There are a range of nursery options available, with some run by local groups and organisations, and others which are private and take an independent approach to education. Depending on your own educational values, you may wish to follow a traditional approach or consider a Montessori or other type of school. Either way, it’s worth doing a little research into what and how your child may learn. “The important thing to remember, is whatever kind of nursery you choose for your child, you are setting them off on the right foot both socially and in terms of an education setting,” explains Mel Ingle, founder of London-based education consultancy Ingle Education.
Here are the three main options…
Day Nurseries: “These are a good option for working parents. They take babies from three months, and offer continuity as children can stay in the same environment until they go to school. There is, however, a broad range of ages, so they have to cater to that in the activities they offer,” explains Mel. While a day nursery is normally privately-run, there are also local authority nurseries and community nurseries. “A day nursery is run for childcare purposes, but normally follows a national curriculum for the three- to five-year-olds,” adds Supernanny expert Amanda Coxen.
Nursery Schools: “Providing a more formal education setting, these nurseries take children from ages two-and-a-half or three, right through to school age and can be fee-paying or state-funded,” says Mel. “They usually offer smaller groups than day nurseries, and allow your child to go to school with a good knowledge of the basics, like letters and numbers. They tend to offer just morning or afternoon places though, so don’t tend to work as well for some working families.” For that reason, it’s likely working parents intent on sending their children to a nursery school will have to investigate some form of wraparound childcare, whether it be a childminder or nanny. It’s also worth bearing in mind nurseries have to adhere to strict ratios of staff to children, as well as guidelines and a curriculum set by the government.
Montessori Schools: Traditionally, these schools were considered a more liberal, creative alternative to day nurseries and nursery schools. As Mel explains: “At these nurseries, the children are allowed to choose from a wide range of activities on offer, in order to help them develop their own sense of curiosity. Hands-on learning and collaborative play are both encouraged, but it can be a less traditional approach to early years education.” However, experts agree that, these days, it’s far more common to see nursery schools integrate elements of the Montessori approach into their own structure, to ensure children are receiving both a practical, and creative early education.
Experts agree there is no set-in-stone time for children to start nursery, and it often depends on the needs of your wider family and where you live. For example, those in densely populated areas may have a wide choice of nurseries to consider, while those in a rural or more remote setting are likely to have limited options.
“With nurseries, timing is crucial,” says Amanda. “The best nurseries will get booked up as much as a year in advance so make sure you don’t leave it until the last minute. Nurseries range in size from 10 to 100+ places. That may be an important factor. Large nurseries are not always a bad thing as they tend to have better facilities – you just need to check how the rooms and ages of the children within the nursery are broken down.”
“The government currently funds a universal provision of 15 hours childcare in state nurseries for all three-year olds, and it isn’t means-tested. They do this to ensure that no child starts ‘real school’ aged four, having had no early-years nursery care or time away from their parents due to financial concerns,” explains Mel. “This funding can also be claimed by private nurseries and deducted from the fees. There is also means-tested funding for two-year olds and an additional 15 hours for three-year olds available for some families.”
You can find your nearest government-funded nursery using the official search tool, here. Just remember some nurseries will require a deposit, and sometimes a term’s notice should you wish to leave or change your arrangement so keep this in mind before you make any financial commitment.
“Some private nurseries offer free places to disadvantaged children and can offer subsidies but it all depends on family circumstances and is at the discretion of the management,” says educational expert Dr Kathy Weston. “In general, when you give your child the opportunity to attend a high quality early years' setting, you are setting them up for life. Private nurseries tend to offer more outdoor space, have smaller ratios of staff to children and offer a wider range of activities. The main thing is that parents understand the importance of giving children opportunities to play, engage with other children and really build confidence – those early years matter.”
How and when you apply will differ, however, depending on whether you choose a fee-paying or state nursery for your child. As Mel explains:
Fee-paying Nurseries: “Applications to fee-paying nurseries or pre-schools, whether connected to independent schools or not are generally made well before a child’s second birthday, and in some areas, such as parts of London, within weeks of birth. It’s worth checking with the nursery you are interested in to see how their application process works.”
