Introduction

Choosing childcare for your little ones is an important and complicated decision. As well as wanting a warm, nurturing environment that supports your aims and values you’re also looking to balance cost, convenience and a whole host of other considerations. We’ve put together this guide to choosing childcare to give you an overview of some of the different factors affecting your decision and to point you in the right direction.

Where to find childcare providers?

Depending on the type of childcare provider you decide to look for, there are a number of tools available online to help with your search. Your local council should have a Family Information Service that can provide you with a list of registered providers and if you are looking for childminders or nurseries this is usually a good place to start.

If you have decided that a day nursery is right for your child then you can make use of our search feature here. If you’ve decided that a Nanny might be the way forward for your family then you can advertise on local job sites yourself or look for an agency to find the right nanny for you.

Help with childcare costs?

There are a number of initiatives in the UK aiming to help families with the cost of childcare. Below are some basic outlines of the schemes that may be available to you. If you are unsure about you eligibility or need to know some further details then check the government’s Childcare Choices website.

2 year old funding

Funding for early education and childcare is available for families living in England who receive certain benefits including; income support, job seekers allowance, Employment Support allowance, Universal credit, tax credits with a low household income. Children who are looked after by a Local Authority, receive Disability Living Allowance, or have a statement of Special Educational Needs or Education Health Care plan, may also be eligible for the 2-year-old funding.

This funding entitled the child to a total of 570 hours per year that can be used with one or more childcare providers; this may be 15 hours of free childcare or education for the 38 weeks of school term or some providers will allow you to use fewer hours per week and ‘stretch’ the funding across the full 52 weeks of the year.

15 hours universal funding for 3+ year olds

15 hours of free education and childcare is available for all families in England with 3 or 4-year-old children, regardless of their income. The funding is available from the term following the child’s birthday until they reach statutory school age, or take up a place in school. There is funding available for 570 hours per year that can be used with one or more childcare providers. Again, this could be 15 hours of free childcare or education for the 38 weeks of school term or some providers will allow you to use fewer hours per week and ‘stretch’ the funding across the full 52 weeks of the year.

30 hours funding for 3+ year olds

As well as the 15 universal hours of funding some families will also be entitled to an additional 15 hours of funding, totally 30 hours per term-time week. This funding is available the term following the child’s 3rd birthday, for working families in England. Each parent must work at least 16 hours at minimum wage, and earn under £100,000 a year in order to be eligible for the funding.

This entitles the child to a total of 1140 hours per year that can be used with one or more childcare providers; this may be 30 hours per term time week or ‘stretched’ across 52 weeks of the year as needed.

Not all providers are obliged to accept the additional funded hours, so check with individual providers if this is something that they can accommodate. If your provider does accept the additional funded hours you will need to provide them with a code given to you after applying online and renew this each term.

Tax free childcare

Tax free childcare is a way to make childcare more affordable. It is for working families (including those who are self-employed) living in the UK, where each earns the equivalent of 16 hours minimum wage per week but does not exceed an income of £100,000 per year. Tax free childcare is for families with children under 12, or under 17 if disabled, and is an online account that you pay into. For every £8 that you deposit in the account, the government will add an extra £2, up to a total of £2000 per child per year. Your childcare provider is then paid via this account to ensure that the money is used for childcare only

Childcare vouchers (closed to new entrants)

If you are not currently receiving Childcare vouchers you cannot apply to join a childcare voucher scheme, as this employee benefit has been replaced by the government tax free childcare initiative. If you joined a childcare voucher scheme on or before the 4 of October you can continue to receive and use vouchers to pay for childcare as long as you stay with the same employer and they continue to run the childcare voucher scheme

What type of childcare?

You may already have a certain type of childcare in mind, or you may be open to a few different options, either way, it’s an important decision with many different factors to consider. Below the different types of childcare are summarised.

Day Nursery

A day nursery is usually privately owned, by an individual or a company, and open for the whole of the day rather than ‘school hours’ 7:30am- 6:00pm are popular opening hours but these will vary slightly depending on the setting.

A day nursery is usually privately owned, by an individual or a company, and open for the whole of the day rather than ‘school hours’ 7:30am- 6:00pm are popular opening hours but these will vary slightly depending on the setting.

Day nurseries are required to register with OfSted and follow the Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation stage which requires them to comply with set standards on things like staff:child ratios, staff qualifications, learning and development requirements and safeguarding requirements.

