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The Nursery Place Race

Hannah Shuckburgh reports on how the clamour for London nursery places has reached fever pitch.

How soon is too soon to put your child down for a nursery place? A few months before they’re due to start? A year before? How about when they’re still in utero, or even before they’re conceived?

I had a list of super-urgent things I wanted to do as soon as my baby was born, and most of them involved food. From my hospital bed, a mere hour after my son was born, I summoned my husband to fetch me sushi. I wanted an Itsu party platter, all to myself. Also on the list in the coming days: a plate of stinky unpasteurised French cheese, so ripe it was running off the plate.

What would be on your to-do list in the first hours after childbirth? Pâté on toast? Oysters? Or perhaps there’s something altogether different on the menu: to urgently book that nursery place. With the clamour for places at London’s top nurseries becoming ever more fierce, parents are reserving a spot for their child at their chosen nursery as soon as their baby takes their first breath, and even then, they may have left it too late. It’s now completely normal to register your as-yet-unborn baby the day after your 12-week scan. One exclusive London nursery I spoke to, who asked not to be named, said they have received “quite a few” enquiry calls from mothers not even pregnant yet – just hoping and planning to be, and concerned to get in there as early as possible, should they conceive. “It’s difficult to know what to say to parents who are yet to have a positive pregnancy test,” says the head teacher, “but I do understand the anxiety, as all parents just want the best for their child. I think the fierce competition for nursery places at ‘Outstanding’ nurseries like ours does add to the stress for new parents.”

“There are not many nurseries that accept applications pre-birth, but there are an increasing number that do, such as Broadhurst in Hampstead and Pippa Pop-Ins in Notting Hill,” explains Sabine Hook, who runs SH Nursery Consultancy, advising parents on the best  nursery options for their child. “It seems ridiculous, but if you don’t get in there early with some of these nurseries, registering at 9 months pregnant will be too late.”

My friend Jemima had completed the application forms, signed the cheques and even stamped the envelopes when she went into labour with her first baby, Isla. “I took the forms to the birth centre in a folder in my hospital bag,” she says. All she needed to do was add Isla’s name and date of birth. “Honestly, in our area in west London you sometimes feel you’ve got more of a chance getting tickets for the Oscars than securing a place at the nursery you want,” she says. “We were willing to do everything we could to aid our chances. I didn’t want to look back and think – I wish we’d just thought of sending the forms off earlier.”

Carey, 35, a web designer, hadn’t contemplated how hard it would be to get her baby into nursery. “When my first baby, Maud, was about three months, I rang around all the best nurseries near us, they all said they had 12 to 18-month waiting lists. I was only going to take 10 months maternity leave so I was then extremely anxious we wouldn’t find her a place at all. We found her somewhere we liked in the end, but it was stressful. Worrying about it really dominated my maternity leave. I know it sounds a bit mad to be so overly prepared but with my second child it made sense to reserve a place while I was still pregnant, so that’s what we did with Thom, and I’m so glad we did.”

The pressure on parents to have everything organised, and to do it all perfectly, extends from pregnancy through to toddlerhood and beyond. We all feel we must get it absolutely right if we are to give our child the best possible chance of excelling academically and reaching their full potential. But really, there are no guarantees, are there? Will that elusive place at Miss Delaney’s set them on a path for a First at Cambridge? Maybe it will, but maybe it won’t – because even if you do bag that coveted place, a child’s happiness is dependent on so many other things, all more complex than filling in a form and getting it in on time.