Suzie Skipper, mum of four, looks at nursery choices, what to look out for, help with cost and how to find the nursery that will work best for you and your child.
Illustrations by Vicky Scott.
“The early years are without doubt the most crucial time in childhood and the choice of nursery school is very important,” says Sheema Parsons B Ed OBE, headmistress of St Mark’s Square Nursery School.
Choosing the right nursery, whether it’s day-care or term-time only, is rather like finding the right house to buy. “You’ve just got to trust your gut instinct about what feels right,” says Georgina Hood, Principal of Paint Pots Montessori Schools.
There is no one-size-fits-all as children are wonderfully individual. Perhaps you have a shy child who wouldn’t thrive in a large nursery, or a child who needs outdoor space so a first floor nursery in a Victorian house won’t do. “Your choice of nursery is individual. Just because your best friend loved a particular nursery doesn’t mean you will,” says Zanna Clarke, head of the Eaton Square Nursery group.
Traditional Vs. Day-care
Many parents look to send their child to a day-care nursery when they’re returning to work as they operate for longer hours, usually between 8am and 6pm all year round. Day-care nurseries will take children from a few months up to age five. I chose a day-care nursery when I returned to work after having my first child. He started off in the baby rooms and progressed through each ‘room’ with children his age until he started school.
If you’re a working parent do ask about fexible childcare options, especially if you’re planning for your child to attend nursery for four or fve days per week. “At Wee Ones we provide what we call ‘flexible extras’, where parents can tag on extra hours, activities or days on to their existing package – in case those all-important meetings crop up unexpectedly,” says Phillipa Straker-Nesbit, Registrar and School Secretary of Wee Ones Nursery.
Daycare fees in London vary enormously but you can expect to pay £1200–£1700 per month for under threes and £1000–£1500 for over threes (some of this will be offset by free hours).
Once you have two or more children it is more cost effective to hire a nanny or an au pair and send your older one to a term-time nursery for morning or afternoon sessions. Traditional nursery costs vary but budget for around £150–£200 per week for fve sessions. Hiring a full-time ‘live out’ nanny in London costs an average of approximately £600 per week and ‘live in’ will cost around £440 per week (both gross), according to nanny payroll service, Nannytax.
Traditional nurseries tie in with school terms and tend to run morning and afternoon sessions. “The under threes come in the afternoon for a shorter two hour session. Once they’re three they move into morning sessions and then aim to do some double sessions which help prepare them for going to school,” says Zanna. Those staying a full day will have a rest after lunch on yoga mats: “Some sleep, others read or listen to classical music or story tapes.”
Finding a Nursery
Word of mouth is your best bet. Ask other mums, ask parents in the park or at the school playground. If you’re new to the area try social media sites such as mumsnet.com
Local is Best
Choose a local nursery, ideally one you can push a buggy to. You and your child will make friends who live in the same area and your child won’t be stuck in the car hungry for lunch or falling asleep.
Don’t be afraid to visit a few times. It is after all an emotional transaction – you’re looking to find the right place and people you trust to look after your child. Bring your partner, sister, friend etc. as they will all pick up on different things. Try to arrange a one-to-one visit or pop in unannounced to see the nursery in action.
“When you visit a nursery it’s important to have a list of questions that you’re keen to ask – as a lot of new parents tend to get overexcited when they arrive at a bustling, colourful nursery and forget those crucial questions,” says Phillipa.
When looking around nurseries you should look out for several things including a warm welcome. Watch how the staff and children interact with each other. “Ideally, you want calm, a sense of order as well as a happy buzzy feel. The children should be comfortable in their environment but engaged,” says Georgina.
Do the children look like they are respected? Can they speak to an adult with confdence? “Do the children and staff look happy – can they give you eye contact when you speak to them?” says Sheema.
There are some fantastic nurseries in brand new purpose-built buildings with state of the art equipment but that of itself does not make a good nursery. “Having lots of toys and murals on the wall isn’t necessarily the sign of a good nursery,” warns June O’Sullivan, CEO of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), London’s largest provider of free two-year old nursery places in London. June says that in all their nurseries they let the children impose character on their nursery.
“A good nursery should try to replicate home. We always try to fnd ways to help children settle in, whether it’s bringing their special comfort item or that your child likes having their socks off at nap time. It’s the little things that matter,” says June.
One of the most important assets in any nursery school is the staff. Ensure you engage with as many people as you can when you visit. “Imagine if there was a problem whether you’d feel happy coming to speak to the person who is in charge,” says Georgina.
Your child should have a key worker who will act as a link between home and nursery. The key worker is responsible for observing your child and tracking progress.
Do ask about staff qualifcations and first aid training. Generally the higher the percentage of staff who are trained, then the better calibre of staff the nursery should have. You could also ask about how many full-time and part-time staff there are. Children like continuity. “Look at the age range too and whether there are any men in the nursery. It’s nice to have a good balance,” says June.
Find out how long the manager has been there. “Half of our managers are home grown which is a good indicator that they like their work,” says June.
And finally, find out about training as a good nursery should nurture its staff and give them time to enhance and grow their skills.
Find out what activities the nursery offers and whether there’s any extra cost. “A good nursery shouldn’t just repeat what it has done in the morning. If your child has a particular interest it may be worth choosing the day the nursery offers whatever it is they really like such as cookery, ballet or karate,” says Zanna.
