Young women in neat, brown pinafore dresses with white collars and cuffs, brown felt hats emblazoned with an N and white gloves are moving with brisk purpose. Dotted in between them are a couple of young men in tweed jackets. They may look like “downstairs” extras in a scene from Downton Abbey, but this is no period drama. Trotting between classes — come on now, spit spot! — in this spanking, multimillion-pound gold-stone campus overlooking the Royal Crescent in Bath, are Britain’s poshest nannies in training. For this is Norland College — an institute that has led the world in early-years education for 126 years and provided the original template for PL Travers’s practically perfect nanny, Mary Poppins.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have a Norland nanny who enjoys the run of her own private residence in Kensington Palace. Mick Jagger, the Princess Royal and the Duchess of York have all employed one. My grandparents’ Norlander — Nanny Reid — stayed with the family so long, she was still en poste when my mother had us. My mother has a sweet photograph by her bed of Nanny Reid taking care of the infant Boris after she’d sat her finals, while vastly pregnant with me.
When Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, we all moved en famille to Brussels and it was then that another Norlander, Mary Kidd (now Mrs Noakes), came to look after my brothers and me. She was a tower of strength who steered the long-haired, eccentric, collapsing Johnson clan through Brussels in the 1970s, where our father, Stanley, was one of the first British civil servants working for the European Commission. (Context: the scene there was pretty much like the film The Ice Storm — about suburban families who self-medicate with alcohol and adultery — only set in Belgium rather than Connecticut, and even more dysfunctional.)
Today’s Norland students pay £15,000 a year in tuition fees for its three-year BA (Hons) degree-plus-diploma combined course. Once out of the traps, this crack troupe of childcare providers will have an average of seven job offers to choose from and will be earning juicy — up to six-figure — salaries before you can say, “Close your mouth please, Michael, we are not a codfish.”
A “Legacy of Royal Connections”
Dr Janet Rose is the cheery, blonde, no-nonsense Norland principal. She will not reveal whether Harry and Meghan have yet made the pilgrimage to Bath to select a Norlander. “We do have a strong legacy of royal connections but we never talk about our clients, I’m afraid,” is her smiling response. I’d bet the farm they have, though. Perhaps even one of Norland’s newly minted male nannies for their “greyby” (so dubbed because it is rumoured the royal tot’s baby nursery will be decorated in gender-neutral colours). Sadly, Dr Rose will not talk about my old nanny either — data protection and all that — but does let me peek at her entry in the Norland “Black Book”.
Since 1892, the names of those who aspired to be “children’s nurses”, plus their date of birth, address, the profession or occupation of parent or guardian, place of education (whether “home” or “school”) and other information have been inscribed in copperplate handwriting in black, leatherbound ledgers.
Our nanny Mary Kidd’s entry records that she left Norland — then headquartered in Denford Park near Hungerford, Berkshire — in 1973. Her father’s profession is listed as “Squadron Leader in the RAF” and the family address in Henlow, Bedfordshire. When she arrived at our house in June 1974, she was a “probationer” — all newly graduated nannies must complete a 12-month placement before they can call themselves qualified Norlanders. My mother was 32, had depression and galloping obsessive-compulsive disorder (for which she’d been hospitalised at the Maudsley) and was finding things hard, trying to combine her painting with looking after Alexander (Boris), 10, me, 9, Leo, 7, and Joseph, 2.
I say Mary Kidd “came to us”, but in fact we had earlier trooped to Hungerford to pick her out of a line-up.
“All of you came to interview me at Denford Park,” she recalls. “We were doing a class that covered conception and I remember Alexander [Boris] asking, ‘Which comes first, the foetus or the embryo?’, and thinking, uh-oh …”
Mary had already pegged my older brother as precocious — indeed he was — but what she didn’t know was that other families wouldn’t let their children come to play with us in Brussels, as we Johnsons were considered “too rough”.
“Your father told the college, ‘We want Mary,’ and even though probationers weren’t allowed to work abroad, the college made an exception,” Mary recalls.
Mary had pegged my older brother, Boris, as precocious, but what she didn’t know was that other families wouldn’t let their children play with us,
as we Johnsons were considered “too rough”.
At that time, we lived in a large red-brick villa surrounded by gardens in the well-heeled suburb of Uccle. Mary remembers it well. “You became my second family, you all got into my bed, I had baths with Jo. The first time I went to wash Al’s hair, he had his pants on in the bath [because he was embarrassed], so I simply allowed him to see me in the bath covered with bubbles and the next time I washed his hair, he didn’t have his pants on.”
I am withholding the photographic evidence of Mary in the bath with us to protect all concerned.
We adored Mary, a 6ft chain-smoker with a raspy voice and gurgling laugh. She became a second mother, the holder of the fort and — that cliché beloved of domestic employers — a member of the family.
“We all went to your uncle’s wedding to the woman who had no legs,” she says, fondly recalling my late Uncle Pete of blessed memory, who did indeed marry a double amputee. Later, when Mary married, Jo was her pageboy.
My mother rotated in and out of clinics, but the show had to go on. “I had to run everything,” Mary tells me, “because there was no one else.”
She was only 22. Admittedly, her parents had a nursing home where she had helped out, but it was Norland that prepared her for running a rackety family with four children in a foreign country.
“The Dreaded Smocked Dress”
“I knew a lot about a little,” she says. But as she rattles through her training, I realise she was far more qualified than either of my parents to raise children. “Norland training covered everything to do with looking after a child from birth to seven years,” she adds. “Nutrition. Cooking. Bathing. Washing. Health, including all childhood diseases and how to treat them. We had practical supervised care of children of all ages. Communication, language and literacy, including storytelling and nursery rhymes. Development and learning. Personal, social and emotional development. Toymaking. Room decoration. Sewing, which included the dreaded smocked dress.”
