Photo courtesy of the internet
In West London, where the motto of the pushy mummy brigade is ‘’Good is not Good enough, only Excellence will do,’ the quest for the perfect education is taken to extremes where only the fittest will survive. For many mothers, the choice of school at 4 years old is thought to determine the entire future of their children’s education, therefore is taken with the utmost seriousness and competitiveness. Friendships and pleasantries are put aside as mums compete for coveted spots at what are considered the ‘top schools’ in London. This causes an intense and fierce competition to gain entry into these schools that leaves some mums defeated by the system or anguished if their child still hasn’t been offered a ‘spot.’ There is now a collective social anxiety created by these mums, bordering on hysteria, which leads to all mothers feeling the pressure of getting their children in the right schools.
For the not-so-pushy-mothers, the question is do you join the ranks of the pushy mummy in order for your child to keep up with them, or do you stand up against the ideals of the Tiger Mother, which can rob childhoods away from children in order to push them in the ‘perfect school’ trajectory? But then how would you feel if your child was left behind as their children enter top schools and yours do not? Is this purely an obsession for anxiety filled mothers or is there any merit to this ultra competitiveness? When does it become more about the parents rather than the child and are we are really doing what is best for our children or are we missing out on what is really important? As a West London mother at the beginning of the school trajectory, I ask myself all of these questions and wonder what kind of parenting model I will subscribe to.
I was recently having dinner with a friend of mine, Sophie*, who was overly distressed because she hadn’t gotten her 3 year old son in what is considered the best pre-prep boys school in London, the infamous Wetherby School. Despite her husband hand delivering 6 applications at birth, he had only gotten into what is considered a ‘second tier’ school in the world of private, independent schools of West London. She had decided early on not to ‘play the game,’ which in West London parlance is being a pushy mum by pestering the registrar with phone calls, writing monthly letters and pulling in connections to call in a good word until you get a ‘spot.’.
It was as if she was describing that her son had only gotten into a ‘lesser’ Ivy League University, the equivalent of getting into Brown University instead of Harvard University which made me think: 1) but this is only pre-prep, he’s only 3 years old for god’s sake 2) all the private schools are very, very good, just be glad he’s gotten in somewhere 3) but finally concluded that she had been carried away by the social pressure that ‘only the best will do.’
I asked why the ‘second tier’ school wasn’t good enough, to which she responded ‘they hand out flyers, it can’t be that good if they are passing out flyers in the street’ and therefore could not be good enough for her son. I tried to re-assure her that his school was still a great school but even though she thought rationally that it was a good school, it was not the ‘best’ and wasn’t accepting the rejection very well. Like Groucho Marx once said, ‘I don’t ever want to belong to a club that I can get into.’
She finally admitted that the social pressure to get into the ‘right’ school had gotten to her and she was seemingly unable to be satisfied with the lesser school. She felt that this was a reflection of her as a mother: ‘I can’t even get him into the best school.’ I could see the little she-devil on her shoulder murmuring down at her as she opened the rejection letter. She had believed that she didn’t need to be a pushy mother to get her son into the ‘right’ school yet was devastated that she hadn’t gotten him in either. Instead of playing the game, she felt that she was the one who had been played, and was disturbed by how much she cared.
Not only that, but she hadn’t even been placed on the wait list, but received a flat rejection letter, while she saw other children born after son being put on the wait list for the small chance that they would get a spot. She described the headmistress of her nursery consoling her on not getting into Wetherby by telling her ‘Don’t worry, it’s for the best, you’re not really a ‘Wetherby Mum’ which could be interpreted in any number of ways but most likely meaning competitive, pushy, alpha mums that will do whatever it takes to get their precious son into the school. Still, there is some reverse snobbery in that comment that makes it all so uncomfortable for everyone involved.
Wetherby was first made world-famous by Princess Di dropping off little Prince William and Prince Harry at the doorsteps of this West London boys pre-prep school. Later, Claudia Schiffer, Elle McPherson and Stella McCartney all chose this school to educate their offspring, creating even more hype around this school and more recently the Beckhams. Even Britain’s favourite posh export, Hugh Grant, is an alumnus. Wetherby is generally considered the ‘gold standard’ where all mums would happily send their children and its new Prep school received the Best Prep School Award from Tatler’s School Guide a few years ago. As one mum says, ‘if you get offered a spot at Wetherby, you don’t think, you just take it.’
All mothers hope and want their children to be successful and since education is seen as one of the best predictors of success, it has turned us into a school-obsessed nation. West London mums take this obsession to another level, schooling being a constant subject of conversation, and when one meets another London mum, ‘How are you?’ could almost be replaced by ‘Where is he/she going to school?’ These West London mums are always a few steps ahead and have worked out the perfect educational trajectory for their children from birth to the end educational goal of Oxbridge or the Ivys for the Americans, which often rightfully, does predict a certain level of success. Take Hugh Grant as an example, he followed the trajectory of Wetherby, Upper Latymer and Oxford, which was an educational and financial success.
