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Sector Report: Non-maintained nurseries 2021-2022

Total number of settings in Wales




July 2021


January 2020


January 2019


Settings that have been deemed in need of follow-up activity to secure improvement following a core inspection:

  • Placed into follow-up category 6

  • Removed from follow-up category 5

  • Remained in follow-up category 5

January 2022:

Recommenced joint inspections with colleagues from Care Inspectorate Wales following pause of 21 months due to COVID-19 pandemic

January 2022:

The Welsh Government published A Curriculum for Funded Non-maintained Nursery Settings, based on five developmental pathways: (belonging, communication, exploration, physical development, well-being)


engagement visits to non-maintained settings during the autumn term 2021


Joint inspections of non-maintained settings during the spring and summer terms


Relative to their stage of development, most children made good progress during their time in non-maintained nursery settings. In the very few instances where progress was not as strong, children did not consistently develop and apply a suitable range of literacy and numeracy skills in their play and structured activities. Evidence from our engagement activity in the autumn term had suggested that, because of disruption to pre-school provision caused by the pandemic, there may have been a decline in children’s speaking and listening skills compared with previous cohorts. However, when our inspections restarted, we found that, with support from practitioners, many children had progressed well from a low baseline with their communication skills. For example, they would listen to adults and respond appropriately, and begin to express preferences or ask for assistance as required. As they grew in confidence, most began to chat naturally with practitioners and their friends and play with them as opposed to alongside them. Many children developed their communication skills well using technology, for example talking about photographs they took using digital cameras.

Nearly all children enjoyed listening and joining in as practitioners read stories. A minority would choose to pick up and interact with books independently. In many English-medium settings, children began to acquire simple Welsh language skills and would respond to greetings or identify colours in Welsh.

Nearly all children developed their physical skills well. By developing fine-motor skills through activities such as playing with small beads and threading them onto string, children began to develop the skills they require for early writing. Many experimented effectively with mark making, for instance by using coloured chalks to draw on paving stones or taking orders on a notebook in the role play café. They developed gross motor skills well through activities such as walking on balancing beams and by using outdoor climbing equipment that had often been acquired with COVID-19 grant funding.

Many children developed creative skills well. This was particularly the case in settings where they were encouraged and enabled to make their own choices, such as to choose to experiment with paints, create imaginative dances or use percussion instruments to make simple sound patterns. In the strongest cases, children benefited from being able to access a wide range of equipment independently with which they could enjoy expressing their creativity and develop new skills.

Many children developed early numeracy skills in line with their stage of development. For example, they began to recognise terms such as ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ when filling containers with sand and water. When provided with specific challenges, children enjoyed developing their problem-solving skills by experimenting and overcoming difficulties. For instance, they persevered and used different approaches when building a structure to a set height from wooden blocks. Many began to recognise and name simple shapes and a majority developed their understanding of number well. For example, they repeated numbers when joining in with songs, and those that were further along in their stage of development began to count objects with some independence.


At the beginning of the autumn term, a few leaders noted that there was an increase in children presenting with less well-developed personal and social skills as a result of fewer opportunities to play alongside other children during periods of lockdown. For example, some children demonstrated a greater reluctance to share resources, or to play with others. Once inspections resumed, we found that most children had settled well and felt secure. Many were happy in the company of their friends and practitioners and engaged with the resources available to them with enthusiasm. This led to children in most settings developing their personal and social skills well. Standards of well-being were especially strong where the provision was engaging, and practitioners played alongside children, modelling communication skills such as vocabulary and language patterns. In these cases, children were enthused and felt valued.

In many settings, children made choices about their learning, such as moving freely between indoor and outdoor areas to play and deciding which resources to play with when given the opportunity. They enjoyed playing for extended periods of time, which provided opportunities to develop a wide range of skills such as co-operating with others. Similarly, in many settings, children enjoyed social occasions such as snack times, and chatting naturally with friends or adults. In the strongest settings, children developed self-care skills very well by choosing when or what to eat or by helping to serve themselves or their friends. They began to develop independence well, for example by getting their own tissue when they need to blow their nose or putting on their own coat to go outside. Children increasingly influenced what or how they learn as practitioners worked towards implementing the principles of the Curriculum for Wales. For example, they suggested that a climbing wall was added to a steep slope so that they could access the slide with greater ease.

Teaching and learning experiences

Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, most practitioners continued to provide suitable learning experiences for children during the autumn term. Nearly all placed a strong emphasis on providing opportunities for children to play and learn outdoors, often making use of new resources. A few settings increased their use of natural and real-life resources, such as twigs and stones in the outdoor areas, or everyday household items like saucepans in the home area. Where the learning was most effective, practitioners provided children with a wide range of resources that stimulate them, and that children could access easily.