Some day nurseries close for a week or two over the Christmas and new year period whilst others remain open year-round with the exception of bank holidays. As far as managing your own holidays goes, this will depend on individual settings’ policies. Some day nurseries allow parents to choose and book a number of weeks that their child will be on holiday and their fees will be waived whilst others charge fees to hold a place regardless of whether the child attends the week or not.

Increasing day nurseries are beginning to make provision for shift workers, though often this is something you will need to ask about specifically as they may choose not to publicise this widely.

Night nurseries, or 24hour nurseries, do also exist in the UK but in much smaller numbers.

Preschool/ Playgroup

One of the big confusions in finding childcare is the use of several words to mean the same thing, or several things referred to by the same word! The terminology is still very blurred. ‘Preschools’ can exist as part of a day nursery, as part of a primary school, as part of a nursery school or as their own separate entity!

Generally, a preschool will cater for children aged 3-4 (the year before they enter full time primary school) and playgroups may cater for children between age 2 and 5, but this does vary quite widely so take note of what each setting says they are able to offer.

Nursery school

Nursery schools exist in much smaller number nowadays but are usually well-established and respected in their communities. Nursery schools are state funded and provide education for children aged between 2 and 5.

School

You may think that your little one is too young for school, but many maintained (state) primary schools now have provision for 3 years olds and even 2 year olds.

Foundation 1 is the school year before Foundation 2 (previously known as ‘Reception’ Class) Foundation 1 is generally led by a qualified teacher and teaching assistants. Sometimes children can join the term after their 3rd birthday (So January or April) and complete up to 5 terms in the class, whilst others only take children from the September after their 3rd birthday so that all pupils only spend 1 school year in the class.

2 year old provision in primary school may be only for those in receipt of the 2 year funding, or may be available on a paid for basis.

Schools must follow the EYFS statutory guidance, though different provisions are made (for example, a reception teacher can have up to 30 children before requiring an assistant, whereas in a day nursery the ratio for the same person with the same qualification would be 1:13) and their inspection would be part of a whole-school inspection under the Schools Inspection Framework rather than the Early Years Inspection Framework.

It is also worth noting here that joining a Foundation 1 class does not guarantee a school place for Reception class.

Forest School

The Forest School movement began in Scandinavia; it is an approach to education that takes learning outdoors very seriously. In Forest Schools children spend most of their time (and often all day) outside in nature, learning through the natural world. Weather is no obstacle for forest schools who have taken ownership of the adage “there is no unsuitable weather, just unsuitable clothing” and children will go outdoors come rain, wind, snow or shine.

True Forest Schools are still quite rare in the UK but are growing in number, and many Early Years settings now offer Forest School (or Beach School) sessions that give children a taste of this kind of learning.

Is a Forest School setting right for your family?

Montessori

‘Montessori’ is an approach to Early Years Education based upon the work of Maria Montessori. Maria was an Italian medical doctor who set up schools for disadvantaged children and observed how young children learn best. From this she devised an approach to Early Years Education that is now used all over the world. Montessori is often seen as synonymous with ‘quality’ and the label is growing in popularity around the world. Whilst most of Montessori’s work was with children of a preschool age, her followers have advocated applying these principles to under 3s too, and Montessori childcare is a popular choice.

However, it is worth noting that Montessori is not a protected title, and can be used by any school or setting. A good way to check whether the setting is in line with Montessori principles is to look at what affiliations they have with professional associations.

The Montessori approach has similarities to the EYFS, which is why it is a good fit in the UK, in that both are holistic whole child approaches. Montessori places a huge value on freedom and independence and encourages children to be very independent from a young age.

Teachers or practitioners are seen quite differently in Montessori programs and are often described as ‘guides’ which highlights the difference in roles. The EYFS also highlights the importance of child-led learning and places a large value on learning through play.

In the Montessori classroom learning occurs through all 5 senses, and is largely self-directed. One of the main differences noted by parents upon visiting Montessori settings is the ordered environment. Montessori classrooms are calm and purposeful but everyone is very busy working. Teachers value children’s work and attempts at learning and use their knowledge of the child to gently steer them towards the next step.

Discipline is approached very differently in Montessori; for example, Rewards and punishments are not used, instead teachers focus on developing social and emotional skills, and helping children to regulate their behaviour themselves.

Is a Montessori setting right for your family?

