Wednesday, 4 December 2013

How to choose a pre-school for your child

As a parent it can be confusing when you start to think about what to do with your child to prepare them for school.  The provision can be divided up into the following categories:
  • day-nurseries, nannies and childminders, who look after children of all ages before they start school.  These are child-care facilities allowing parents to get back to work or to have their child looked after among other children.  Day nurseries and child-minders usually offer extended hours to fit around your working day.  Day nurseries are usually divided into different rooms for different age-groups, and the pre-school room will often cover much the same ground as a pre-school or nursery class.  Child minders will usually have far fewer children, and will happily take your child for you to playgroup, pre-school or nursery class.
  • playgroups and preschools.  These are provisions with fairly short sessions, for children from the age of around 2 and a half.  They may be with or without parents present.
  • nursery classes, often attached to schools.  These usually take children for the last year before they start school.
  • The other option is, of course, no provision at all.  Compulsory education in this country starts at age 5, not at age 3, so there is no need at all to send your child somewhere if you are happy with them at home.  It's just a case of weighing up what is offered at these facilities and whether you think there is any benefit to them.
This and all other pictures are from the Facebook page of our pre-school 
This article is concerned with what is on offer at a playgroup or pre-school or a nursery class, though often nursery classes are attached to schools, so they are selected more based on what the school as a whole offers, rather than just the nursery class.

Playgroups and pre-schools often offer shorter sessions.  They are about easing your child from the home to a more sociable setting where they learn that other people than the parent can give instructions, about working and playing with other children, and experiencing a wide range of toys.  There is usually some routine, but plenty of unstructured play, outdoor activity, arts and crafts etc.

Nursery classes are usually more structured, with more routine and with the intention of offering a secure grounding in key skills before they start school.

All the options mentioned above will be following an early years curriculum stipulated by the government (or Scottish Parliament) which intends to lay the foundations on which future learning will build.  You might wish your child to stay with one provision all the way through, or you might move from a play-group to a nursery class.  In some areas, your options may be limited, either because of rural geography, or because in some towns and cities demand for places is very high.  It's worth making contact several months before you want your child to begin, so that you can have a look around and fill in the relevant paperwork.

Charges for different provisions will vary.  Three and four year olds throughout the UK are entitled to some free early-years education, though the amounts in the different countries varies.  If you use less than your entitlement, then you'll be getting it for free, but if you use more, then you'll need to know what charges are.  You will often also be charged for snack (or asked to contribute some fruit each week), and expected to pitch in at fundraising events to help raise cash for equipment.

Questions to ask
  • is it clean?
  • when you visit, are the staff welcoming and friendly?  If you have your child with you, do they engage with them straight away or spend all the time talking to you?
  • does it have a good reputation?  Check out the inspection reports on-line, and ask other people (particularly at the school gate) what provision they used and whether they would recommend it
  • do they have an open-door policy?  I don't mean that they leave the front door open all the time and any weirdo can walk in, I mean that any parent can pop in for a visit at any time.  If they don't - what are they hiding?
  • following from that - what is the security like?
  • Do they have clear guidelines on timings, sick-child policy etc.
  • Ask about what they do to develop pre-reading skills
  • What provision have they made for left handed children?
  • How do they deal with Special Needs?
  • What does a normal day/session look like?  How much routine is there?
  • How much of what they do is focused on reading and writing skills and how much on play?
  • what kind of snacks do they serve?
  • what do they do if a child is having a tantrum?  What is their behaviour policy?
  • how much time do they spend outdoors?
  • what are the toys like?  are they easily accessible, kept clean, varied and age appropriate?
  • what provision is there if your child still naps regularly?  What about if your child is not yet toilet trained?
  • How many staff are there?  What is the ratio of children to staff?
  • What qualifications do the staff have?
  • What is staff turnover like?  Do the staff seem happy to be working there?
Once you've asked all those questions you'll have a good idea of the quality of the provision you are looking at, and more importantly, whether it's a good fit for you and your child.

I'm pretty lucky.  I live in a small village.  Our nearest pre-school is about 2 miles away and came recommended to me by several parents at the toddler group in the village hall.  I decided that as an active and busy stay-at-home mum I offer plenty of opportunities to the children already, so there was no hurry to get them into the education system, but that the chance to develop more social skills with other children and adults, and to ease into the routine of a school day would be valuable in the year before school.  I first went to an open day at the pre-school myself, and liked it and the staff.  A few months later I went to another open day with C.  Then a couple of weeks later  (in June) he went for a taster morning (with me staying as well).  By the time August came along he couldn't wait to get started and has gone from strength to strength there.  He's a smart cookie, and his reading and writing are coming along brilliantly at home - I don't think this has been developed much at pre-school, but that's fine with me because that's not what I wanted to get out of pre-school.  I wanted him to learn to play and share with other children, to get into a routine, and to learn to respond to and interact with other adults, and he's doing those things brilliantly.  C (age 4) has been attending three mornings a week since August, and after Christmas is increasing to five mornings a week.  After the Summer he starts school.  Bug (age 2 1/2) has been attending one morning a fortnight in an unofficial capacity when I'm on the parent duty rota.  She's got to know all the routines and is keen to get started.  After Easter, when she's gone past three and her free provision kicks in, she's going to start three mornings a week as well.

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