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The difference between school Nursery and Private Nursery

There are many different childcare options in the UK. I'm going to be specifically talking here about the differences between School ('maintained') Nurseries and Private Nurseries in England. I'll also mention Academies. This is an unbiased and factual account that hopes to help confused parents! I have worked in both school nurseries and a private nursery and both have their strengths!

If you find this useful and would like to find out more about making childcare choices, including Childminders, Nannies and Pre-schools, you can attend one of my course 'Starting Childcare and Smooth Transitions'. I cover how to emotionally start the process of looking for and choosing childcare and embarking on the transition, whilst also thinking about your return to work.

An important consideration to make when reading through these points is of course that every single school nursery and every single private nursery will be different. They will be organised and run by different people, they will have different pedagogy's (a fancy word for methods of teaching and ethos), and they will just have a very different vibe. Therefore it's REALLY important to make visits. Logistically one setting might appear to work best for you but just like when you buy a house, you need to go inside it to 'know' if that is where you want your child to be spending their precious time and early years.

So lets get started:

At what age can the child attend?

School Nursery

Private Nursery

​Children generally start the September after their 3rd birthday.

Some take children from 2 yrs.

Usually for children aged 0-5 years. Can start at any age, whenever there is a space.

When can you apply for a place?

School Nursery

Private Nursery

In order for your child to start in September, applications open the previous November and deadlines are in February (check school websites). Generally works on a first come, first serve basis. Some may fill quickly, others may have spaces last minute.

Apply directly via the nursery at any time of year and you will be allocated a space depending on availability. There is often a waiting list if no spaces are available.

How do you get a place?

​School Nursery

Private Nursery

Apply (as above), directly via the school and places are given on a first come first served basis. It's important to know that having a nursery place holds no bearing on whether your child will get a Reception place at the school the following year.

Reception places are made through the local authority based on set criteria and have nothing to do with the school.

Children can stay at a private nursery until right before they start Reception.

Reception places are applied for and allocated via the local authority based on set criteria which is the same regardless of previous childcare choices.

Who are the Nursery run by?

School Nursery

​Private Nursery

​'Maintained' or state School nurseries are funded and controlled by the Local Authority. An academy school is not funded and controlled by the local authority. Academies receive funding directly from the government and they are run by an academy trust. There are some other differences in how state schools and academies are run that you can find out here. Both types of school/ nursery include a Head Teacher/ Governors that lead.

Privately or sometimes charity run.

Private nurseries can differ a lot. Some may be a small business, others may have a small chain or group of nurseries and others may be from a big chain of nurseries. Nurseries can be owned, founded & run by early years professional(s) or a business person with no education experience. All nurseries must adhere to a registration process and be Ofsted Registered prior to opening. Private nurseries will likely have an 'Owner', 'Manager' 'Deputy', 'Room Leaders' as well as other staff.

What are the opening times?

School Nursery

Private Nursery

Open ‘school hours’ (roughly 9am-3pm), term time, 38 weeks of the year, as set by the local authority. Academies can set slightly different holiday dates and timings but most are very similar to state schools.

Open all day (roughly between 7am-6pm), all year round (some may have some set closures across the year).

Always check closures and any charges during closures as each Nursery will have different policies.

What does it cost?

None of it is 'free'...

School Nursery

Private Nursery

​Because schools are funded by the local authority directly, they have a different financial structure to private nurseries. They are also open only for the 15 or 30 hours covered by the 3-4 year old funding. They may however charge extra for lunch (to cover staffing), or for occasional trips or specific resources eg cooking activities.

Will have set hour or day rates. Most accept 15/30 hour funding, however this often doesn't cover the overheads including staffing/ rent/ education. Therefore Nurseries may charge funded children additionally for consumables (food/ resources/trips ect). There will also be additional costs for the 'wrap around' hours beyond the 15/30 hours that are funded by the government.

What are the staff/ child ratios?

School Nursery

Private Nursery

Lower ratios/ less adults per child: e.g Qualified Teacher + 1-2 support staff for up to 30 children. Some may employ more staff if required, for example if a child has access to funding for 1:1 support.

​This outlines adult to child ratios when there is at least a Level 3 in the room. (These ratios are subject to change and currently up for discussion):

0-2’s (1:3)

2-3’s (1:4)

3-4’s (1:8)

A qualified teacher can have 1:13 along with another Level 3.

What are staff qualifications?

All early years providers working with children from birth to 5 years old must follow the regulations on early years foundation stage (EYFS) staff:child ratios. This is the number of qualified staff, at different qualification levels, an early years setting needs to have in order to meet the needs of all children at different stages of development and ensure their safety. These regulations are set out in the early years foundation stage (EYFS) statutory framework.

​School Nursery

​Private Nursery

The Nursery class is run by a qualified teacher or along with a TA/Nursery Nurse (or both).

All DBS checked.

The school will have a SendCo and Safeguarding Lead, an EYFS Lead, Deputy Head Teacher and Head Teacher.

Private nursery staff qualifications vary from qualified teachers, Nursery Nurses, Level‘s 2, 3, 4 and 5 in Childcare, plus unqualified staff (who should not ever be left in sole charge and might be accessing training on the job e.g as an apprentice). All staff must be DBS checked.

One member of staff must be allocated SendCo and another the Safeguarding Lead.

What about First Aid?

School Nursery

​Private Nursery

There will be designated First Aiders within the school.

Nurseries may train all staff in First Aid or just some but there must be first aiders on site at all times. Staff must have Paediatric First Aid Training every 3 years at a minimum.

Who regulates the nursery?

School Nursery

Private Nursery

Classified as a school and are regulated by Ofsted under the school inspection criteria and the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) Framework.

Regulated by Ofsted and inspected against the Education Inspection Framework (EIF) and the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS framework).

What statutory legislation do they follow?

Exactly the same!

School Nursery

Private Nursery

Follows the Early Years Framework, SEND Code of Practice and Early Years Foundation Stage and will create their own curriculum to meet the needs of children each year.

Follows the Early Years Framework, SEND Code of Practice and Early Years Foundation Stage and will create their own curriculum to meet the needs of children each year.

I really hope this has been helpful! If it has, please share it so that it can help more parents, because this stuff can be so confusing!

If you want to know more about finding the right childcare or if you're worried about what is best for you and your family, you can book on my course or book on a consultation call with me. I love to help with this very important and difficult stage in your parenting journey.


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