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What is a school nursery?

What is a school nursery?
Nursery classes are a stepping stone between pre-school and Reception. We take a look at what happens in school nurseries, and the pros and cons of applying for a place.

Around the time of their child’s third birthday, many parents begin to think about sending them to a childcare setting that’ll prepare them for starting school.

For some, this will be an independent pre-school or nursery, but many others choose to enrol their child in a school nursery.

School nurseries: the basics

As the name suggests, school nurseries are attached to a maintained (‘state’) primary schoolacademy or free school.

They are on the same site, and often work closely with the Reception class.

Some schools have a combined nursery and Reception class. Some have separate classes, but with a lot of crossover time where children from both classes can interact freely. And some keep the nursery class separate.

Nursery classes accept children who have turned three by the start of the academic year, unlike private nurseries and pre-schools, which may take younger children.

The nursery class must be led by a qualified teacher, and there must be at least one other staff member who has at least a level 3 childcare qualification.

Staff to child ratios are different in recognition of the school environment and the staff’s level of qualification: there must be at least one member of staff for every 13 children, unlike the small ratios in other settings.

Many school nurseries are flexible, so you may be able to choose whether your child attends mornings, afternoons or full days.

Children in nursery classes typically wear school uniform, or a variant of it (such as joggers with the school jumper), and often join in with the rest of the school in activities such as lunchtime routines, play time, assemblies, school plays and sports day. This helps them integrate with older children and learn some of the routines of the school day in readiness for starting Reception.

School nurseries open in term-time only. They may run full-day or half-day sessions. They’ll also have INSET days at the same time as the rest of the school.

Nursery classes are inspected by Ofsted at the same time as the rest of the school.

What do children learn in a school nursery?

Children in nursery classes follow the curriculum for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), which also includes Reception.

There are seven areas of learning:

  • Communication and language, including listening, speaking and understanding
  • Physical development, including moving and handling, and health and self-care
  • Personal, social and emotional development, including self-confidence and self-awareness, managing feelings and behaviour, and making relationships
  • Literacy
  • Maths
  • Understanding the world
  • Expressive arts and design

Children take part in a range of learning activities, such as listening to stories, beginning to learn phonics, counting and measuring, singing and making music, drawing and painting, and PE, along with a lot of free play.

They learn through a combination of child-led and adult-led activities. There are three specific types of learning:

  • Playing and exploring: investigating and experiencing things, and ‘having a go’
  • Active learning: concentrating and persevering if they encounter difficulties, and enjoying their achievements
  • Creating and thinking critically: developing their own ideas, making links between ideas, and developing strategies for doing things.

There’s no formal assessment for nursery children. Instead, staff observe what they’re doing and shape their learning experiences based on their interests and level of development and achievement. 

You should be kept up to date about your child’s progress. This might be through parent-teacher consultations, and/or a record book or learning log where staff note down their observations.

Do you have to pay for school nursery?

All children are entitled to 15 hours of funded childcare per week for 38 weeks per year from the start of the term after their third birthday.

Many others are entitled to 30 hours’ funding depending on eligibility.

You can use your funding for a school nursery place for your child (although bear in mind that not all school nurseries are open for the full 30 hours per week).

School nurseries can’t charge additional fees on top of your child’s funding. They can, however, make a charge for ‘extras’ like meals, snacks and nappies (by law, there’s no obligation for children to be toilet trained on starting nursery, although it’s preferable if they are).

How do you apply for a school nursery place?

Unlike Reception places, there are no fixed nationwide application dates and deadlines for nursery classes, so you’ll need to check with the school.

Find a nursery school place for children under 5 in England and Wales on the .gov website.

Application criteria will also vary from school to school. For example, some may prioritise children in a certain catchment area, or siblings of current pupils. You can find the school’s admissions policy on its website.

It’s always a good idea to visit the school before you apply for a place. They may run tours of the nursery class or allow you to visit at a time that suits you.

What are the pros and cons of a school nursery?

The choice about whether to send your child to a school nursery is a personal one. However, you may want to take the following pros and cons into account:


  • A school nursery will help your child get used to their future school environment and the routines of the school day.
  • They’ll get to interact with other children who may be in their Reception class, and to get to know other children and teachers in the wider school.
  • Starting school properly will feel less nerve-wracking as they’ve already had a gentle introduction to school life.
  • They’ll be taught by a qualified teacher rather than a nursery worker.
  • You won’t have to pay for their childcare, other than for extras like snacks.
  • They may be encouraged to be more independent than in a private childcare setting, for example with toileting, hygiene and dressing themselves.
  • Their learning will give them a good foundation to build on in Reception, for example through starting phonics and basic numeracy.
  • If they have an older sibling at the same school, it may be more convenient to have both children on the same site than in two (or more) different settings.


  • School nurseries are only open during the school day and in term-time, and may not offer 30 hours per week. This could be difficult if you work.
  • There may be up to 13 children per staff member, rather than up to eight children in a private nursery or pre-school, and up to 30 children per class.
  • Usually, there is no guarantee that children in a nursery class will get a Reception place at the same school.
  • Although learning is through play, you may feel it’s more formal than in a private nursery or pre-school.
  • The school environment and routines (e.g. changing for PE and going to assembly) may feel overwhelming for your child.
  • You’re likely to have less day-to-day communication with staff, and instead have termly parent-teacher consultations.
  • Your child will mix with older pupils, up to Year 6: you may prefer them to be in a specific Early Years setting.
  • Additional expenses for things like snacks and meals, and wraparound care if you need it, can add up.

‘We’d advise that parents should choose whichever setting is best for them and their child, rather than basing it on whether it’s a school nursery or private voluntary or independent setting,’ says a spokesperson from the Early Years Alliance.

‘Why we chose a school nursery’

‘In our area, the vast majority of children move from pre-school to nursery in the year before starting Reception, so we decided to do the same with Sam. He was also beginning to outgrow his pre-school, and we felt he was ready for a change.

Being in the nursery class helped Sam to get used to school life so that when he started Reception, it wasn’t a big deal at all. He was already used to wearing uniform, going to assembly and even choosing picture books to bring home, as well as doing simple phonics and numeracy.

‘Children in nursery and Reception also got to move freely between the two classrooms during part of the morning, so Sam got to know the Reception environment and the teacher.

‘The vast majority of his class stayed at the school for Reception, and we could tell that the new joiners found it harder to integrate as the nursery children had formed friendships already.

‘One drawback was that the Nursery teacher had high expectations more in line with older children, so sometimes it felt that she expected too much from her class. I was called in once and reprimanded because Sam had torn a book: he was only just three!

‘It would also have been useful to have the option of full days, and some holiday childcare.

‘Overall, though, sending Sam to Nursery was definitely the right decision, and we did the same with our second child, too.’

Alison, mum to Sam, nine, and Daisy, six

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