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London Parents Scramble for Edge In Preschool Wars

OK  – so if I did not just go through the college thing, and know people with young kids struggling to get them into a good pre-school, this would be funny.   Fact is, it is sad that this type of situation exists.  If we can send people to the moon, as a society, we should be able to offer outstanding education and schools to everyone (from pre-school to college). 

Monday, February 12, 2007 Wall Street Journal: London Parents Scramble for Edge In Preschool Wars


LONDON — To get her son into elementary school at age 4, Emma Pliner signed him up at birth. When she went into labor, she took the application forms with her to the hospital. "I filled in the forms with an epidural in my back," she says. Then, as Ms. Pliner delivered a healthy baby boy, a courier delivered the paperwork to several elementary schools. The early effort paid off: Little Charlie was accepted at several schools, including Wetherby, the school Prince William attended.

London, like Manhattan, is one of the most extreme examples for preschool admissions mania. At nearly all private schools here, parents must apply as soon as children are born. Some schools grant spots on the basis of those applications. At others, applying at birth might merely win a chance for a child to interview and test for admission when he or she is ready for elementary school at four. Parents who don’t apply early or who move to London with a small child are often out of luck.

Competition is increasingly intense here amid an influx of wealthy parents who work in banking, hedge funds and other financial businesses. Rich foreigners from Russia, India, the Mideast, and Hong Kong are drawn to London because it doesn’t tax income earned outside the United Kingdom. As more American banks add to their operations here, their families are adding to the throng.

At Wetherby, the boys school near Hyde Park, head teacher Jenny Aviss advises women scheduling Caesarean sections to have them early in the month in order to secure one of five places that the school allots to newborns each month. "If you have the option, don’t wait until the 31st, have it on the first and call on the second," she says.

At Wetherby’s sister school next door, the Pembridge Hall school for girls, headmistress Elizabeth Marsden says one parent called the school twice a day for six months. Another sent flowers every week. One woman refused to leave the building until her child was given a place. She had to be removed by the police. Ms. Marsden says none of these efforts helped secure a spot at the school, whose tuition is $22,820 a year.

To get her daughter, Charlotte, into nearby Norland Place School, Annette Benigni submitted forms when Charlotte was 7 months old and started calling the school when Charlotte was 3 and on the waiting list. "I called the school like a madwoman," says Ms. Benigni. Charlotte was accepted.

‘Polite Harassment’  Norland Place bursar Ian Justham, who fields most of the calls from parents, says the school encourages "polite harassment." He tells families they may phone as often as they want, provided the calls are cordial, but he insists there is no connection between the number of phone calls and a child’s ranking on the admissions list.  "It’s mainly to give people reassurance," he says.  Parents Katy and Rob Forshaw sent Mr. Justham a vacation postcard from Australia. "Here is a piece of polite harassment from far away," it said. Their son, Cassius, was admitted from the waiting list just before school started last September.  A lot of British children aren’t in this rug-rat race. Children enter schools at age 5, when compulsory schooling starts. More than 90% of children in Britain attend schools that are run by the state and don’t charge tuition. Many London schools have required registration at a child’s birth since their founding in the 19th century. Most say that such a first-come, first-served system remains the fairest and most practical approach.

More Pressure  At one popular private nursery, the Broadhurst School, mothers sign up even before their babies are born. Headmistress Deirdre Berkery recently got a call from a woman who was five weeks’ pregnant. "Every year, there seems to be more pressure for places," says Ms. Berkery, whose school is fully booked until January 2010. It has 500 names on the waiting list. Mother of two Natalie Richenberg registered both her daughters at Broadhurst when she learned she was pregnant.  

Lela Bristol, a lawyer currently at home with two children, was too late for Pembridge Hall because she called when her daughter, Xenia, was 3 months old. She also missed a place at a nearby school that selects students by lot. The Bristols are now planning to send Xenia to state school.  

"I was hit with anxiety because I was worried that I was ruining her future," Ms. Bristol says. "We’re taking a risk sending her to [state] school." Thomas’s London Day Schools, a group of four elementary schools and two nurseries, require parents to register their children soon after birth, and then test them at the age of 3 or 4. Children must write their names, do puzzles and draw pictures as part of assessments.

Group principal Ben Thomas says the schools look for confidence, willingness to tackle new tasks and ability to grapple with new environments. Mr. Thomas discourages parents from tutoring their offspring for the assessments but acknowledges that some do anyway. Acceptance and rejection letters are mailed out in February.

Last year, Clelia Vercueil, then 3, refused to cooperate with the assessment. Clelia, who speaks Italian as a second language, "simply said ‘no’ to everything," recalls her mother, Ilaria Vercueil. Clelia didn’t make the cut, but she was accepted at two of the other five schools her parents applied to.

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