Social Commentary

The British Schooling (Torture) System

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Images courtesy of the internet. NHYM 2018. 

Lately, all we’ve (the mums) been talking about has been exams: it is January when most of the 7+/8+/11+ exams are happening and it’s been dire: chatter about who’s taking what exam, to what school and who’s been getting interviews etc…and those that say they aren’t taking them and you see them at the 7+ hiding in the bushes. I have consciously not yet entered this quite cutthroat world, but eventually, I too will have to face it.

I was having lunch with a friend who is slightly panicking because she has never tutored her kids but now has the 11+ coming up next year and is worried about her child not getting into any school. She is adamantly against tutoring, but I told her that the problem is that everyone else is tutoring, so you need to know what you are up against. She then said ‘This is crazy. What are we doing to our kids? And to what end?’

I have heard of people going on anxiety pills for the infamous 11+ – and that’s just the mums – and children not able to sleep at night because of exam stress as young as 7 years old. Everyone is getting stressed: fathers losing their s*&t and mums taking a year off prestigious jobs to overlook their children’s progress. But it is starting earlier and earlier. Children are already being tutored in Reception and by Year 2, everything accelerates when those looking to do the 7+ are already learning the Year 4 curriculum. I’m being advised by a friend on what activities my child should be doing right now for her future university application. It’s all very fast, too early and too soon.

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So, why are we doing this to our children? The most prestigious girls school in the UK has an extremely high rate of mental health issues: anxiety, depression, eating disorders and personality disorders. Until this changes, I would never send my children there. And the girls consortium who is trying to scrap their exam because of exam stress. Isn’t it all a bit much for 11 year olds?

I understand the statistics though: the better school you get into, the higher chance of going to a good university, and the better the university, the better chance of getting a good job. This is all true, by all means. But it’s not the only way. There are ways of getting to the top without these illustrious diplomas and distinctions.

My alma mater receives 30,000 applications for something like 1,500 spots. There is no way I would get into it these days. But I have hope that there are plenty of great schools/universities – perhaps not the best but very good – that will provide my children with a great education. So, let’s all relax a bit. If you’re not trying to be a billionaire/Fortune 500 CEO/Entrepreneur of the year, then you should relax too (and if you are, good luck to you). Most of us are lucky enough to send our children to good schools, and most likely they will end up in good universities. So, let’s just take a step back and realise that the world will be run by robots anyway, so your kids might as well have fun along the way.

xx

NHYM

http://www.nottinghillyummymummy.com

 

Here’s some advice to parents from Hannah Ogahara, who runs a local tutoring agency Love Learning Tutors:

How to be involved in your child’s school life without being overbearing

It is easy enough to be involved with your child’s studies when they are young but what do you do when your child grows into one of those moody teenagers? We’ve all been on the receiving end of some harsh backchat. It can leave you feeling helpless when all you want to do is to offer your years of experience. Let’s face the facts, it may be a challenge to be your child’s best friend over the next few years, but here are some simple things you can do to ease tension at home and stay involved without becoming overbearing.

Actively listen

One of the greatest frustration that teenagers face is when parents make assumptions about what they should be doing. This is quite a general one and includes friendship groups and interests as well as school life. It may be that you don’t remember the particular teacher they are talking about, or perhaps you weren’t really listening because you were juggling many tasks when they confided in you. We recommend discussing school life with your child and making an effort to really listen and retain what you are being told. This builds trust and the knowledge that they can come to you for guidance.

Be aware of your communication style

If you find yourself getting into frequent arguments with your child about school, change your approach. Try to avoid confrontation and change the focus to constructive solutions. Veer away from the nagging voice and steer towards calm, pragmatic tones. Ask open question rather than questions that can be quickly shut down.

Swap “Have you done your homework?” and “Where is your homework?” for “Do you have a lot of homework?”, “Tell me about your homework, is there anything interesting?”

Ask small questions often

Get into the habit of asking small school related questions often so that it doesn’t come as a surprise when you need to bring something up. Try remember who is teaching what, which teachers they like and which they don’t. This shows that you’re really listening and taking interest. It makes it easier for your child to keep you in the loop.

Celebrate

Let your child know when they are doing well and celebrate successes together. Everyone loves to feel successful and valued. No matter how big your child gets, no one is immune to a bit of praise (provided they feel they have earned it). This should encourage your child to tell you how things are going on a frequent basis.

