Starting at nursery is the momentous first step in a lengthy process that will eventually take you and your child to school and beyond.
• It's never too early to start
• Know the admissions criteria inside out
These apply, broadly, for both state and private nurseries because places can fill up incredibly quickly. Get used to the slightly panicky "will you, won't you" feeling; by the time you're waiting for the secondary school admissions letter, memories of getting into nursery will be bathed in a rosy glow of nostalgia.
How to apply
Unlike primary and secondary schools, where you apply via your local education authority, the admission procedures for nursery vary by nursery and, depending on the type of nursery you've chosen, you'll need to apply to them directly, online or on paper.
If it's a private nursery, you'll have to phone, email or visit to talk to the manager and get the necessary application forms. You should also expect to pay a deposit.
The allocation of places in some community-run playgroups can seem slightly random opaque. It's worth finding out the name of the person in charge of admissions and hassling (nicely) while stressing your own super-enthusiasm for being a volunteer helper.
You can get the contact details of state nurseries and children's centres from your Children's Information Service (CIS) and you can get the number of your nearest CIS by calling 08002 346 346. Alternatively, search online and then email or call the nursery to ask about applications.
Have details about your child - such as health problems, allergies or special dietary needs - to hand because you'll be asked to provide these.
What you get for free
Every three and four-year-old in England is entitled to 15 hours of free early learning or childcare for 38 weeks a year.
If your child is born between:
- 1 Jan and 31 Mar, they're entitled to a free place from 1 Apr following their third birthday
- 1 April and 31 Aug, they're eligible to a free place from 1 Sept following their birthday
- 1 Sept and 31 Dec, they're eligible to a free place from 1 Jan following their birthday
Some two-year-olds are also eligible, if you get one of the following:
- Income Support
- income-based Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA)
- income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
- support through part 6 of the Immigration and Asylum Act
- the guaranteed element of State Pension Credit
- Child Tax Credit (but not Working Tax Credit) and have an annual income not over £16,190
- the Working Tax Credit four-week run on (the payment you get when you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit)
- Working Tax Credits and earn £16,190 a year or less
or if the child:
- is looked after by a local council
- has a current statement of special education needs (SEN) or an education health and care plan
- gets Disability Living Allowance
- has left care under a special guardianship order, child arrangements order or adoption order
If your child is eligible, you can start claiming after they turn two, on the dates as outlined above, but following their second birthday.
If you're a working parent, lone parent or a student and need more hours than this, you may be eligible for extra financial help.
For information about what's available in your area, contact your local council.