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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 to encourage your child to form new attachments or you just need the odd break from them (or all of these things), there are plenty of different childcare options to choose from.


At first glance, this seems like a great option for all involved. It’s free, the child gets unconditional love (probably more ice cream too), while the grandparents get a second chance at parenting.

On the downside, clashes with parenting styles can cause friction. And the flexibility of this arrangement depends on goodwill and the meshing of diaries - which means last minute changes of plan on either side can cause irritation.

Some studies say that the vocabulary of children who are looked after by their grandparents is better than average due to the focus on one-to-one conversation. The flipside of this is that unless there are many play dates arranged, there can be a significant lack of peer company. And there is no formal way of linking these children’s development into the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework (EYFS)


One of the cheapest options. An Ofsted registered childminder is self-employed and can look after your little one in their own home - as well as taking them to playgroups and parks. A good one will restrict the number of children they look after to their own capabilities rather than Ofsted ratios and make sure there is a friendly mixture of characters and development stages in their care. You can work out a weekly schedule that fits your personal working week. And the childminder can adapt as your family matures - by picking up from schools or other childcare settings.

However, childminders often have their own family commitments, and finding one that suits you perfectly is like panning for gold. And there isn’t a guaranteed peer age group - and daily activities might range from CBeebies (not in the EYFS!) to building a dinosaur from cardboard boxes, depending on the registration, initiative and experience of the childminder.

Nannies and au pairs

Nannies are much more of a financial commitment than a childminder. There are agencies that will help you find and vet one (they don’t have to have qualifications) and then help you organise the necessary PAYE and holiday pay. In some cases, parents save costs by setting up a nanny-share.

If your nanny is live-in, ensure you have the physical space. A live-in nanny can help with babysitting, washing and cooking - even travel with you - but check out what they are prepared to do before signing on the dotted. It is an intimate relationship, and one that can extend your family, so choose carefully.

Au pairs operate similarly, though they are often using childcare to fund studies or careers or improve their English, whereas nannies make childcare their career. Au pairs tend to be younger, and often from overseas. There are rules and regulations governing their employment and stay. Typically they will require some time off for study. 

Private day nursery

The good ones have waiting lists. To get a place you need to book in for a minimum of two half days a week, and pay for this for all 52 weeks of the years - regardless of sickness, holidays, or staff training days.

Costs vary enormously from £30-80 per day, depending on where you are in the country, and what is included in the price (eg meals, nappies, sun cream).

Every nursery should assign one key person who will reassure your child, document their learning and development and deal with their nappies/toilet trips: this person - and their manager - is vital to your child’s happiness.

Have a look at: Nursery schools finding the right one

The disadvantage of a nursery is the lack of flexibility - you need to ensure that your child is independent enough to be away from you for a minimum of half a day at a time; hard, when you may be easing your way back into work. If you get to know a nursery well, they may cut you some slack - especially with siblings.

Most nurseries will offer early years free entitlement the term after your child turns 3 (2 if you are a disadvantaged family): every 3 year old can claim 15 hours a week of childcare during term times until they go to school. Pre-schools will normally offer five days of three hour sessions. These 15 hours per week free childcare (in term time) must be able to be taken on their own with no extra charge; however, private nurseries may designate their EYFE hours at odd times so they will be able to charge more for the wrap-around hours to make up a reasonable session.


These settings provide childcare for a maximum of a four-hour session while the parent stays in the vicinity. They are not Ofsted registered and are often linked to activities for the parents - a pool, a gym, shopping, an employment centre. Cost varies from nothing to £5 or so an hour. Remember there is no link into the EYFS and crèches are not eligible for your free childcare entitlement.

Children’s centre day nursery

The same principles in attitude to care as a private nursery, but they have local council budgets to operate within, rather than shareholders’ dividends. These are usually focused on areas of high social economic deprivation, and children’s centres are usually purpose built. This often makes the environment particularly attractive, with large outside spaces and wonderful wooden playscapes.

Staff are normally on better salaries than those employed by private or voluntary sector organisations, since their roles come under local government pay scales. Health visitors and speech therapists etc are often housed in the same children’s centre as a nursery, which makes links with external agencies very strong. This is ideal if your child needs extra support.

Playgroups and toddler groups

This broad term includes groups where parents can come and play with their children and ones where children are dropped off. See Pre-school (below) for the latter. The former are normally held in a church hall or community centre, run by volunteers, and a contribution of a couple of pounds allows your little one to play with the shared toys and you to have a cuppa and a biscuit.

These provide a great opportunity for a chat with fellow parents while keeping a shared eye on your children as they play with far bigger toys than you might be able to fit in your own home - a trampoline, small slides etc. Very good for socialising and for rainy and cold days; however, there's no organised development focus and no opportunity to hand over your child into another’s care for a proper break.

Pre-school/pre-school playgroups

Like parent-attended playgroups, these are often run in community centres/church or school halls. They are charities, often run by parent-led committees yet employing qualified staff, since they are Ofsted registered.

They offer the early years free entitlement (EYFE) of 15 hours a week of childcare during term times, which every 3 year old can claim up until they go to school. Pre-schools will normally offer five days of three hour sessions.

Traditionally the staff are older women who started working there when they had school age kids and have continued long after their children have grown up. Like nurseries, pre-schools vary enormously in their standards and what they offer to parents - lunch, pick-ups from local schools, combination with after-school clubs etc. Costs vary from around £2 to £5 per hour. The common factor is that they don’t take under 2s.

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 - the maximum age is 11 years old and the minimum varies, sometimes as young as 3. So both younger and older siblings can play together, supervised by salaried play workers. Costs are about the same as a day nursery.

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