Childminders

Childminders can care for smaller numbers of children on domestic or non-domestic premises, and tend to have slightly cheaper day rates than nurseries. If you are looking for more of a home away from home a childminder setting might be right for your family. Childminders are required to register with OfSted and follow the same framework and learning and development requirements as nurseries. Registering with Ofsted means that families can use their 15-hour funding with childminders, use the 30 hours of funding if the childminder has chosen to accept this, and pay using tax-free childcare or voucher schemes.

Nanny or Nanny share

A Nanny is somebody that you employ to care for your children in your own home. The nanny is your employee and must have a contract of employment, and you are legally obliged to run payroll and ensure that National Insurance Contributions and any tax due is paid. However, as your employee, you have much more flexibility in terms of hours offered. For example, most nurseries close at 6pm but a Nanny could work until 9pm, giving the children a bath and putting them to bed. Nannies can also offer overnight care, come along on your family holiday or work shift patterns if agreed in advance as part of your contract.

Nannying is an extremely varied profession, and it is up to you as an employer to choose what sort of person you would like to look after your child. Legally there is no need for your nanny to be qualified in childcare, though many nannies are, or to be registered with Ofsted, though again, many are. An Ofsted registered Nanny can accept payments using vouchers or via the tax-free childcare scheme but nannies do not accept the 15 or 30 hours of funding.

If you like the idea of a Nanny and know someone else looking for a Nanny something worth considering is a Nanny share arrangement. This is where two families have a nanny come and look after their children at one of their homes, the arrangements will vary from family to family and nanny to nanny, though both employers must pay the nanny at least minimum wage.

Ofsted Rating?

Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills. Ofsted is an independent, impartial body which inspects services providing education and regulates services that care for children and young people.

Ofsted inspects day nurseries, nursery schools, schools, childminders and nannies who are registered with Ofsted. Day nurseries, Nursery schools and Childminders are inspected under the Early Years Inspection Framework. The Early Years Inspection framework checks that the setting complies with the statutory guidance on staffing, ratios, space and safeguarding, but also that the learning and development opportunities in place reflect best practice in Early Years.

Inspection outcomes are: outstanding, good, satisfactory or requires improvement. Reports of the inspectors activities and findings can be found online where you can read their report in full.

Provision as part of a school will be inspected under the School Inspection Framework, but a distinct section reporting on Early Years provision will form part of the full Ofsted report.

Nannies are rarely inspected, and inspections tend to be much shorter. Essentially the inspection is to check that the nanny meets the criteria for Ofsted registration and is able to keep children safe. Ofsted do not inspect Nannies for provision of learning and development activities.

Whilst inspections can tell you some important information about a setting, and perhaps give you a glimpse into them, they certainly do not give the whole picture. Until very recently schools and settings deemed outstanding were not routinely inspected again for a number of years, some that carry the ‘outstanding’ judgement have not been inspected for 10 years.

Conclusion

Choosing the right childcare is really important and is certainly not one size fits all, so many different types and styles of childcare have developed in response to exactly this. First you will need to decide what kind of childcare you are looking for, though some families find it helpful to at least look at two different types. Many have expressed sentiments such as being set on a childminder but then visiting a nursery on a whim and changing their minds.

Consider also where you want to look for childcare; whether that’s close to home or close to work. If you have family living close to home who could collect your child in an emergency then this could be a good option, and will mean that your child misses out on most of the commute, whilst childcare close to your work means that you can get to your child quickly if needed.

Recommendations from other parents are usually a good starting point as they can give you an “Insiders” perspective on the setting. Visiting the setting is also a good way to get a ‘feel’ for the place. Most nursey settings have an open-door policy meaning that you can come and visit when you like and be shown around. As you visit look out for how staff interact with the children, their manager and each other; this will give you a feel for the environment. You should also use the visit as a chance to ask questions and retrieve information. You should be given information about opening hours, fees and funding options, what is provided (meals, nappies, suncream etc.) but you may like to ask questions about the setting’s ethos, staff qualifications and the types of activities that they provide on a day to day basis.

Childminders will most likely ask you to meet them at a time when they are not working, as unless they have an assistant working with them they have sole charge over the children they mind. Nannies will either meet for an initial chat or an interview depending on your preference.

As with most things in parenting, when it comes to choosing childcare there is no one right way, but lots of different right ways for lots of different families. You know your child and your family best, so the best thing to do is to do your research and trust your instincts!