Choosing Childcare

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

Knowing where to start when looking for childcare can often feel like an uphill struggle, adding to the stress and guilt many parents feel about returning to work. With over 20 years’ experience working in Early Years, (including managing nurseries, advising childminders and as a private nanny) and now a mother myself, I draw on my professional knowledge and personal experience to help you make decisions about childcare.


This article gives a brief overview of the main types of childcare, where to find out about them, issues to consider when choosing between them, as well as how to pay for childcare.

However, it is not possible to cover in a brief article all of the nuances of choosing childcare. If you would like more information and guidance, please take a look at the workshop ‘Choosing Childcare with Confidence’


The first thing I would say to any parent is to start thinking about childcare even before your child arrives. Spaces, particularly for babies, are often in great demand and waiting lists at good settings can often be long. When I worked as a nursery manager, it wasn’t unusual to have unborn babies on my waiting list. If you leave searching for childcare until the point you are returning to work/need it, you may have trouble finding anywhere with space or be left with only less than ideal options.

Options for childcare

Depending on the age of your child and what you want from your childcare, you have five main options (excluding family); day nurseries, childminder, pre-school, nanny, or au-pair. Below is an overview of what each one offers. There is no right or wrong answer to what you chose; it’s about finding childcare that is right for your child and family.

Day Nurseries

  • Regulated by Ofsted

  • Have to follow Early Years Foundation Stage to support children's care, learning and welfare

  • Care for children aged 3 months to 5 years

  • Care for children in different age groups, usually in different rooms

  • Can be small (around 30 children) to large (100+ children)

  • Are open 8 or 8.30am – 5.30 or 6pm, (some have extended hours covering 7am – 7pm)

  • Staff teams work in shifts

  • Usually operate Monday to Friday

  • Usually offer ‘morning’, ‘afternoon’ or ‘full day’ sessions

  • Often have a minimum number of sessions/days that children need to attend

  • You can use your tax-free childcare allowance to pay

  • Normally accept 2,3 and 4-year-old funding

Childminder

  • Care for children in their (the childminder’s) home

  • Regulated by Ofsted (or a childminder agency)

  • Have to follow Early Years Foundation Stage to support children's care, learning and welfare – i.e. the same as a nursery or pre-school

  • Care for children from 3 months to 5 years and beyond

  • Can care for up to 6 children of mixed ages, but often have less

  • Have a wide range of opening hours, including some who operate weekends, evenings and overnight

  • Usually charge by the hour, rather than fixed sessions

  • You can use your tax-free childcare allowance to pay

  • Often accept 2,3 and 4-year-old funding

Pre-school or Play group

  • Regulated by Ofsted

  • Have to follow Early Years Foundation Stage to support children's care, learning and welfare

  • Care for children 2 or 2.5 years to 5 years

  • Usually somewhere between 15 and 30 children attending at any one time

  • Open term-time only, from around 9am to 3pm (i.e. ‘school hours’)

  • Morning and afternoon sessions – some have ‘lunch clubs’ for an extra charge

  • Often have a minimum number of sessions/days children need to attend

  • You can use your tax-free childcare allowance to pay

  • Usually mainly funded through 2,3 and 4-year-old funding

  • Often run by a voluntary committee, so you are likely to be asked to help in some way.

Nanny/Mother’s Help

  • Cares for your child in your own home

  • Doesn’t have to be Ofsted registered, although can be (but only very light touch)

  • May be qualified, but may not be

  • May have First Aid training, may not

  • Not obliged to formally support your child’s learning but most do

  • Will often do light household chores related to the children

  • You are their employer, so you are responsible for their tax, National Insurance, pension and holiday pay

  • Can sometimes be cheaper than a nursery if you have two or more children

  • Will work between 40 and 60 hours a week (full time)

  • Can be live in or live out, may also do included babysitting

  • Some nannies will do overnight, weekends or follow shift patterns

  • You can use your tax-free childcare allowance to pay (if the nanny is Ofsted registered)

  • Can’t use 2,3 and 4-year-old funding

Au-pair

  • Lives with host family in return for childcare, light housework and some ‘pocket money’

  • No recommended for children under three, ideally only for school age children

  • Not qualified

  • Usually only minimal childcare experience and limited English

  • Must also attend a language course

  • Can only work up to 30 hours per week (this includes any babysitting)

  • Not registered by Ofsted

  • Can’t use your tax-free childcare allowance to pay

How to choose childcare

Deciding which type of childcare and then which individual setting or person will work for you and your child is a very personal choice. It can be helpful to talk to other families about what childcare they are using. Ask about what works for them and what doesn’t. While your needs might be different it will start to help you identify areas that are important for you.


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