How to choose the right early years setting for your child

From childminders, day nurseries, pre-schools and nursery schools, when it comes to choosing the right early years setting for your child, it can be overwhelming as the choice is vast. In this blog, we are going to unpick the kinds of settings that are available and what early years even is! The term ‘early years’ covers from when children are born to their fifth birthday when in educational terms they move into Key Stage One. If you visit any childcare and education establishment for under five’s as a potential setting for your child, they should be talking to you about early years education, and the curriculum for under-fives, the ‘Early Years Foundation Stage’. 

How do I know what a ‘good’ early years setting looks like?

We don’t have to make this decision on our own, the quality of teaching and learning in the UK is regulated, mainly by Ofsted. Ofsted inspect services providing education and skills for learners of all ages, early years settings will be registered with Ofsted and be inspected by them (or a similar body if they have a different categorisation such as a private school), and you can check their website where all inspection reports are published and each setting receives a ‘grade’. This is important, but as a teacher who has been inspected by Ofsted, I can also tell you that this is just one thing you should be looking at when it comes to choosing a setting.

Local Facebook groups, parents forums etc. are brilliant places to ask what others’ experiences have been of local settings, any parents who you know of with children of a similar age are also a good sounding board. But, even if you feel like you know nothing about early years education, I guarantee the best person to make the judgment on whether a setting is the right place for your child, is you. An ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted report accounts for a lot, but remember that’s just a snapshot and an inspector’s opinion. The feeling that you get when you look around a setting tells you everything you need to know. Your family is unique, moreover, every child is unique and what worked for an older child may not be right for their younger sibling. As parents, you know your children best, never forget that.

What kind of setting should I choose for my child?

Well, that will depend on a number of factors; how old your child is, how many hours you need, do you need term time only or year-round care, the list goes on! So let’s explore what type of settings are available for your child.

Registered Childminders:

Are qualified home-based carers, who will be registered with Ofsted. Ofsted will come and inspect their home, and inform the childminder of how many children they can safely look after in their space taking into account legal ratios (Ofsted so this for any premises looking after children), you can find out about legal ratios here. Usually, childminders take children from when they are babies, and look after children beyond the early years, often incorporating before and after-school drop-offs as part of their offering. They are also usually flexible with offering wraparound care (before and after-school), with the option of longer hours during the holidays. This tends to suit parents who would prefer their child is looked after in someone’s home, with a close one to one bond with an adult. Also, parents who have different aged children who would like to drop off and pick up at one place (particularly handy for school-aged children). Childminders follow the early years curriculum and will support their learning and development, learning through play, going on outings and planning activities to support children to meet individual learning goals.

Nannies and Au Pairs:

This can be a supercalifragilistic option for some families (sorry I couldn’t help myself!). Times have moved on since the days of Mary Poppins, where you may recall nanny’s in uniform queuing up outside of the Banks’ home waiting to be interviewed, only to get blown away by our friend Mary Poppins as the wind changed. But, Nannying is still a highly regarded and well-trained profession, just have a look at Norland Nannies to see the kind of service that they offer. 

However, a nanny or an Au Pair do not have to be professionally trained to care for children or be registered with Ofsted, although some are. For this reason, Nannies and Au Pairs are generally there to take care of the safety and wellbeing of children and the home, rather than having a focus on a child’s development. Nannies and Au Pairs come to your home to look after your children, in fact some live in your home, and you stipulate the hours of childcare that you require. You can hire someone long term, or for shorter periods of time, even for support during holidays etc. Because this is a bespoke option, it tends to be more expensive, but can you put a price on ultimate flexibility and convenience plus your child is safely cared for?

Pre-Schools or Playgroups:

The terminology here can be confusing, most settings that were known as playgroups have now become pre-schools. Playgroups nowadays,  generally come under the category of a parent and toddler group where parents stay with their children (and get a lovely cuppa and a biscuit!). Pre-schools are usually charity run groups, not for profit, offering term time only sessional care. Pre-schools usually accept children from around age two and children can stay until they go to school. All staff will be qualified and vetted to the suitable levels required by Ofsted and adhere to the government ratios. Pre-schools will meet children’s needs and monitor children’s progress through the Early Years Foundation Stage, and sometimes they will have their own methods that they teach through alongside the curriculum such as Montessori settings. 

Over the past few years, the sector has seen the introduction of funding for eligible two years olds, universal fifteen-hour funding for three and four-year-olds, and thirty-hour funding for eligible three and four-year-olds. Many pre-schools have adapted the way that they operate to accommodate this funding, from a model of offering only AM or PM sessions, to incorporating a lunch or breakfast club for example. Therefore pre-schools tend to work well for families who do not need full daycare, or all year round options, and are more affordable than say a day nursery.

Day nurseries:

Day nurseries can vary in size, and whether they operate on a basis of all age children are in the same room together, or they have a system of ‘rooms’ where children are allocated depending on their age and stage. Usually, day nurseries take children from when they are babies to when they start school, they are open all day, for example, 7.30 am-6.30 pm the whole year through, though it’s worth noting that some offer a term time only basis should you require that. Everything that your child needs is provided by the nursery; snacks, nappies and meals. Since your child will be spending a lot of time there, they often include extracurricular activities as part of their day-to-day programmes such as; swimming, dance class, French lessons. They are usually a small-medium sized business employing cleaners, cooks, driving staff, as well as unqualified and qualified staff to work with your children and adhering to government ratios. Day nurseries are ideal for families who require year-round, full daycare.


Maintained Nursery Schools:

Last and by no means least on this list are Nursery Schools. Maintained Nursery Schools are local authority schools, they provide education and other services to families with children under the age of five. They are led by a specialist headteacher, education is delivered by qualified nursery nurses and qualified teachers. Though it must be noted that whilst it is not a requirement to have this level of qualified staff in other early years settings as it is in a maintained nursery school, early years teachers, and qualified nursery nurses are working in many other early years settings (I should know as I was one of those teachers!). At all Ofsted registered early years settings you should be able to access early years funding in some way. At a maintained nursery school you can access funded education without any ‘top-up’ fee, meaning that every three and four-year-old can attend a maintained nursery school for free. Many maintained nursery schools now also take two-year-olds, and all maintained nursery schools will take three and four-year-olds. Given the quality of the facilities available, the level that staff are trained to, and the access to a funded place without the need to charge a top-up fee, this is pretty amazing. 

There are only about four hundred maintained nursery schools remaining in the UK, and most offer extended hours, and holiday clubs to suit families who require more hours, so if you have a maintained nursery school close to you, it’s worth checking it out. Here’s a report on how maintained nursery schools contribute to early years provision which is well worth a read.

I really hope this has helped answer some of your questions about the kind of early years education that is available to you and your family. For the next steps with your decision making; my advice would be to first consider the kind of hours you will need childcare or you would like education for, then contact your local Families Information Service for a list of settings in your area. Then, go with your gut, it always knows best. If you would like my bespoke advice you can book a one to one consultation with me to discuss your child’s personality and your family dynamic to help guide you to the right fit for your child and your family, and tips on how to settle them in. I offer these calls Monday-Wednesday at 11 am, and you can book yours here, or fill in this form below.