Evening Standard Magazine

21 February 2003

Evening Standard Magazine

How the playground became a battleground

Tragic letters and tears on the phone - parents will stoop to any level to get their little darlings into London's most glamorous nurseries, says Genevieve Fox

Metropolites prone to ulcers should not procreate - being a parent in London is up there with moving house and divorce on the stress-o-meter, as new parents from Elizabeth Hurley to David Baddiel have doubtless already discovered. Forget top-up fees and keeping your offspring in designer trainers. It's where to educate the little blighters in their pre-school years that's the new big worry for today's urban parents.

Nurseries are now competing with property prices and the congestion charge as the dinner- party subject du jour. Tips on how to get into the most sought-after are exchanged faster than phone numbers of cut-price plastic surgeons.

Gone are the days when it was merely a question of packing little Jasper or Jemima off to the local village hall. Government league tables, coupled with the emphasis on achievement, measured by SATs, GCSEs and A levels, has created a pernicious and competitive educational climate. Many parents see nurseries as the first rung on the competitive ladder. Hence even the unborn, those sexed in the womb, are appearing on waiting lists.

'The romantic view of nursery children baking and doing lots of art, with a little bit of number work thrown in, has gone out of the window,' says Sheema Parsons of St Mark's Square Nursery School in Primrose Hill, where parents include Thandie Newton and Meg Mathews. "It has become a fighting jungle of survival: children and teachers are assessed continually."