14/08/2014 12:48 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Are Competitive Nurseries A Step Too Far?

Are competitive nurseries a step too far

The strain on the nursery worker's face was palpable as I dropped my two–year-son off for his session.
"Ofsted" she said in a stricken whisper.

Although the inspectors were only in for one day, stress of the inspection lasted for over a fortnight until the report landed in the nursery foyer for all parents to read.

The nursery, for which I pay top whack, had received a level three grade meaning it 'requires improvement'.

"It's because we don't have a big outside space," the manager was quick to explain, despite the fact I had seen this when I signed up my son.

"The inspectors also said it was because parents mentioned on the day they didn't feel we updated them enough, but it was parents' evening that night. I told them to ask everyone how they felt the next day, but they refused."

She was clearly devastated. I couldn't blame her.

It seemed absurd they were being graded on insignificant issues as opposed to the health and happiness of the children in their care. Any parent selecting that nursery could see what the garden looked like and frankly, if I want to know how my son's day was at nursery, I ask one of his carers.


One look at my delighted son's face tells me how happy he is at nursery, along with the embarrassing fact I have to chase him round the room to get him to come home with me at the end of the day.


I can see for myself the rooms are clean, I know they serve nutritious organic food because it's approved by the Soil Association and as the nursery is only two years old, the toys are still in good nick while the hypo-allergenic flooring is like new.

So why did I find a huddle of mums outside whispering about how the nursery should be getting outstanding (a one grade) in Ofsted and seriously questioning if we should transfer our children to a different establishment?

The next week one of my mum friends phoned me. Her daughter's nursery had just been given a four in Ofsted, thereby saying the childcare was inadequate.

Again a logical glance at the clean, safe facilities, the caring staff and happiness of the children showed this was categorically untrue.

Nevertheless, an emergency meeting was called for the parents and not one but two independent private assessors were called to regrade the nursery. On top of this the nursery manager launched a time consuming, costly appeal against the Ofsted grade.

"They said it really should have been given a two," my friend told me in a later conversation, clearly relieved her nursery had been given a reprieve from the private assessors, despite the fact there had been no palpable change in her daughter's care.

"Anyway, another one of the mums heard your nursery had been given a three," she added.

Was I mistaken in thinking her tone was slightly gleeful? Yes, her nursery might not be great, but make no mistake mine wasn't either.

Suddenly it was clear. The nursery Ofsted grades were all my fellow mums were talking about, despite the fact the nurseries in question were more than half an hour away.

It's hard not to be aware of the rush for good secondary schools with parents moving home, investing in private tutors or even lying about where they live to get their children into their chosen school. But competitive schooling had seemingly reached a new low and now our barely walking, barely talking children were in the limelight.

Of course, we all want to give our children the best start in life, but surely when they are toddlers it's more important they are happy than being educated? And parents don't need the pressure of finding an 'outstanding' nursery as long as it's a good, safe place for our children to be.

Psychologist and founder of, Dr Amanda Gummer, agrees parents are getting too hung up on nursery Ofsted results.

"It's unhelpful to rely on the Ofsted grade alone," she says. "By all means use it as a pointer, but trust your own judgement. Look at how you get on with the staff, and whether the nursery suits your child and your needs. Is it nearby? Is it flexible?


If you get hung up on trying to make sure your toddler goes to an outstanding nursery, it's just another thing to feel guilty about, along with juggling being a working mum – if that's what you're doing. A stressed out parent leads to a stressed out child.


"Children are like sponges at this age," adds Dr Gummer. "They'll learn wherever they are, not just at nursery. It's more important your child learns to tie their shoelaces and share with other children than count to 10. There's plenty of time for them to learn to read and write when they start school."

All of this is music to my ears. Not only is my son in a nursery with a notice to improve, his latest report says he can only count to eight.

But instead of signing him straight up to Kumon lessons, I'm going to relax and reassure myself that as he's only two, if he'd rather play with his train set than learn his numbers, that's okay. He'll get there in the end - no matter what Ofsted grade his nursery is.

Do you find yourselves sucked into Ofsted rating of childcare?

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