Even for parents with a child starting in Reception, the school nursery is a main reason to choose the school. Why?
Consistently in my surveys about 40% of parents rate “school nursery classes” as one of their 5 main criteria for choosing a prep or primary school.
For these parents, parents of children starting Reception, the nursery is a major reason to choose the prep or primary. More important than other criteria that will directly impact their child’s primary education. Criteria such as sports facilities, music or dance lessons, foreign languages, outdoor education, etc. More important than 50 other aspects of schooling that they could have chosen.
What could explain the importance of the nursery to these parents?
Perhaps the most obvious answer is that they are thinking about younger siblings, or future younger siblings. And the prospect of dropping off and collecting from two different locations isn’t attractive. Which tells us a lot about priorities. Nurseries have to be local to home or to work. They also have to be local to a primary school.
It’s good news for parents then. There are about 95,000 nurseries and pre-school age care facilities in the UK. That’s one for every 5 primary schools. They’re local and there’s a choice. The majority of providers are small, single setting operations, provided by local people for local children. The top 30 national chains account for under 3% of all settings.
Parents choose a primary school in the same way they choose nursery
There may be a second reason to explain the importance of a school nursery to parents of 5-year olds. Maybe they are choosing a primary school using the same criteria as they used for the nursery when their child was younger. Criteria such as proximity, “homeliness of setting”, teacher personality, etc.
Maybe parents aren’t yet ready to recognise the change in developmental needs for a child moving into “big school”. For them, a school with a nursery demonstrates a pastoral philosophy that continues into the Reception and Infant classes. It’s a bit like a security blanket, the safe choice. And contrary to the decreasing teacher to pupil ratios that goes with older classes. Which presents a challenge for any school marketing effort.
The third reason is more contentious, and its to do with the perception of a guarantee of a place in Reception.
Parents hope that school nurseries are feeders to primary and prep schools
Why would a parent choose a school nursery over any other?
- Because they’re better? That’s a case by case decision. And I’ve listed some decision criteria to help you compare nurseries at the end of the article.
- Because, as they are schools, they’re better at preparing children for school? All settings follow the same (or equivalent) curriculum guidelines, albeit with different emphases and styles (eg Montessori, Waldorf Steiner).
- Because a child in the school nursery is guaranteed a place in Reception?…
But the perception is wrong. Local education authorities (LEAs), not schools, determine (state) primary school admissions policies. And attendance at the nursery isn’t one of the selection criteria. Some LEAs go so far as to emphasise this.
It’s different for independent prep schools with their own nurseries. By and large, preps have pre-schools, often running at break-even or sometimes at a loss. But they run them to help fill their Reception places early. A sort of “try before you buy”. Guaranteeing a place in Reception is therefore a (or the) major selling point of the pre-school. 80% of independent prep schools have a school nursery. For state primaries, it’s 50%.
But not all preps. Where preps are popular, with long waiting lists, particularly in London, they don’t guarantee a Reception place for nursery children.
For some parents the guarantee of a Reception place is all they want. Even if the school’s nursery is inferior to a standalone nursery down the road. For these parents I could write a post similar to the all-through schools post. The point would be the same. Educating a wide span of ages may make commercial sense for a school. But it doesn’t de facto make for a better education for each age group.
Why look for a nursery?
So, let’s go back to the beginning. Why are you looking for a nursery in the first place?
Here are 3 typical reasons.
Firstly, needs must. You may be one of the 49% of couples with children where both parents work. Or you may be one of the 66% of single parents who work.
Secondly, you may have decided that mixing with other children would be good for your child’s social development.
And thirdly, you may have decided that nursery may be good for your child’s intellectual development. Acquiring some basic literacy skills before they start school perhaps.
What’s the choice? Day nursery, pre-school, creche, school nursery?
First there’s the day nurseries. There are 23,500* of them across the UK. These provide care for children between 0 and 5 years, typically from 8.00am to 6.00pm, and usually for 50 weeks of the year. They are registered with, and inspected by, Ofsted (or equivalent) and the majority of providers are private companies. Day (care) nurseries are the natural choice for working parents since they provide a service that matches working hours.
The next most important category is the pre-school. Sometimes they’re called playgroups, playschools, kindergartens amongst others. Importantly, pre-schools differ to day nurseries in that they provide care in sessions, rather than for the whole day, and then, only in school term times, for children age 2 to 5 years. They are also registered, regulated and inspected. But this group of providers are perhaps more diverse, with charities, parent groups, churches and local volunteers making up the majority of provision.
Pre-schools appeal to parents who want their child to develop social interaction skills, but not on a full-time basis, as with day nurseries.
Crèches are a little like pre-schools except that they are usually a facility provided by an employer to its employees, university or college to its students or a sports club to its members. There are about 9,600* pre-schools and creches in the UK.
On top of this are the pre-schools that are attached to a primary school. Nomenclature varies but, unhelpfully, they are officially referred to as school nurseries, or primary schools with nursery classes. “Unhelpfully” because the vast majority provide sessional care in term time, so they are actually pre-schools. I think that there are about 8,500 state infant or primary schools that have their own “nursery”. That’s about 50%. For independents, it’s more like 1,300 or 80%.
