How to choose a pre-school

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Finding the right preschool, nursery or playgroup for your child is a big deal. After all, you're choosing where he will spend many of his waking hours and the staff who will teach him, care for him and help to shape him as a human being. And, of course, it's the first step on the education ladder. No pressure, then

Finding the right pre-school for your child

With so many types of early education available, and an enormous range of settings on offer, the choice can feel overwhelming. First, decide which setting you want – nursery, morning-only playgroup, forest school etc – then visit a few near your home.

You're looking for somewhere you think your child will be happy, relaxed and have the best chance of thriving educationally. At this stage, the main emphasis is on learning through play, so don't be blinded by bluster about French lessons and ballet – they're nice extras but really aren't necessary yet.

Think, too, about your values as a parent and whether the setting's ethos reflects them. How do you feel about discipline and the food they eat? What is their policy on potty training or naps, even?

There's a lot to consider but most parents say they 'just knew' when they found the place that was right for their child.

What type of pre-school education is best for my child?

Here are a few of the pre-school settings available for under-fives:

Private day nurseries. These tend to take children – from as young as six weeks or three months – right up to when they go to school. They are usually open during business hours, so tend to be used by working parents. Your child may have gone into a nursery when you returned to work, in which case you may be happy for him to stay there until he reaches school age. In their last year at the nursery, they will usually end up in the pre-school room, which will resemble a school reception class as preparation for the big leap.

Nannies and childminders. Another option if you're at work (or even if you aren't) is to use a nanny or childminder instead of a nursery or playgroup. They will then be looked after in your home or a home-type environment elsewhere. Nannies and au pairs can join the Oftsted Voluntary Childcare Register.

Playgroups. These are often run in the local community, in church halls, scout huts or dedicated centres. They can be private businesses or run on a voluntary basis, are often open morning or afternoon only, and only school hours and term-time. They tend to be for slightly older children from two or three upwards.

Nursery school or nursery unit of a primary school (known as pre-school). In some areas, such as London, nearly all schools have a nursery attached. If run by the local authority, these kind of nurseries have qualified teachers. It's important to note, however, that attending a primary school's nursery does not automatically mean you will get a place at the school (although this may be different for voluntary-aided, free schools and academies). Nurseries can be either private or state-funded. They tend to take children from age two or three (see below).

Keep your child at home with you. If you're a stay-at-home parent, or if you use a relative as childcare, you're under no obligation to send under-fives to nursery, school or anywhere else. They don't legally have to be in school until the term after their fifth birthday.

The option you go for will depend on your lifestyle, as well as what sort of care you think will suit your child. A naturally boisterous child may feel stifled in the controlled atmosphere of, say, a Montessori school (see below), while a more sedate little person may struggle to adapt to a large, rough and tumble playgroup. Once you've worked out what sort of setting will be best, visit a number of different establishments.

For under-fives, even more so than at any other stage in schooling, the child's happiness comes first. Try to think about what will suit them, rather than your own aspirations.

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What do children learn at pre-school and nursery?

All Ofsted early years providers (nurseries, childminders, pre-schools and playgroups) follow the government's framework for learning and development from birth to five years (end of reception year). The framework has seven 'areas of learning' and 17 'early learning goals' for children to meet by the end of reception (their first year of school). The three 'prime' areas are:

  • Communication and language
  • Personal, social and emotional development
  • Physical development

The four 'specific' (or secondary) areas are:

  • Literacy
  • Mathematics
  • Understanding the world
  • Expressive arts and design

Different educational philosophies

There are lots of early years establishments that specialise in a particular 'type' of education, especially in the private sector.

Montessori schools aim to develop the child's whole personality. They attach particular importance to the child's appreciation of their surroundings, sometimes through creating an environment where everything is scaled down to fit a child's proportions. Children choose from a range of activities, specifically designed to teach core concepts, learning how to complete each task.

Steiner schools aim to foster imagination and creativity and do not introduce formal education before the age of six, concentrating on creative play rather than the “three Rs” from around four.

Forest schools date back to the 19th century but became popular in the 1990s. They focus on the outdoors, with all activities at some schools taking place in the open air. As well as learning lots about nature, there is a strong emphasis on problem-solving and collaboration alongside learning the basics, such as colours, numbers, shapes and letters in an outdoor environment.

How many free hours will my pre-schooler get?

All three and four-year-olds in England get some free early years education. The rules are slightly different in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. You can find out more on the Government's website.

How many free nursery hours will my three-year-old get?

From the term after their third birthday all children get 15 hours a week in term time (38 weeks of the year). This works out as 540 funded hours a year. Some settings will let you spread the hours out across the whole year.

Some children will be eligible for 30 funded hours a week (1,140 hours per year).

You will usually get 30 hours free childcare if you (and your partner, if you have one) are:

  • In work – or on parental leave
  • Each earning at least the National Minimum Wage or Living Wage for 16 hours a week. The earnings limit doesn't apply if you're self-employed and started your business less than 12 months ago

You're not eligible if:

  • Your child doesn't usually live with you
  • The child is your foster child
  • Either you or your partner has a taxable income over £100,000

You can get 30 hours free childcare at the same time as claiming Universal Credit, tax credits or childcare vouchers.

Will my two-year-old get free nursery hours?

Some two-year-olds also get free funding but you have to meet certain criteria or be in receipt of certain benefits. The Government's funding for two-year-olds page has more information.