This week, I was interviewed by the Financial Times about parents getting their children into the ‘right’ nursery. Here’s the article! The moral of the story is that we should all chill out…
The Financial Times:
Paid to advise on the ‘right’ nursery
Cambridge university, then Deutsche Bank. This was the future one father working in the City of London told Sabine Hook he had mapped out for his son. The child was six months old: it was Ms Hook’s job to get the infant on the right track through her work as a nursery consultant.
This father’s ambitions for his infant are far from unusual. Many of Ms Hook’s clients are, she says, high achievers who want the same for their offspring. A good nursery is viewed as the first step in an educational chain, ending in a top university. Some nurseries “know the value of a firm handshake and eye contact”, she says, which may help a child get into a sought-after pre-preparatory school (fee-paying ones for children under seven or eight). Anke Gosch, meanwhile, is used to dealing with parents fixated on a top nursery as the “stepping stone” to Harvard and Oxbridge.
Both women offer advice to London parents wanting the best education for their infants, typically in Notting Hill, Chelsea and Hampstead, which have some of the capital’s most expensive properties. Rates for nursery consultancy are from about £290 an hour (plus VAT, the UK sales tax). Though Ms Hook, who used to teach and is now a full-time nursery and early-years education consultant, might be hired to interview nannies over Skype or suggest holiday destinations that provide learning opportunities. One family have retained her services more than a year.
For both Ms Gosch, a former City trader, and Ms Hook, the paid work developed out of a sideline: they found they were offering friends advice on nurseries and schooling for free. A high proportion of their work is advising wealthy expats who do not know how to navigate the British education system. Russian clients occasionally ask Ms Hook if giving a nursery some extra money might help get their child in. It would not, she insists.
For such parents, nursery is not a matter of childcare: who will look after the toddler while the parents go to work. The UK government’s new initiatives to reduce the cost of childcare are of little concern. Some clients have a nanny at home while both work, others will have a nanny as well as a mother at home. Nursery, for these parents, is for the over-twos’ social skills.
Ms Gosch, whose primary focus is schools, says it is American parents, used to such consultancies, who are helping to drive demand for nursery advice. Wednesday Martin, former anthropologist and author of Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir , says that on the Upper East Side such services are a response to the pressure on nursery places, in part because the wealthy have larger families. There is also a culture of “intensive motherhood”, she says, which places emphasis on educational enrichment. “Wealthy parents often told me they felt it was negligent not to hire someone to help them with this process from the very beginning,” she says. Britain still lags behind New York when it comes to the proliferation of such services, which include a “play date coach”.
The anonymous author of the Notting Hill Yummy Mummy blog, which chronicles life among the “famous, super-rich, super-smart, super-beautiful, super-obnoxious, super-competitive” in banker-and-celebrity-filled west London, knows many parents who have used nursery consultants. There is an obsession with “the best nurseries”, the blogger says, particularly due to local parents being “ultra competitive”.
Her husband dropped the registration off to their preferred nursery the day she gave birth to their first daughter. But she has been told by friends that this sometimes is not enough. “You have to show how much you want to get in,” for example, by name-dropping parents who send their kids to the nursery. Other strategies include sending chocolates and flowers to the registrar. She insists, however, that she would “never cough up £500 just to be told which nurseries are in my neighbourhood”.
Ms Hook, who is eight months pregnant with her first child, says that what clients are paying for is her educational expertise. However, she concedes that part of her job is calming parental anxiety. “Certain nurseries are bizarrely very fashionable and parents are fixated on getting into [them].” Some of her time is spent trying to unravel why parents think that their child “must” get into a particular nursery.
She blames peer pressure and herd mentality. “Nursery competition brings out paranoia in even the most balanced parents. The rumour mill makes them go a bit mad. We go into it and find that a lot of it is built on hearsay.” She tries to persuade clients to listen to their gut instinct and not be guided by others. If you can give them the peace of mind that is a good thing.” Ms Gosch agrees. “There are lots of good places that aren’t hyped. A lot of the time I tell them not to worry.”
Part of the pressure is due to parents’ desire to look good, says the Notting Hill blogger. But it is also because they are “part of the 1 per cent who have enough to provide their kids with the best education”.
Ms Hook was once asked to assess a little girl because her parents were considering switching nurseries, with the expectation that it might advance her chances of getting into their chosen school. The two-and-a-half-year-old was attending nursery five days a week and had a tutor for two afternoons a week (to keep on top of maths and literacy) as well as weekly phonics and reading classes, drama, piano, beginner French and swimming. They were considering adding Mandarin and Spanish. “The little girl was so exhausted and on edge she was terrified of opening her mouth.”
She feels the pressure on some children is too much, too early. “It’s ludicrous to think your capabilities are revealed by two or three, especially boys.” She would never advise tutors for the under-fives. “It’s completely crazy. It’s a waste of money. The skills [a two-year-old needs] are speaking, putting on their shoes and coat.” All of which, a parent should be able to help with, she notes. Both Ms Hook and Ms Gosch, who will also assist parents in finding a good state school, insist their clients are not all “Tiger mothers”.
Ms Hook sums it up: “All parents are the same — they want the best for their child.”