A nursery school is a school for children between the ages of three and five years, staffed by qualified teachers and other professionals who encourage and supervise educational play rather than simply providing childcare. It is a pre-school education institution; part of early childhood education.
The curriculum goals of a nursery school are more specific than for childcare, but less strenuous than for primary school. For example, the Scottish Early Years Framework and the Curriculum for Excellence define expected outcomes even at this age. In some areas, the provision of nursery school services is on a user pays or limited basis while other governments fund nursery school services.
The preschool education institution is more commonly known as kindergarten (children's garden), a name given by the german Friedrich Fröbel who created the first institution in Germany, in 1837. The other common names for nursery school are pre-school, playschool, playgroup and nursery. The German word Kindergarten is also used in many non-English-speaking countries to denote a form of pre-school education. However, in the United States, Canada and some parts of Australia kindergarten is instead the term used to describe the first year of compulsory schooling. The word kindergarten is not generally used in the UK.
In May 2007, Slate Magazine published an article discussing the results of a working paper by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman of the University of Chicago and Dimitriy Masterov of the University of Michigan about the social and economics benefits of nursery school for disadvantaged children, claiming that more investment in such children at an earlier age is needed to supplement the role of the family.
The reasons given include the importance of early years in cognitive development, the trouble many families have in providing adequate early-childhood nurturing, and the advantage such programs give students starting the next step in their education. The study considered a number of early childhood educational pilot programs for at risk children, similar to Head Start, but more intense, such as the Perry Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Over 40 years of the children's lives, participants showed greater literacy, higher grades, greater likelihood to graduate high school, higher post-high school employment rates, higher earnings, less need for welfare, committed less crime, and had lower rates of teen pregnancy. The rate of returns to the children was estimated to be 16 percent (about 3/4 of this is calculated from the decreased social cost due to lower crime and less prison spending).
The authors also propose that the return on investment declines with age. This study is significant because it advocates spending as an economic investment in a society's future, rather than in the interest of justice.
In the UK, pre-school education in nursery classes or schools is fully funded by local government and is generally available to children aged over three. Pre-school education can be provided by childcare centres, playgroups, nursery schools and nursery classes within primary schools. Private nursery education is also available throughout the UK and varies between structured pre-school education and a service offering child-minding facilities.
Each child in England at the first school term after their third birthday, is entitled to five two and a half hour sessions per week - in some counties this has gone up to 15 hours. This entitlement is funded by the government through the local council. Pre-schools in England follow the Early Learning Goals for education produced by the Department for Children, Schools and Families which carries on into their first year of school at the age of four. This year of school is usually called Reception. The Early Learning Goals cover the main areas of education without being subject driven. These areas include
- Personal, social and emotional development
- Language, literacy and communication
- Mathematical development
- Knowledge and understanding of the world
- Physical development
- Creative development
Until the mid 1980s, nursery schools only admitted pupils in the final year (three terms) leading up to their admission to primary school, but pupils now attend nursery school for four or five terms. It is also common practise for many children to attend nursery much earlier than this. Many nurseries have the facilities to take on babies, using the 'Birth to Three Matters', framework as a guide to give each child the best possible start to becoming a competent learner and skillful communicator.
Early years education in Wales is provided half-time for children aged 3-4 (Nursery) and full-time for those between the ages of 4 and 5 (Reception). Since 2005 it has been a statutory duty for all Local Education Authorities to secure sufficient nursery education in their area for children from the term following their third birthday.
Currently, the Early Years curriculum in Wales, produced by the Welsh Assembly Government Department for Children, Education, Life-long Learning and Skills,is set out in the booklet "Desirable Outcomes for Children's Learning Before Compulsory School Age". However, a new 'Foundation Phase' covering 3-7 year olds is being rolled out across Wales from 2008, with a focus on 'learning through play', which covers seven areas of learning:
- Personal and Social Development and Well Being
- Language, Literacy and Communication Skills
- Mathematical Development
- Bilingualism and Multi-cultural Understanding
- Knowledge and Understanding of the World
- Physical Development
- Creative Development
In Scotland children are entitled to a place in a nursery class when they reach their third birthday. This gives parents the option of two years of funded pre-school education before beginning primary one, the first year of compulsory education. Nursery children who are three years old are referred to as ante-pre-school whilst children who are four years old are termed pre-school. Pre-school education in Scotland is planned around the early years framework documents "A curriculum framework for children 3 to 5," which identifies learning intentions around the following five areas of development:
- Emotional, Personal and Social Development,
- Communication and Language,
- Knowledge and Understanding of the World,
- Expressive and Aesthetic Development,
- Physical Development and Movement
Responsibility for the review of care standards in Scottish nurseries rests with the Care Commission.
In the United States, nursery school is provided in a variety of settings. In general pre-school is meant to develop children through planned programs.
Pre-school is defined as: "centre-based programs for four-year olds that are fully or partially funded by state education agencies and that are operated in schools or under the direction of state and local education agencies".
Pre-schools, both private and school sponsored, are available for children aged from three to five. Many of these programs follow similar curriculum as pre-kindergarten.
Head Start program
The goal of Head Start and Early Head Start is to increase the school readiness of young children in low income families. These programs serve children from birth to age five, pregnant women, and their families. Head Start was started by the Federal Government in 1964 to help meet the needs of disadvantaged pre-school children.
The office of Economic Opportunity launched Project Head Start as an eight-week summer program in 1965. It was then transferred to the Office of Child Development in the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1969. Today it is a program within the Administration on Children, Youth and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services. Programs are administered locally by school systems and non-profit organizations.
- Services provided by Head Start
- Disabilities - All programs fully include children with disabilities
- Education - The goal of Head Start is to ensure that those children enrolled in the program are ready to begin school. Activities are geared towards skill and knowledge domains.
- Family and Community Partnerships - both groups are involved in the operation, governance and evaluation of the program.
- Health - Health is seen as an important factor in a child's ability to thrive and develop. The program provides screenings to evaluate a child's overall health, regular health check-ups, and good practices in oral health, hygiene, nutrition, personal care, and safety.
- Program Management and Operations - "focus on delivering high-quality child development services to children from low-income families."