What about childminders and nannies?
Childminders, all 59,500* of them, are sole traders, qualified and registered child carers, registered with Ofsted (or equivalent) and usually provide care on a bespoke basis from their homes. “Bespoke” meaning number of hours, timing, frequency and child ratio. They typically look after a small number of children, far less than day nurseries.
Nannies (about 100,000) typically look after the children of one family at their home. Though usually qualified, nannies are not required to register with Ofsted (or equivalent). Au Pairs are not usually qualified, or registered.
And then there are the 15,000* after school childcare providers. They typically provide care and activities outside school hours in term time to cover the gap between the school day and work day. These registered organisations often provide school holiday clubs too.
Beware the 30 hours of free childcare for 3- and 4-year olds
Childcare is expensive. In order to help working parents with the cost of childcare the government introduced a scheme to offer a further 15 hours of free childcare per week for 3- and 4-year olds. This is in addition to the universal 15 free hours, if certain qualification criteria are met.
Popular with parents, understandably, implementation has been patchy. The root of the problem has been the payment the government gives to childcare providers. The complaint is that the reimbursement rate is not only below the hourly rate charged by providers, it is also below the hourly wage paid by the providers to its employees.
Depending on which source you believe the net result is;
- Half of providers aren’t offering the 30 free hours (they don’t have to).
- And/or those that do are offering a restricted number of free places, session times and session days. And they are now charging parents for extras such as trips. Which could mean that there is no net saving for parents.
- And/or half are going out of business (particularly pre-school and childminders).
Understanding how it impacts your childcare provider is now a worry rather than a bonus.
How to compare nurseries and pre-school care providers
Here’s a list of features to help you compare nurseries and pre-schools settings. Providers will differentiate themselves on some or all of them.
Starting with logistical factors;
- Convenience for home or work.
- Operating hours, and weeks per year.
Then get a general feel from the children;
- How are the children interacting with each other?
- Do the children seem happy and interested?
- Is your child showing signs of wanting to join in?
Comparing childcare settings;
- Is it registered with Ofsted (or equivalent)? And what does the Ofsted inspection report say?
- How is the layout of the premises? Is there a variety of activities; corners or spaces for science, play, books, construction, etc.
- How child-centred is the decoration of the setting? Is it bright, inviting, with children’s work on display?
- Is there age/size appropriate furniture, equipment, lavatories?
- Make sure you’re sure of the security of the premises. That children can’t slip a latch and get out. It happens! (Ofsted reports are good for this). Is it ventilated, smell free?
- How about outdoor space, and outdoor activities? “Freeflow” is very topical; the facility for a child to move safely, and freely, between indoors and outdoors. So is Forest School.
- Quality/availability of food.
- The curriculum. A big area, with a lot of personal preference to decide. All settings are required to adhere to 7 Early Years Foundation Years (EYFS) learning and development areas. Though how they do it isn’t prescribed. As such different settings will deliver their own style of curriculum. Particular examples are Montessori and Waldorf Steiner schools. As ever, opinions are divided on the content and merits of pre-school education. Many European countries don’t start formal education till age 6 or 7. Play based learning is the preferred emphasis for Montessori and Waldorf Steiner Schools. And yet, the Sutton Trust measured the attainment gap between richer and disadvantaged children to be 4.3 months at age 5. In 2014 Sir Michel Wilshaw bemoaned the significant number of children starting school unable to hold a pen, or with poor communication skills. The EYFS learning and development areas are;
- Communication and language.
- Physical development.
- Personal, social and emotional development.
- Understanding the world.
- Expressive arts and design.
Comparing childcare staff;
- Staff to child ratios. Some nurseries boast of more favourable ratios. But here are the statutory requirements;
- For children up to the age of 2; 1 adult to 3 children. And one adult must have a relevant Level 3 qualification (A Level), and 50% of the rest must have a relevant Level 2 qualification (GCSE).
- For 2-year olds, 1 to 4. Again, one adult must have a Level 3, 50% of others must have a Level 2.
- For 3 to 5-year olds, either;
- 1 to 13, where there is a qualified teacher working directly with the children, and there is also a Level 3 qualified adult. In effect 2:26. Or,
- 1 to 8, and one adult must have a Level 3, 50% of others must have a Level 2 qualification.
- Qualifications and training. Parents can lazily prejudice older staff with more experience and qualifications, and younger staff with more energy. Don’t be one of them! Ask! You’re looking for relevant Level 2, Level 3, Level 6, qualifications as well as first aid, and early years specialists.
- Look for nurseries with a low staff turnover.
- A study by the Family & Childcare Trust in 2015 linked Ofsted rating and staff wages. Those working for an “Outstanding” provision earned 12.5% more than those with a “Good”. “Good” paid 7.5% more than “Requires Improvement” or “Inadequate”. Assuming the quality of provision affected the grading, rather than the converse, the question is what influences the quality of provision. The quality of the staff and the low turnover of the staff should be significant influences.
- Are the staff engaging with the children, not to each other, or their phones…Are they wearing practical clothes and engaging on eye level with the children?
*Source: Jill Rutter, Family & Childcare Trust; “Understanding the family childcare market”, 2016