She was a familiar figure in Victorian life and literature, educating children in the comfort of their own homes.
Now the governess has found increasing favour during the pandemic with wealthy families seeking to ensure their children’s education does not suffer while classrooms are closed and lessons are held online.
Recruitment agencies like Duke & Duchess International, Nanny & Butler Bespoke Services and London Governess have reported a huge increase in demand for governesses. They can earn between £700 and £1,300 a week tutoring the children of the rich and, sometimes, famous.
The rise in families hiring governesses will exacerbate fears about growing inequalities experienced by disadvantaged children. While a governess has become a fashionable luxury for ultra-high net worth families in recent years, Carrie-ann Pryke, founder and director of Duke & Duchess, which has offices in London and Moscow, said there had been increased demand from working parents with means who need help with home schooling.
Many have turned to online tutors but other families, including those shielding due to health conditions, have hired governesses to isolate with them throughout lockdown so they can oversee their children’s education.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase,” Pryke said. “This year we’ve had more families coming to us who are using us to fulfil a need rather than as a luxury.” As well as governesses, she said there had been increasing interest in governors – the modern male equivalent.
Pryke said her company had seen a 38% increase in demand for candidates to fill education roles with families. She also reported an 86% increase in applications from candidates holding a degree in secondary education and a 71% increase in candidates holding a master’s. Among those looking for work are supply teachers.
Vesna Godart’s company, London Governess, has seen a similar surge in demand. “We saw a huge increase in the last six months of last year,” she said. “We have a lot of clients who are now working from home and are calling because they can’t follow school online as they need to work, so they need governesses to help.” Godart said she was receiving more calls from families who had moved to Dubai during lockdown.
A modern governess will usually be expected to have a teaching qualification and will be responsible not just for supporting a child’s education but also wider mentoring, cultural and play activities outside school hours. Caring duties will generally fall to the child’s parents or a nanny.
Before lockdown, a governess would have been expected to provide support around school hours, helping with homework and additional tutoring where needed. Now schools are closed to most children in many countries, governesses find themselves responsible for helping children negotiate online lessons.
“It’s really hard to do,” said Sara, who did not want to give her full name. “I don’t know how these parents are managing it.” She is working as a live-in governess for a family based in south-west England. She began her career as a primary school teacher but moved into governess roles and has quadrupled her salary, she said.
“I was a teacher for two years before I realised, this is not what I want to do – the workload, the pressure, being so undervalued. All of my friends who are still teachers are always stressed. I know they do it for the love of the children, but I think I’ve found a better route by working for families.
“A modern-day governess is really quite strange. The role is always slightly different depending on the family. Some families want more of a fancy nanny who they can say is a governess. Others want the academic side of things and the focus is more on that.”
Sara has worked for ultra-high net worth families around the world, including non-UK royalty and Russian families, she said, but not for celebrity employers because of the extra stress involved with the role. Now she is working for a family who have been shielding.
She lives in a cottage on the grounds and supports the learning of the family’s three children, aged six, eight and 10, who are doing full-time lessons remotely at home. “It’s similar to being a tutor. I did do some tutoring but I didn’t like it as much. You might only spend an hour with a child whereas I prefer getting to know the children in a family.” It’s well-paid, she says, but families have high expectations.
Sheena Sheikh was until recently employed as a governess in Italy. She returned home for Christmas and after the January lockdown restrictions kicked in, decided to remain in the UK. She is now tutoring four children between the ages of eight and 16, from different families, online.
“What I like about the governess role is that there’s more time with the children, but you’re not the nanny. It’s really good for bonding. It’s important to have a nice family in a governess role because you’re immersed in family life. I’m quite careful.
“There are a lot of governess roles at the moment requesting you lock down with the family, asking you to self-isolate with them 24/7. It’s a really big ask.
“I’m finding the four students I have at the moment are all struggling with [online education]. The families that can afford a tutor or a governess will manage to weather the storm. The real concern are the parents who can’t afford it.”