Ofsted inspections from the childcare and early years perspective

Date: 25.07.17
Voice’s Policy and Research Team carried out a study looking at Ofsted inspections of early years registered providers in the East Midlands.

July 2017

Ofsted inspections from the childcare and early years perspective

From February to April 2017, Voice’s Policy and Research Team carried out a small study looking at Ofsted inspections of early years registered providers in the East Midlands area.  We spoke with providers and met with practitioners willing to share their inspection experiences with us.  Our research did not cover actual judgements; we looked at the inspection process and the relationship between establishment and inspector.  Data was collected via a brief questionnaire.

Responses came from:

  • five out-of-school club/play centres
  • seven pre-school playgroups
  • one reception class, primary school
  • one registered childminder
  • nine day nurseries.

The establishments had been operating for between one and 20 years.

  • Four owned their establishments, seven were managers with one deputy manager. In total the children in their combined care totalled 585, with many reported operating at only marginally below maximum capacity. The combined number of staff employed on a full or part time basis is 185.
  • 14 establishments had private owners while six were run by either a committee or a workers’ co-operative.
  • 11 inspections occurred before the introduction of the Common Inspection Framework and only eight took place under the new regulations.

Summary of findings/responses:

  • The majority of inspections exceeded expectations or compared reasonably well with previous inspections. In 14 cases this led to an improved or similar judgement to the previous inspection. In only three cases was an inferior judgement passed.
  • Nine establishments felt that their inspection did reflect the designed remit of the new Common Framework to provide greater coherence across establishments, although four agreed only in part.
  • When it came to the question of the expertise and training of the inspectors, 16 responses indicated that this was an essential criterion. Comments justifying this focused on the need for an inspector to have a “working” understanding of the regulations. This related to another comment which pointed out that inspectors should understand “working” practices and the “area of provision”. This indicated a desire to have an inspector who had actually had to rise to the challenge of implementing regulations in a real working environment. The respondents acknowledged that all settings were different, but this calls into question the comparability of settings, and inspectors were criticised for not making some allowances for the variety of childcare establishments in existence, leading to an “unfair view”.
  • Is it really morally ethical to expect the same provisionfrom a largely voluntary pre-school playgroup and a fee-paying business able to fund the child’s experience through parental contribution as well as government subsidy?

“Of course the same standards apply for care, safety, educational content and child development, but the amount of contribution a very part-time establishment can make when the relationships developed are more temporary cannot compare to a full-time attendee at a day nursery.”

  • Respondents indicated that they were “suspicious” of the “personal preference of inspectors” which“influenced their inspections”. There is some evidence of this within an additional piece of work that Voice has carried out. 70 Ofsted reports were analysed and the final conclusions of the inspector were placed into categories. These defined areas of weakness or proposed areas for development. The overwhelming majority of areas noted were in “outdoor play”or related to “times to respond” and /or “routines of the day”.

11 different inspectors were identified but the overall majority of inspections were made by the same person.

It is certainly true that the main inspector who visited these establishments made comments regarding timing and routines on 16 out of the 32 assessments made.  Outdoor play scored ten out of 32. These may well be “pet areas”, but this assessor did also find areas of supposed weakness in a wide range of other skills/procedures that the institutions delivered.

Institutions were criticised for not carrying out routines appropriately and the opposite – not allowing children to finish whatever activity they were doing.

One such scenario is where little Johnny is completing his model spaceship and he is just about to glue the nose onto the top when he has to put it away to join in circle time. This makes no sense in a child’s mind.

“Surely routine should be balanced with awareness of the developing child and his needs? [Asked] to put this spaceship away that minute, he would not return with the same ideas in his head or motivation to complete a task.”

In this rapidly changing world, where attention is held by only a few minutes of a soap opera story rapidly followed by another, the ability to compete a task, concentrate and see something through to the end is sorely lacking and this follows on into school life.

Paperwork was held to task and this was said to be detrimental to a “child-centred” approach.

Responders were asked to comment on the idea that inspection provides assurance to the public and government that minimum standards of education skills and childcare are being met, public money is being spent well and that arrangements for safeguarding are effective.

  • 12 responders indicated that their last inspection fully met this statement and five agreed in part. No comments were added to this section.
  • Nine participants completely agreed that the inspection process supports improvement in education by setting standards and also provides challenge and the impetus to act where change is needed. Eight agreed, with reservations, and the comments included explained this, relating to the idea that establishments could “get caught up in paperwork rather than good practice”.
  • Comments included that those who are experienced in childcare would know that children develop at different rates and in different areas. A profile of a developing child can look very different from another one.

Ofsted has published a document setting out the approach that inspectors should take when inspecting safeguarding.

  • Ten responders had read this document and seven had not read it when surveyed.

List of outcomes for certain groups that inspectors were expected to pay particular attention to.

  • 12 establishments agreed that these judgments were reflected in their most recent inspection while three did not. No comments were added.

Detailed list of the requirements of an inspector.