If your child is going to be attending a nursery that provides food then do ask about the menu as you’ll want to know that they will be getting the correct nutritional balance over the course of the day. “Our chef works very closely with the Children’s Food Trust to make sure that we’re ticking all the right boxes with the children’s nutrition,” says Phillipa.
Ofsted and Ratios
Do read the Ofsted reports but remember ‘Outstanding’ isn’t everything and ‘Very Good’ is a great achievement. “Increasingly, the Ofsted reports relate to the physical building ie church hall versus specially built children centre so do read between the lines,” says Georgina.
Ratios of staff to children should be 1:3 for 0-2 year olds; 1:4 for 2-3 year olds and 1:8 for over 3s or 1:13 if a qualifed teacher is present. Lots of nurseries do try to do better than the government ratios but it is worth asking.
Check the security measures to enter the nursery when you visit. It should make you feel safe and secure that you will be leaving your child there.
Do bear in mind that if your child is ill they will be sent home from nursery and you, or your nanny/au pair, will have to collect them. Nurseries, whether day-care or traditional, have pretty strict sickness policies as viruses can be spread really quickly. If your child has been prescribed antibiotics or has had sickness and/or diarrhoea you will normally have to leave it 48 hours before they return to school.
When to Start
Once you’ve found the right nursery put your child’s name down as early as possible as most London nurseries have waiting lists. As to when your child actually goes to nursery, it is entirely up to you, your personal circumstances and how ready your child is. My first child went to a day-care nursery from 16 months as this was my childcare while I was working. In contrast, my second didn’t go to nursery until she was almost three as I had employed a nanny by then!
Remember you have a choice. You don’t have to send your child to nursery at all if you don’t want to. It is far better to wait until you feel they are ready. “There is no fixed time to start. Not every two-and-a-half year old is ready for nursery while some two-year olds may be raring to go,” says Georgina, adding that often nurseries will try to defer a space for a term until both the parent and the child feel it is the right time.
Nowadays children are starting primary school earlier which means that children entering nursery are also younger, between two to two-and-a-half. Many children are still working towards being dry when they join nursery. “The majority of children get the hang of using the loo with their new friends working towards the same goal!” says Georgina.
Sending your child to nursery for just one-day a week can be disruptive for the child as they will effectively be ‘restarting’ every single time they go. It is far better for your child to attend three to five days consecutively as they will get into a routine.
Montessori and EYFS
Montessori education is learner-centred and based on the belief that children are individuals with their own strengths, needs, likes and learning styles. Much of the Montessori philosophy is now firmly embedded in the government’s Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) which sets standards for the learning, development and care of children from birth to five years old.
“The way we now teach in the early years foundation stage is very similar to Maria Montessori’s original philosophies. The aim is to create a child-centred environment and to nurture a child to become independent in the classroom,” says Zanna. All schools and Ofsted-registered early years’ providers must follow the EYFS, including childminders, preschools, nurseries and school reception classes.
See foundationyears.org.uk for more information.
Nurseries following the EYFS guidelines will focus on three key areas for the under threes – personal, physical and communication and language skills. “A child’s personal and emotional development is really important as they need to learn to survive without mum and dad by their side – to ask for things, share, make friends, go to the toilet etc.,” says Zanna.
At the age of three, children will also focus on four other areas: literacy, maths, understanding the world (history and geography) and expressive art and design, which includes music and drama. The best thing you can do for your child in terms of getting them ready for school is to read to them. It will give them a love of books and get their ear tuned into listening out for letters and sounds.
Don’t get hung up about your child being able to write their name before they get to school. “It’s always good to get your child making marks on paper but your child will learn to write their name when they’re ready,” says Zanna. The most important thing is to ensure that they are prepared personally, socially and emotionally. Teach them to dress and undress independently, to make sure they can put their own shoes and coat on by themselves and ensure that they can use the bathroom happily. “These little things can make all the difference as your child will feel much happier when they are asked by their teacher to get dressed for PE or get ready for the park,” says Zanna.
Paying for Nursery
All state-run nurseries are free. You will have to pay for private nurseries but there are ways to cut the cost. Every three-year old is offered fifteen hours free and the government has pledged to extend it to thirty hours by 2017 (and is starting in some areas in 2016). Most nurseries will deduct the 15 hours from your fees.
Tax-free Childcare Vouchers
Childcare vouchers will help you pay for a wide range of childcare from Ofsted-registered nannies, nurseries, childminders, after school clubs and even holiday camps with tax-free income! I only discovered them when my youngest was at nursery. If your employer offers childcare vouchers, sign up. Both parents can claim and double the savings. Basic rate tax payers won’t pay tax and NI on the first £243 per month, a saving of £933 p/a. Higher rate tax payers already in a scheme can still save £243 per month and those just joining or changing schemes save the frst £124 per month. One word of warning – childcare vouchers may affect your tax credits (see hmrc.gov.uk). From early 2017 no new entrants will be able to join the scheme, though if you’re already a member you can continue for as long as your employer runs one.
Tax-Free Childcare is a new government initiative which is due to replace the existing Childcare Voucher Scheme in early 2017. Tax-Free Childcare offers to cover 20% of childcare costs (up to £2,000 per child, per year), for children up to the age of 12.
See tax-free-childcare.info for more information.