Share stories

Carefully select stories to share about your school experiences. Regardless of whether they are things that went well or terribly wrong. A good story provided at the right time can allow for bonding between you and your child. It helps your child understand that you’ve been through the same things are sympathetic towards them and their academic journey. Be on the same team rather than opposing sides, “you are wrong” vs “I am right”.

Less “When I was at school it was much harder because…”

More “I had a similar teacher who used to…”

Don’t take it personally

This is one of the hardest tips to put into practice. Having your child snap at you can leave you feeling distraught; and feeling that your constant efforts to provide them with the best you can, aren’t being appreciated. Unfortunately, adolescence is a difficult time for everybody. The above suggestions will help with positive and open communication, but things will not always go to plan. When this happens take a deep breath and step away for a moment, rather than letting things escalate.

www.lovelearningtutors.com

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Reviews

How to choose a school? Top Notting Hill Schools

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I have received a number of emails from mothers asking me questions about schools; from how to get in, to how to choose a school, to what to wear in the interview (!) and also asking me to write up a review on schools in West London/Notting Hill. They felt that it would be very informative and that it would be helpful for mothers going through the process of choosing a school. So here goes. This is a work-in-progress-post, and I will be adding to it so feel free to send me your opinions on the below schools.

As we all know, choosing a school for your child after nursery can be a head-throbbing, stomach-twisting, heart-pounding experience. So, how does one choose a school? Its proximity? Its Leavers Results? Like-minded parents? Co-ed vs Single Sex? Adorable uniforms? Every parent has his/her own agendas and desires (Pushy Parent vs. Laid Back Parent, Academic Parent vs Artsy Parent, Bling vs. Hippy, location, location, location etc…) and it is very subjective. Parents can have a completely different opinion on the same school.

To preface this post, I am reviewing schools that I think are all great. I would happily send my child to any of them, but I am here to give more nuanced opinions from various mums who have been through the process and to help new mums make informed decisions. So I am including mostly pros and some cons.  This is meant to be a positive and helpful exercise rather than a critical one, but I can’t just gush about all of them like in Tatler’s School Guide http://www.tatler.com/guides/schools-guide/2016.

In Alphabetical Order

Bassett House:

http://www.bassetths.org.uk

Bassett House is a great little school in North Kensington that may be considered ‘less pushy’ than some of the other competitive schools in the area. For the parents who are not too keen on Oxbridge and the bling that some of the other schools may have, it is a good alternative. There is less pressure and parents here are probably more down-to-earth, and less intense about competition. For those who want a school that is more relaxed than some of the others, this may be a good choice. It still gets pretty good results, and children go off to good schools, but here it isn’t all about St. Paul’s/Oxbridge/The Ivys.

Chepstow House: 

http://www.chepstowhouseschool.co.uk/Admissions/

A relatively new school from the Alpha Plus Group, it is gaining popularity as we speak. One of its greatest qualities is that it is a co-ed school that strives academically, trying to build a reputation to equal Wetherby’s. It is still finding its feet, but based on the most recent results, it is doing well. As a new school, it does have the pressure of ‘proving itself’ and therefore is known to have 1 hour of homework marathons starting from Reception. It does prepare the boys for the 7+ exams and needs to show that it can do the same as Wetherby. Some feel that it is a ‘big’ school with 4 classes per year and is still growing into itself, but many of the parents and children are very happy. Other parents do feel that it is still ‘experimental’ but that in 5 years time after it has found its feet, it will be one of the schools to watch. It is considered less ‘bling’ at the moment than its sister schools Wetherby/Pembridge, but I think this will soon change.

Fox’s:

http://www.fox.rbkc.sch.uk

Everyone should want a place at Fox’s. It is after all one of the best state schools in the country and is often at the top of League Tables. The children are happy, down to earth and there is an exciting curriculum which includes beekeeping and jazz. There, the children can mix with all backgrounds, which can teach your children a thing or two about real life. Oh and did I mention that it’s free! Well, almost free, you just have to move within two feet of the school to even be considered. The biggest drawback about this school is that you have to literally live on the school’s street to get a place. Some parents buy a flat around the corner to get a place, even if they don’t plan on living there, just to get a spot. So if you are ready to move/buy around Notting Hill Gate, this school is one to be considered. Some parents do mention though that if you ever want your children to go private at some point, this school does not prepare for the private school examinations and this will be need to be done with the help of a tutor.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/leaguetables/11288485/Fox-Primary-School-comes-top-for-a-second-year-running.html

Norland Place:

http://www.norlandplace.com

In the heart of Holland Park, Norland Place is a favourite and no-brainer for those who live in the area. It is a good, traditional, English school that is non-selective and highly over-subscribed. It is important to bear in mind that it is only co-ed for the first few years: the classes are split after Year 2 into girls and boys classes, where the boys are ‘honed’ for the 8+ exams, whereas the girls continue on until the 11+ exams. It has good leaver’s results for the boys going to Colet Court and Westminster Under and girls going Godolphin and Latymer. Some parents say it has a very ‘English feel’ to it, so if you are a proper Anglophile, Norland is a great place to go.

