Finding the right nursery school for your child

Nursery education finding the right nursery for your child

'There is a forest school nursery in Manchester that is so popular you absolutely have to register during pregnancy.'

A good nursery will give your child a great start in life but how do you choose?

Will they put a smile on your face, a spring in your child's step? Foster a love of learning that will last a lifetime - or at best, simply 'babysit'?

Every child is different:  what proves a godsend for one, may be a nemesis for others. At such a tender age, how do you know what will suit your child? Even knowing the strengths and talents you hope they will nurture can be tricky.


So what should you look out for? 


We offer our top tips...

Pre-school/nursery/early years education - yes, no, maybe? How do you decide? 

Helping you to choose


Pre-school isn't compulsory and for good reason. Not all parents want their child to attend a pre-school and pre-school may not suit every child. Your child's early years may be spent with you at home, perhaps with the help of a nanny or au-pair. Alternatively you may need to go back to work or decide that time away from home suits you both. Possibilities include: child-minders, nursery, kindergarten, creche, pre-school, play-group, pre-prep school, toddler groups etc. In some settings such as parents and tot groups or baby-yoga classes you will join a class or setting with your child. In others you will fully entrust the care of your child to others, often for a substantial part of their day.


What is important is that your child continues to thrive, flourish and develop - socially, cognitively, emotionally, physically - in whatever environment you choose.


There are no hard and fast rules, but try not to have too many preconceived ideas. We recommend exploring the options so you know your decision is the right one. 

  • Social skills and interaction with others are key.  For some children a pre-school is the perfect place for this, others may find they get plenty of opportunities for mixing and socialising without the need for a formal pre-school setting.
  • Attending pre-school is a personal choice, you might feel your child is independent enough to cope with a structured early years setting or that they are sufficiently independent that pre-school isn't necessary.
  • Do check out different settings - playgroups, nurseries, pre-schools, parents and tots - even if you are intent on keeping your child at home with you, that way you know you are making an informed decision.
  • Consider cost and practicalities such as timing; if these put you off, speak to your health visitor or early years setting, who may know ways to combat such difficulties.
  • Don't be put off by what others say, or by your own dim, distant memories or those of others; see for yourself. Visit, look at the other children; can you envisage your child there?



Choosing a day nursery/pre-school/early years setting for your child


Where to start

  • Find a good pre-school settingThink about your ideal location - close to home, family or work? If there is a good nursery on your doorstep -  great, if not weigh-up the benefits of travelling further afield for a great setting, versus the extra effort this will require.
  • If you have your heart set on a particular pre-prep/pre-school, speak to them. Find out if there are particular early years settings they recommend (and ask why). NB Admissions rules are such that attendance at any given nursery setting (including the school's own) has no bearing on getting a place at a particular state school.
  • Try to get recommendations from friends and family.
  • If possible, speak with current parents (better still arrive at a time when other parents are around so that you can strike up a casual conversation). Do their ideas and thoughts about the nursery provision match your aspirations?
  • Read the latest inspection reports.
  • Always visit any early years setting before accepting a place (See Sussing Out A Nursery - On A Visit). Even if your heart is set on a particular nursery/pre-school, try to visit several so you can get a better understanding of what they offer and a clear idea of what will best suit your child.


The setting 

Nurseries come in all shapes and sizes including: tiny village nurseries, larger commercial enterprises, stand alone nurseries and those attached to schools. 

'Nursery (starts with 2+ children) and pre-prep in cedar clad annexe – plenty of space indoors and outside'. [Good Schools Guide review of Sunny Hill Prep School ]

While some nurseries, such as that at Sunny Hill Prep, are very much an integral part of the school others, such as that at Portsmouth Grammar School, maintain their own powerful identity. When we visited PGS nursery we noted,

'Nursery tucked round the back of PGS is a magical place, brilliantly led by Lois Johnson. Assertively play-based with a hint of Montessori. Hugely well thought out, based around ‘imagination rooms’ that focus on numbers, books, building, craft, plus outside play'.


Some are housed in bright, modern purpose-built buildings others such as the nursery attached to St Christopher's Junior School in Letchworth sit in yesteryear splendour, 

'In 2008, the Montessori nursery ('The Monte') relocated to Arunwood, a Grade II listed building and former childhood home of Sir Laurence Olivier'.

Children thrive in different environments and settings. The setting alone does not determine the learning styles - these can vary considerably too. Of Michael Hall School, a Steiner school, we say,

'Kindergarten feels like a farmhouse kitchen, homey and calm. Earthy rather than bright colours are used in the decoration, pictures are wiped clean or taken home rather than being put up on the walls – children are encouraged to find their own level of creative play and imitate the adults with plenty of repetition and ritual'.

Choose a setting that suits your child but don't forget to explore what goes on inside too!

A suitable environment for your child? 

Settings are as varied and colourful as the children in their care. Some children thrive in busy purposeful settings with plenty of bustle, others prefer calm, ordered environments. Some parents firmly believe their children should be free to explore, experiment and lead their learning, others feel young children need routine, boundaries and rules.

Whatever your thoughts on the type and nature of the setting, when entrusting the care of your child to others, you should look to find a setting that will:

  • Work with you and listen to your child. 
  • Work from your child's current development stage and needs, not from pre-conceived notions of what a 2, 3 or 4 year-old should do.
  • Seek to develop your child's confidence. 
  • Encourage good behaviour, cooperation. 
  • Develop an awareness of, and sensitivity to, others and their feelings.
  • Be interested in the personal, social and emotional development of your child.


