Early Learning

19 July 2017

Hilary Wyatt takes you through the process of selecting the right independent nursery school for your child.

I will never forget my eldest daughter’s first day at nursery. It was a rainy morning and we had traipsed miles with the buggy to our chosen nursery school. Miss Harper greeted me with a warm smile, gave me a tissue to cry into and took Lilly confidently to meet her new friends. Lilly didn’t shed a tear – I wept buckets! Now at 25 years old, Lilly can still remember her formative years at nursery school. Her sister Alice followed her and both had the most wonderful time.

Why go independent?

So why did I choose the nursery I did? I totally trusted Miss Harper’s vision for the school and she clearly loved and cared about the children. The high-calibre staff were welcoming and kind to all of the children – and they had limitless patience. There were waiting lists and we were lucky to have got places. You may be feeling anxious about using pre-school at all, but research from the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) has found that children who attend high-quality nurseries do better in national tests in reading, writing and maths at the age of seven than those who don’t. So you are giving your child the best start possible. The emphasis of the study is placed very firmly on the quality of the provision and this is why it may be worth paying a little bit extra for an independent nursery.

What to look for?

When you do your research you should be looking for plenty of well-qualified staff and high adult-to-child ratios. The statutory requirements for under-threes is one adult to four children and for over-threes one adult to eight pupils, unless there is a qualified teacher in which case it is one to 13.  It is never too early to start looking, as the very best nurseries tend to fill up early and have pupils on waiting lists. Registration fees range, on average, between £50 and £200 and you can register your child for a number of establishments – many are happy take registration fees at birth. Normally a deposit and firm commitment will not be required until the term before your child starts. At this point, I would recommend that you have another tour before parting with your money; changes of management and staff can have a big impact on a school. The first decision you need to make is whether you are looking for a stand-alone nursery or one that is part of a school. If you have already decided on the prep school for your child and they have a good nursery this is often the best route to go down. Not only will your child be familiar with their environment, but it should help save you the angst of having to prepare for entrance tests at aged four and it means that your child will be starting school with his or her friends.

The next stage

Once you have decided what is best for you and your family, and you have identified several nurseries that seem right in terms of ethos, location, fees and timing of the school day, it is time to go and take a look. First impressions are important. Are you greeted warmly by the staff? Do they look happy and do they interact in a positive way with the children in their care? Look at the state of the buildings and classrooms. Does the place look clean and well cared for? Peeling paint and broken toys could be a sign that the owners are not investing in the buildings or that management is weak. You are looking for bright, stimulating classrooms and walls where the children’s work is displayed with pride. The children should look active and be enjoying what they are doing.

Outdoor space

One of the key features of early childhood education today is the regular access to outdoor space. Indeed, it is now a requirement that all Early Years’ settings must provide pupils time each day in the fresh air. Try to find out how much time the children actually spend outside and look at the equipment that they can use. Are bikes and trikes available? Do you have the opportunity to grow their own fruit and vegetables? Do they have outdoor games lessons and a nature area where they can learn about the world around them? In my experience, children who have plenty of exercise sleep better, are better behaved, eat well and are healthier. We are very fortunate at Hyde Park School because our nursery and pre-prep is actually located in a beautiful walled garden, where our youngest pupils can spend their day’s playing in the huge sand pit, digging in the garden, reading stories in the tent or whizzing down the slide. As it is only a few minutes’ walk from Marble Arch tube station, we like to think of it as one of London’s best kept secrets! Our nursery feeds automatically into our reception class and these children then travel across the park in our minibus to the prep school in Queensgate where they can stay until they are 11. In 2017, the Minerva Group (our umbrella) will be opening their own senior school in Piccadilly, so your child could be educated from the age of three to 18 without you having to look at another school!

Taken from ‘The Guide to Independent Schools’ Spring 2016