In this part of the world, there are only a few roads that lead to Oxbridge; Westminster School (52% go to Oxbridge) and St. Paul’s Boys school (60 Oxbridge offers last year) for the boys, and St. Paul’s Girls School (33% go to Oxbridge) and Wycombe Abbey (32% go to Oxbridge) for the girls. If you work it out backwards, for the boys school, Colet Court is the feeder school to St. Paul’s and Westminster Under is the feeder school to Westminster, and before that, Wetherby Pre-Prep is a great feeder school to both Colet Court and Westminster Under. For girls, Bute House is often quoted as the ‘golden ticket’ since one third of its pupils get places at St. Paul’s Girls School. Other prestigious 4yo+ girls schools include Pembridge Hall, Glendower, Falkner House and Kensington Prep, which are feeder schools for the top girls schools.
West London is an area that attracts overachieving, A type, competitive parents who procreate what they hope to be A-type, over-achieving offspring. This demographic is not your typical parent population, and to even have a chance of attending these schools, the game must be played. But these players are cutthroat, willing to do whatever it takes to win and their persistence is likely to be greater than yours. Like Gore Vidal once said, ‘It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’ There are clusters of these ‘top tier’ 4 + entry schools in London that these mums have an eye on, with a strong concentration of them in Notting Hill and South Kensington, which include schools mentioned above and others like Notting Hill Prep, Chepstow House, Norland Place and Thomas’. Most of the Notting Hill schools operate on a first come first serve basis, whereas many South Kensington schools also have an assessment at 3 years old, which are even more competitive.
To get into these 4+ entry schools, there are sets of rules that one must learn and adhere to early on, to ‘play the game.’ The rules are taught either by a school consultant for foreigners or by a friend with older children who have already passed this rite of passage. One mother I met in a pregnancy class boasted that she had paid a school consultant £500 just to tell her which schools were ‘appropriate’ schools and which would fit her and her family. Another mother called me in a panic when her daughter was 9 months old because she had ‘slacked off’ and still hadn’t gotten her daughter into a school, asking for advice, from what to do, to what wear and what questions to ask on the school tour. I told her to relax, look presentable and follow the rules.
For first-come-first-serve schools such as Wetherby and Pembridge Hall, applications must be dropped off the day of the child’s birth for the best chances of getting in, which with luck, may happen. Only two children per month are offered a place and two more are put on the waiting list. If that isn’t enough, letters must be written on a monthly basis, extolling the school’s virtues and calls must be made convincing the registrar of your utmost desire to get into this school. Meetings with the headmaster/headmistress consist of telling them that their school is the only school for their child and a few names of friends whose children are attending said school are dropped casually. Friends can call on your behalf. If all else fails, cakes, cookies and cards can be sent in on a monthly basis to assist the odds of climbing the waiting list. Some schools apparently write down each every contact made by the parent to express their interest in the school. Persistence pays off.
I was lucky enough to have been prepped by a few mothers before I gave birth to my first child and chose a school based on 3 criteria: its 5 minute proximity to our house, its adorable school uniforms that really made me melt and thirdly all of my friends in the neighbourhood were all sending their children to this school. These criteria were not based on any kind of research, spreadsheets or enlightened thought, but at 8 months pregnant with more hormones than sense, these seemed as good enough as any. I followed the strict protocol and guidelines and sent my husband 12 hours after my child’s birth, application in hand and flirtatious smiles on standby, to this school and one month later we were luckily offered a spot. I dread to think of the anxiety and anguish I would be faced with had I not undertaken these carefully planned and executed steps as prescribed by the ‘elder’ mothers.
My ‘dejected and rejected’ friend Sophie had also registered her son at birth, but didn’t follow through with the above rules when he didn’t receive an immediate spot, and therefore didn’t stand a chance. She described how she met a mum who immediately boasted that her son had gotten spots to 4 different schools including Wetherby. When Sophie explained that she had only gotten her son into a ‘safety school’ the mother said, ‘Don’t worry, spaces always open up. I still have my spots to all 4 schools.’ She had paid 4 different deposits to retain those places, but was already sure she would be sending him to Wetherby (of course). This would be costing her around £13,500 worth of deposits (4 x £3,500 of deposits), just to retain optionality if something were to go wrong (like what? the school moving to an undesirable post-code?).
