties family house in Farnborough Park, Orpington (01689 813333)
Average house prices in Orpington stand at £592,471, but this figure hides a vast cross section, from some swathes of former local authority property to huge executive homes in gated communities with seven-figure price tags.

If schools are the key reason to move to Orpington, then the commute comes a close second. Orpington is technically still part of the capital, on the furthest fringes of Bromley, and the journey into central London is great for time - just 25 minutes to Charing Cross via London Bridge and Waterloo. An annual season ticket costs from £1,632. Diane Elliott-Hale, senior branch manager of Alain de Maid estate agents, says the key areas for house hunters include The Knoll, with its good-size Thirties houses. A four-bedroom detached house would cost between £500,000 and £700,000, and the area is only a quarter of a mile from the station.

At the top end of the market is Farnborough Park, a glitzy gated community where sprawling executive homes cost at least £1 million. The downside of Orpington has to be its dull town centre. There is a decent array of chain stores in the High Street and adjacent Walnuts Shopping Centre, but not much in the way of character, and for eating and drinking, choices are pretty basic. Local facilities include a swimming pool and sports facilities at the Walnuts Leisure Centre, and there are rugby, football and cricket pitches in Goddington Park. The town has a running club (the Orpington Road Runners) which organises regular races every summer.

Chelmsford, Essex

King Edward VI Grammar - or Kegs as it is known locally - takes third place on the secondary school league tables. The boys' school admits girls to its sixth form, and younger pupils can opt for the excellent Chelmsford County High School.

£750,000: listed four-bedroom house in Chelmsford (01245 254600)
£750,000: listed four-bedroom house in Chelmsford (01245 254600)
Chelmsford is also a perfect base for City workers who can be at Liverpool Street in 34 minutes, with annual season tickets costing from £3,260.

The average house price in the town is £239,120 - but Colin Metcalfe, a partner at Fenn Wright estate agents, says you would need to spend £450,000 to £550,000 to secure a four to five-bedroom Thirties home close to the centre.

Broomfield and Springfield Roads are both well-thought of. There are also plenty of modern executive homes, usually with five bedrooms, priced from about £600,000.

Since Chelmsford is so near London, many residents opt for one of the lovely Essex villages on its doorstep. Writtle, with its village green and 17th-century houses, is particularly lovely, and no more than two miles out of town. A four- to five-bedroom house would cost from £650,000.

In 2007, Location, Location, Location voted this market town the 8th best place to live in the UK, but critics have described it as something of a clone town stuffed with chain stores. They do have a point, but locals head to Old Moulsham for a great mix of cafés and independent shops. The town centre has plenty of bars and restaurants - Barda and The Alma are both recommended - and of course the highlight of the annual social calendar is the V Festival in Hylands Park.

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