In the Press: Interview with NHYM in The Financial Times

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

Emma Jacobs

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.”
Twitter: @emmavj

Social Commentary

The ‘Fairytale’ Story of Alpha Mum & Alpha Dad

Once Upon a Time, there was a young girl who dreamed of meeting Alpha Dad her whole life. She hung out at the Westbourne Pub in Notting Hill on Sundays, Eclipse on Walton Street in Chelsea on Tuesdays and at Tramps in Mayfair on Thursdays. Alpha Mum went to a very good university and graduates with a 2:1 and then finds a very good job until she meets Alpha Dad. Alpha Mum is not beautiful, but cleans up well with some makeup, a few designer dresses and is pretty enough to catch Alpha Dad’s eye in order to be a ‘presentable’ wife. Meanwhile, Alpha Dad has been working on his career of being a millionaire at 28, Managing Director at 30, and making Partner at 32 in a Hedge Fund/Goldman Sachs/Private Equity shop. His favorite words are ‘P&L, EBITDA’ and ‘Bonus’, his favourite car is a Porsche 911 Turbo, and his handsome arrogance has already gotten him far with the girls and a seat in the Executive Boardroom.

Alpha Mum and Alpha Dad fall in love after a whirlwind romance in St. Barth’s, Venice and a safari in ‘exotic’ South Africa. They marry at the Villa Ephrussi Rothschild in St. Jean Cap Ferrat, Cote D’azur, France, she in Vera Wang, he in an Armani suit, surrounded by 400 of their closest friends, colleagues and family friends. Everyone comments how beautiful they are as a couple, only to mutter under their breath that ‘money helps’. They return to London and find a beautiful white, stucco house in Chelsea/South Ken/Notting Hill and settle into married bliss. She rarely sees Alpha Dad who is traveling most of the week to New York/Frankfurt/Hong Kong for his ‘Global’ job, but she jokes with her friends that it is better that way, since they quarrel constantly if he isn’t traveling 50% of the time. In between his travels, they manage to conceive at the Sandy Lane Hotel, Barbados when she manages to ‘lose’ his Crackberry in the sand.

Baby Oliver is born on September 23rd and Alpha Dad is waiting at the gates of Wetherby, application in hand, to ensure his son’s entrance into the prestige school. They also have the applications for nurseries ready with Minors as first choice, Strawberry Fields as second and Acorn as third (more on nurseries in another post). Alpha Mum has done her research and after hiring a ‘school consultant’ knows exactly the educational trajectory of her son: Minors Nursery, Wetherby Pre-Prep, Colet Court, then St. Paul’s (or Westminster will do), culminating into an admission into Oxbridge.

Alpha Dad is not involved in the baby period, as he doesn’t feel the need to bond with the baby. Luckily, Alpha Mum has a maternity nurse that stays on for 6 months and Alpha Mum privately thinks that a nanny and maternity nurse are more important than a dad in raising a baby. When she confronts Alpha Dad for not spending enough time with baby O, he responds curtly ‘You can’t recut the deck, the cards have been dealt.’ It was always clear to him that Alpha Mum would run the household and the kids, while Alpha Dad would be earning the money for their luxurious existence of a Bugaboo pram, a black Range Rover, a second home in St. Tropez, flying business class, and their £8.5 million home backing onto a lavish Notting Hill communal garden, with its own private playground.

Having sent cookies, photos and cards to Minors every month before the year of entry, Alpha Mum is delighted to receive the ‘phone call’ accepting little O into Minors Nursery. Her favorite question now to all her mummy friends is ‘Where’s your little one going to nursery?’ then smugly telling them that Little O has gotten into Minors and Wetherby when they stressfully admit that they still don’t have a place anywhere.

Once little O has been accepted to nursery, Alpha Mum is ready for her next project, Project Olivia, O’s little sister. She pins down Alpha Dad after he has come home drunk after a day of making £45 million for his Hedge Fund/Private Equity/Goldman Sachs and his testosterone levels are at their highest. Luckily, little Olivia will have a place at Minors and with luck will get into Pembridge Hall, since Alpha Dad has been prepped of his most important post-partum duty of dropping off the application in person the day Olivia is born.

Olivia is a beautiful little girl. All the mums know that she is a quick learner, walks earlier, speaks earlier, and whines earlier than all her baby friends. Alpha Mum has already signed her up for swimming classes twice a week, dance lessons, piano lessons, French lessons (‘so she can read Balzac, Victor Hugo and Camus in its original form’), and Mandarin Chinese ‘for the future’. By the time Olivia is at nursery, she has activities every day of the week, including gymnastics lessons given only in Mandarin therefore has no time for playdates. Oliver is now at Wetherby and is already being tutored to ensure he will get into Colet Court. Alpha Mum doesn’t tell the other mums that he is being tutored because it is not the ‘cool’ thing to do, but she is found out when another mum asks the nanny to do a playdate with Oliver, and the nanny says he can’t because his tutor is coming over.

Alpha Mum is preparing Oliver for his entrance exams but poor little Oliver is starting to lose his hair and isn’t sleeping well at night because he is stressed and anxious of letting Alpha Mum and Alpha Dad down. He knows how much it would mean to Alpha Dad that he goes to Colet Court, St. Paul’s and Oxbridge, and thinks that perhaps if he got into those schools, Alpha Dad would finally notice him. Alpha Mum is really stressed because Oliver’s exams are coming up and she has a meeting with Olivia’s headmaster because Olivia has no friends and is hitting all her classmates at nursery, pushing them, telling them they are stupid (which she heard Alpha Dad telling Alpha Mum one Saturday he was home). Olivia has become very aggressive and constantly on edge. The one time she is invited to a playdate, she tells her friend that she doesn’t want to go to her house because she doesn’t have her own playroom.

Alpha Dad is not very involved in Oliver and Olivia’s schooling, except for Sports Day, when he gets to ogle supermodels and yummy mummies, and show his ‘competitive spirit’, determined to win all the races in front of all the dads. Alpha Dad is very competitive, not only in his work, but also competes with his peers by having the biggest house, the flashiest car and owning 4 polo ponies. Alpha Mum is tired of Alpha Dad never being home these days, he is either traveling to Dubai/Shanghai/Moscow for business (‘that’s where the real money is these days’), playing polo as the patron of a polo team at Guards, sleeping with escorts or seeing his mistresses in New York or Miami. They rarely argue as she has learnt that it will only end in her tears and that his aspirations to rule the London financial scene is more important than her needs.

Finally, Alpha Mum has had enough of his philandering/work obsession/polo hobbies and asks for a divorce, after ensuring Fiona Shackleton is free to take her on. She takes him out for half of his £25 million fortune, including the house in St. Tropez. Alpha Mum moves away from Notting Hill, once the mums now stay clear of her afraid that she will try to steal their husbands, and closer to her parents. She never has to work again, vacations in St. Tropez, where she meets an artist who ‘prioritises her.’ The kids go to the local school and have become polite, well adjusted, and happy. They see Alpha Dad every other weekend, which is more than they ever saw him growing up. Alpha Dad has adopted a 22 y.o. model to make up for never spending time with his kids when they were young. And everyone lived happily ever after.