How to pick a good nursery

Not too quiet, not too clean. Caroline Millar on what to look out for
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Q. My child qualifies for a nursery voucher soon. How do I choose the best start for her?

A. Look around several nurseries, and go for a full session. Don't take your child on the first visit, unless you are sure she will not distract you. If you like the nursery, bring your child and assess her reaction. Ask other parents for their opinions, but remember their children may have quite different needs from your own.

Q. What should the building be like?

A. Safe, warm and inviting. Children's work should be prominently displayed. Tables, equipment and lavatories at child-level encourage independence, as do pictures on the cupboards to show where toys are kept. It should be well ventilated and not smelly, but remember that nursery children have occasional accidents and an unpleasant odour may be just temporary. There should be a secure outdoor play area.

Q. What about the children?

A. The worst sign is silence - happy four-year-olds make a busy hum. But children should not be over-excited. Friendly relationships (excluding the occasional tiff) help learning. Check whether special-needs children are given extra support. This benefits everyone in the nursery by freeing up existing staff. If the nursery takes babies and toddlers, do they have some separate provision? Their needs are different from those of other children.

Q. And the staff?

A. Are they talking to each other, or the children? Look for workers who genuinely like children. (Some nurseries have those who do not). The staff should be practically dressed, but not untidy.

State nursery schools and classes are taught by trained teachers and NNEBs. But the ratio of staff to children can range from 1:10 to 1:13. Check that the teacher has had "early years" training. Beware! If your four-year-old is called a "rising five" and offered a place in a reception class, you may find she is in a group of 30, taught by one over-stretched teacher.

In the private sector, staff ratios are better, (one adult to six or eight children) but ask about qualifications. Most will be NNEBs or NVQs. If more than half of the staff are unqualified, do you really want to leave your child with them?

Ask about staff turnover. Stability is crucial. It helps your child settle if one adult is her "key-worker".

Q. Are the play facilities important?

A. Yes, very. There should be well-organised areas around the room (science corner, home corner, book corner, construction corner etc.) Do the toys reflect ethnic diversity and are they used in a non-sexist way? Facilities should adapt to independent and adult-led work. A carpeted floor (except for messy areas) saves clatter.

Q. Do nurseries have a curriculum?

A. All nurseries accepted under the voucher scheme must work towards six learning goals. Work plans should be displayed where parents can see them. If you do not understand, ask. Make sure that "science" does not just mean messing about alone in the sand. It takes skilful adult guidance to make the most of what children can learn from the equipment provided.

Choose a curriculum that suits you. But if your child is still scribbling, learning letter formation will be torture. And formal maths is useless, until a child can count concrete objects - buttons, bricks, apples. Find a nursery that will help your child to develop from the point that they are at, not from where you want them to be.

Q. Should the nursery encourage parental involvement?

A. Yes. Avoid anywhere that tells you to be brave and leave them to it. You want places that will work with you and respect your knowledge as a parent. Check that they will only allow your child to be collected by people you nominate. Follow your intuition - if you don't like a place, your child won't.

Q. What about keeping records on the children?

A. This is good nursery practice, so that staff can work with your child at an appropriate level. Ask if you can see these records.

Q. Should my child go part-time at first?

A. Most four-year-old children can cope with a full day if they are introduced to it gradually. But part-time places may be all that are available, or your child may not be ready. Consider using a child-minder for the rest of the day. If you are at home, you may prefer a part-time place anyway. For full-timers, check the lunch menu is varied and nourishing, with provision for different diets.

Q. Is uniform a good idea?

A. Not for this age-group.

Thanks to The National Campaign for Nursery Education, The National Early Years Network, Bringing Up Baby (Founder and author of the 'Good Nursery Guide', Sue Woodford), OFSTED.