School or a Nursery for Your Three-Year-Old?

By now, many three-years-olds will have had their ‘big’ school assessments for September 2018 and parents will probably be in receipt of a handful of offer letters for school. 
School or a Nursery for Your Three-Year-Old?
By Jenny Mollon
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What was a far off prospect when you placed your child on the school waiting lists is now a reality – and presents a dilemma: Is your child really ready for school and are you ready for them to make that transition? 

We talked to schools and nurseries offering FS1 (generally 3-4 year olds in British schools and nurseries, equivalent to Pre-K in the American and International systems.  Schools have some discretion over starting age) to understand the similarities and differences in provision for three-year-olds in what many educationalists now consider the most important year of learning.

Academics or soft skills?

We began by talking to Siog Moore, Principal of Little Land Nursery in Umm Suqeim. 

We asked Siog to share her thoughts on the key differences in approach between schools and nurseries;

I guess what we have to think of is - What is nursery? What is school?  Whether a three year old child is in school or nursery they should be working to their own individual ability - so theoretically there should be the same approach to teaching.  The problem seems to arise from school culture being academically driven, and the children’s success is measured on their ability to perform in reading and mathematical skills.

Whereas in a Montessori Nursery - like ours - a child's success is measured on their individual improvement in all areas of learning, including social skills and creativity.  Their interest is gauged by assessing their level of engagement with activities, whether singing, playing, working with maths, language, culture or sensory materials”.

Would schools agree that they represent a more academic focused approach to early education, and that personal, social and emotional growth take a back seat in favour of more traditional learning?  This is an often cited concern amoungst parents, but is it based on reality?  Esther Keenan, FS1 teacher at the British International School, Abu Dhabi has her own thoughts on the matter: 

“All early years settings have their own approaches to the education and care of your child. At BIS Abu Dhabi, our FS1 focus is very much on school readiness. Children’s social and emotional development is of paramount importance as they embark upon their new school journey. The safe, secure, trusting relationships we build with children and families in FS1 are built to continue throughout the school. Children in FS1 become familiar with the school surroundings and with the routines and boundaries of school. This puts the children, the parents and the teaching team in a fantastic position to continue the learning journey seamlessly from FS1 into FS2”.

Support for parents and families

We were interested to hear Esther reference bonds with families and parents as the relationship between a centre of learning and a child’s parents is an often overlooked factor in your child’s happiness at school or nursery.  So whilst the differences for children might be readily apparent – what will parents notice as the prime differences between a school or nursery setting? 

Katya Deere, Centre Director of Blossom Early Learning Centre in Academic City, feels that support for working parents is vital – and an area where nurseries and early learning centres have the edge.  Katya pointed out two key areas:

“1 – more convenience: with timings for parents – early starts and late finishes.  Parents can choose whether to attend full or part time [days and/or hours].  At Blossom Academic City, we provide a full catering service, meaning that parents do not have the added headache of preparing a packed lunch.  Our menu is nutritionally balanced and varied and we can cater for differing dietary requirements, e.g. gluten free. 

2 – a more personalised approach.  We give personalised attention to parents, and we have an open door policy.  We feel there is a more one to one approach here”.

Full time or part time? 

Many parents may feel that their child is ready to spend some more time at school, but perhaps not a full five days.  Traditionally, as Katya pointed out, this flexibility was the preserve of nurseries. But times change and some schools have moved to offering part time Early Years provision, with the two schools in the Safa family (Safa British School and Safa Community School), as well as British International School, Abu Dhabi amoungst these.  Paula Allison, Head of Foundation Stage at Safa British School told us about their new approach:

“Next year in FS1 we will be offering an exciting concept with our Flexi option. Children in FS1 will have the choice of a 5, 4 or 3 day week with the view that term 3 will be 5 days a week for all. We have decided to do this as we know the transitions can be difficult for many children and it is important to be aware that some are more vulnerable compared to others. Creating a smooth transition into school is vital to ensure children get the best possible start in their new class. We want every child to have the best possible start to their learning journey here at Safa British School”.