  • Ten participants completely agreed that these requirements had been met in their most recent inspection. Seven thought that they were mostly met.

Inspectors were instructed to make graded judgements on a four point scale.

  • The majority of responders (13) agreed these requirements were met completely, while four said they were mostly met.

Establishments were asked to comment on how inspections were working in practice. When asked what inspectors could do to improve the process, many comments related to the inspector him/herself and the relationships with the establishment.

  • Four responders wanted to see “continuity of inspectors”. This would foster a better “rapport between inspectors and the institution”.
  • Establishments wanted “better communication” from the inspector.
  •  By far and above the most heartfelt cry was for the event itself to be less stressful for all concerned.
  • Participants felt they were being “watched and judged” and this would improve if the inspector had “a more relaxed approach” which would “put staff at ease” especially when in the presence of “nervous staff”.
  • One participant commented upon the effect on the children of the inspection. An inspector should “ensure the child’s wellbeing, enjoyment and safety”.
  • “It is important to take into account the effect of an inspection upon the children. In schools, older children are more aware and have some notion of the importance of a good inspection. They may have loyalty to the setting and want to do their best for the school. Some pupils may well be interviewed by Ofsted and give their opinions. Young children are warned of “stranger danger” and are then confronted with a strange person interfering, asking questions, and watching them, with no notion of what is happening”.
  • Improvements to the inspection itself were suggested. It was pointed out that inspectors do not always “focus on the same area”, that they should look at “practice not paperwork”.
  • Two participants had opposing views. One, in a full-time nursery, felt that the inspection process did not spend “enough time to get a real outcome”, while the other, in a part-time establishment, asked whether it would be possible to “reduce inspection time”,  because the setting was “only open for a short time yet judged on the same standards”.
  • Differing institutions have a totally different remit for existence. A private day nursery has to have an element of a “business ethos”. In order to survive, it must attract parents and must compete with surrounding institutions to offer the “best “childcare”. Thus children in the setting have regular visitors in the form of VIP parents, looking round to choose a place for their child(ren) in a nursery. A local playgroup, however, is just that, local. It allows children to spend time for a few hours a week to meet similar-aged children whom they are likely to encounter again in school, develop friendships and develop their own skills along the way. The majority of the time spent is with their own parents who oversee their learning and development.
  • A strongly-held view appears to be that these differing institutions should not be made to function under the same umbrella for the ease of the inspection service:  “Why not put the work in centrally to develop different criteria for different placements? It could keep the core values central for a child’s wellbeing but address these issues. This would ease the lives not only of the inspectors who would have clearer guidelines for assessment, but also the lives of those being assessed who would have more relevant criteria to work towards”.

When answering what establishments found most difficult regarding inspections, the overwhelming number of comments related to staff wellbeing.

  • Four participants mentioned the “stress of staff”. Other comments included “staff confidence”, the “taboos around Ofsted”, “keeping calm” and the feeling of “being intimidated”.
  • “In order to become an inspector it is acceptable to assume that the candidate must have risen through the ranks in the teaching profession and could well have an academic background.  The status now is of a professional overseeing the work of others. Do they now use the same measures for assessment that they use when visiting a school establishment?”
  • “How far away this individual might be from the practical aspects of the life of a teaching assistant in a nursery, may well be reflected in the awe this person is regarded by those inspected, leading to anxiety, and may affect the lack of recognition of the demands of a teaching assistant by the inspector.”
  • Timing and the surprise element of inspectionswas mentioned by two participants, mentioning “lack of warning” and “being put on the spot”.

•  Regarding the inspection itself, one responder from an after-school club felt that there was too much focus on early years when the majority of their children were 5+.  The amount of paperwork was also felt to be too great for this type of provision.

The last question asked whether inspections were supportive and helpful. If not, why not, and how improvements could be made.

  • Overall, the responses to the first part of this question were positive. Inspectors were helpful, gave valuable feedback, helped settings to learn and improve, and could contribute to their Focused Improvement Plans.
  • Responding to the latter part of this question, three participants agreed that it depended on getting “the right inspector”.
  • Establishments would like to receive “further responses” from their inspector, who could give “acknowledgements to reassure” them.
  • Above all, they did not want the experience to be “stressful” or the inspector to have “unrealistic expectations of settings”.

In summary

The overall feeling from our research is that there is an apparent lack of recognition by inspectors of the differences between establishments, their provision, the ethos and reasons behind their existence and the children’s needs.

This is not in itself a criticism, but it is identifying a gap in the service that could easily be addressed – perhaps by further training of inspectors to gain a better understanding of the establishment types that they are visiting. 

Voice Policy & Research Team

May 2017 (for August 2017 edition of members' magazine, Your Voice)


Tricia Pritchard
Senior Professional Office (Early Years & Childcare / Wider Workforce)
Email: triciapritchard@voicetheunion.org.uk

Voice Press Office
Email: pressoffice@voicetheunion.org.uk