I feel faint just listening.
“At the end of our training,” she continues, “we all had to display everything we had made and it was then marked, points towards the National Nursery Examination Board.”
Mary cut an unforgettable figure in our household in her brown dress and brogues, especially during the hairy-armpitted Seventies. In a concession to the times, my mother told her she could drop the hat and gloves, while the rest of the family favoured flares and shoulder-length hair.
The professionalisation of parenting skills has marched on even further since Mary lived with us. Last month, Norland was granted degree-awarding powers (removing the need for its validating partner, the University of Gloucestershire), making it the first specialist early-years university in the world.
Back in Bath, I continue my Norland experience in a state-of-the-art kitchen block dubbed “Claridge’s”, observing a jolly two-hour nutrition session. Ten smiley girls in blue polo shirts are making dough for flatbread from scratch, a reminder that every aspect of the curriculum has been updated to accommodate the gluten-free, hypoallergenic, organic and, above all, woke demands of today’s parents.
Of course, students still cover the same basics they did in Mary’s day — including remembering never to leave the house without a packed nanny bag. This came in particularly useful for the Norlander who was caught up in the 2017 Westminster attacks and calmly entertained her children in lockdown at the London Aquarium for long hours, as she had all the snacks, drinks, toys and books she needed with her, as per usual.
“James Bond Meets Mary Poppins”
These days, though, the curriculum has gone up several gears — combining traditional with achingly modern.
It includes baby swimming, drama, outdoor activities, wellbeing workshops, “emotion coaching” (it’s all about the calm corner now, not the naughty step, and corporal punishment has always been forbidden), learning Makaton sign language, self-defence, bereavement coaching, children’s hairstyling, safeguarding … the list goes on and on — from cyber-security to skidpan driving to escape the paparazzi. They even had a former head of counterterrorism in to design a course for the college.
“We’ve had a lot of jokes about James Bond meets Mary Poppins,” says Dr Rose. “But counterterrorism is still balanced with how to use an Aga.”
In keeping with the times, the college is considering introducing a more gender-neutral uniform, so female students can choose to wear the classic brown dress or trousers. The first male nannies arrived in 2015 and two out of a cohort of six are graduating next year. Their uniform is a tweed jacket, chinos and a tie with a gold N.
As I leave the block, I descend a staircase and spot a magnificent Silver Cross pram, in navy, silver and white livery, with a training doll inside. A woman clatters down the stairs to shield the pram from my gaze.
“You can’t take a picture when the sheet is a bit runkly!” she protests. “Baby has a ruffled sheet!”
I stand back as she sets it all to rights, trying to imagine any house smaller than Blenheim Palace that could possibly accommodate such a beast as this pram. “It’s the Balmoral,” Elizabeth Harvey, one of the college’s managers, tells me with pride.
I pop into a “diversity” lecture about special needs and learn how to find out how much fat, sugar and salt is in my Pret sandwich with an app called Change4Life; at a sewing class they are making “quillows” (a cross between a quilt and a pillow).
Better Prepared to Parent than Parents
I sit in the nursery — all calming wooden toys — and interrogate Jordon Murray, a young man from Yorkshire who wants to be a nanny. “Do you get some stick for this in Doncaster?” I ask.
“Nobody bats an eyelid,” he says. “All my friends really like the sound of it. It’s fantastic if you want to work with children but don’t necessarily want to be a teacher.” He wants to do his placement in forest schools.
Charity Schofield, also a second year, loves babies and wants to do maternity work. Neither are from posh backgrounds. The intake is mixed: 21% from private school, with 13% supported by bursaries. There are also a number of students from the EU, including one I meet called Arianna Ribis, from Italy. Like the other girls, her hair is swept up in a netted bun and she has an open face of melting sweetness, a dead ringer for the Victoria actress Jenna Coleman.
Alongside Arianna is Connor Beckles, a local lad and yo-yo champion (key skill for entertaining toddlers, I would imagine). How did he end up at Norland? “I’d done a lot of cubs and beavers and taekwondo, and I didn’t enjoy A-levels,” he says. “I’d never taken working with children seriously but came to the open day, and found Norland are really breaking boundaries. The only way to lose the stigma of men working with children is to do it.”
Every month, Norland receives requests to open colleges in China, Asia and Russia. The great British nanny will always be one of our most trusted blue-chip exports, but the college has no desire to dilute its power by becoming a global franchise.
“We are very wary,” says Dr Rose.
Before they can call themselves Norlanders, students will work with newborns as well as children with disabilities and special needs. They will visit a children’s hospice and have the opportunity to work with child refugees. They will learn how to keep accurate records, including “children’s learning journals, observations, a nanny diary and medical records”. When they leave, they must swear to uphold the Norland Code of Professional Responsibilities.
Basically, a Norlander is, on every level, much better prepared and qualified to be a parent than all parents. Exuding cosy, brisk common sense, they will be equally proficient at swaddling a baby and coddling a father’s ego. But I would say what defines a Norlander is not class — they’re not posh — it’s competence.
Over the best vanilla swiss roll with cream and jam I have ever tasted, vice-principal Mandy Donaldson explains: “Looking after children is emotionally and physically exhausting, so we look for students who have that resilience and understand it’s not rocking a baby to sleep in your arms to a lullaby — it’s hard, hard work.” Still, childcare is a vocation and graduates get paid “very, very well for doing what they love”. Some busy households — two working surgeon parents, say — might have two live-in nannies, even “a nanny to manage an entire team of nannies”.
It all makes me feel wistful. I wish Mary Kidd was still looking after me. The college’s motto is “Love Never Faileth”, and nor, I imagine, do Norlanders.
Harry and Meghan would be mad not to have at least one on hand at all times.