Cooking, sewing, and how to hold a small baby are all included in Etan Smallman’s crash course in childcare at Norland College for nannies
Upon my arrival at the Grade II-listed town house in Bath, where I’m to spend the day as a manny-in-training, I’m led up Norland’s winding stairs to meet its principal, who details the restrictions placed on every one of her pristine students.
Practically perfect in every way doesn’t cover the half of it. The girls – whose hair must be scraped back into a tidy bun at all times – receive two uniforms; one formal and one everyday. The smart get-up includes a beige belted dress, brown felt hat, name badge and white gloves.
Once in their £700 outfits, the code of conduct kicks in. They are forbidden from smoking, buying alcohol or patronising a fast-food outlet. Nor can they purchase a takeaway coffee.
Principal Liz Hunt explains that even if they do not have a baby with them at the time, “the public would say: ‘Well, that girl could have a child in her charge, that would be dangerous’. It’s all about upholding the standards”.
They must not talk on their mobile phones in the street (this would distract them if they were on duty), and they must be suitably dressed for the weather (if they can’t keep themselves warm, “it doesn’t bode well for the child,” Mrs Hunt adds).
Norland, which has provided supernannies to Hollywood A-listers, members of the Rolling Stones and the Royal Family since 1892, has for the first time admitted a male degree student.
I am here to get an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek at what it really takes to become a fully-fledged Harry Poppins, but let us be clear: I am not a trainee “manny”.
The portmanteau – which entered the lexicon after everyone from Rachel in Friends to Elle Macpherson and Madonna turned man nannies into a must-have – makes Mrs Hunt “cringe”.
As a matter of fact, as part of her mission to raise the status of the profession generally, she isn’t too enamoured with the word nanny either, but concedes that her preferred moniker, early years practitioner, is “a bit of a mouthful”.
The college has designed a special outfit for its new man, 18-year-old Michael Kenny, consisting of tweed blazer, chinos and tie. I can breathe easy when they tell me that not for a minute would I be allowed to wear the prestigious uniform.
The attire was originally mandated by Norland’s founder Emily Ward so that her students wouldn’t be “taken for one of the servants”. Nowadays, I’m told, it is rarely worn after graduation, except in a particularly “formal household”.
Lesson one is home economics. Not your modern-day food technology nonsense, mind. This is good old-fashioned home cooking, teacher Alison Tucker makes clear, as we’re taught how to whip up an apple and plum crumble and a leek and potato soup.
I meet the college’s only male as he’s studiously sweating his vegetables. The astonishingly down-to-earth teenager came to Norland for a top-notch grounding in child care before he eventually goes into teaching.
When I ask him what his anxieties were before starting the four-year course with 48 girls, he reels off a list of concerns that have not a jot to do with his sex. Only his lack of sewing skills seems to faze him. His parents encouraged him to do the degree; his “very supportive” girlfriend is taking it in her stride; and his friends subject him to no more than a gentle ribbing.
The soup’s ready. I’m on my best behaviour, and remind myself not to eat it while standing up – a pet hate of Mrs Tucker’s. As I taste a spoonful of crumble, I realise that, rather than finding the rules and regulations restrictive, they seem quaint and charming. It almost feels like we’re in the 1950s; with everybody polite, smartly turned out and self-sufficient. We learn about eating seasonally, recycling what we can… and how to spot a bulk buy deal on leeks in Morrisons.
I return to the main college building, which boasts several classrooms beautifully decorated with the students’ wall displays on passive smoking, rickets and oral thrush, and am relieved to find that there is a designated men’s lavatory – with the loo seat decidedly up.
My next lesson is on how to hold a baby, albeit a pleasingly quiet, plastic one. Practical skills coordinator Elizabeth Kerry (who is a Norland graduate herself) chides me for not looking at ease. “Make eye contact with the baby! Relax, and your baby will be relaxed,” she instructs. I feel anything but.
We may only be handling dolls, but there’s no cutting corners at Norland. I was told to remove my cufflinks, belt and shoes, roll up my sleeves and scrub my hands before I was allowed anywhere near it.
After lunch, it’s on to my creative skills session, in which I learn the basics of sewing and hemming. I’m given a little piece of gingham fabric to stitch on to that is so unnervingly similar to the shirt I’m wearing, I wonder whether I am being subtly mocked for my lack of Norland finery.
Later lessons in the term will include making fancy dress costumes, turning Daddy’s old shirts into craft aprons and producing puppets to accompany the darlings’ favourite bedtime stories.
This profusion of skills doesn’t come cheap for the students – or their employers. Fees are almost £14,000 a year for the first two years, but Norlanders can expect starting salaries of between £23,000 and £34,500. That is usually on top of accommodation in a top London postcode (or billionaire’s yacht), swanky holidays, a car and lavish gifts at Christmas.
The graduates also get their pick of employers – with the interviews as much a vetting process of the parents as the nannies.
Unfortunately, I don’t have time during my day’s crash-course to cram everything in. The Norlanders’ full curriculum includes self-defence, paediatric first-aid, baby massage, tutorials on how to keep youngsters safe on a plane, a lesson in an Aga showroom and a day at a racetrack learning how to cope in a skidding car.
But before I head off, I do get a go on one of the college’s fabulous 1960s Silver Cross carriage prams, which, with its sleek curves and awesome suspension, feels like a fabulous boy’s toy that any self-respecting manny would be ashamed to live without.
I may be having fun, but experts say there are very serious reasons why we need more men working in child care.
Claude Knights, director of children’s safety charity Kidscape, tells me that men “have an ability and a right to enter these professions” and that they should be treated with respect – not suspicion.
She adds: “There are certain things that have astounded the public, including the West Country nursery that had a female worker who was part of a paedophile ring.
“That made people realise it’s not about the Madonna image of woman and child. It’s made people rethink the received wisdom and how the model needs to be constructed.”
Katie Salvidge, from Brighton, interviewed nine women when she was searching for a nanny for her three boys – a four-year-old and 18-month-old-twins – but plumped for the only male applicant, a 24-year-old music graduate called Mike.
“He was just the best for the job,” says Mrs Salvidge, 36. “My mum was concerned that he might not be so nurturing. But he’s a very cuddly kind of guy and he’s aware that I really want a lot of physical affection from him. My husband was extremely excited because he thinks men are great and wanted another male figure in their lives.”
Tinies, the agency used by Mrs Salvidge, is seeing a steady increase in demand for male nannies. Its director, Lindsey Doe, offers a simple reason. “They are more fun,” she says. “They play harder, with more rough and tumble, and men are also more practical and sporty. We believe it’s a great idea, especially for the single mother or for parents where the father is away a lot working.”
Mrs Salvidge adds: “There’s a lot in the media at the moment about men and girls, especially with the Jimmy Savile case. I fear it can make people more suspicious of men working and being with children, and I just think that’s really, really sad.”
The fact that Michael Kenny spent most of his childhood in Uganda, Nepal and India – as well as Bath – may inform his alternative take on the issue.
“I was always brought up to think that no prejudices should ever really be held,” he says. “Growing up in that society, I think gender differences just got factored out of my system.”
He refuses to consider himself a pioneer, and of those mothers who think of men who want to work with children as creepy and suspect, the teenager simply says “each to their own”.
“Personally, I think it’s an outdated view,” he adds. “But I’d say, in the end, that’s always the parents’ choice. They know what they want for their child.”