How to choose your child’s nursery
It is ironic that for many of us one of the first major choices we have when we become a parent is about who else is going to “parent” our baby. If you are going down the nursery route, this decision often has to be made prenatally depending on the length of time you wish to take for maternity leave and the waiting list time on your local nurseries.
When I first went about looking for a nursery for Big Sis, I didn’t have a clue what I should be looking for. Inevitably, I made a wrong decision and I was unhappy with the nursery (Nursery A) that I initially chose for Big Sis. The problem being that when you are required to make this decision, you are still in the mind-set of someone without children, someone whose priority is themselves and their work. Not yet a parent, whose priority is their child. With this hat on, decisions regarding childcare are made with the priorities of cost, convenience and ease of getting to and from work, not necessarily the priority that you have once you actually ARE a parent.
I had chosen Nursery A as it was close to the tube station, was located in a beautiful Victorian house, was brand new and had designer furniture for children, a computer room, a sensory room, a music room and offered baby yoga and science lessons. I was given my own electronic fob to get in and out of the nursery building and on-line access to the nursery’s CCTV cameras allowing me to see what Big Sis was up-to from the comfort of my computer at work. Formula milk, nappies, sun screen etc. were all included in the fees meaning all I had to do was drop off my baby in the morning, and the nursery operating hours were long (early drop off and late pick-up) so I could meet my work commitments. Staff advertised themselves for evening babysitting sessions. Oh, and there was an organic kitchen on-site. Why wouldn’t any working parent choose this nursery?
It was only when I realised my mistake (that I had been woo-ed by aesthetics and meeting my own needs) and moved Big Sis along with Lil Bro to a different nursery (Nursery B) that I realised what a nursery was supposed to be about. The child.
Nursery B was further from the tube station, had more modest grounds, smaller and more old-fashioned classrooms, no designated music room or computer room, no electronic fobs or CCTV, late drop-off and early pick-ups (making getting to work on time pretty hard) and the requirement to provide your own milk, nappies, and sun screen (such that there were regular rebukes from staff when you forgot one thing or another). Yet it had a waiting list a mile long. Both nurseries had a similar fee. I realised that none of the “extras” were relevant. The management and staff at Nursery B were excellent. That is all that matters. Nursery B’s operation was aimed at the children, not designed to suit and woo parents. But how can you tell this when you visit?
Here are my tips for what to look for so you can get it right first time:
“What is the atmosphere like?”
“Do the children there enjoy going to the nursery?”
“What is the food like? Is it cooked on site?”
“What activities do the children do?”
“What are the facilities like?”
“Where do the children sleep?”
“Are the premises clean, safe, inviting and child friendly?”
“What is the policy for children with special needs/ allergies/ medical conditions?”
“What are the policies for if your child is sick?”
“What are the nursery opening and closing times and how many days of the year is the nursery open?”
“Do the staff appear warm, competent and knowledgeable?”
“Is there any outdoor space?”
“What are the fees?” – I don’t think you’ll forget this one. Remember to bring a hanky as the response will be eye-watering.
Check the Ofsted Report
I cannot stress the importance of checking out a nursery’s Ofsted report and rating. Ofsted is the government agency that inspects all schools and childcare provisions in the UK. They report on all manner of things from the built environment, health and safety procedures and management. This might all seem extremely mundane and irrelevant when all you want is lovely, bubbly, staff that are going to welcome and cuddle your baby, but for anyone that has worked for any type of institution or business before, the competence of management matters. Within the NHS, it is evident that competent managers can instil high service standards, efficient service and good employee morale. The reverse is also true, and this is as true for nurseries as the NHS. If you can, go for an Ofsted Outstanding nursery. Big Sis’s first nursery had newly opened and had not been inspected at the time Big Sis started, but when it was inspected, it achieved a “satisfactory” ranking (two levels below “Outstanding”) which confirmed my doubts about it and precipitated my moving her to Outstanding nursery B, which lived up to its Ofsted rating. Prior to experiencing first hand the difference between “satisfactory” and “outstanding”, I thought – it can’t make much difference – “good” is “good” right? Well orange squash also tastes pretty good until you try Champagne. As most people choose a nursery and stick to it, they never usually get to know just what a difference a nursery can make. If you feel you have made a wrong choice like I did, it is ALWAYS worth changing.
Experience the management
As well as checking out the objective management ratings on the Ofsted report, check it out for yourself. A well-managed nursery would ensure that the phones were answered promptly and that if they say they will get back to you, they do. How well organised and managed is the viewing that they give you of the nursery? How senior are the staff that are showing you around? If you do not think that these administrative things matter, then think about how much they would matter if your child were at that nursery. What if no one answered the phone when you were ringing the nursery to convey an important message about your child? What if staff tell you they will do something for your child, but they don’t? If senior staff are not there to show you around, are they ever there? The best functioning services are ones where administration and front line staff are both working efficiently under effective and accessible senior management. At nursery B the senior manager was on site every day and knew the name of every child.
Ask about staff turnover
In my mind, effectively looking after young children is not something that can easily be done if you are not happy (if you don’t believe me you can extrapolate this from lots of post natal depression literature). If a nursery has high staff turnover then I cannot imagine that the staff can be very happy working there. During Big Sis’s 18 month time at nursery A, her “mentor” or “Key worker” changed 3 times because of staff resignations. The nursery manager also changed 3 times. This discontinuity of staff cannot make for stable attachments and relationships with the children and indicate that there is something unsatisfactory systemically that is preventing people from wanting to remain employed there. If staff are unhappy in their jobs, how can they provide the highest standard of care for your child? The average time that the key staff had been in place at nursery B was 9 years. As the fees for both nurseries were the same, it was clear that where one had chosen to spend the fee on aesthetics and extras to woo parents, the other had chosen to spend on training, valuing and retaining key and experienced staff. I know which matters more to me.
