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Choosing a nursery

Cradling your newborn, it's hard to believe that your bundle of soft flesh will ever even vaguely resemble the hulking great school kids up the road. Sooner rather than later, however, you too will become an active participant in the Great British obsession of education, education, education.

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Feb 20, 2024

Kids on a nursery trip

Staff ratios

State nursery schools and classes have a minimum ratio of two adults to 20-26 children. One must be a qualified teacher, the other a qualified nursery assistant. Private day nurseries ususally have a higher ratio of staff, whose qualifications depend on the ages of the children.

For under-fives, nursery schooling takes over from general childcare from the age of around two and a half in the private sector, and three and a half in state pre-school units. So, scarcely is the babe out of nappies before the agonising begins - where to send our precious little mites to start their way in the big, wide world?

You're under no legal obligation to send your child to nursery - keep them at home if that's what suits you. But if it doesn't and you've ruled out an all-day childminder, then your choices are between:

  • Playgroups - or preschool groups - run in the local community, for a few hours a day (you may be expected to help out once a week)

  • Private nursery schools

  • State nursery school or nursery unit of a primary school

The childcare you choose will obviously depend both on your child and whether you work so need your child to be looked after for a certain number of hours a day. Playgroups usually offer shorter hours and parents are more heavily involved than in nurseries.

Finding a nursery

With the exception of workplace nurseries, your starting point to search online for nurseries (or other forms of childcare) with vacancies should be or Directgov.

Your GP or health visitor may also know of nurseries in your area, plus there will be information in your local phone directory and library. Failing all that, you can, of course, ask on Mumsnet Talk.

Different educational philosophies

A range of educational labels is attached even at the preschool stage, particularly in the private sector.

Montessori schools aim to develop the child's whole personality and attach particular importance to the child's appreciation of their surroundings.

Steiner schools' stated aim is to foster imagination and creativity; they don't introduce formal education before the age of six, concentrating on creative play rather than the 'three Rs' from around four years old.

What to look for when choosing a nursery

Many parents send their children to a playgroup or nursery because they think it's good preparation for school.

"My son went to a lovely caring playgroup at two and a half. No 'school' atmosphere - lots of cuddles, very cherishing. Then at three and a half he did a year at the nursery attached to his school. That was great too, as he got to meet all his cohort for reception and he was 'ready' by then for the school-type feel of the nursery." morocco

At the age of two or three, your child may still seem small but they'll be on the Early Years Foundation Stage ladder and the government has plans for them to learn all sorts of things.

There are lots of different types of nurseries – big ones, small ones, ones owned by national corporations, small independent nurseries, council-run nurseries, and nurseries that may be affiliated to local schools. Each will offer something different, and what meets your needs will depend on your family and your requirements.

Related links

It's worth booking appointments to view a selection of nurseries so that you can meet the staff and see how the nurseries are run.

Most Mumsnetters agree that it's caring and confident staff who make all the difference

"Bottom line really is the feel of the place. The nursery my son is in had that feel when we went in - happy, homely, clean etc and that combined with the Ofsted report, answers to questions etc, decided it for us." PussinJimmyWhoooos

"Both times I have chosen nurseries on gut feeling. I have just felt comfortable with the atmosphere, the children seemed happy, and I 'clicked' with the staff straight away." Fairymum

Mumsnetter and nursery-owner NurseryJo suggests the following questions when weighing up different options:

  • Do the children look well-stimulated, sitting down at activities, engaged by the staff?

  • How is the day structured and what sort of activities are built into the timetable?

  • Does the building look well-kept, safe and secure?

  • How many of the staff are qualified?

  • Does it have good quality outdoor play areas? If so, how often do children get access?

  • Does indoor and outdoor equipment appear of good quality?

  • Do they cook food on the premises?

  • What are the menus like? Do they include a good combination of fresh (rather than tinned) fruit and vegetables?

  • Do you have confidence that the nursery manager possesses strong leadership skills, is well involved and has a 'hands on' approach?

Talk to local parents about nurseries near you

Many parents choose somewhere based on recommendations from other parents, plus it's a good idea to read your preschool's Ofsted report.

Small staff turnover (as in not turning over much) is a strong indicator of whether the place is happy, settled and well managed.

"There is a very low staff turnover - so ds can still say hello to people that looked after him when he was younger -  and nursery staff are careful to ensure there is good sharing, caring and that quieter children are not left out." Mistlethrush

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