Posted on 25.04.2017
Whenever I contemplate childcare, anxiety attacks over whether the end of the world will come if I choose the wrong person always ensue. Every parent I know has the fairytale vision of a kindly nanny padding about the front room in her pinny, kids looking on adoringly; but the realities of finding childcare to fit perfectly around busy work and school schedules are somewhat trickier.
But then I met Emma. Emma is engaging, poised and bright. Italian, by way of Switzerland and New York, she’s a first-year politics student at the London School of Economics and, but for the fact that Mandarin is not among the four languages she speaks (come on, Emma!), she is the sort of brilliant all-rounder sought by Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin six years ago as a nanny for their children – with knowledge of Classics, the ability to play at least two musical instruments and a good game of tennis reportedly among their list of requirements.
Then there’s Mimi, a business management student – could expertise in conflict resolution in the office be a factor in solving sibling squabbles? And Hélène, a bright Parisian who turns out to be the student of my friend, a lecturer at the LSE (“She’s one of the best in my class,” he says, by way of reference.) These three young women embody the drive, intelligence and confidence that any parent would want their offspring to possess – and they’re all available for child-sitting courtesy of Student Nannies, a new online childcare platform.
The site challenges those pre-conceived notions of what the ideal nanny looks like – after all, why wouldn’t a highly educated student be a great addition to the family? Struggling through algebra and French translations, when you were last confronted with them decades ago, may prove tough for parents, but for those who still leaf through textbooks, helping with homework is a task they hardly blink at.
Where the site differs from traditional agencies is that those on it are un-vetted – functioning somewhat like dating app Tinder which, like Student Nannies, offers matches based on the user’s location. It also factors in common interests and schedule availability when pairing you up. It is free to post a profile for parents or students, but to send messages to each other requires VIP membership, which costs £15 a month for parents and £10 for students.
As there is no minimum sign-up period, you can terminate after a month if you find someone, making it far cheaper than other specialist nanny and au pair agencies. And there is no set hourly babysitting charge – it’s up to parents and students to work this out. But unlike childcare.co.uk (un-vetted carers), or sitters.co.uk (vetted carers), both of which
I’ve spent hours trawling through, Student Nannies trades on one simple promise: that it will help you “find a smart, helpful nanny” – and it’s the first bit that is the main lure. No, our student nannies haven’t exuded “childcare expertise” – how could they? – but they are wonderfully clear communicators, and sharp as anything. Emma sensibly rejected the lofty book I gave her to read to the children in favour of a Pippi Longstocking cartoon (it’s their Friday night too, after all).
And they’re conscientious, taking the work – and the children – very seriously. While Paltrow’s nanny search was widely pilloried at the time, she was tapping into a fear many parents have. The care sector is not highly valued by our society, and tends not to be well remunerated. The vast majority of sitters you find online have few, if any, qualifications or expertise in early-years development.
And yet, from language acquisition to healthy eating to career ambition, it is logical to want your child to have good role models. But will students be flexible and responsible enough? While I didn’t find the 19th-century-style governess that I’d envisioned – there was more Ben and Holly watching than discussions of Plato or Hobbes – I did find very bright, responsible and engaging young people who my children really like.
Like any childcare search, finding a student who is after the same hours as you is a slow process, and students also don’t usually offer long-term commitment: when exam time comes, their priority must be revising.
Children – and their parents – need stability and predictability, and the transience of student life may not fit perfectly with long-term childcare goals. Still, we’ve found three intelligent new additions to the evening childcare rota – and having ambitious students with fresh ideas around can be no bad thing.