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Nursery Schools, Day Nurseries and Classes

Information on nursery schools and day nurseries including admission criteria, things you should check with each and examples of questions you may want to ask before deciding whether to place your child in either.

Nursery Schools

Nursery schools and classes staffed by teachers and assistants, provide a non-compulsory phase of education suitable for children in the year before they immediately go to primary schools. However, some places may be available for younger children.

Admission criteria

Places are allocated to children on the basis of a school's admission criteria, combined with the parent's stated order of preference for the setting they wish their child to attend.

However, statutory, private and voluntary providers participating in the Pre-School Education Programme are required to give priority in their admissions criteria to children from socially disadvantaged circumstances and whose parents receive Income Support or income-based Jobseekers' Allowance).

More information about nursery schools, including how to obtain an application form and when to return it by, is available from the Education Authority (EA) in your region:


Most places are available:

  • at least two and a half hours per day
  • five days a week
  • for at least 38 weeks during the period September to June

Some nursery schools and classes may offer full-time places (around four hours, with lunch available). All nursery schools are registered and inspected by the Education and Training Inspectorate.

Children who attend get the chance to play and learn alongside other children and acquire skills, which will give them a head start at school.

Please bear in mind when considering nursery schools and classes:

  • children have the opportunity to play and learn as well as have fun with friends
  • children will be in a group led by a trained teacher
  • it is sometimes free
  • parents who work full time may need to arrange for other childcare to fit around the hours worked
  • children may need to be fully toilet trained
  • are usually only open during the school term

Things to check with nursery schools

  • the staff ratio (1:13), premises, and level of supervision, which should be constant
  • the atmosphere should be calm, happy and well-ordered, with children given plenty of positive reinforcement
  • what out-of-school trips they do and how well organised they are
  • toys and equipment - they should be in good condition and accessible
  • how open staff are with parents. high child to staff ratios may mean you get limited time with carers, but feedback is essential

Questions to ask nursery schools

  • how much continuity of care is there? even older, more confident pre-schoolers, dislike lots of change and constant new faces to get used to
  • is there a good mix of creative play, free play and sitting down activities?
  • do they have the opportunity for physical play and outdoor activities?

For further information about nursery schools, contact the EA in your region.

Day nurseries

Day nurseries are usually privately run and provide care for children aged from six weeks to five years old. All day nurseries must be registered and annually inspected by Social Services.

There are strict guidelines on staff/children ratios which must be compiled with:

  • for under-twos, one carer to three children
  • two to three year olds, one carer to four children
  • three to five year olds, one carer to eight children

Day nurseries are usually opened from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm and care is usually provided all year round.

Day nurseries participating in the Pre-School Education Programme will have an allocation of funded places for which children in their final pre-school year can apply.

These places will be available:

  • at least two and a half hours per day
  • five days per week
  • at least 38 weeks during the period September to June

In day nurseries:

  • 50 per cent of staff must have a relevant childcare qualification
  • children have opportunities to learn and play with friends
  • childcare is reliable - if one member of staff is ill, others are available to cover
  • some day nurseries offer school pick-ups and out of school care
  • eligible for help with costs through childcare element of the Working Tax Credit
  • funded places may be available for children in their final pre-school year
  • part time places are often available

However, some day nurseries are not flexible if you work shifts or weekends and there can be long waiting lists for a place.

Things to check with day nurseries

  • the day nursery has places available for your child's age group - some day nurseries do not take under twos, and many get booked up months in advance
  • the day nursery operates a key worker carer system - babies in particular need to build up a relationship with one carer
  • the premises are clean, light and child-centred, with plenty of safe space to play inside and out
  • the facilities should be ideal for your child throughout their time there, with different areas or rooms, depending on age
  • the children present should seem happy and relaxed and be well supervised at all times by staff who communicate well with them in a warm and caring environment

Questions to ask day nurseries

  • what is the ratio of carers to children, and what was the turnover of staff in the last year?
  • what are the routine activities?
  • when and where are the sleep sessions?
  • will they take the children off the day nursery premises?
  • can they provide a special diet if required?
  • what is their policy on discipline?
  • is there an opportunity to talk to the carer at the beginning and end of each day?
  • what is their settling-in policy?
  • ask to see the most recent inspection report

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