Posted by / Category Cultural Differences /

And here is the next chapter of Archie and Carine’s story. This is inspired from my own experience. Where I live in London, I discovered that little ones are assessed at the age of three. I was shocked…

You can read the last chapter here:


Education Act


The Education Act of 1944 introduced free secondary education for all in England and Wales. Obviously a lot has changed since then, and now you need to pay hefty fees to attend most schools, especially if you are living in London  and can’t find a decent state school (or don’t want to fake being religious).


Life In the United Kingdom, (Almost) Official Study Guide


February 2012


2012 is in fact much busier than 2011. I am working far too much and I have been talking to various colleagues. On top of everything else, I need to find a primary school for Alexandra. They all make me worry that I might have left it too late. Really? She is not even three yet!

‘Urban legend’ has it that it is very competitive to get into a good primary school in London. It can’t be true, can it? In France, you just have to go to the local school and that’s it, job done. I never had to go to a private school in France. All I had to do was to have good grades. It was a meritocracy. Everything was based on academic results, not interviews. In fact, if you were accepted to universities such as the ‘Ecole Polytechnique’, you might even get paid just to study there. But this is clearly not how things are over here.


I have managed to secure a meeting with the headmistress of the school around the corner today. Alexandra is coming too, I hope that she will like it.

My daughter is wondering where we are going. She is happy as a clam, she loves discovering new places.

We knock on the big wooden door and an older lady with stern glasses comes to open it.

“What is it regarding?” she asks

“Oh, we have an appointment with the headmistress.”

We get in and the old lady tells me sternly that they are going to assess Alexandra with one of the teachers.

“ I haven’t prepared her at all.”

“ Don’t worry, we are used to doing it. We don’t want the children to be prepared; we want their personality to shine through. We are after potential. Please sit, the headmistress will be with you shortly.”

While I am waiting, a few mums are dropping their offspring off. I clearly didn’t research the school well enough. A few minutes of careful observation teach me that all mums are:

– skinny;

– blonde. Blonde highlights are acceptable, but hair extensions seem to be a real bonus;

– made up with at least five layers of foundation. Why didn’t I think of this before leaving home?

– wearing designer clothes. They are not wearing any designer clothes though. For some unknown reason, they look like they are going to go horse riding. I am starting to wonder where they keep the horse. Maybe there is a special horse parking system around here? I need to check the council website.

I also notice that there is something wrong with my eyebrows if I want to fit in. They all have eyebrows high on the forehead and on the side, very close to the hairline. In fact, come to think of it, they all look a bit like…bats. What is going on? Maybe they all had a bad Botox job at the same therapist? I wonder. I am surrounded by bat-mums. How weird! Gosh, where am I?

The headmistress finally arrives, all smiles, and I have to stop observing the other mums. We go to her office.

“ How did you hear about us?”

“Well, we don’t live very far and this school would be perfect for us”.

This is clearly not the right response. I should I said that they came highly recommended by a rich friend of mine, who happens to be my neighbour and live in next door’s mansion. Silly me. I am getting this interview completely wrong. I can sense it.

“ Well, we like to talk to the parents before making any offer. Your husband couldn’t make it today?”

Did I hear a condescending tone here?

“Well, he was working and…”

“ We want to make sure that you are both fully aware of our educational project. We need you both onboard, you see”


“ We take great pride in our pastoral care, and we are oversubscribed. ”

What is pastoral care? In my head, I am imagining rolling hills and grazing sheep. What is she talking about?

“ All our girls are going to top secondary schools, day or boarding. Look at our results. We also try to find an activity that suits each girl. It can be an instrument, karate, knitting…anything really”

She hands me a brochure with the leavers’ destination. I am not familiar with secondary schools in London. I have absolutely no idea whether the results are good or not. Where the hell am I? Alexandra is so young! How on earth am I supposed to think of secondary schools?

I sense that I need to say something.

“ Very impressive results.”

Good, I manage to win some brownie points.

She then starts to list all the famous alumni who went to the school. I don’t know any of them except for an up-and-coming young actress who just made the headlines because she was caught with cocaine in her luggage at the airport. Hardly a role model, I would say. I just nod my head. Better not to talk about the cocaine incident, I suppose.

I need to butter her up. I should have realised this from the start.

“The girls I saw this morning were all running to school. They seemed very happy”

“ We put great emphasis on our girls behaviour too. They have to be polite and well behaved. You see, it is not all about academics here. The girls are taught, from a very young age, to smile and respect adults. They have to curtsy once when they leave the school premises. We take great pride in our traditions”

Curtsy? Honestly, who curtsies any more in this day and age? They will have a hard time teaching Alexandra to curtsy. What sort of school is this? They want perfect little girls, really. I am not sure that Alexandra will fit the bill.

I feel like I am given a lecture on good manners. I am completely out of place. Am I sending Alexandra to finishing school or primary school? I try to be nice and chat more informally with her.

“ Do you have children yourself?”

She frowns. Oh dear, I have asked the wrong question again. It looks like I can’t get anything right today.

“ No I don’t, but I have been working with children for more than 30 years now. I know how to handle them.”

She has never had any children of her own but is all about behaviour and curtsy. Seriously, where do they find these people? How odd.

With a mum like me, my daughter does not stand a chance. I am so naïve. I should have known better. Archie should have warned me. Where the hell is he? The headmistress doesn’t seem to be too impressed with me and we are going back to the entrance hall together. We shake hands. I manage a smile and she leaves promptly.

Alexandra arrives shortly afterwards. She beams. Good, at least one of us is happy. We leave and I overhear the registrar lady ask the receptionnist:

“Whose au-pair is this?”

Great, they thought I was the au-pair. What a morning!

It was quick. I receive a phone call later in the afternoon. Alexandra didn’t get in. Apparently, her behaviour wasn’t up to their (very high) standards, and I am explained that she is not ready to work in a group.

She finished her scribbles, got bored and started to pull her little friend’s (very nice & expensive) dress. She found it incredibly funny but got told off by the teacher. As she was still bored, she did it again and apparently that’s simply not acceptable.

I almost feel ashamed to be such a relaxed mother. Almost. Then my shame became anger.

It is all about style over substance over here?

There is nothing wrong with Alexandra, Absolutely nothing.

Then why didn’t they take her? What did we do wrong?

I should have researched the school a lot better. I have let Alexandra down. That said, every cloud has its silver lining and I now understand better what it is that they are looking for.

It is not an urban legend, after all: some schools are oversubscribed, and, now that Alexandra has been rejected, I feel like my child will be condemned to a life of drug addiction and petty crimes.

But all is not lost: I will take matters into my own hands. Next time, we will nail it, I promise myself. And Archie will have to explain to me in great details how it all works.

I drop Alexandra at her nursery and start my day of work. What a day!

On top of everything else, I am starting to worry about my Permanent Residence Application. What is taking them so long to process it? I try to call the number on the website, but get a pre-recorded message. It feels a bit like no humans are involved in the process. Weird.