A quality assurance scheme is an ideal way to help you improve the care you offer children and families: What is involved? Hayley Doyle of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) explains.

Parents, carers and nurseries share the same goal – to ensure children are receiving the best possible care and early education. When you are aiming to improve the service you offer to children and families, a quality assurance scheme is a good way to develop a culture of continuous improvement.

National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) has its own quality assurance scheme, ‘Quality Counts’. Almost 500 nurseries are accredited with Quality Counts and a further 1,600 nurseries are working towards achieving the government’s Investors in Children kitemark, helping to improve quality through a rigorous self-assessment process.

‘As a national scheme, Quality Counts is popular with both parents and nurseries as it is a kitemark of quality,’ explains Stella Ziolkowski, head of workforce development at NDNA. ‘It is about creating a real culture of continuous improvement so that nursery staff work together and in partnership with parents and other services to ensure each child receives the best possible care.’

Being awarded the status brings a host of benefits, including increased staff motivation, which in turn helps to improve care and education for children and encourages staff to reflect on practice and advance the quality of care. Working towards Quality Counts, and then working to maintain the kitemark after the award is given, will encourage staff to reflect on their practice and their professional skills,  and advance the quality of the care they offer to your children.

Quality Counts modules:

  • Management
  • Staff
  • Care and education
  • Environment
  • Visits and visitors
  • Children with special educational needs and disabilities
  • Child protection
  • Partnerships with parents/carers
  • Nutrition, serving food and oral health
  • Health and safety
  • Babies (optional)
  • School escort service (optional)
  • Out-of-school care (optional)
  • Work experience students (optional)

Working with your team to make adjustments to your practice and prepare for assessment

Achieving Quality Counts takes up to two years and the kitemark is valid for three years from the date of being awarded.

 The process includes making observations, portfolio building, self-assessment and independent assessment, with a site visit from an external Quality Counts assessor.

It is a comprehensive programme and a nursery may keep a diary and include photographs of various projects that illustrate how it is meeting the Quality Counts requirements.

Nurseries working towards Quality Counts cover 10 compulsory modules and four optional ones (see above). Mandatory sections include management, staff, leadership, care and education, child protection, working with children with disabilities and nutrition and oral health. Some nurseries may already be delivering some of the services described as ‘optional’ – babies, school escort services, out-of-school care, or taking on work experience students. If so, they must work to bring these services up to the Quality Counts standard, as part of their assessment. In such cases these units will be mandatory, rather than optional.

The initial process requires practitioners to undertake detailed self-examination and formative assessments to identify areas for development.

‘Nurseries work through the manual, checking off where they meet the criteria and looking at areas for improvement. They then create their own action plans for implementing these measures, whether it is something as simple as ensuring fresh drinking water is available at all times, or reviewing and updating the nursery’s policies,’ says Stella.

‘All this can take up to two years to complete, as it is very much about the nursery improving their practice until the changes become an everyday part of life,’ adds Stella.

‘Some nurseries may be ready faster than others, as they work through the barriers to success which can range from initial staff resistance to learning how to undertake self assessment.’


Although the process seems daunting at first, it really does ensure nurseries examine how they can improve every aspect of care. As part of the scheme’s cost of £825, nurseries are supported to do this with a variety of services.

  • The enrolment fee includes training about preparing for accreditation which covers topics from understanding the manual to managing change.
  • Twelve months into the programme, nurseries can access free assessment workshops that help them identify if they meet the comprehensive criteria required and help develop their portfolios.
  • Nurseries also have access to a telephone and email helpline, website support and regular Quality Counts newsletters.
  • The manual is an extremely valuable source of support as nurseries can use this as a ‘working document’ to see how the nursery is delivering services against the criteria.

‘The manual can appear quite comprehensive to begin with but we recommend the nursery works through each section using the formative assessments, looking at the specified requirements and then when they feel ready for assessment, working with the summative assessment questionnaire to check where changes need to be made.’

Managing change

How do nurseries cope with adjustments, and what sort of things can they expect to do? One nursery that was recently awarded the kitemark explains what they found the most difficult: ‘As a college, many parents who use our nursery have limited time so we found it quite difficult to consult with them about their child’s care as the criteria sets out. However, once we got this process in motion we found that parents took a greater part in nursery life and took more time to understand their own child’s needs.’

