The British school system, and the many labels it uses to differentiate between various types of schools in the state and private sectors, can feel undecipherable. The first hurdle new parents come across when trying to grasp their early-year options is the distinction between (daycare) nurseries and nursery schools.
So, what are the differences? This is one of the first questions I get when speaking to parents or parents-to-be in my work as an educational consultant with Magus Education that I co-founded.
The biggest difference is that nursery schools operate like normal schools; i.e. they have short days, three terms, and lots of holidays in between. In short: they run like proper schools. Meanwhile “day care” nurseries (which never define themselves as such but the label is useful for the purpose of this article) have longer days suitable to working parents, usually accept babies from 3 months old and are only closed 2 to 3 weeks per year.
In this article we will focus on some key questions to ask when visiting a nursery school.
1. Does my child have to be potty trained?
More often than not, yes, which is why it’s wise not to sign up your child to start at exactly 2 (and why most children tend to start at such nurseries nearer their third birthday). The majority of children are neither physically nor mentally ready to be potty trained at 2. If this is the case of your child, consider delaying entry by a term. Trying to potty train a reluctant toddler with a deadline is an experience best avoided both for you and them. Most nurseries are absolutely fine with accidents but won’t let your child come in wearing a nappy.
2. Everything looks brand new, bright and shiny, yet the latest Ofsted inspection didn’t result in top marks. How come?
Appreciate cleanliness and outdoor space but don’t be fooled by shiny digs. The best building in the world, with lots of natural light and plenty of space, can still house a terrible nursery. If the Ofsted rating isn’t good or has gone down from the previous inspection, don’t be afraid to ask why and which steps are being taken to remedy the situation. Similarly do not dismiss every nursery that doesn’t have an “outstanding” rating; sometimes said target is out of reach because they don’t have outdoor space on site etc. The most important aspect of any nursery is staff: ask how long key employees have been in place. Nursery workers are often poorly paid and there can be a lot of turnover, which will be more disruptive and unsettling to your child than the absence of a roof terrace.
3. What is your approach to literacy?
In a pure Montessori nursery, for instance, formal literacy and numeracy work will not usually take place in the early years. The children will work to develop their fine motor skills by threading, lacing and modeling and refine their pencil grip by drawing while building on their understanding of mathematical concepts through play, but do not expect flash cards and phonics work. In comparison, other more “academic” nurseries will introduce literacy work as soon as the children turn 3 and expect them to be able to read very simple books before they turn 4. A bigger portion of the day may be spent sitting at a desk doing worksheets/exercises than role playing or exploring. It’s therefore essential that you to choose an environment that matches your priorities and your general philosophy.
4. Do you help prepare for 4+ assessments?
Most independent schools in London now conduct “assessments” before offering a place to a child for entry into Reception. The aim of the process is not so much to identify the “smartest” children but to weed out those who are not school ready or would not be a good fit for the school. In the most competitive schools, where there are around 10 applicants for each place, the teachers are looking for focused, curious, eloquent and eager-to- learn pupils while also seeking to assemble a group of children with complementary personalities and skills.
Many of said top schools have “feeder” nurseries from which they recruit a number of pupils every year. Often the head of the nursery will have a direct relationship with the head of a prep or pre-prep and participate in the decision making process.
These “feeder” nurseries view it as part of their remit to prepare their pupils for the process and make sure they have developed the necessary emotional, social and academic skills to perform well on the day. However, there are still many nurseries that do not offer any sort of preparation/advice. If your goal is for your child to attend a selective prep school, this is important to know.
5. Will you help guide us with regards to what schools might be the best fit for our child?
In London many private schools now require parents to register their child’s name as soon as possible after birth. But even if you wait until your child is 2 to complete registration forms, you will still only have a vague idea of what they may be like once they turn 4. This is especially difficult for new parents unfamiliar with the stages of development that their child will go through. In this context, it’s very helpful for a nursery teacher or the head of the school –who have seen thousands of 3-year-olds pass through their doors—to offer advice and perspective regarding what may be a suitable match, especially as some children are completely different at home and in the school setting. It’s not uncommon for children to have extraordinary qualities that parents have not noticed, or instead to face some challenges at school that don’t manifest themselves at home.
Some parents do not welcome any guidance from teachers when choosing a school but if you think you may want it, it’s important to know they will be happy to provide it and to flag your interest early on.
Karin Thyselius is the founder of NW8-mums and co-founder of Magus Education.