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Is moving to Perth’s ‘best’ school zones worth the cost?

Perth parents are paying a premium to get their children into the catchment areas of highly desirable public schools, if my conversations with other parents and real estate industry members are anything to go by.

Is it really cheaper to move to some of these areas than it is to pay private school fees?

This article is not financial advice. You know your own situation and values. But I have held some conversations, and done some back-of-the-envelope sums to help you flesh out your thinking. While as children get older, their individual interests and special needs become apparent and are important for decision-making, this article is about broad-brush forward planning for parents of young children.

Authoritative OECD research I covered last week showed that in Australia, it is the socioeconomic background of the students that creates a successful school, not the sector.

As people generally live in an area among people of similar socioeconomic background, if they all sent their children to the local public school, this school would reflect their socioeconomic background anyway, so there would be no need to worry about worsened outcomes.

It appears to me that sending children private creates the problem to a large extent. People in an area with a false perception that public schools themselves deliver worse outcomes, send their child to a private school, either because they are on the upper end of their neighbourhood spectrum financially, or make a financial sacrifice to make it happen, or they make a sacrifice to move their whole family to a home in a higher class area to get their children into a school with a higher socioeconomic profile.

The median class and thus the median ATAR of the school ‘left behind’ must surely drop. Almost half of Year 12 students in Australia attend private schools, so it is safe to assume that Perth parents are paying school fees not for fun but because they believe public schools, apart from a known handful, are not good enough. It is true that in a private school children run minimal risk of encountering people of a much lower social class than themselves.

Productivity Commission data shows almost 30 per cent of students in WA government schools are students with low socio-educational status (constructed from enrolment records related to parent occupation and education). For private schools it is 13 per cent.

In WA’s “top” private schools it is as little as 1 per cent.

You might feel there are advantages in your child learning to get on with a more varied set of people in a public school, that it is more like “real life” and it will make them more empathetic and practical, for example.

Or you would rather see your child, as one person put it to me, “playing cello, wearing a tunic and tie and living life with kids whose parents have careers and aspirations, and we don’t have to worry about bogans with mullets and bad behaviour.” Different strokes for different folks.

Many parents opt for a practical middle of the road: moving to the catchment for a respected public school, for example, one of the top four: Willetton, Rossmoyne, Applecross or Shenton College.

Perth property commentator Gavin Hegney told me that while other desirable public schools changed over time, these were “timeless schools that were very sought after”.

“On a median price of $500,000 as an example, you can see a value difference of up to 10 per cent, which is $50,000,” he said. “A similar price applies for higher values. This is for family homes, not for apartments. People weigh up the choice and that’s the value they place on good education. Also, the investment is protected as long as the school continues to perform. People will elect that the premium for the real estate is cheaper than school fees.”

Domain school catchment zone searches for 2021 show the median house price for Willetton is $644,000; the median for the Rossmoyne catchment (including, roughly, Riverton, Shelley, Bull Creek, Brentwood and Bateman), is $770,000; and for the Applecross catchment (including, roughly, Applecross, Mount Pleasant, Ardross, Alfred Cove, Booragoon, Myaree, Winthrop and Brentwood) is $1.03 million.

Domain has no median for the Shenton catchment specifically, but if we exclude the highest priced suburbs in it which range from $1.8 million to $4 million, the suburbs with the lowest medians in its catchment are Wembley ($1.3 million) and parts of Subiaco ($1.5 million). It’s safe to assume that if you want a house in the Shenton catchment, you will pay a million at least.

Unit prices are lower everywhere, but if your household contains two parents and you are thinking about everyone’s comfort during your child’s teenage years, Perth’s limited options for family-sized apartments mean I will assume you want a house.

Ray Jennings, a veteran real estate agent in Herdsman, agrees you are looking at minimum 10 per cent premiums on a home or $50,000-$70,000 on a block of land in a desired catchment. In his patch that means Shenton, Wembley Primary and Churchlands Senior High. The latter, despite being much lower down the league tables than the top four and less consistent, he says is well established as a highly desirable school. He also says homes in the newly established Bob Hawke College zone are attracting top dollar.

Ten per cent translates to possible premiums of:

  • $65,000 for Willetton

  • $75,000 for Rossmoyne

  • $100,000 for Applecross

  • $130,000 for Wembley

  • $150,000 for Subiaco or Churchlands

Edstart calculates median private school fees are much cheaper for Perth’s outer suburbs and much more expensive for Perth’s 10 most expensive schools, but the median for central Perth is $100,000 for one or $200,000 for two children.

For parents with one child, the premium to move to Willetton or Rossmoyne is likely easily cheaper than private fees.

Applecross or the western suburbs are harder to justify, with medians starting at $1 million and potential premiums starting from $100,000, but you might eventually make something back on your investment (other than possible reflected glory from your child’s glittering career), and thus consider a million-dollar house in Applecross or another “good” school catchment.

To spend more, potentially including a $130,000 or $150,000 premium when school fees might be closer to $100,000, is possibly not worth it, unless your personal aim is a million-dollar house in a premium suburb anyway and you’ve got two parents both willing to work potentially a substantial extra number of years or hours.

I, as previously detailed, have other plans.

If you live in central Perth or are planning two children, it seems to me that investing in even a million-dollar house in any of the previously mentioned suburbs or another near a school you find desirable might work out a better value proposition than $200,000 for private school fees.

Outer suburbs parents might pay closer to $60,000 per child in private school fees, which particularly if you have one child might be much less disruptive to your bottom line.

But what if you want to send your child to a “good” public school, but don’t want to have to buy a million-dollar house OR move to Shelley/Willetton/Churchlands? What if you already love where you live, it’s close to your family and friends and favourite parks and cafes, and it’s in a reasonable area… but despite all that, you’ve heard some dodgy things about your local senior high?

By Emma Young.


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