Prepped for Success

Words: Estelle Lee

I wonder what the Amner Montessori nursery coffee mornings were like for the Duchess of Cambridge. Did she get stuck into the local mummy scene, endlessly debating the merits of country prep schools? Or more likely, did she question if they’d done the right thing, basing themselves a million miles from anywhere, with two children under three? Full-time Norlanders are all well and good, but like me, did the Duchess lie awake at night anxiously weighing up the pros and cons of rural family life versus the convenience (and, of course, family and friends) that being based in Central London would provide? The decision in choosing their child’s first ‘big’ school, I’m sure, was no less easy for the royal couple, although with arguably a lot less hoops to jump through.

Kensington Palace has announced that Prince George will be attending private prep school Thomas’s Battersea in September, a move that seems strategically in line with the Duke and Duchess of  Cambridge’s insistence that their children experience a ‘normal’ upbringing, eschewing the classic Eton feeders (William’s alma mater Wetherby was struck off  the royal shortlist) and plumping for a decidedly middle-class hothouse – one of  the four Thomas’s sites in the area also extending to Clapham, Kensington and Fulham.

I can almost hear the collective glee of the glitzy Battersea crowd of  Thomas’s mothers motoring kids to school each day in blacked-out Range Rovers, Sweaty Betty-clad and already calculating the uplift that this announcement will have on Wandsworth Common property prices.

In bypassing the more convenient Kensington location of Thomas’s for Prince George, one wonders if the final decision was made by the person actually doing the school run. Clearly nobody has considered the joys of crossing the river by car twice a day during peak rush hour on Battersea Bridge.

Nonetheless, George’s parents can expect great things from Thomas’s Battersea. The 40-year-old elite school brand has attracted a fairly ambitious, often international, parental milieu of  bankers, media types and entrepreneurs who have, in recent years, migrated south from the more obvious enclaves of  Notting Hill and Westbourne Grove to the comparably cheaper ‘nappy valley’ of Battersea.  It’s  somewhere  Kate  can  enjoy  lattes  and  takeaway sourdough in villagey Northcote Road’s Gail’s, grab a few beauty bits from Space NK and workaday heels from LK Bennett if  she does happen to do drop-off  or pick-up.

Battersea is an area I know all too well. There, over the course of a decade, we bought our first family home, got married, acquired a dog and then two baby boys in rapid succession. And it was at that precise point, with the arrival of my firstborn, that the London prep school lunacy started.  I’d sent my husband, Andrew, from the hospital delivery suite with three private school application forms in hand. They were all filled in and ready to go, minus the crucial date of birth and name of our anticipated arrival. Tellingly, the application forms came before the registration of birth. And all of  this was considered entirely normal – young families couldn’t trust (as many naively do) that living even 483 metres from the doors an (OFSTED ‘excellent’) primary school would guarantee us a state school place.

Like many others, we were attracted to the progressive ethos that characterises Thomas’s. The John Lewis uniform is functional and fuss-free (no preppy caps to doff or oversized blazers here). Boys aren’t thrown onto the rugby pitch, but ballet classes instead. The mixed forms mean girls and boys are placed on a level playing field and controversially, best friends are discouraged in place of kindness to all. All that and the fact it was a few minutes’ walk from our house.

Haste paid off  and reassuringly, a month or so later, we received a letter to say that my son had been awarded a place on Thomas’s Clapham waiting list, vitally giving him a half-hour assessed opportunity – aged three – to convince the school of his brilliance. Since he was only a few months old at this point, I didn’t give it a second thought. Of course he’d get in.

We were invited into the school for an open day the autumn prior to the assessment – the facilities and standard of teaching were clearly excellent, the results spoke for themselves with a clutch of scholars headed to destinations such as Marlborough and Wellington. Clapham headmaster Phil Ward was undeniably impressive in extolling his understanding of what the 21st century child needed to succeed – confidence, respect and critical thinking in a world that is ever changing. The provision of forward-thinking pastoral care was evident – pupils have access to a counsellor and mindfulness is also on the curriculum.

I considered ourselves fortunate to grab a highly prized morning slot at a feeder nursery to Thomas’s. The nursery, whilst thorough in preparing children for what would be expected of them at school, most certainly viewed Thomas’s as the place to go. I later witnessed some heavy lobbying of parents who wavered in their final decision between Thomas’s and another sought-after pre-prep, having places for both. It was apparently inconceivable that one might want to go elsewhere if you actually had the choice.

