The sector is regulated and inspected, with the same inspection bodies that look after schools, namely: Ofsted (England), Estyn (Wales), DENI (NI), HMIE (Scotland). But painful headlines haven't completely disappeared.
A male nursery worker in Lanarkshire was jailed in July 2012 for sex-crimes and, following the arrest of Vanessa George a nursery worker at Little Ted's in Plymouth, in June 2009, a review concluded that the nursery 'provided an ideal environment within which George could abuse'. Many of her victims remain unidentified, causing considerable pain and angst for parents.
Fortunately such abhorrent cases are rare but they do underline the importance of taking time to plan, research and visit any setting where you will entrust the care of your child to others.
Early Years Foundation Stage
In England nurseries and Kindergartens follow the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) – a kind of ‘national curriculum’ for preschools. This is divided into three key areas:
- Learning and development
- Safeguarding and welfare requirements.
EYFS recognises every child is unique and that children develop and learn in different ways. The curriculum is designed to enable and to promote positive relationships. Similar systems exist elsewhere in the UK.
The seven areas covered by the EYFS are:
- Communication and language
- Physical development
- Personal, social and emotional development
- Understanding the world
- Expressive arts and design
- The manager of a nursery must hold a full and relevant level 3 qualification (that is A-level standard), with at least half the staff holding level 2 qualifications (GCSE A*-C or BTEC/NVQ level 2 standard).
- Staff must understand, and be trained in, safeguarding children.
- Enhanced Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks should have been carried out on all staff.
- All staff must be trained, but the level of training and qualifications held may vary considerably, so do check.
Official guidance states that,
'All providers should have appropriate qualifications, training, skills and knowledge and a clear understanding of their roles and responsibility'.
A wad of qualifications and great intellect does not necessarily turn someone into a great playworker. You want articulate, intelligent staff to engage with, and be engaged by, your child. Staff should openly enjoy working with very young children and take the same pride that you do in their development and progress.
Health, safety and risk assessments
Accommodation should be warm, bright, airy and sweet smelling. The last thing you need is the stench of dirty nappies, toilet training accidents or stewed food! Cleanliness is important. Expect a bit of mess towards the end of the day but generally there is no excuse for grubby toys, tatty displays, dirty floors or rubbish bins filled to the brim.
You should also expect to find procedures for:
- Regular risks assessments conducted
- Frequent checks of play equipment
- Regular fire-drills
Fees usually reflect the strict, age-dependent staffing ratios. Typically:
- Children aged 0-2, one member of staff to every three children
- Children aged 2-3, one member of staff to four children
- Children aged 3 to 5, one staff member to every eight children
This requirement changes in some settings (such as independent schools) where a member of staff has qualified teacher status or equivalent.
You should be assigned a key worker who will keep you up to speed with your child's time at nursery and development in general. S/he will help plan activities for your child, monitor and assess progress and amend their activity and learning programmes as necessary. They should be involved with identifying any support needs and should listen and act on any concerns or worries you may have. Parent-nursery communication is important and should be frequent. You should hope for daily feedback, not just a summary of what your child has done but how they have been - warts and all.
Monitoring of your child’s progress
Children should be regularly observed by staff as part of the ongoing assessment process but the aim is to keep bureaucracy to a minimum, so children and their needs get the lion's share of staff time. That said, between the ages of 2 and 3, you can expect a detailed, written assessment where key areas of progress and any areas of developmental delay are identified. If needs are identified, assessors may discuss how you can help and support your child at home. You are encouraged to share this information with your health visitor as the nursery cannot do so without your consent. The EYFS profile should be fully completed in the term in which your child turns five.
Are the children encouraged to dress themselves, use the toilet properly, eat healthily, keep fit? Do they look happy and cared for? Noses wiped, hand-washing encouraged...
Moving to 'big-school' may seem a long way off when your child is still a toddler but blink and they'll be ready for the next-stage. Ask how children are prepared for moving-on to their next educational setting. Is there a transition programme in place? Do they help parent's prepare their children for change?
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. See Nurseries for special needs
Every 3 and 4 year-old in England and Wales is entitled to 15 hours of nursery education for 38 weeks of the year, funded by the state. Scotland has a similar entitlement with all 3 and 4 years qualifying for 475 hours of funded provision (funded places are available in NI but there is no guarantee that a child will receive a funded place). Fees vary considerably but the majority of nurseries, children's centres, pre-schools, playgroups and even some child-minders will qualify. For private nurseries, vouchers may fund only some of the sessions and there may be hidden extras. Never assume all care will be free - ask what is included, what is excluded and what you need to provide.
Wrap-around and holiday care
This should be guided by (but need not strictly adhere to) the EYFS framework. You will almost certainly have to self-fund any wrap-around care, even if your child is attending a state nursery or state nursery school.