Notting Hill Prep:

http://www.nottinghillprep.com

Calling itself the ‘thinking school,’ Notting Hill Prep prides itself on being different than many of the schools in the neighbourhood. Slow and easy settling in period in Reception? Check. No homework for the first year? Check. Learn reading whenever you want to read? Check. So for parents who are less interested in rote learning and are Montessori-Mad, this is a good alternative to many of the hothouses in London. It is not for the neurotic parent who likes structure and routine or those with Oxbridge as their sole goal in mind, but more for parents who are a bit more laid back and shall we say it, cool? The Artsy Crowd is all about NHP; fashion designers, actors, musicians etc… love it there and there is a big emphasis on Drama and the Arts. Until recently, it was thought that NHP didn’t prepare the children enough for the exams into top private schools and those who wanted to prepare them would have to resort to private tutors, but I hear from the inside that they are upping their game. So, for a holistic approach to teaching, hipster/organic parents, NHP is a nurturing, happy environment.

Pembridge Hall:

http://www.pembridgehall.co.uk

Oh the uniform. Half of the parents at this school choose it purely based on sartorial choices. The girls with their red and white plaid dresses, elfin hats and boater hats are heart-melting. It is single sex, which some may not like as much and some say this can lead to cliques and bitch-fests, but the head says that that happens everywhere and the teachers say that it helps the girls’ concentration not to have boisterous boys around. It went through some ups and downs with the previous head, but the new-ish head is genuinely interested and invested and promises a school that is not ‘girly’ and is putting more emphasis on sports. Of course, there are still cooking and sewing after school activities, but the girls do enjoy them. Some parents feel that it doesn’t prepare the girls for the real world and that they live in a ‘bubble,’ but academically, it does very well as a first-come, first serve, non-selective school, getting 6 girls into St. Paul’s last year and into other top London schools without the hassle of the assessment at 3 yo like Glendower and Falkner, but getting comparable results. In the same conversation, you could hear one parent saying it’s not academic enough and another saying it is too pushy, depending on who you talk to. Generally, it is a very popular girls school in the neighbourhood if you are looking at single sex education that is full of locals, and thus very international.

Thomas’ Kensington:

http://www.thomas-s.co.uk/Kensington-Home

This is another very popular day school that parents just love. It is apparently very difficult to get in, with something like 11 spots for boys and 11 spots for girls in Reception as they operate by a sibling policy and that’s all that’s left over after sibling priority. There is an assessment at 3 y.o. which assesses you and the child. If you have a ‘connection,’ you may have an easier time getting into it, so keep networking. The children mostly head towards Thomas’ Battersea after this school, but it is generally considered quite academic. The other kids go off to top schools like St. Paul’s or Latymer Upper. It has a focus on Sports and extracurricular activities like breakdancing and Lego. If your child is not that academic though, there might be a struggle to keep up with the academics. It is considered a ‘busy’ school, so intended for children who will thrive in a busy atmosphere. Seen as a school that offers the breadth of a boarding school, it has more of a British and European feel to it than some of the other more international schools.

Wetherby:

http://www.wetherbyschool.co.uk

‘If you get a spot at Wetherby, you don’t think, you just take it.’ This is one quote I have heard from a number of parents from this school. It has acquired a reputation for preparing the boys for the top prep schools including Westminster Under and Colet Court. It is located next to Pembridge Hall, and as one mum puts it, it is ‘rougher’ than its sister school Pembridge which is considered ‘softer’. So, for boys boys, who like a rough and tumble approach, this a great school. Some parents go at length to try to get a spot including buying chocolates for the Headmaster Mr. Snell. Of course some wonder whether ‘all boys’ schools is an outdated system that leaves boys incapable of speaking to girls, but if you have decided to go for single sex and from a purely academic point of view, there seems to be little competition with Wetherby. You might encounter some Tiger moms here, but it is London after all, and these parents are the ones striving for Oxbridge/The Ivys/Westminster/St. Pauls. Some think it can get highly competitive and intense, as one mum describes her son becoming very anxious at the 7+ exams but now that Wetherby Prep exists, there is less stress and tension for those parents who do think there is life outside Westminster Under/Colet Court.

