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Infants learning at nursery | The Good Schools GuideChildcare choices – what are your options?

Whether you’re returning to work, you want your child to form new attachments or you need the odd break from them (or all of these things), there are plenty of childcare options.  

Grandparents/family

In theory, this seems like the ideal scenario. Flexible, convenient and your child gets unconditional love (and probably more ice cream too). It’s usually free and your relatives benefit from more time with your children while also being able to hand them back at the end of the day. Plus, many grandparents say it helps keep them fit. 

On the downside, clashes over parenting styles (discipline, screen time, food etc) can cause discord (although a family childcare agreement can help iron out problems before they begin, according to the advice group, Family Lives). And the flexibility is entirely dependent on goodwill and the meshing of diaries, with last minute changes of plan on either side causing potential irritation. The lack of peer company for your child could be a concern and declining heath and decreasing energy can make childcare too much for some grandparents. Plus, there is no formal way of linking your child’s development into the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework (EYFS)

Childminder

Registered childminders are professional workers who provide care for small groups of children (sometimes including their own) in their own home. Your child gets a personalised experience, with lots of individual attention and the chance to mix with different age ranges. In some cases, this home-from-home setting can feel like a second family. Childminders can be flexible, offering wrap-around care for school aged children (in some cases dropping them off and picking them up) and some offer overnight or weekend care. During this time, they may take your child out for trips in the local area or provide activities within the home setting. Childminders are Ofsted registered (or equivalent in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and are inspected to ensure they provide good quality care and link your child’s development into the EYFS (or equivalent curriculum in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Depending on where you live, the hourly rate for a childminder may be lower than some other childcare options.   

Be warned that not all childminders have back-up childcare if they’re ill, on holiday or have an emergency, though many work together with others in the local area to ensure there’s an alternative option for parents they work with if something goes wrong.  

Nannies 

Nannies – many of whom are voluntarily registered on Ofsted’s childcare register - provide a one-to-one relationship with your child in your home and are often one of the most flexible childcare options, not only in terms of the hours they work but when your child naps, eats etc. You can get a live-in nanny (if you have the space) or one that lives out, and many families do a nanny share. In other words, the ball is in your court on almost every level.  

But unless you do a nanny share, nannies are more of a financial commitment than other forms of childcare. It can be tricky to find the right nanny too (especially important because nanny care is largely unsupervised), although there are agencies that will help you find and ensure their suitability (non-registered nannies don’t have to have qualifications) and then help you organise the necessary PAYE and holiday pay. And there are no back-up options if your nanny is ill or goes on holiday.  

Au pairs

Unlike nannies and childminders who make childcare their career, au pairs usually offer childcare to fund studies or careers or improve their English. They also tend to be younger than childminders and nannies (late teens or early 20s) and are often from overseas, meaning they are closer in age to your child and can introduce them to another culture and language. And they work for a lower rate than nannies and childminders (though there are rules and regulations governing their employment and stay, which typically includes some time off for study). Au pairs can fit well into family life and will often pick up your child from preschool or nursery, as well as babysitting and sometimes (if agreed) light housework such as washing up and cleaning.  

But Brexit has made it much harder for young people from EU countries to au pair in the UK. And because au pairs rarely have formal training or professional childcare experience, you may want to think twice when employing them to look after very young children (even with older children, you will need to show them the ropes). Also remember there will be costs incurred by having your au pair live with you (heating, food, outings etc) and you are unlikely to be able to meet them (except on Zoom) before they work for you. Communication can be challenging if your au pair isn’t fluent in English, and as there’s no legally binding contract between you - even if you've drawn up a written agreement - your au pair is free to leave at any time.  

Day nurseries and pre-schools

These are structured and stimulating environments in which a variety of activities are prearranged and backed up with lots of resources. Your child will be in the company of other children, enabling them to develop social skills. All nurseries are registered with (and therefore regularly inspected by) Ofsted (or equivalent in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland) to ensure your child’s development is linked into the EYFS. 

However, nurseries have set opening and closing times - and some close for a period in the summer. There’s more likelihood of your child catching bugs and viruses from the other children there – and if they get ill they won’t be able to attend. Some parents might consider it a downside that their child won’t get the one-to-one care that they will with a childminder, nanny or au pair, though most nurseries provide each child with a key worker. Also be warned that good nurseries have waiting lists and costs can vary hugely. 

Have a look at: Nursery schools finding the right one

Crèches

Crèches are usually found in workplaces, colleges or other places of study or on commercial and leisure sites such as shopping or sports centres. They provide parents with a formal and structured (but not usually long term) period of care at a cheaper cost than a day nursery, as long as the parent stays on the premises. Crèches are usually regulated, cheaper than many other childcare options and provide the opportunity to interact with other children via varied activities and lots of resources. They’re a reliable option too as they are run by multiple staff. 

But a crèche has most of the downsides of a private day nursery, with the exception of the long waiting lists and higher costs. 

Playgroups

This broad term includes groups where parents can come and play with their children. They are often held in venues such as a church hall or community centre and are run by volunteers or a charity. A small financial contribution enables your little one to play with the shared toys, providing time for a chat with fellow parents while keeping a shared eye on your children.  

But playgroups vary enormously both in their standards and what they offer to parents, and your children will need to be under your supervision at all times. 

Out of school clubs/holiday clubs

These operate outside school term times, normally in schools or community centres. They’re a great option for topping up term time only childcare. Some enable younger and older siblings to attend together, supervised by play workers. Costs are about the same as a regulated day nursery. 

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