A nursery/daycare centre is a daytime center for childcare which is usually open between the hours of eight and six, Monday - Friday (except public holidays). Nurseries may vary in the ages at which children may start, but they often take babies as young as three months and cater for children of four or even five years old. Note that nurseries are not the same as nursery schools, where children from three and up are cared for as part of a normal school within regular school hours (or shorter) and normal school holidays.
Some nurseries are state-run but most are privately run, sometimes by companies for the families of their employees (in which case they are often called 'crèches'). Whatever the background of the nursery however, it must be registered with Ofsted's Childcare Register. Ofsted runs a routine in-depth criminal background check and health check on all adults employed by the nursery, it also inspects the premises for their suitability as a childcare centre and conducts regular (and impromtu) inspections to to ensure the government's childcare standards are being met.
In terms of staffing ratios, these may vary from nursery to nursery but by law there must be a minimum of:
- One member of staff for every three children under two years old
- One member of staff for every four children aged two years old
- One member of staff for every eight children aged three to eight years old
In terms of size, nurseries can can vary widely, the smallest take only twenty or so children, while the largest nurseries - particularly in London - may take over a hundred. Whatever the size of the nursery, the nursery must meet the national guidelines for the ratio of children to carers. Children are usually separated into different age-groups, but smaller nurseries may have broader age-ranges in groups while bigger nurseries may be able to break down groups into narrower age-ranges. Nurseries often ensure that your child is predominantly cared for by one particular carer responsible for a group of children, although someone else will take over when that carer is on holiday or sick.
Most nurseries offer a firm daily schedule with a wide range of activities designed to give babies and children plenty of chance to play and learn, interact with other children, eat and rest. Nurseries are experienced at dealing with special circumstances such as allergies and special dietary requirements.
Nurseries may offer full-time or half-time places, but getting a half-time place often depends on the nursery's ability to fill the other half of the place.
- Your child is cared for as part of an institution in which standards of staffing and care are clearly established and relatively easily monitored (as opposed to private care)
- Nurseries offer a very clearly structured routine if this is something important to you
- Your child will be able to socialise with plenty of children in his or her age-group as well as learn from older children
- A nursery will usually have broader resources for your child to enjoy than those at your home or the home of a childminder: toys, games, play equipment and outside space with play areas may all be better or more varied
The availability of a nursery for your child isn't affected by an individual taking holidays or sick leave
- Your child might not feel at home in a nursery setting and may prefer to be cared for in a very small group of children or individually
- Nurseries may be expensive, particularly in some areas
- Most nurseries have very standard hours and no weekend care, and they don't offer much or any flexibility for those who work irregular office hours or shifts. If you require less time than the hours offered you'll usually still have to pay for the whole time (unless a half-time place works for you and is available)
- Most nurseries won't take babies and children who are ill
- The nursery's routine or approach may not fit well with your baby/child's routine, or may not concur with our own preferences - do check
- You may differ from the nursery in regards to issues of discipline and nutrition etc. Do check at the outset their approach is
- If you're a cloth nappy user or you want to use a particular kind of nappy for your baby, the nursery may not be able to accommodate your wishes
The cost of sending your child to nursery varies widely across the UK. Nursery care costs in England have risen sharply in the last few years. According to the latest survey from the Daycare Trust, the typical cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two in England is now over £4,000 per year. London is the most expensive area, where the average cost was slightly higher and with some nurseries charging as much as £11,050 per year.
Of course you will find nurseries that charge less than these averages and nurseries which charge more. Childminders on average across the UK charge less than nurseries, though the difference may be marginal (in Wales childminders often cost more per hour).
Bear in mind that what is included in the cost will vary from nursery to nursery: Some may provide all food, other only lunch and a snack, some will provide nappies and toiletries while others will not.
You can look at the Daycare Trust's survery of childcare cost for 2010 here. The Trust's leaflet also includes information on getting help with childcare costs.
Checklist for a nursery visit
- Ask how big the nursery is (and bear this in mind when you're looking at the facilities).
- Ask what the ratio of staff to children is.
- Find out how the children divided up: Into what age-ranges, how many in a group?
- Ask for the nursery's Ofsted report or find it online.
- Does your baby have a chance to develop a relationship with one particular carer? Will you be able to talk to someone particular about how your child is getting on? Does the nursery tend to keep staff for several years or is there a high turnover?
- Ask to see the spaces where your baby/child will play, eat and be changed. Check these are spacious, colourful, cheery and clean with appealing, well-kept equipment such as sand pits, painting areas and play areas.
- Are there colourful displays by the children on the walls?
- Is there playing space outside? Check and see what it's like / how it is equipped.
- Ask what the nursery's approach is to questions of discipline, homesickness and toilet training. Is there a written policy you can see?
- Ask about nutrition, including any special requests/anxieties you may have, or any questions about breastmilk and formula for babies. If your baby suffers some kind of allergy, find out what experience the staff have with this.
- Find out what the nursery's daily schedule is, and if this doesn't suit your baby find out what degree of flexibility there is, or how nurseries cope with babies who have differing routines.
- Ask about the different activities the children typically engage in in a week
- Ask whether the nursery organises any trips/outings for older children.
- Find out what the nursery's approach to settling in new children is, can you accompany your child at the outset?
- Ask whether there are any parent representatives with whom you can speak to get their take on the nursery and how it is run.
- If you have any special requirements (diet, using a particular kind of nappy etc.) find out whether these can be met.
- During your visit, have a look around at whether the children appear happy, comfortable and well-cared for. Does the nursery have a friendly vibe? Does your child appear to like it?
- Are the nursery hours flexible, will there be early drop-off / late pick-up if you need it?
- Ask about safety, find out how emergencies are dealt with and look for child safety features in the various rooms. How is visitor access / pick-up time controlled?
- What are the nurseries rates? What is included in terms of food, drinks, nappies and toiletries?
Return to our guide to childcare.