State Nurseries: “State nurseries are attached to primary schools and in most cases have three intakes a year – in September, January and April. Children join the nursery after they turn three. Applications are typically made through the local council or direct to the nursery depending on your area, and parents should begin to think about this when their child is 18 months old to avoid missing any deadlines.”
When it comes to state nursery applications, it’s often down to the council to allocate places. At primary school level, you'll find more talk of ‘feeder’ nurseries which supposedly affect your child’s chances of getting into the infant school of your choice – whether it be primary or state. Unfortunately, experts agree the system isn’t always so simple, and can differ wildly depending on whether the primary school is indeed state or private. As Mel explains: “Typically, by being in the pre-school or nursery of an independent or fee-paying school, you’re more likely to get preferential access to the school itself. However, attending the nursery attached to a state primary school doesn’t usually give children any additional chance of admission.”
Thankfully, if there are any explicit rules or regulations, they’re likely to be made clear at the time of admission. Dr Kathy explains: “Generally the rules are made quite explicit at the point of entry of the primary school, with schools often giving parents an idea of the percentage of children admitted on the basis of attending the feeder nursery.” In general, admission to sought-after primaries is almost entirely related to geographical proximity, which can also change from year to year. “Thinking about where you live is usually as close to "working the system" as you can get,” she adds.
While it's reassuring to know there are many good primary schools which have nurseries attached to them, there are other factors which can affect your child’s application. Leon Hady from Guide Education adds: “If final places for a primary school are being decided, in which two students do not meet any of the criteria, there is no doubt that your child attending that school's nursery will play to their advantage. That said, if the relationship between the school and the parent/guardian is poor, or the child's behaviour isn’t ideal, this can then have a detrimental impact on the decision to offer them a place.”
So, while it seems a reputable nursery name on your application doesn’t hurt, the idea of strict 'feeder nurseries' appears to be a bit of a myth. “If there was such a thing as working the system, I’d tell everyone to move to Richmond and Twickenham, which have some of the best nurseries and primary schools in the country,” admits Leon. “But, joking aside, there is a responsibility for parents at any educational establishment to be part of creating the culture. Outstanding nurseries and primaries aren’t suddenly made, they are crafted by teachers, parents and students working together.”
“The best way to research a nursey is to contact your local Children’s Information Service and ask for a list of nurseries in your area,” says Amanda. “Ask parents in the area if they can recommend any nurseries to you. You can even get a short list of recommendations by asking the bursar of the local school which ones they and the parents would rate. Narrow your list and then start phoning around to book a visit.”
A sign of a good nursery is usually one that invests in staff training and employs staff who have qualifications above the minimum requirements, advises the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA). “Seek out Ofsted inspection reports online or ask the nursery to show it to you,” they suggest. “Find out if the nursery has achieved any quality standards or awards such as Millie's Mark, Quality Counts, Champions programme or Investors In People.” Peter Sigrist, educational campaigner and founder of Just Add Parents agrees: “Ofsted isn’t a perfect organisation but it is there to make sure educational institutions across all phases are safe and understand how to create an environment where children flourish. Don’t take their reports entirely at face value but certainly use them to arm you with all the right questions for when you go to meet the nursery leaders.”
When visiting nurseries, be sure to ask the same questions to help you compare them. After all, good nurseries will expect it. “Find out who would be your child’s main carer and talk to them,” says the NDNA. “Do the children look happy and settled? Are they free to choose what to do and what to play with? Is there a good outdoor area which children can access freely? Is there a good mix of resources so all children can play with what they want to? Also, ask how the nursery applies the Government’s Early Years Foundation Stage framework and how they communicate with parents – for example, via an electronic diary and, ideally, an open door policy.” Before you leave, remember to clarify what the fees cover, how holiday arrangements work and whether childcare credits are accepted or if funded hours are available.
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