Lockdown has seen demand soaring for the modern-day Mary Poppins – as well as all manner of specialist domestic staff, says Celia Walden
Of all the curious comebacks prompted by Covid – sourdough bread baking, pan banging (for the NHS), staycations and the expandable waistband – the return of the governess might be one of the most surprising, at least for the average Brit.
Yet according to Anita Rogers, founder and CEO of domestic staffing agency British American Household Staffing (BAHS), all any ultra-high net-worth family wants for Christmas this year is their very own stern-faced piece of Victoriana.
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“We’ve always had a few governesses on our books,” says Rogers, whose 4,000-strong client base spans the globe (the majority of are in the United States, with around a fifth in Europe, mainly the the UK, Switzerland and Monaco).
“But then Covid happened, and suddenly everybody wants a governess! Which makes sense, when you think about the gaps in schooling and structure so many kids have faced over the past few months.”
If you’re conjuring up images of mature matrons in bustles, however, think again. The idea may come straight from the pages of Mary Poppins, “but 99 per cent of the time what we’re being asked for is not so much a traditional governess as a combined teacher and nanny, only with that old-school formality and maturity, and the accolades: the schooling in Switzerland or England, the previous employment in formal homes, and the emphasis on manners and etiquette.”
These days, there’s far more to being a governess than even that. “Many have either a degree in education or multiple teaching certificates in specific subjects, such as music, a language, and teaching English,” says Rogers. “Some families who hire governesses are not first-language English speakers. A governess must be able to teach written and spoken English at a high level, both for the native English speaking children under their care as well as non-native speakers.”
She continues: “Governesses typically look after school-age, preteen and teenage ranges. A governess is occasionally hired for an infant so the infant can get a head start, especially with a second language – this is not typical, though.”
So how on earth does one distinguish between nanny-teachers and the genuine article? “Let’s just say that governesses have an air about them.”
“We’ve seen an increased demand for nannies and governesses with a background in child psychology,” says Rogers. “That’s very, very popular now. It’s about checking a child’s development every step of the way and making sure that they’re hitting all the milestones.”
After more than a decade’s experience in pairing families with household staff, Rogers’s exclusive agency has earned a reputation for being able to meet every need and handle any situation.
Despite the closer bonds between key staff members and what Rogers calls “the host family”, any blurring of the lines is cautioned against. “The best nannies, housekeepers and butlers will know how important it is to become invisible. That doesn’t mean that you’re subservient, just that there are boundaries.”
A respect for those boundaries is one of the things BAHS is on the lookout for in the extensive interview and screening process their 6,000 jobseekers are forced to undergo, when everything from background to credit checks are conducted.
Oh, and should you wish to hire a light aircraft or a yacht – “hugely in demand right now because people can escape the pandemic that way” – BAHS can organise that, too.