Of course, all this strongly fuelled an atmosphere of pressure for parents. The admissions policy claims to evaluate a child’s apparent confidence, language skills and ability to follow instructions. In my view, assessing three-year-olds for a highly restricted number of places only serves to magnify the anxious, frenzied chatter, placing Thomas’s at the top of the food chain – reinforcing the perception that anywhere else would be a consolation prize.  Was this really a necessary admissions policy or clever PR strategy? Regardless, it worked. Thomas’s has become incredibly desirable for ambitious parents, with Tatler Schools Guide labelling the school “high achieving” and “competitive”.

Shameless in my pursuit of  a place hundreds of  other determined parents also wanted, I asked my neighbour to take my little boy to pick up her children from Thomas’s, to familiarise him with the setting. I sent him to Kumon age three – anything to give him a leg up and confidence in his growing ability. As I look back, it seems an utterly ridiculous amount of energy that I put into this performance, something that ultimately was completely out of my control.

As I’m sure you could predict, on the day itself, things couldn’t have been more chaotic. Our nanny had left us in the lurch the week before, my solicitor husband was away, I was juggling work deadlines, plus a demanding pre-schooler and his one-year-old brother. Worse, my son hadn’t napped on the day of the assessment and it was plain for all to see. I dimly recall stuffing biscuits into his mouth and carrying him into the room crying (him, not me), handing him over to the brisk admissions lady. The next 30 minutes passed slowly in the waiting room next door, as I gritted my teeth and exchanged glib pleasantries with the other parents. Fortunately, he came out smiling. When an envelope arrived some weeks later, I opened it and wept.

In hindsight, there is no decision more fundamental that you can make for your child at that age. So much of the blueprint of who we are is set by the age of five. It’s little wonder that parents instinctively feel the need to ensure that they have the very best for their child who is starting out on the all-important educational journey.

In a reverse move to the Cambridges, we left SW11 last July. In an ironic twist, what I initially thought would be good for my two boys turned out not to be what we now instinctively feel is right for them. So in a complete lifestyle change last year, we packed our bags for a hilltop farmhouse in Somerset. The boys are now installed in a rural pre-prep, where they can gambol around the green acres at lunchtime, take part in forest school, feed their own school chickens and pigs and breathe clean air.

I miss London; I won’t lie. The buzz, the culture, the shops, the downright convenience, but the pressure is off. Both children are thriving. I can’t take a book off my eldest who has recently declared Maths his favourite subject. I don’t do homework with them every night  –  I  let  them  decide  if  they  want  to  read  after  supper. For now, the pressure is off us all. But for the Cambridges leaving their Norfolk idyll and headed for Nappy Valley, I wonder if it is just the beginning.

10 Ways To Get The Prep School You Want

Last-minute table at The Ivy? Groucho Club membership? Access-All-Areas at Glastonbury? None of them have anything on the thrill of scoring your progeny a place at the independent school of your choice.

DO YOUR RESEARCH

Scary as it sounds, you really can’t start too soon, especially in competitive parts of London (see feature!). We’re not suggesting you turn school inspector the second you get that double line on the pregnancy test, but if you do have an idea of the schools you’re interested in, a quick phone call or look online to establish the application process will stand you in good stead later on.

IT’S A…

School application form! The admissions process for some independents starts from birth. This doesn’t have to mean pushing your husband out of the delivery suite, forms in hand, before you’ve even pushed out the placenta but… if needs must!

START THEM YOUNG

Some independent schools guarantee a place for Reception class and beyond as long as you enroll your child in their nursery, kindergarten or pre-school. Note: in some cases, you’ll need to be filling out that form while they are still in the womb. But you’re used to that now, right?

BE LUCKY

A few schools, such as Ravenscourt Park Prep and Bute House Prep in West London, operate a lottery system for places (or some places). Register them at the relevant time then surround yourself with horseshoes, black cats and four-leaf clovers until they’re four.

TIGER MUM

Not our usual style, but if you’re looking for a Reception place at a selective independent school (or applying later for a 7+ place) it really can pay to get them a tutor. And, umm, everyone else is doing it.

CHARM OFFENSIVE

If you know which school is your first choice, it’s worth making sure they know this. Commitment, enthusiasm and your family being a good ‘fit’ with the school’s ethos can be a clincher in some cases.

PRACTISE YOUR SIGNATURE

Receive an offer and you’ll be signing deposit cheques, fee cheques, uniform cheques, just cheques in general, for the foreseeable future.

THOSE WHO CAN

Teach… Some independent schools offer places for staff children. *Google records spike in searches for PGCE courses*

FEEDERS

It’s never too soon to start worrying about the next step. Save yourself a nightmare at secondary by double-checking which prep schools feed into the senior schools of your choice.

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