Words by: Sophie Tweedale
I can still feel the gut-wrenching disappointment as my husband and I worked out our plan for surviving two children under two whilst working full time. Call it naive optimism if you will, but for as long as I can remember, my utopian dream of child-rearing distinctly resembled a Norland-style nanny over the student au pair that was fast becoming the reality.
I half-blame subliminal imprinting by Mary Poppins throughout my childhood for feeding my delusion. Let’s be honest, the thought of a label-stitching, birthday party-aceing, homework-nailing, chef-cum-tantrum-soothing wonder woman at your side is the dream. What’s not to like?
The archetypal Norland nanny is a parent’s childcare fantasy and a darn fabulous one at that, so it’s little wonder that this iconic brand is celebrating 125 years as the gold standard in childcare. With a fanbase that shows no signs of waning, demand outstrips supply with an unusual seven jobs per nanny following graduation.
It may be oh-so elite (the only one at my son’s school was employed by a wealthy footballer), but Norlanders are as quintessentially British as child-rearing gets, with the uniform, hair net, stiff hat and white gloves that screech winning it – far more than winging it. Despite turning out only 100 students a year from its small regency base in Bath, Norland nannies are the ultimate early years status symbol and have dominated the pavements of London – and the starboards of superyachts globally – for over a century.
Don’t be fooled, however, by the Downton Abbey chic of a bygone era. Norlanders are still schooled in the ‘baking and making’ skills of old, but fast forward 125 years and you’ll now also find classes in stalking, martial arts, coping with online predators and cyber criminal awareness taught by the former UK Director of Counter Terrorism. And if you want someone who can do a handbrake turn on an icy road, you will be calling on these kick-ass girls – they train on race circuit skid pans.
When primary teacher Emily Ward set up Norland in 1892, it was revolutionary, changing the way childcare as a profession was viewed. Since then, the college has churned out a stream of immaculate nannies who have reared some of the swankiest kids in the world. The fact the Jagger children know their spoon etiquette and HRHs George and Charlotte undoubtedly never talk with their mouths full is a testament to what is known as the ‘Norland Way’.
But the new breed of Norlanders are smart, ambitious and career driven, often picking Norland over university – not surprising when you can be earning £50k within five years, rising to £100k.
Dr Janet Rose is the Chief Executive of Norland, with a forward-thinking vision for the college: “We continue to lead the way because we’ve always held onto the core principle of putting children at the heart of what we do, but we focus hard on the future to meet the needs of 21st century families. We have adapted and that’s the key.”
As well as psychology and ‘emotion coaching’, adapting in 2017 means dabbling in new ‘“neuroscience-based” thinking, keeping them one step ahead in child development (it’s all about kids self-regulating now – those reward charts are so 2016).
“It’s really important to stay cutting edge,” says Dr Rose. “New modules in personal security, for example, give them training to cope with any situation, like switching off geolocation so as to not advertise when the family goes on holiday.”
Two Norland nannies were recently caught up in the Westminster terror attacks with their charges, and although she stresses they are not trying to train bodyguards, “equipping nannies to cope with any modern situation” is part of the course.
Being a 21st century Mary Poppins does come with an eye-watering price tag – fees total £45k for the three-year course in Early Years Development, including social science, child health, history, literature and education. But Dr Rose explains the college is actively chasing diversity.
She says: “There’s a public image of our graduates being from a certain class and gender, and changing that perception is part of our wider plan.
“By next year, the college will have four mannies in training – for the first time ever in our history. The demand is there and we are responding to it. We’re also targeting wider backgrounds and more ethnic minorities with our bursary scheme.
“Becoming a Norlander is a powerful vehicle for social mobility and that’s what we want to champion. “In terms of the salary, travelling the world and going on to second and third careers, I like to think it’s a role for anyone – we are definitely moving Norland with the times.”
Clare Burgess, 35, is a Norland nanny from Wiltshire, who has worked in LA, Florida and the UAE. Understandably, she pinpoints working with a boss who is “emotionally attached to the work you do” as one of the hardest elements of the job.
She adds: “Being a Norlander is a privilege. The job can be really tough at times – you’re never off-duty – but being trusted to raise someone’s children with them is incredibly special. It has certainly opened up the world to me.
“We’re trained to go the extra mile. Recently, I was in the US when the baby fell ill. We rushed him to ER, but I had the child’s red book in my bag, medicines we’d used, my nanny diary about how he’d slept and ate, back-up snacks and a list of numbers. “Some people question why we look like we do with the uniforms and hats, but most people love what we stand for – the traditionally British image.”
Having doubled in size in the past five years, the college is entering exciting new waters – expanding for the first time in its history into new premises in nearby Oldfield Park, part of a £4m investment for the future.
Norland may be steeped in the past, but there’s no doubting it has a firm eye on the future.