Other mums I know have secured places in schools in Notting Hill for their girls, which are first-come-first-serve such as Notting Hill Prep, Chepstow House and Pembridge Hall, only to put their daughters through the assessments at schools in South Kensington like Glendower and Falkner House even though they live much further from these schools. These are considered some of the best girls schools but the assessments are extremely competitive and can be a large source of stress for girls and their parents, who spend hours ‘prepping’ them for the assessment but particularly for the ones who are rejected from the assessment schools or for those who have no backup options.
One of my friends Sarah* went through the excruciating assessment process for her daughter at Falkner House, and despite having attended the nursery attached to the school, failed to get into the school or any of the schools that did assessments. She described the day the offers came out; ‘within a few hours, everyone knew who had gotten in, who had been wait-listed and who had gotten rejected. It was catty and divisive. You didn’t know who had done what to get their child in. Parents pull out all the stops to get in, they wrote letters to the school, found ‘cheerleaders’ within the school to support their child. There were different levels of bribery, from baking cookies to offering holidays on their yachts or in their second home. Even siblings are not guaranteed a spot, and those siblings who do get spots are ‘monitored’ to ensure they keep the standards of the school.’
When her daughter still had no offers or wait-lists, she had to listen to other mothers self-obsessively tell her how difficult it was to choose between different school offers, not realising that she had none, causing unintentional hurt and more stress. Eventually, after 3 rejection letters, she finally received an offer from a non-selective school but for the remainder of the year, she still had to endure the questions of schooling and the implication that her daughter had not gotten into the ‘best’ girls school. She is now very happy with the current school her daughter attends but in retrospect calls it a ‘terrible process that I guess is needed for these over-subscribed schools.’ She tells me that if she had to do it over again, she would have avoided the whole process.
I am glad that I never succumbed to putting my daughters through the assessments at 3 years old. I wouldn’t have handled rejection very well or felt it fair for my daughter to be judged by an arbitrary assessment which likely means nothing about her future cognitive capabilities. Children grow at different speeds and one can only deduce so much from a 3 year olds communication and social skills. At some point, shouldn’t we let our children be children and leave the competition for later?
Speaking to an English mother who has been through the British system and is an Oxford alumnus, she is sending her child to a ‘first come first serve’ school. She says ‘not only because it is closer to where I live, but also because it has great results even though it is a non-selective school. Despite having children that may not have passed the assessment system, they are still achieving excellent results. You could extrapolate that the teaching there is particularly good, since the results of this school is equal or above some of the selective, assessment based entry schools.’
For those without school spots the year prior to entry, the anguish and anxiety of getting into a school becomes almost an obsession, where anything goes to get their children spots involving using school consultants, recurrent meetings with nursery headmistresses to help them get spots, and sending letters and calling schools at regular intervals to move up the waiting list. Not only are there acceptance letters and rejection letters, but there are waiting lists.
Waiting lists are bittersweet, since they give the impression of hope but without a guarantee. The only leverage of a waiting list is that a parent can climb up a waiting list by calls, cards, presents, donations and pleading whereas a flat rejection letter means that all hope is lost. A mother I know was determined to send her child to a certain school, having decided that it was the best school for her son, but despite having gone to the attached nursery, couldn’t get a guaranteed spot. After numerous calls to the school, she found out that her son was 95 down on the waiting list and at that point realised that they had to look at other options, but luckily she has a family connection to another school that she could use.
One of the headmistresses at a leading Notting Hill nursery recently explained that more and more people were moving to Notting Hill for the quality of schools and that they were more over-subscribed than ever. Ten years ago, she could get generally get places for her students into great 4+ entry schools, but not anymore. ‘It is more and more difficult to gain entry into these schools because of the sheer amount of children competing for the coveted spots. These schools used to cater to locals in Notting Hill, but now people are driving their children half way across London so that their child can attend one of these prestigious school or living in Queen’s Park, where they can buy a bigger house, but still sending their children to what are considered some of the top schools in London’.
School choice is also a delicate art in decision-making, which for some parents becomes a form of social snobbery and an indication of social status. School snobbery is based on where your child goes to school and the social assumptions that are made depending on the school. As mentioned, Wetherby is accepted as the best pre-prep boy’s school in London and therefore one of the best in the world some would argue, but still as I mentioned before, there is a social term for ‘Wetherby Mums.’ Every school falls victim to some kind of derision and criticism at some point or other.
One school is considered the ‘airy fairy school for the artsy types without homework or testing’, but ‘forget getting into a proper school after.’ Another fairly new school in a less desirable location was described by a mother ‘where the rejects from Pembridge and Wetherby go to.’
My daughters’ school is known for being ‘blingtastic’ with mothers thinking they are at a ‘fashion show’, and has at the same time been called too competitive by one parent and not competitive enough by another, described as a school ‘for girls who learn how to sew.’ Then there is blatant snobbery I have overheard about a school: ‘Have you seen the parents there? They are not my type of people.’ These are all excellent schools yet these parents can’t help but judge them. It is as if we are back in the playground, but without a headmaster to keep us in line.
