How to get into the (school) zone

It’s that time of the year again. Spring is in the air, and a young parent’s thoughts turn to school catchment zones. With the ‘right schools’ taking on almost mythical status, some parents are turning to nefarious means to get their children enrolled from outside the catchment zone. Whether it’s because certain schools are seen as more prestigious in their own right, or because parents believe they’ll feed into high-performance high schools, many Canberra schools are seeing enrolments surge above capacity.

While as far as we know, nobody has yet resorted to unmarked dollar bills in a plain paper bag, there are plenty of stories of families using false addresses that put them in the right zone. Some school principals across the country have gone as far as to require several years of documentation, hired private investigators or even referred families to the police.

Here, we take a look at Canberra’s rules around catchment zones and how to take advantage of them when you’re buying a house.

Purchasing an investment property in an attractive school catchment zone could guarantee strong rental returns and ensure your property is always leased. For buyers, catchment zones are just as important, particularly those with young families or those who plan on selling in the future.

So what are the rules?

Well, first of all, they’re not actually called catchment zones. In the ACT, schools may have Priority Enrolment Areas (PEAs). Children residing within the PEA have priority enrolment at that school. The PEA may be a suburb, group of suburbs or just part of a suburb depending on the capacity of that school. They’re designed so that children can attend their local school wherever possible, and that schools can balance capacity with demand, and they are reviewed every year to make sure they reflect population changes.

Some specialist schools may use other criteria than the PEA.

In some cases, two schools share a PEA. In that case, enrolment is negotiated between the two schools and the family.

If you don’t live within the PEA of the school you want your children to attend, you can seek ‘out of area’ enrolment. Whether you get in will depend on whether the school has any capacity left over after it enrols the children within the PEA plus any siblings of existing students. When it comes to the most desirable schools, we have to break it to you that the chances of being granted out of area enrolment are becoming close to nil.

Getting a foot in the door

The Department values continuity of education. That means that if a child enrols at their local school but then moves out of the PEA, they will be entitled to stay in the school. And if they’re still enrolled in the school when a younger sibling comes along, that sibling also gets priority over other out-of-area children.

What this means is that many parents will rent accommodation on a short-term basis so that they can enrol their child in the school of their choice. Schools are concerned with who lives in the area, not who owns the property, so they will accept utility bills over rates notices as proof of residence.

Buyers and investors

So, if you’re a buyer with children, a buyer who plans to have children, or an investor who holds literally any opinion about children, school PEAs concern you. If you’re planning to buy a house to live in yourself, it will determine where your children go to school and the educational opportunities available to them for the next 7-12 years. No pressure!

Will Honey, Principal of Independent Property Group Tuggeranong, says he’s seen buyers walk away from a house they loved if it isn’t in the PEA for the school of their dreams. “It does impact behaviour. They want to go to a school with a good reputation and the PEA helps them make the buying decision”.

If you’re an investor, a property in a desirable PEA is like gold dust. Tenants snap up these houses because they offer a chance to get their foot in the door of the right school. While rental demand is famously high in Canberra, Will says it could be just the competitive edge an investor needs to get their lease signed first.

Here’s what to look out for:

Dont get caught by re-zoning

PEAs are reviewed annually, to ensure that the population density matches the school demand. Especially where there is high-density housing planned or under construction nearby, the PEA may shrink to reflect the increased population. To be safe, avoid buying near the boundary of the PEA.

Family homes are the best

You’re buying in the PEA to appeal to families, so make sure you’re buying a family home! Very competitive parents may be willing to rent a one bedroom apartment they don’t actually reside in just for the address, but the vast majority of your prospective tenants want somewhere they can raise their kids. Look for three bedrooms and up, and if there’s a park nearby, so much the better.

Time the market

School enrolment periods occur between March and May for the following year, so tenants will be looking for houses around that time. Will points out that the Canberra market spikes in February after the summer recess, so time your lease periods for then and you’ll find tenants with PEAs on their minds.

So if you’re looking to buy a property either for your family or your portfolio, take a minute to look at whether it gives you an in to the school you want before signing on the dotted line.

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