What makes a nursery good or bad?


Do I look like I work for the nursery inspection section of Ofsted? No, I don’t, but I guess that’s why you’re reading this post. After all, there is only so much detail you can digest before your mouth beings to trot out platitudes like: “sounds good”, “I agree” and “I’m happy, if you’re happy”. Yup, you’ve had your fill with official reports and now you’re looking for something a little more real. You want the no-holds-barred opinion of the experienced dad on the street, or in this case the internet. And do you know what? You’ve come to the right place.

I say this, because my son, wife and I have direct experience of two nurseries. There’s the one he is currently terrorising twice a week, which is very, very good. And there’s the one he spent a couple of weeks at late last year, which was so bad my wife still regularly threatens to write a letter demanding our ‘place guaranteeing’ deposit back. (Note: I bet she’ll say it again when she reads this article. Update: she did.)

Ooh, how interesting. So what makes his present one so good and his former one so bad? The answer is a heady cocktail/dirty pint of the following…

Current nursery: good communication

At my son’s present place of learning/throwing stuff on the floor, the communication comes in visual, verbal and written form. In terms of the visual, there are daily Whatsapp pictures that reveal the books he’s been reading, the art he’s been creating and the toys he’s been chewing. In terms of the verbal, there are the drop off and pick up chats that provide a real insight into his mood and development, and the “no need to panic, but…” calls that explain why he is coming home with a scratch or bruise. And in terms of the written, there is his daily book, which tells us everything we need to know about that day – from food eaten to number of “dirties” (FYI: his current record is four). And there is his bigger book, which tells us how many of his learning objectives he has or hasn’t ticked off to date.

Former nursery: poor communication

We should have sniffed a rodent when the first nursery we signed our son up to failed to call and confirm his start date. It was a bad start and things got worse as his time there progressed. One day, the nursery manager assured us our son would only be given vegetarian food. The next day, one of the workers excitedly told us “he’d eaten half of his beef lasagne”. One pick-up, the room manager said he’d had a good day. Two minutes later, the nursery manager revealed, “he’d been unsettled in the morning”. So who was telling the truth and who wasn’t? It doesn’t matter. What matters is the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing, which is a massive red flag.

Current nursery: well-trained and loyal staff

Forget the price, the other kids, the outdoor space and the bewilderingly detailed menu. When all is said and done, the staff will make or break your little one’s nursery experience. There are a wide variety of reasons why my wife and I are extremely happy with the team at my son’s current nursery, with the top four being:

  1. Their loyalty – not one staff member has left since he started.
  2. Their ages – there are always a couple of older ladies to provide the calming experience, and a couple of younger people to keep up with the energy levels and start the fun.
  3. Their training – each team member is either fully qualified, or at some stage of the childcare and child education training system.
  4. “Amy” – the main manager is called Amy, which it turns out is a really easy name for babies to say.

Former nursery: recruiting staff

I remember seeing a ‘nursery staff wanted’ poster on the door of my son’s first nursery and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s good, they must be expanding.’ They weren’t expanding. They were experiencing a high staff turnover due to offering low pay and having a lot of competition. Sadly, they are not alone. Getting and keeping workers is a big problem for British nurseries that can lead to big headaches for British parents. Why? Simple. A lack of familiar faces can make it difficult for your child to settle.

Former nursery: a big and scary room

You know how sofas always look smaller in the store than they do when they aren’t fitting through your front door? Well, nursery furniture is sort of the opposite. What I mean by this is the same slide that looks relatively small when compared to a 13-stone man appears to be gargantuan when placed beside a 13kg kid.

And this matters because? It matters because when I visited my son’s first nursery, I incorrectly looked around the baby room, saw all the cots, castles and slides and thought: ‘Wowee, this is awesome. The bubster and his mates are going to have the time of their life.’ Fast-forward to home time on day one and, in between the now seemingly gigantic toys and bookcases, I could just about spot six lonely-looking kids, playing on their own, nowhere near one another. Moral of this story? When inspecting a nursery, think like your 1/10 of your size.

Currently nursery: a good size for his age group

Whenever I show someone the outside of my son’s nursery, they look somewhat perplexed and say, “but that’s someone’s house”. It is indeed someone’s house. But it’s a house that’s knocked down an internal wall or two to create a relatively large side room that’s easily capable of hosting up to 16 children.

Wait, aren’t those numbers a bit small? Initially, I thought the same thing, but then my wife pointed out that our son likes to observe situations before getting involved. “This character trait means he is more likely to flourish in a tighter group,” she argued. And I’m delighted to say, she was right. I know I’m biased, but to say he’s thriving is an understatement – the kid has just turned 18 months and his language, mobility and thinking skills are way more advanced than most of his contemporaries.

Have I finished going on about how much the sun shines out of my son’s backside yet? Yes, I have. That is everything I have to say about his nursery and nurseries in general. Actually, that’s a lie. I have one more thing to say. Which is: in light of the above, when you go and visit a potential nursery for your kids, it’s probably better that you spend less attempting to solve puzzles that are aimed at three-year-olds and more time asking pertinent questions like so.

The Father-Hood.co.uk nursery question list

  • How do you keep us up to date with our son/daughter’s progress?
  • How may permanent staff do you have and how long have they worked here?
  • Are you currently recruiting for staff?
  • How many kids are going to be in on the days my son/daughter is here?
  • Can you give me an idea of the type of activities my son/daughter will be doing?
  • Do you have any staff members called Amy, as I’ve heard that’s a really easy name for babies to say?*

*This question is a joke. Repeat: a joke.






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  • In terms of the size factor, I found the opposite. Cramped rooms = disagreements and stifled kids with no space (but in the area I am they really like to cram ’em in, and try to set up nurseries in ex-corner-shops and other ridiculously small places). We are lucky in that my daughter’s has an award-winning building, they have a large communal space which is almost like an outside/in scenario. They can run around in any weather. Around the edge are smaller rooms and screened off zones for smaller children and quiet times.
    My big one would be quality of outside space and whether staff are confident in that space – you’d be surprised how many nurseries don’t give their kids enough fresh air and space to roam … or just leave them to wander some muddy grass with a few old toys here and there.

    • stuarthoodlimited

      Your daughter’s nursery sounds amazing. I found that the cramped room suited my son at the age we were looking for his first nursery (6 months to a year), but now he is 2 he has outgrown the good one I talk about in this piece and is heading off to a bigger one, with more kids, outdoor space etc. He starts on Thursday, fingers crossed.

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