‘Can I get a school place for the baby I intend to have?’
Headteachers and consultants at the centre of the race to get into London’s most exclusive independent schools say that competition for places has now reached “bonkers” proportions.
A TES investigation has revealed that some parents are trying to win coveted school places for children they have yet to conceive.
Other symptoms of an overheated market for what are regarded as the “best” school places within the capital’s most affluent areas include:
Tuition companies offering “baby packages” that will deliver filled-in registration forms to schools immediately after childbirth;
Reports of mothers booking specially timed caesarean deliveries to try and get ahead in the admissions race;
Three-year-olds receiving private tuition to help them get into prep schools;
Consultancy services whose main business was once helping overseas pupils now catering for increasing numbers of panicked British parents.
William Petty, co-director of Bonas MacFarlane – a company that provides tutoring and school admissions consultancy and mentoring – told TES: “We now have the most in-demand private [schools] sector in the world.
“One mother who called an exclusive pre-prep school from the labour ward, a few days after the birth, was laughed off the phone. First come, first served now means closest to the embryo.”
The disclosure comes after claims in the TES this month from the editor-in-chief of The Good Schools Guide, Ralph Lucas, that a rise in the quality of state education was threatening to put some independent schools out of business.
But improved maintained schools appear to be doing little to dampen demand in London’s education hotspots. Growing numbers of nurseries, pre-preps and prep schools are now requiring parents to register for a place as soon as possible after birth. One popular North London school has signed mothers up before they have even told their husbands they are pregnant.
Getting into an independent school for infants is seen as a key step on the way to winning a place at a prestigious public school – ensuring a smooth transition, one might say, from embryo to Eton.
‘It’s getting crazy’
Anke Gosch set up the London Pre Prep website for fun during maternity leave but the high demand from parents seeking advice inspired her to offer a consultancy service.
“It’s getting a bit crazy as there are a lot of internationals in London who will apply to the schools across the whole city,” she said. “I often have people who come to me when they are pregnant.
“You get Asian families who want to go to Eton and then Oxford and it is easier for them to get in if you are in the system earlier.
“Every year it gets worse. Now you have to apply to some schools within a week [of giving birth]; it used to be six months.”
Alison Fisher, head of Broadhurst School – a highly oversubscribed pre-prep school in Hampstead, North London – told TES that if parents did not call her within a few weeks of learning they were pregnant they could miss out on a prized morning nursery place.
“I have women telling me, ‘I haven’t told my husband [that I am pregnant] but can you just pencil it in and keep it confidential’,” she added. “They have to get in very quickly.”
Broadhurst needs parents to register as soon as they become pregnant so that they have more time to apply for prep schools.
“We need to have a conversation about the next school when they are pregnant as some deadlines for schools are from the hospital bed,” Ms Fisher explained.
One woman had called asking if she could get a place for a child not yet conceived, the head said, adding: “It has always been pressured – it is getting more so.”
Growing numbers of agencies are offering their services to help parents negotiate these demands (see box, below left).
Mr Petty said that his company now offered to deliver pre-prepared registration forms to schools for parents while they are still in the labour ward, adding that the competition for places had become “bonkers”.
But Adrian Ellis, principal at St John’s Wood Pre-Prep, north-west London, said that he was refusing to fuel the hysteria by changing to “first come, first served” admissions. “I understand why other schools do it because demand is so great,” he said. “But I sometimes think that the demand is exacerbated by some schools’ policies on very early registration.
“Registering children at birth puts parents under even more pressure. I think that more layers of panic are unnecessary. I do have some parents call up and say, ‘My child is due any minute, is it too late to register?’”
Instead, Mr Ellis insists that parents go on a tour of the school before they can register, and tries to encourage them to leave the process until their child is 18 months old.
Mumsnet CEO Justine Roberts said: “Parents in urban areas often struggle with a shortage of places at popular nurseries.
“Those who are hyper-organised, very savvy or have been down this road before tend to get in early, which can mean disappointment for other parents. Ultimately, the solution is for there to be more good-quality childcare places available, which would mean a lot less stress all round.”
Meanwhile, Mr Petty sees no sign of the school-places business dying down. “I don’t think the surge is even close to the summit,” he said. “Schools are changing their admission procedures year on year to combat their own problems, their own successes.
“I didn’t realise how big it was going to get. It’s a global phenomenon. English schools will come up at dinner parties all over the world. It’s the big thing now.”
Newborns ‘apply for places’
As the pressure rises on affluent parents seeking the most sought-after school places to act early, more companies are offering to help.
The London Schools Consultancy website provides a “Baby VIP” service that includes hand-delivering admission forms to schools. Parents can also purchase a “Baby VIP Elite” package, which features an hour of one-to-one consultation and is described as the “ideal [baby] shower gift for expectant mothers”
Bonas MacFarlane has also introduced its own nursery package. “It’s bonkers that we have had to introduce it as a product,” co-director William Petty says. “But you have to play it that way.”
The consultancy will sort out the logistics of delivering school registration forms straight after birth as an extra “bonus”. “You have to be quick out of the labour ward,” Mr Petty said. “We have forms all ready to go, signed and filled out, except the date of birth and name. We get the dad to contact us from the hospital and then we will drop it around to the schools.”
But Mr Petty fears for the future. “There are a lot of players in the market and I am sure that will get worse. Nursery schools will respond negatively to these agencies.”
Reports of needless caesareans
Some mothers are still scheduling their caesarean sections for the start of the month in the belief that it will improve their chances of securing a place at “first come, first served” schools, TES has been told.
Rajni Jayasekera, who runs a website called Mums in the Wood, advising parents in St John’s Wood, north-west London, says: “I’ve heard of people choosing to have elective caesareans. The general feeling among parents is that if you are born in first part of the month you are more likely to get into certain schools.
“The schools probably don’t select children in this way, but I think parents are concerned that if they don’t apply in the first few days of the month, they may miss out.”
Tutoring for 3-year-olds
The increased competition for elite independent school places has seen a boom in private tutoring for infants.
“I’ve seen a huge rise in tutoring for 3-year-olds to get into schools,” says Rajni Jayasekera, from the Mums in the Wood website, based in north-west London.
“All the schools do not advocate tutoring and say that it is unnecessary. The reality is that some parents are desperate to get kids into these big-name schools – they will do anything.”
Alison Fisher, head of Broadhurst School, a sought-after pre-prep in Hampstead, North London, describes the tutoring as “nonsense”.
“There is nothing a tutor can do that a parent cannot do,” she says. “If you start tutoring a child at 3, what are they setting them up for? I understand that parents get anxious about competition but it can do more harm than good. Children can lose their sparkle.
“Parents think that receiver schools want children who are reading, writing and can count to 100 but it’s not true. They simply want children who are confident, motivated and can listen.”