As luxury problems go, your 2-year-old’s Mandarin classes not being up to scratch must count as pretty first world.
Yet in the exclusive kindergartens of some of London’s most expensive residential districts, where multi-million dollar homes are snapped up in seconds by pushy parents keen to give their pampered offspring every conceivable advantage in life, inadequate baby Mandarin lessons are a very serious subject indeed.
Now, one of these disputes is set to end up in court after parents of children at the idyllic-sounding Bluebell Cottage pre-school in London’s tony Kensington after parents accused the school of poor Mandarin teaching, not delivering on the school’s promised diet of organic fare and accused the school’s director, Sara Brennan, of screaming down the phone at them.
The school, which also proposes to teach the little darlings yoga, charges fees of up to £20,000 a year, but after it closed at the beginning of the pandemic, parents say they have not been able to get their money back.
The parents were so incensed that they took to social media, posting lengthy complaints about the school on messaging board Mumsnet. Some even spoke to British newspaper The Times, slamming Brennan in terms that will be familiar to any parent who has ever indulged in a little school gate gossip or got carried away on the class WhatsApp group.
Now Brennan has given an interview to The Daily Beast, lifting the lid on what she sees as the absurd demands and outrageous behavior of some of the children’s super-rich parents.
She has also hit back at the “small group of four or five parents” who she says have made her life “hell” and have been on a “mission” to destroy the school ever since she was forced to close for several weeks at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
The parents say they simply want their money back; Brennan counters that she re-opened in early June and extended the term to mid-August, but many parents had by then left London for extended vacations.
“The pandemic brought everything to a head,” she says, “We saw the best and worst of people. It really reached boiling point.”
Her school, which caters for children under the age of five, is based around “play-based learning” and as part of that, they seek to introduce children to foreign languages and yoga. Brennan says her guiding principle is: “What does the child of the future really need?” Mandarin and Spanish, she says, “are the must have languages of the future.”
Brennan says the approach to teaching foreign languages to children so small is “immersive,” giving children “a little bit of Mandarin each day, so maybe they’re having cooking or an art activity or storytime in Mandarin,” rather than simply doing a Mandarin lesson in isolation.
For several years the school trucked along happily enough but Brennan admits that she “lost focus” and was too willing to give in to what she now sees as unreasonable demands from parents as she struggled to pay “extortionate” rent and cover huge payroll and other business costs.
“Some of the parents came into the school and wanted a specific focus on academic achievements, for example they wanted their kids to be able to read and write by the age of two,” she says.
In another case, she said, a parent asked for their child to be given warm milk on departure from school: “Before you knew it, staff were heating up a child’s milk bottle before they went home because one mom insisted that the milk was heated to a certain temperature, and everybody was in a state of anxiety that the milk wasn’t going to be the right temperature for this mom. She shouldn’t have demanded we heated the milk, but we shouldn’t have done it either. In hindsight, I can see that.”
Brennan said: “You see it all because of the location of the school. We have had parents who have been in the public eye, big names, but they are very discreet and very supportive.”
Brennan is at pains to point out that “the majority of parents have been incredible” and it is just “four or five” that have gone on the warpath, including filing legal claims saying they paid for services that were not provided. The first case is being heard in small claims court in November.
One of the parents, she says, withdrew their children after just two days. Instead of trying to find a resolution, she says, the parent, in front of the children, “screamed” at her, “I paid you, you do what I say.”
Brennan says that it all comes down to money. “I just wanted to focus on getting the school reopened, which I did, I extended my summer term, we offered a 10 week term, extended it into August, but the parents just wanted the money back. I felt I just couldn’t win. Nothing I did was good enough.”
One parent, dad Ben Sabat, when contacted by The Daily Beast said that he was reluctantly taking the stressful and time-consuming route of legal action after his attempts to resolve via mediation the stand-off over fees, which he believes should have been refunded, were ignored by Brennan.
He also said the school was “nothing special” in terms of the food and education offered to children.
He said he was struggling financially due to COVID-19, and that while some parents were very rich others, like him, had simply not been able to find free or state nurseries, and paid the pre-school fees by going without other luxuries such as vacations, and simply needed the money back.
Brennan is shortly due to open a new school in Chelsea. She says she will do things differently: “We are going back to basics and we are not going to meet these crazy expectations, that wasn’t the right decision and unfortunately that contributed to this.”