Thursday, April 23, 2015

The British Nursery Culture

G on a playdate pondering the world with elbow on his knee
Have you ever been pressured into doing something really expensive and unnecessary because everyone else was doing it?

That's how I feel about the British culture of enrolling two-year-olds in nursery.  Now that Gideon has hit that magical age, the pressure is on.

Around the corner from our home is a lovely Victorian era Church of England parish church which houses a nursery.  It's quite popular among the locals.  People get their bubs on the wait list weeks after being born, often initiating church attendance while pregnant so they can get to know the wait list gatekeepers.

Attending is a mere £2,400 per term.  There are three terms in a year, which translates into £7,200, or $11,520 per year for the Yanks out there.

That's more - much more - than I paid for a year of my undergraduate education.

True, there are other varieties of nursery - something more akin to daycare is around the corner, as is the fairly generic Ready, Steady, Go at the Primrose Hill Community Centre.   And the government kicks in compensation for15 hours a week once the child is 3 1/2, and there are free state-sponsored nursery options beginning at that age as well.

But for that year and a half and beyond if nursery is used more than 15 hours per week, people willingly pay enormous amounts to part with their precious munchkin at a very tender age.

I have heard all of the arguments, very eloquently made, in favour of nursery - he needs to learn British culture to allow him to fit in better when he starts school, they are just "ready" at that age, they love it, etc.  The most cited reason is that if we choose to put Gideon in an academically-orientated independent (Yanks read private) primary school starting at age four or five, the school will request a report from his nursery teachers to determine whether he is academic enough to make the cut.

When it comes down to it, it seems to me that the strongest reason for nursery is cultural.  It's just what is done here.  Teachers must be qualified and all nurseries get official government ratings so you can compare them and make informed choices about your child's "education."

I can't buy this Koolaid (for the Brits out there, that's a sugary cordial for kids).  None of the reasons cited are compelling - I can replicate the structured play of any nursery, arrange play groups, and do in-home teaching.  My sister taught all of her nine children to read before they started school, as did my mother for her seven.  I can do this. As to reports, he can get one from a free nursery he attends at 3 1/2 or 4 - or transfer into the independent school at age eight when such a report becomes moot.

As to the cultural reasons, in this I feel distinctly American.  I am fiercely independent.  I grew up with Joy School - where my mother and a few others (one included my aunt) banded together and traded off teaching a set curriculum in their home every few days.  I loved it and still remember some of the lesson plans.  (And it was free!)

And I don't mind if my little boy isn't fully British.  He's not.  Although he may have been born here, Margaret Thatcher made sure he would not have British citizenship for it, bless her (although I otherwise heart the Iron Lady!).  He's an American only, and that may mean that he does nursery the American way - by not doing it, or doing it in an independent, inexpensive way.  I'm sure other little boys and girls who go to the best schools from other cultural backgrounds did not attend nursery, but played outdoors for as long as possible like my boy will.

1 comment:

  1. I think this post is tongue in cheek. In any case it made me laugh. Seriously though, the main reason we Brits send our children to nursery at two is to get back into the workforce. It is hard to maintain or further your career if you take too much time out of work and babies will often have a full time nanny or be placed in a nursery aged from 6 months to a year onwards. Maternity leave is not well supported here and many mothers do not have the luxury of staying at home or placing their children in a state (free) based nursery as the opening hours never correspond to working business hours, plus these are only an option from age 3. The South East of the country is an expensive place to live and even some of those in Primrose Hill may need a dual income to maintain the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. There is nothing cultural about it.