Other:

Other important schools around are Bute House in Hammersmith, which some consider the ‘top’ girls school around, ‘the golden ticket’ into St. Paul’s Girls School, but others do confirm that there is some hothousing by the parents. Otherwise, it is a lovely school with great facilities, no homework/testing for the first few years. There is a ballot from 4 yo entry then an assessment system at 7+.

Southbank is for those parents only here for a few years and want to remain in the International schooling system and for children who are better off in a less academic environment. One mum whose son was never destined to be in an academically pressurised school is doing well in this school.

Then there are the French and American schools for those looking to move back home one day, both excellent.

Please let me know your (positive) thoughts on the above schools, reply below or by email: nottinghillyummymummy@hotmail.com

xx

NHYM

http://www.nottinghillyummymummy.com

@NHyummymummy

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Social Commentary

‘Please take care of Y(our) daughters…’

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I was having a rather disturbing conversation with a mother of a tween and teen who sends her daughters to arguably the most academic and rigorous girl’s school in Central London, which promises futures of Oxbridge and of ruling the world. She told me that about 50% of all the girls at this said school were suffering from moderate to severe psychological problems, which if you compare it to the normal teenager’s prevalence of 20%, is rather shocking.

What?

She described all kinds of psychological problems in these girls; depression, self-harming, eating disorders, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. It is normal for teenagers to have a higher than normal rate of psychological illness, during a time when hormones are raging, identities are being questioned and formed, and when teens are just more vulnerable and sensitive than most. It is not normal for it to be 50%. That is one out of two girls with bulimia or anorexia, depression or anxiety and others who end up with diagnoses and therapists. Some girls are throwing up during lunch breaks or eating appetite suppressant pills to lose weight. Others discussed their suicidal thoughts with their peers, almost as if it was ‘cool’ to be suicidal, calling their friends and telling them they were going to ‘do it’. Others yet are being diagnosed with more complex illnesses such as Bipolar Affective Disorder and Personality Disorders, requiring inpatient treatments and hours of therapy.

‘I can’t understand why this is happening’

The mother, whose children are well-adjusted and happy, couldn’t understand this shocking phenomenon and couldn’t explain why it was happening. Some people have idiopathic depression, when depression just happens without a cause and may be genetically linked. But in this very specific case in a closed school environment, where there is a higher than normal prevalence of psychological problems, it is obvious that there are triggers. Is it the school, the parents, social media or the peers? The answer is probably a bit of everything and probably dependent on the individual.

The School?

She thought that it wasn’t just in this particular school, but that these problems were apparent in many of the top London schools. The pressure that teens experience every day comes from everywhere: top academic schools which push children academically, even those pupils who probably shouldn’t be at these schools. Pressure from parents who push their children to excel and also fill their days with academic and extra curricular activities. Peers who compare themselves to super models. The ‘myth’ that parents tell their children that they ‘are always the best’. www://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/11643947/We-know-whats-wrong-in-education-so-what-are-we-doing-about-it.html

Another parent, this time from a boy’s school of equal scale, thinks it is a personality type, that hyper-competitive, bright and academic types tend to have behavioural issues, boys in a Asperger’s Syndrome and compulsive kind of way and girls with Eating Disorders and mental health issues. He mentioned that the top boarding schools also have problems, and that it isn’t just endemic in London schools. One of his friend’s daughter had to leave her top-of-the-league boarding school under distressing and difficult circumstances.

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Parents

We all know pushy parents. Need I say more?

Malaise of the Rich

One mother, rather unsympathetically, thinks that it is the malaise of the rich: they have no ‘real’ problems that they create problems for themselves. The poor in Sudan and Ethiopia aren’t worried about how small their waist line is. They are just hungry. The Syrian refugee children don’t worry about which top school they will get into, they just want a roof over their head. The ‘rich malaise’ may have some impact, but I don’t think it is the only or the root cause of all of these problems.

Control & Attention

Teens are in that awkward, transitional stage where they don’t completely depend on adults but also can’t be completely independent. There is a lack of control of their surroundings, unable to exert their independence yet wanting to. They have, in fact, little control over anything. Their bodies are changing. School at that age is prescriptive. They don’t have a choice how late they stay out or how they spend their money. Their parents splitting up and using them as a bargaining chip is beyond their control or understanding. This lack of control sometimes manifests itself in controlling what they can: eating. Bulimics and Anorexics use these tools as a way of gaining control of what is out of their control. Often there are problems at home or at school and this is their way of expressing themselves. Sometimes, it can be a call for attention and that something is not right in their life.