Esther, at the British International School, felt that offering part time provision in the early days of school has benefits (although most BIS families chose for their child to attend for the full five day week):

We do offer part-time places, and this is to support both child and parent in the first stages of their separation and of course all children develop at different stages so our part time FS1 supports that. However the overwhelming majority of families choose to take up full time places within our setting. Parents see how the complete FS1 school day is run and want their child to benefit from being part of the entire experience’.

A question of numbers

Parents might look at staff:child ratios as a key factor in making this decision, and many nurseries we have spoken to reference this as one of their important strengths.  Looking at the four organisations we spoke to for this feature, ratios for children age three to four are:

  • Little Land – 1:4/5
  • Blossom Early Learning Centre: 1:8
  • British International School 1:7
  • Safa British School 1:10

So, on balance, nurseries win the day on ratios.  But what about that other key numeric indicator – price?  Most schools and nurseries will tell you that staffing costs are the primary overhead, so how do these ratios impact upon the bottom line for parents? 

We look below at a child attending for morning sessions, 5 days per week for three academic terms:

  • Little Land – 37,785 AED
  • Blossom Early Learning Centre – 36,930 AED (food at an additional cost)
  • British International School –  50,300 AED
  • Safa British School – 28,707 AED

 Not an entirely clear picture, but an obvious concern for parents at a time when many family budgets are increasingly stretched.  We asked Marie Stevens, who has daughter in a popular nursery in Jumeirah Lake Towers for her thoughts:

“I would love to keep her in her nursery – she is happy there and has lots of friends.  But the school we are looking at is so much cheaper!  I do have concerns that school is too fast and too soon, but when it comes down to it we will have to do what we can afford.  Again, I have recently had our second child and it may be more convenient to have them both in the same place if I go back to work.  There is a lot to think about”.

Last words from our experts

We asked our four experts for their final thoughts to help parents make this big decision. 

Katya of Blossom Early Learning Centre feels that individual attention is key:

“Lower ratios, more assistance in the toilets and help with feeding.  Dedicated sleep rooms.  We have a nurse that the children are familiar with and they have more interaction with all the members of staff including the admin team members.’

Whilst at Safa British School, Paula Allison and her colleagues focus on strong relationships with parents:

“We believe that parents are 'children's first and most enduring educators' and we keep this in mind when creating strong partnerships with parents. There are numerous events, training sessions, reports, parent meetings, parent projects and weekly FS newsletters from myself to make sure our parents feel secure with their child’s learning journey. All our teachers understand the different ways children learn but it is the parents that know the child best”.

Esther Keenan at the British International School, believes that children can benefit from being a part of a larger school environment:

“Children in FS1 thrive on the opportunities that being part of a large school offers, including lessons from specialist subject teams, such as Arabic, swimming, music, dance and PE, and the use of outstanding facilities built into their everyday FS1 routines”.

At Little Land, which offers a choice between Montessori and EYFS classrooms, Siog Moore feels that all preschool provision and early education will benefit children:

Montessori classes allow for larger groups of children, over a variety of ages and allows the child full freedom of choice in their work.  The EPPE* report highlighted that children did better in primary school if they attended nursery at 3, and no better if they attended full time or part time. I feel that it is what the family want that determines the success of part time nursery.  Parents are the first and most important teachers for the child and if they are working or busy with siblings, they may not have time to teach them.  This is where nursery can help and support family life”.

*[The British, Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) project investigated the effects of preschool education and care on children’s development for children aged 3-7 years old.]

The choice between school and nursery for our three year olds is a challenging one, made more difficult by seemingly ever increasing choice in schools and nurseries all over the UAE.  At WhichSchoolAdvisor.com we aim to help parents with our detailed nursery and school reviews.

We would love to hear your views – will your child attend nursery or school for age 3-4? Let us know by commenting below!

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