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Is everybody happy?

Are 24-hour nurseries the answer to a single mother's prayer? . . . they should be if the nursery or playgroup is any good. Lucy Hodges explains

Parents' minds are being concentrated as never before by frenetic activity in the world of early years education. First came vouchers, now their abolition, and the new Government's promise of a free nursery place for every four-year-old this autumn.

How should parents who have a choice in their area select a suitable nursery or playgroup? Experts in early years care and education believe an important first step is to visit. "Visit any that look hopeful," says Wendy Scott, chair of the British Association for Early Childhood Education. "It's worth spending some time and money to find something suitable."

Some specialists, such as Rosemary Murphy, chair of the National Private Day Nurseries Association, advise parents to visit a variety of establishments to find out how a playgroup compares with a nursery, for example.

Parents should ring up for an appointment and ask to spend a session talking to staff and drinking in the atmosphere. That will give them two-and-a-half hours to ask questions and decide if it is a happy place.

"They have to be there and breathe it in," says Mary Jane Drummond, tutor in primary education at the school of education in Cambridge.

Mothers and fathers are the experts on their own children, so only they can make that leap of imagination and decide whether or not little Sophie will be happy.

A nursery, school or playgroup that does not allow parents to spend time visiting them is making a telling point - it cannot be committed to working with engaged parents.

Most importantly, any outfit providing care and education for under-fives should have happy staff and children, according to Liz Pearson, a former nursery head in Barnet, north London. Parents should look for staff who are friendly and encourage independence.

They should look for the way the children are treated. Children need positive reinforcement, says Ms Scott. If they're jumping around, it's better to be told "sit up" than "stop jumping about".

Parents should also note whether or not they and their children are made to feel welcome. It's a good idea for the parents to take their child and watch how the staff treat the child and how the child responds. "A good nursery will invite you to have a look, and ask you back to spend time there," says Ms Murphy.

Mothers and fathers should look for a place that has been registered and validated. They should not be shy of asking questions about staffing ratios, who the staff are and what training they've had. Parents should meet the staff who will have close contact with their child, and gain some idea of the timetable and what the children do outdoors as well as indoors.

It is important that they are given explanations by someone who is enthusiastic and happy. As they are shown around they should expect to be told what is going on and what will happen next in each project.

Parents should keep an eye out for how much space the nursery or playgroup has, indoors and out, and whether it is used well. They should expect to see items and activities, such as water, a book corner, an area for drawing and writing, and evidence they are being used. The room should be busy and quite noisy.

The last government's voucher scheme introduced two important changes for four-year-olds - a set of desirable learning outcomes, and inspections. That means this age group effectively has a curriculum that is being monitored. Inspectors visit nurseries and playgroups and decide if they are up to scratch in the six areas of personal and social development, language and literacy, mathematics, knowledge and understanding of the world, physical development and creative development.

Parents should ask if the nursery or playgroup has been inspected and if they can see the report. Although they do not need to go into the detail of the six areas, it is fair enough to ask about letter work and number work. But they should remember most children will not be ready to read that young and few nurseries teach reading.

They should also ask to see the record-keeping so they have some idea of how the children's progress is monitored. And they should ask what arrangements exist for parents to have regular contact with teachers.

Ms Drummond's advice to parents is not to worry about measured outcomes at this age but to find out if the nursery encourages a passion for learning. Ms Scott endorses that. Academic formality is less important than the excitement that comes from following up ideas, she says.

Above all, parents should have faith in their own judgements. They are making a personal decision. It is wise to talk to other parents but they must take their own child's needs into account.

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