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Societal Pressure

The pressure on teenagers in urban schools is beyond what most normal teens have to endure. Not only do they have excel academically to ‘get into Oxbridge/Ivy,’ they have to excel at extra-curricular activities, be popular, and look like Gisele Bundchen. These are unrealistic expectations that are placed on our children by parents, schools, the external world and society. Yes, it’s lovely to have Natalie Massenet as your role model, but it’s OK not to be her. Of course, it would be lovely for our children to succeed and achieve, get that 1st class honours from Cambridge, become Stephen Hawking, but that is obviously not the destiny for most.

Social Media 

It has just been revealed that the level of Eating Disorders hospital admissions to specialist mental health centres for adolescents 13 to 19 y.o. has nearly doubled in the last few years, from 959 in 2010/2011 to 1,815 in 2013/14 http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/32975654/eating-disorder-hospital-admissions-nearly-double. Dr. Carolyn Nahman of the Royal College of Psychiatrists believes that social media is a huge concern as it creates social media pressure for these young girls to look perfect and model-like. There are ‘thinspiration’ websites that glamourise being thin and there are pro- anorexia ones which will wake you up with what is happening on the net. This is a general societal problem rather than just a problem of the super academic and the super rich, but how do we address it?

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Family 

Family problems can be a cause of stress and anxiety on young, vulnerable teenagers. Parents fighting, parents divorcing, or not having a stable family. Parents should sometimes look at their own behaviours and look at how they may be impacting their child’s. We may overestimate our children’s abilities to cope, just because they may not overtly express their emotions, mostly because they don’t fully know or understand their emotions yet.

Stress 

Teens are highly susceptible to the effects of stress but most parents either don’t see it or can’t see it. For those over-scheduled teens who suffer from mental illness, it would be useful to take a step back and look at their lives. Many of them have a rigorous academic schedule and exams which all lead to Oxbridge or the Ivy Leagues. Then they must excel at Netball or swimming or Track and Field to stand out from the rest. There is little time left to be a child, or even to spend quality time with their parents and friends.

If you look at the stress curve, there is a certain level of stress that is beneficial to people, which motivates and drives them and increases their productivity, but once you pass that beneficial threshold, it becomes a detriment to the work and then to the person. For many of these teens, they have gone past the threshold that is beneficial and quickly enter the panic/anxiety part of the curve, missing out on the exhaustion part because they are young, resilient and have more energy than you or me.

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I think that parents, schools, and other external factors are all pushing our daughters over the limit of their thresholds and we aren’t stopping them in time. Whatever the child’s problem, it is the parent’s duty to try catch it and try to address it, even though sometimes it is impossible. But it is our duty as parents to at least try and be aware of it.

What to do? 

As I see my daughters growing up, already mimicking and role playing Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, asking who is the ‘most beautiful of them all’, I wonder how I will protect them from the world and these overwhelming feelings that you can have as a teenager. What would I do if my child was suffering from depression and self harming I think to myself. Perhaps it would be important to look at their life as a whole, their home, their school situation, their friendship situation and then make some major changes. Perhaps it is our duties as parents to try to provide them an environment that is more suitable to them rather than put them in a situation that suits us and society. We all hope to have brilliant children, and although some thrive in their brilliance, others are crippled by it and it manifests in these psychological conditions.

Foresight

Having been through the teenagers years, I sympathise with these girls, who don’t yet have the coping skills that are acquired over a lifetime to deal with new emotions and challenges, and resort to these detrimental behaviours. For any parent that has a daughter or a son with behavioural problems, beware of the creeping clues and signs in their behaviours and do your best to address them early on. It can take years for mental health problems to develop, so perhaps spending more time with your children will let you see these problems crop up sooner than later, or maybe enable your child to confide in you if they are having difficulties. Getting into Oxford is after all not that important, but having a happy child certainly is.

xx

NHYM

http://www.nottinghillyummymummy.com

@NHyummymummy

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Social Commentary

The Pushy Mummy Brigade: Only the Best Schools Will Do. Even at 4 years old.

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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.

xx

NHYM

http://www.nottinghillyummymummy.com

@NHyummymummy

Let me know your thoughts and comments on competitive mothering!

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