Mother visiting a nursery

How to choose the right childcare

Nicky Sanford explains how to choose the right childcare and the questions to ask when visiting a childcare setting. She also explains the difference between the terms nursery, kindergarden, pre-schools and playgroups.

As we move swifly through the school year, you might be thinking about finding an early years setting for your little one. 

You may be returning to work and/or thinking about your children socialising with other children or you may be exploring the learning and development expectations before starting ‘big’ school and Reception in September.

And if you're just starting out on this journey you've probably heard phrases like pre-school, playgroup, nursery and kindergarten but what are the differences between them?

It is worth saying at this point that most early years settings in England follow the Early Years Foundation Stage framework which covers the care and education of children from birth until age 5.  

This framework supports children’s learning through constructive play suitable for the different stages of development.  

So with most types of childcare following the EYFS what are the varying childcare options are how are they different?

Bear in mind that the names used to describe settings should not suggest a different level of support and teaching offered to the children in their care as childcare overall has greatly evolved in the last few years.

Nursery class

A maintained nursery class will operate as part of a primary school and will be run by a fully qualified teacher.  Children generally attend during school hours and during term time only.

Day nursery

In contrast to a nursery class, a day nursery is usually open all year round with longer hours available (sometimes from early morning until late evening).  Some nurseries will accept children just a few weeks old although babies and older children are often cared for in separate ‘rooms’ to ensure that their experiences are more suited to their particular ages and stages of development.


Pre-school provision can vary widely but many are run as charities or not-for-profit organisations.  Admission can be from around two years of age and settings are often ‘sessional’, offering hours each morning, afternoon or sometimes for a full day – typically within school hours and term time only. Some day nurseries will also offer a pre-school provision within their setting based on the child’s age.


Typically, childminders operate from their own homes and provide care and educational support to smaller groups of children. The ages of the children attending can be mixed, from just a few weeks often until they start school, although many childminders will offer care afterschool and during holidays to older children too. Childminders often offer a flexible approach to the hours attended and can offer a very individualised approach to the care that they offer to families.


A nanny would provide care within the child’s home and depending on the qualifactions and experience of the nanny, as well as the contractual agreements, might provide a range of services in addition to the childcare element. 


Within the early years there are a variety of qualifications that staff can hold, including Level 1 and 2, Level 3 management qualifications before moving on to level 4 and above. Settings may employ a graduate leader, who holds a degree in child development, this could be an early years professional or an early years teacher. 


Whichever type of setting you approach, in England, they will be inspected by OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) who issue a judgement on the following areas within each setting:-

Effective leadership and management

Quality of teaching, learning and assessment

Personal development, behaviour and welfare

Outcomes for children

For parents, this is often the first point of reference when deciding on which setting to send their child to. While an Ofsted report can give you an insight into the setting you are considering, there are many other questions you can ask which can be far more informative. 

Good questions to ask when choosing childcare

Here are some initial questions worth considering.

What qualifications do your staff hold? How do you plan for their personal development?

How long have your staff been with the setting? A high turnover of staff could suggest something is not ‘right’ within the group.

What arrangements do you have for ‘settling-in’?

How do you share children’s progress with parents? And how often?

What sort of setting would you describe yourself as?

How much time do you spend outside each day?

What were the recommendations from your last Ofsted report?  How have these been addressed so far?

Are there any current parents that I could speak to about their views?

Do you encourage parents to come into the setting and be involved?

Visiting a setting

ALWAYS visit a setting or childminder before you register your child. 

This is a major decision and involves thinking about the safety and wellbeing of your child so you need to be sure that you have selected the best place.

Try to visit more than one setting as this will give you information and styles to compare.   

Take along your partner or a friend, so there is an extra pair of eyes and ears to take it all in.

Take your child with you. How staff engage with your child is so important and you’ll get a good idea of how comfortable your child feels too.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, a supportive setting will welcome your enquiries and happily answer any questions you have to ensure that you are happy and understand how they operate. 

Trust your gut

Remember, you know your child best and will know what will suit you and your family best. 

Trust your instincts, even if your friends or family have different views.  The relationship you build within any early years setting is an important one, at a time when your child is most dependant – so it has to be the right one!

Written by Nicky Sanford for the Early Years Alliance. Nicky worked as an early years teacher for 15 years and currently works in a village pre-school. 

What is a key person and why are they important?