‘We found staff improved the quality of their interactions with children, team spirit was strengthened and we also gained recognition from our college for offering a quality service. I would recommend this scheme as it helps identifies “gaps” in provision and practice to improve the service.’


‘Quality Counts requires commitment from the entire team,’ explains Stella. ‘Any nursery can apply to do the scheme, but they must be prepared to spend time assessing practices and discussing with staff and parents about how they can improve. For example, nurseries working through the nutrition section will need to assess if children are encouraged to eat foods from the four main food groups, fresh drinking water is always available, menus are displayed for parents and staff promote positive attitudes to healthy eating.’

It is designed to become an integral part of nursery life, with the team regularly checking how they are doing and thinking about how to improve. NDNA recommend that it becomes an agenda item at every staff meeting.

It is essential that all staff understand the value of undertaking the scheme, and the benefits it will bring. Gaining the kitemark requires the commitment of the entire team to ensuring quality levels are being met.


When a nursery feels it is meeting the requirements, NDNA organises the assessment, which is included in the registration fee. Managers should be sure that their nursery is ready to be assessed and that they have worked through the summative assessments to check this.

‘The nursery team must be confident that they are meeting the criteria set out, and individuals must be able to talk confidently about the changes they have made. The portfolio must also include strong evidence of how changes have been implemented, as this will be used in conjunction with the site visit made by the assessor,’ says Stella.


Gaining Quality Counts is a special achievement and illustrates that the nursery is working above and beyond the government requirements.

There are three levels awarded under Quality Counts:

Level one – indicates a level of quality above the National Standards
Level two – indicates a high level of quality.
Level three – indicates an exceptional level of quality.

The process

So if you have decided you would like to undertake Quality Counts what process can you expect to go through?

  • Enrolment form returned to NDNA and processed.
  • Preparing for accreditation confirmed.
  • Staff member attends preparing for accreditation training.
  • Nursery starts to use self assessment sheets.
  • Build evidence of how setting meets policy and processes.
  • Summative assessment is completed to check readiness for external assessment.
  • Setting applies for assessment.
  • Setting visit with assessor observing practice and discussions with managers, staff, parents and children.
  • Internal verification.
  • Accreditation panel.

To sum up

The Quality Counts journey can be challenging but extremely rewarding. Nurseries who undertake the scheme have to work hard to improve every aspect of practice, but with great benefits for children and staff. As one nursery which has completed the scheme concludes: ‘It is hard work but well worth it. It is a useful change management tool that helped us give staff a goal to work to and improve the service we offer.’

Case study

Crocus Early Years, which has three nurseries in Essex, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, recently succeeded in achieving the NDNA’s Quality Counts kite mark for all three of its settings. Assessors were impressed by the consistently high level of care offered to children by all three nurseries.

Ross Midgley, director of Crocus Early Years comments: ‘We are delighted to have achieved this “hat trick” of awards, which confirms our reputation for high quality and our excellent Ofsted reports. This accreditation is a credit to the fantastic team of Crocus managers and staff who provide such high quality childcare and education.’

Key benefits of undertaking a quality assurance scheme

Benefits for children

  • Develops, encourages and maintains high standards in care and education that improve the quality of care offered.
  • Improves the learning experiences offered to young children.

Benefits for parents

  • Provides a kitemark that informs parents of a quality setting.
  • Helps open up lines of communication between parents and nurseries.
  • Parents are reassured that their child’s nursery is committed to continuously improving.

Benefits for staff

  • The process of self assessment helps staff improve understanding of quality.
  • Raises awareness of the importance of each and every staff member working to improve quality.
  • Improves team working with a focus on achieving more.
  • Encourages partnership working which helps practitioners develop their expertise and knowledge for the benefit of children.

Benefits for the setting

  • Motivated staff increases retention for the benefit of the children and the nursery.
  • Nursery achieves a kitemark of quality that can be promoted to existing and potential parents.
  • Helps take the level of quality above and beyond government requirements and the process of continuous improvement helps ensure that the nursery is always prepared for its latest inspection.

For further information about Quality Counts call 0870 774 4244