When to register for nurseries, pre-school and pre-prep


Registering for pre-school

It isn't just schooling that can take years of careful planning and (for some independent schools) registration at birth - so too do some pre-school options. Much depends on: where you live, the type of setting you require and how essential it is to bag a place. If you plan on returning to work, plan ahead. Sussing out placements before you have your baby can save a lot of leg work and hassle later, when tot will be in-tow. Do revisit though - nurseries can change very quickly, especially in areas with high staff turn-over, and keep an eye on inspection reports. 

Some early-years provision is wonderfully flexible, operating on an almost drop-in basis but if you are seeking out a pre-school, pre-prep or popular nursery you may have to plan well-in advance, even during pregnancy. Guidance from the wonderfully named Ducks (Dulwich college Kindergarten), which takes babies from six months says,

'Put your name down whilst pregnant. More children join the nursery and reception classes, ending up with two reception classes of 22'.

At Ducks - a place in the nursery doesn't guarantee progression through the school but providing your child is hitting the right milestones they have a good chance of being able to continue. Not that Ducks gives up if children have special needs, they work with parents with the school commenting,

'Sometimes there are helpful changes that parents can make at home, such as ways of communicating.’

Shortage of places used to be a London-only concern but these days it has spread to other metropolis. Our Manchester editor warns against leaving things to the last minute

'From my own experience there is a lack of quality nursery schools that don’t have a high turn over of staff and that don’t employ a lot of teenagers. As a result, in Manchester you need to secure good nurseries by registering really early.'

And adds,

'There is a Forest school nursery in Manchester that is so popular you absolutely have to register during pregnancy. I know that’s been the case with nurseries in London for a long time but it’s becoming more normal here as well.'

Be flexible...

Don't feel you have to stick with your initial early years choice. If it isn't working have a rethink. Children change and if the setting hasn't flexed to meet your child's needs a change might well be for the best. Your own ideas of what you want may change too. We know parents worry about how pre-school will prepare their children for the real thing. Our Manchester editor warns that school and nursery may be inextricably bound. She comments, 

Parents are really concerned about how well a nursery will prepare their child for an assessment at age 3 or 4! They tend to go for other independent school nurseries and then jump ship to state schools at reception.'

Loyalty isn't always two-way. A school may take your child into nursery but decide they are not suitable candidates for their school. The offer of a  place in a state school nursery in no way guarantees a place in the school, indeed the offers are completely independent of each other.


Practicalities to consider prior to a visit

  • Do the hours suit you and your child?
  • Are they flexible about pick-up and drop off times?
  • Can you sign up to different hours on different days? If not, does this matter to you?
  • Do you have to pay a retainer (or even full fees) for holidays?
  • What happens if your child is ill? What happens if other children are ill?
  • Do you want a structured learning environment or the apparent freedom of Montessori or Steiner type settings? If you are unsure visit a selection before deciding.


What about children with special needs?

A good nursery will cater for a range of children including those with special needs. However, the type, nature and severity of your child's special needs may determine the type of setting you want for your child. Many mainstream nurseries take children with a variety of needs and meet those needs with aplomb. Similarly there are some excellent nurseries specifically for children with special or additional needs.  In Scotland parents fought for, and got a purpose built centre for children with motor impairments. Time in the nursery is very much aimed at getting the fundamental issues addressed.

'Babies and those under two have two one-and-a-half hour sessions a week with their parents who are taught the right way to handle, communicate with, feed (and some may have gastrostomy tubes, particularly those who are underweight), dress their offspring and 'develop good patterns of movement' for them'.

A number of state special schools have nurseries attached, In some cases the children may progress through the school but this isn't always the case. Swiss Cottage A Specialist SEN School has a nursery for children aged 2+ which caters for children including those with more severe needs than the school caters for,

'In addition, the assessment nursery can cater for severe/profound learning difficulties and children with sensory impairment (these children will move to an appropriate school at five)'.

Ask those involved with your child (health, education, social care as appropriate) to help you find the right setting. They will be able to advise on a range of issues and services including alternative communications, Portage plus specialist therapies such as music, speech and language, occupational therapy, physiotherapy. They should help practically too, for example with any one to one support your child needs. Visit several nurseries, even if you are set on one particular nursery it is always good to have something to compare. Find out what experience they have of dealing with other children with special needs (both similar to and different from those of your child).

If your child has not been diagnosed as having a special educational need but you have concerns, ask about Early Years Action Plus either at the pre-school setting your child attends or prior to starting at nursery/pre-school. It is difficult, but not impossible, for a child aged under two to be assessed for a statement of special educational needs. 




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Subscribers will find detailed exam results and performance information on individual school pages. Visit these 'free to view' schools. Explore results - read our independent reviews*

Invicta Grammar School, Maidstone is a state school for girls aged from 11 to 18, co-ed sixth form

Rokeby School, Kingston upon Thames is an independent school for boys aged from 4 to 13

The Queen's Church of England Primary School, Richmond is a state school for boys and girls aged from 4 to 11.

Swiss Cottage School Development & Research Centre, London is a state special school for boys and girls aged from 2 to 19

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  • And, for English state schools, make sure you make the right move by examining catchment area data and seeing which schools pupils come from and which schools they move on to. 

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Further reading

From Embryo To Eighteen - How To Survive The Education Highway

Nursery And Early Years - Your Questions Answered

Child Care Choices For Under 5's

Sussing Out A Nursery: On A Visit

Starting School

Pre-School Children And SEN

Nurture Groups

What Play Teaches Us

The English School System

Pre-Preparatory Schools

Primary Schools In The UK


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An introductory subscription to the guide, enabling you to read ALL the reviews and features, use our extensive exams analysis and view catchment area maps, costs from just £9.99 - a small price for unbeatable help, support and advice. NB We do not cover nursery schools and early years settings except where they are part of a pre-prep or primary school that we review.


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