During the autumn term, a minority of settings started to embrace new ways of working in preparation for the Curriculum for Wales, for example by experimenting with a more child-led approach. From the spring term onwards, following the publication of the Curriculum for Funded Non-maintained Nursery Settings, which aims to ‘create in children positive dispositions towards learning’ (p.3) more settings began to adapt their approaches to teaching and learning. The document set out the importance of provision that includes enabling adults, engaging experiences and effective environments to support children to realise the four purposes of the Curriculum for Wales. The document also outlines five developmental pathways that it recognises as ‘fundamental to the learning and development of all young children’ – belonging, communication, exploration, physical development and well-being. Overall, the document it has had a positive impact in supporting practitioners to engage in curriculum reform.

In working towards the principles of the Curriculum for Wales, many practitioners provided more opportunities for uninterrupted play, allowing children to lose themselves in their imagination, persevere with tasks, and choose for themselves when they are ready to move on to different activities. In the strongest cases, practitioners planned activities that followed the children’s interests, and intervened skilfully during sessions to progress the children’s learning. For example, they played alongside the children, modelling correct language patterns as they chatted and asked questions that in turn introduced children to new vocabulary and encouraged them to think.

Many practitioners provided plentiful opportunities for children to experiment and to solve problems, for example by challenging children to channel water in the outdoor area. In the strongest examples, practitioners continued to find ways to introduce children to new experiences, for example by planning activities that invite children to celebrate Welsh heritage and cultural diversity rather than focusing solely on the children’s current interests. However, in a very few cases, settings stripped back adult-intervention too far. As a result, practitioners did not identify learning opportunities as children were playing and did not encourage children to develop their skills to the next step. By concentrating solely on children’s interests, a very few practitioners missed opportunities to introduce a broad-enough range of learning experiences for children.

Many settings developed their use of observations of children in sessions as opposed to more formal assessments of children’s learning, although this practice was generally at an early stage of development. In a few cases, these observations did not inform future planning sufficiently to ensure that activities were sufficiently challenging for children.

Care, support and guidance

As in previous years, settings continued to provide strong levels of care, support and guidance for children, with practitioners developing warm working relationships with children, treating them with respect and looking after their needs. In nearly all cases, children felt secure, valued and ready to learn.

Practitioners promoted positive behaviours and assisted children to develop social skills like sharing and considering one another’s feelings. They encouraged children to begin to understand their Welsh culture and heritage. Practitioners worked to ensure that children started to recognise the diverse ways people live their lives. For example, they provided children with opportunities to find out about and explore a range of religious and cultural celebrations. Many promoted healthy lifestyles well, such as by encouraging children to choose for themselves from a range of fruit and vegetables at snack times.

However, in a few settings, we identified safeguarding concerns during inspections, usually linked to procedures for keeping children safe. For example, staff were not confident about what they should do if they were concerned about a child’s well-being, and a very few settings were not complying fully with safe recruitment practices.

Following lockdowns, leaders told us that they have seen an increase in the number of children experiencing speech, language, emotional and behavioural issues. Evidence from inspection has shown how leaders have worked well with external agencies where necessary to provide support for children with ALN. As a result, most children, including those with ALN, make good progress. Leaders in Welsh-medium settings have expressed concerns about the availability of specialist support through the medium of Welsh.

Most leaders and practitioners have utilised the opportunities available to access training on the new ALN Act. They have welcomed the new statutory role of the Early Years Additional Learning Needs Lead Officer (EYALNLO) in local authorities, and appreciate the support from them. Leaders have started to develop their approaches to ALN, for example by developing one-page profiles for children. These enable them to identify children’s preferences and interests on entry to the setting as well as to identify any emerging needs.


Leaders dealt well with unprecedented levels of disruption during the pandemic, particularly through the winter months when rates of COVID-19 infection were at their highest. Despite the staffing challenges this posed, most leaders managed to run their settings effectively, adhere to evolving safety guidance and maintain staff morale. Leaders found managing staff absence due to self-isolation a particular challenge, especially as cover staff were in very short supply. In a minority of settings, staff gained alternative employment during the pandemic and the recruitment of suitably qualified and skilled staff was an ongoing significant challenge. Such concerns were even more acute in Welsh-medium settings.

When inspections resumed, we found that leaders were working effectively to ensure that their settings took into account the changing needs of their children. Many had effective self-evaluation and improvement procedures that resulted in adaptations to the setting. For example, they made changes to the provision based on feedback from parents. However, in a few settings, leaders had not fully recommenced quality assurance procedures, such as staff observations and supervisions. This meant that they were not always successful in identifying suitable targets for improvement for practitioners or the settings as a whole. Nearly all leaders created and maintained positive links with external partners and parents in particular. For example, many settings provided parents with useful information about the setting, its work and their child’s progress. In response to the challenges of the pandemic, many settings adapted to make greater use of digital communication.

It has been a priority for leaders to focus on developing practitioners’ understanding of the Curriculum for Wales and the Curriculum for Funded Non-maintained Nursery Settings. In many cases they ensured that practitioners accessed professional learning to support this understanding. In the strongest cases, leaders ensured that professional learning linked to a clear vision for provision in the setting, based on a sound understanding of child development. Leaders in nearly all settings ensured that practitioners kept up to date with mandatory training that helps keep children safe, for example safeguarding and food hygiene training.

This resource provides self-reflection prompts to help leaders in non-maintained settings evaluate the quality of their provision.