Parents trying to choose a nursery for their child are faced with a bewildering list of questions.
How much does the nursery cost? What are the opening hours? Does it offer enough of an educational element? What are the staff like? How many other children are there in the classroom? Is it safe?
Until now, finding answers to these questions has not been easy, but a new website has the potential to make the decision-making considerably easier for parents in Glasgow.
The site, which is to be launched by Glasgow City Council, will, for the first time, bring all the critical information on the city's nurseries together in one place. Every kind of nursery will be featured on the site - state, private and partnership (private nurseries that provide funded places) - and all the essential data will be online, including opening hours and fees. It means parents can compare what is available in their area and whether it is suitable for their child.
In addition, the site will include links to reports on the nurseries carried out by the Care Inspectorate and Education Scotland. This information is already in the public domain, but collecting it in one place is likely to bring the reports to the attention of parents who may not even have been aware of their existence. These reports can be critical in highlighting serious failings at some nurseries (although they are thankfully a minority).
The fact that the new site combines the inspection reports with other information on nurseries has the potential to be a valuable aid for parents. It also comes at a critical time in the development of childcare in Scotland. Not only are more parents working longer hours and therefore leaving their children into nurseries for longer, free childcare is also about to be expanded. The SNP declared in its referendum White Paper that it would extend free care even further should independence be won.
Of course, the working of the website will have to be monitored closely as it gets going, not least because different parents value different qualities in nurseries. For some, it is about balancing work with childcare; for others the educational element is vital (and the Curriculum for Excellence is, after all, designed to start when children are three).
The site will also have to be monitored for the influence it has, if any, on the nursery sector. It may be that as parents react to the information, cheaper nurseries benefit - hardly surprising when the average charge for a child under two years old is £100 a week. Alternatively, it may be that nurseries with the smallest teacher-child ratio, or those with the best inspection reports, do well. In this way, the site may help to drive up standards and, if so, other councils should look at following Glasgow's lead.
What the site can never do is replace the most important test of all: a visit to the nursery by the parents. Glasgow City Council recognises this by deliberately not offering the option of applying for a nursery place through the site and that is the right approach. The best way to determine whether a nursery is right is to visit it and see it for yourself. No website could ever change that.
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