It is difficult not to be affected by the general chatter and comments about where our children go to school because school choice is important. As mothers, we want the best for our children. We don’t want our children to be bullied, we want them to be happy, well adjusted but we also want to give them the best opportunities we can give them. Malcolm Gladwell showed in his book ‘Outliers,’ that middle class parenting which encourages extra tutors and extra-curricular activities produces more successful children than lower class parenting which didn’t. He also showed that educational opportunities do help with success, just as Bill Gates had exceptional opportunities in his high school driven by involved mothers. The reality is that certain schools open doors and opportunities, so it easy to buy into the ‘perfect educational trajectory’. https://nottinghillmummy.com/2014/08/29/everything-you-need-to-know-about-your-childs-education-success-by-malcolm-gladwell/
And early education has been proven time and time again to have a strong impact on our children’s future, as evidenced by numerous research papers and renowned academics such as James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate Professor researching the advantages of quality early education on future success. But when we are dealing with private schools in the UK, shouldn’t we be satisfied with any of them, which generally provide world-class education for 4 years old? Isn’t all a bit ridiculous?
Pushy mums, alpha mums, and tiger mums, whose numbers are much higher than average in London, set a precedent. They set a standard of tutoring, sports activities, Kumon lessons and music, and it creates pressure to keep up with these standards. What makes it hard to ignore, is that these children will have an advantage when applying to schools and universities. Our children have to compete with these alpha children who have a tutored advantage over ours and as much as we’d like to think our children to be naturally brilliant, the fact is that practice makes perfect, and the hours of extra help does make a difference. So do we join them to create an equal battleground, or do we stay strong and believe in our children, yet face the reality that our children may not get into the ‘top’ schools? The son of one of my friends who didn’t get into a ‘top’ prep school after the 7+ exams because he wasn’t tutored was left wondering why all his friends got in and he didn’t, which undermined his confidence.
I am not sure whether to praise the pushy parents who are advocates for their children and their ‘go-getter’ attitude or question whether this is creating too much competition and feel sorry for their children who will bear the weight of their mother’s intensity. In one respect, they are opening doors and opportunities for their children, but at the same time forcing others to join in on the competition, fuelling mostly unnecessary anxiety while placing unrealistic pressure on their children to succeed.
Tanith Carey, an ex-tiger mother, details her evolution from pushy- mummy to more-relaxed-mummy in her book Taming the Tiger Parent: How to Put Your Child’s Wellbeing First in a Competitive World, giving advice on how to provide a more nurturing home for happier and healthier children. Having been a Tiger Mum and having failed at it, she truly believes are children are better off in a less competitive environment. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Taming-Tiger-Parent-Tanith-Carey-ebook/dp/B00M0T03TC
It is can be easy to lose sight of what is important for our individual child when we are influenced by this greater social consciousness and conversation. It would be easy to dismiss it, but as a parent, who wouldn’t want to send their child to the ‘best’ school possible and give them the ‘best’ opportunities possible? But sometimes we have to be reminded that being at the ‘best’ school may not always be the right decision for the individual child and that competition is not always positive for our children.
One wise mother I know once told me, ‘I would rather my son was the top of his class in a lesser school than the last in the most competitive school. His confidence will grow much more in an environment where he is among the best than in an environment where he is among the worst.’ The parents’ attitude towards success and failure is also an important contributor towards a child’s overall success. Most child psychologists stress that failure is just as important as success to build character and emotional resilience, therefore opportunities for learning and growing are just as important in times of success as they are in times of failure.
At no other time in our lives do we feel more judged than when we become mothers, whether we decide by choice or not by choice, to breastfeed or not, whether we are ‘too posh to push’, or where we decide to send our children. All of sudden, motherhood is an open door for all to comment on. It is difficult not to think that these decisions are reflections of you as a parent, because in some ways they are. Our children are being shaped and encouraged by all those around them, including schools and their peers. These are questions many mothers today face on a daily basis, from our microcosm of West London, to middle class England, but I believe that we ultimately have the same goal in mind when we stop listening to the chatter; happiness for our children.
Perhaps we should take a step back and take a deep breath, relax and realise that the most important thing is our children’s wellbeing. Perhaps we should just let them be children and let them play, jump in muddy puddles, let them run freely in a garden and climb trees and forget about the stringent activities of ballet/tennis/swimming/music/2nd language/football on top of reading/writing/maths tutoring. And then, we can start being kinder to each other and to our children, since motherhood is already hard enough as it is. All we can do is the best we can, and that should be good enough. And let’s face it, most of us are just winging it after all.
Let me know your thoughts and comments on competitive mothering!