Ask about incident forms and how they manage difficult children
Big Sis was bitten or scratched by other children in her class at least 10 to 15 times in her 18 month career at nursery A. Other children in her class were also being bitten and scratched and we parents almost had to form a line to sign the incident forms when we collected our children. We would be told that a new toddler had been admitted to the class who had not yet been “socialised” by the nursery but that they would get the child under control soon. Only then, they would admit another “unsocialised” child. Eventually I had to sign an incident form saying that Big Sis had bitten another child (although she never bit anyone at home), and to tell the truth, I was rather glad that Big Sis was retaliating rather than being a teething ring for the other children. After Big Sis transferred to the nursery B she was bitten once and scratched once in a period of 28 months. She didn’t bite anyone. Lil Bro, who has only known the outstanding nursery has never been bitten or scratched and has never bitten another child at nursery. He has bitten his sister at home so it is not as if he is a particularly placid non-biting child. In my experience, biting is a very normal aggressive reaction in children and most children in the 0-3 year age group will do it at some point. Initially when Big Sis was being bitten at nursery, I was sympathetic to the nursery as I am aware that “all children bite”, however, on witnessing how much less this type of behaviour was occurring at a well- run nursery I am pretty sure that the level of biting was related to the nursery’s care (or lack of).
The nursery may not tell you, but it is worth asking about the level of incident reports as this is data that they are obliged to collect, so they should have it (although of course bear in mind that the very worst nurseries will have the lowest levels of incident reports, as they will be negligent on keeping up their reporting).
Examine how well the staff know the children
It is difficult to assess this. All nurseries will put forward their best people to do viewings with prospective parents. It is important to view as many staff as possible and be able to quiz them, and ask them questions, rather than limit questions to the member of staff showing you around, who will have been selected as knowledgeable. In real life, this person will likely have little to do with looking after your child as they are too busy showing other prospective parents around. Try and ask a random member of staff questions like:
“Do you like working here?”
“How long have you worked here?”
“How many children are in your class?”
“How many children are you directly responsible for?”
“How many children in your class have got food allergies, who are they and what exactly are they allergic to?”
Point at a random child and ask: “What’s this child’s favourite activity?”, “Who are his friends?”, “What makes him upset?”
If you have a child with food allergies like I have, it is absolutely paramount that all members of staff know who your child is and their allergies. I have heard of nurseries where children have been given foods that they are allergic to. Nursery B went the extra mile. Not only did all staff know Lil Bro and his exceptional dietary requirements, rather than excluding Lil Bro from cooking activities on account of his dairy, wheat and egg allergies, they bought him his own mixing bowl, and baking utensils. It’s this attention to detail that makes a nursery “outstanding”.
Interrogate parents of children that already attend
As well as confirming the standard information, find out how well the staff know the parents. At nursery A, the majority of staff, aside from the staff in Big Sis’s room had no idea who I was even though I dropped off and picked up Big Sis almost every day. I would have to say “I’m Big Sis’s mum” daily. At nursery B, everyone from manager, kitchen staff, to receptionist to teachers in other classes knew whose mother I was on sight. This is really good, and a credit to the management. You might think this is irrelevant, but it shows stability of staff and how aware staff are of the children in their care. Knowing who mothers and fathers are is important as it shows that they are interested in the children they are looking after and their families. Your child is not just “a child” that they are paid to look after.
Another difference that I found between the two nurseries was that many parents were coming from a very long way to drop their children at the nursery B, whilst most at the convenient nursery A by the tube station lived in close proximity. This makes sense, as if a nursery is very good, then people are willing to travel long distances to go there. If a nursery has many parents travelling a long way to attend, you can take it that this nursery is good.
Ask about the Early Years Foundation Stage
All childminders and nurseries are required to provide “early education” in line with the Early Years Foundation Stage document. If you want to be very mean and test the nursery’s knowledge, you can read the document and test them on it. I personally wouldn’t, but I might just want to check that staff don’t look at me blankly if I mention it .
These are just a few suggestions. In the end, you will have to make up your own mind, but bear in mind that early childcare is an important decision. Many parents spend much time and many sleepless nights researching and visiting a child’s secondary or primary school options, but just put their babies into the nearest nursery to allow them to get to work. I know; I did this. In addition, the research, visits and crucially the decision is often one made single-handed by a heavily pregnant woman who really would rather a sit down and a nap.
Yet if you work full time, like I did, your children will be spending more hours per year at nursery than at any future school in their life. Further, brain development is at its maximal in the preschool years, meaning the child’s learning potential from its environment is maximal at this age and may have long lasting impact on brain development. Time and time again, research has shown that it is not the “type” of childcare (childminder, nanny, nursery) that matters, it is the QUALITY (see my paper: Liang, 2013).
Shouldn’t choosing a nursery be a serious consideration for both parents rather than a quick decision made by a brain addled, third-trimester mum? Hopefully my tips will help.
Liang, H., Pickles, A., Wood, N. & Simonoff, E., (2012) Early Adolescent Emotional and Behavioural Outcomes of Non-parental Preschool Childcare. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology , 47, 399-407.