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'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 it 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 nightmare for others. At such a tender age, how do you know what will suit your child? Even knowing which 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 education - yes, no, maybe? How do you decide? 

Pre-school isn't compulsory and for good reason. Not all parents want their child to attend a pre-school and it will not suit every child. Your child's early years may be spent at home, with you or with a nanny or au-pair. Alternatively, you may decide that time away from home suits you both. Possibilities include child-minder, nursery, kindergarten, creche, pre-school, play-group, pre-prep school, toddler groups. In some settings, such as parents and tot groups or baby-yoga classes, you will join a class or group with your child. In others, you 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 get plenty of opportunities for mixing and socialising with friends and at local parent/toddler groups and classes..
  • You may feel your child is independent enough to cope with a structured early years setting, that they would benefit from time away from you with other children, or that they are getting all they need at home..
  • 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 and travel. If these pose a problem, speak to your health visitor or early years group: they may know ways to combat such difficulties.
  • Don't be put off by what others say, or by your own dim, distant memories; see for yourself. Visit, look at the other children; can you envisage your child there?

Choosing a nursery school for your child

Where to start

  • Think 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 junior school, speak to them. Find out if there are particular nurseries they recommend (and ask why). NB Admissions rules are such that attendance at any given nursery (including the school's own) usually has no bearing on getting a place at a particular state school.
  • Ask for 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 match your aspirations?
  • Read the latest inspection reports – but bear in mind that Ofsted may mark a nursery down for aspects that don’t bother you.
  • Always visit before accepting a place. Even if your heart is set on a particular nursery, visit several so you can get a better understanding of what they offer and a clearer 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. 

'Lovely, bright and spacious nursery with a luxurious amount of space inside and out for the small number of girls happily playing in this calm, organised environment.’ [Good Schools Guide review of St Mary’s School (Gerrards Cross) Prep]

While some nurseries, such as that at St Mary’s, 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 Junior School in Letchworth, sit in yesteryear splendour:

'The Montessori nursery ('The Monte') and reception class form an early years centre in Arunwood, a Grade II listed building and former childhood home of Sir Laurence Olivier.'.

The setting alone does not determine the teaching 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'.

Of Grimsdell, Mill Hill Pre-Prep, we say:

‘A firm believer in the great outdoors, Grimsdell has its own Forest School. Each session has a theme and activities can range from mini beast hunting to fire building and cooking outdoors. With a school that states boldly in its prospectus, ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing’, you better be sure your little darlings have a healthy interest in outdoor pursuits.

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 school, when entrusting the care of your child to others, you should look to find a nursery 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 and 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

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 pre-school you require and how difficult 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. We say of the wonderfully named Ducks (Dulwich College Kindergarten), which takes babies from six months:

‘Priority throughout is given to the children of college staff and DUCKS siblings. We imagine the younger members of the college staff could keep the baby room next to filled. Given the small size, keen parents will want to register early.’

Girls move on elsewhere from DUCKS, often at 4; boys are not guaranteed a place at Dulwich College Junior School at 7, but must take the same exam as external candidates.

Shortage of places used to be a London-only concern but these days it has spread to other areas. 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 choice. If it isn't working, have a rethink. Children change and may grow out of their original nursery. 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. Indeed, some nurseries have the reputation of preparing children well for selective junior schools and tend to be highly sought-after as a result. However, if your child is not happy at nursery, they are unlikely to be confident and keen to learn at the next stage – so a gentler setting may be far more suitable for them..

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 more relaxed Steiner or Forest School type setting? 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 2 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, such as Swiss Cottage Special School, which takes children from 2-19.

‘It is divided into lower, middle and upper schools, all with their own separate areas. ‘It gives children a sense of security, and a sense of progression: when you’re here from 2 to 19, you need to feel you are moving on’.,’

Ask those involved with your child (health, education, social care as appropriate) to help you find the right nursery. They will be able to advise on a range of issues and services including alternative communications 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, get in touch with your local council or talk to the SENCo at the nursery. It is difficult, but not impossible, for a child aged under 2 to be assessed for an Education, Health and Care plan (EHC).


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