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Early years goals in England need more quality inspections and solutions for outstanding funding issues if they are to be realised, according to leading childcare experts.
Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, recently launched a consultation on changes to the inspection framework aimed at improving the quality of early years provision during a visit to the Thomas Coram Early Childhood Centre, in central London.
Ofsted wants to change the inspection framework after evidence showed nurseries, pre-schools and childminders are not improving fast enough. Ofsted’s last Annual Report showed 40 per cent of early years providers had been judged satisfactory for two consecutive inspections – and 11 per cent had gone down a grade.
Under the proposed changes, Ofsted wants to alter the terminology of early years ratings, from ‘satisfactory’ to ‘requires improvement’, bringing the sector in line with schools and colleges. Early years settings that ‘require improvement’ will be given four years to achieve a ‘good’ rating and, if they are unable to do this, they could be closed down.
Ofsted also wants early years settings to have better qualified staff and demonstrate more effective leadership.
Although largely welcoming the consultation’s aims, Purnima Tanuku of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) questions whether any real impact can be made while there remains uncertainty over financing and the level of local council support for early years services. She comments:
“The Government must make sure that there is effective support to help weaker nurseries get better. The Government is currently consulting on reducing local authorities’ role to support nurseries with quality improvement. Alternative support mechanisms must be put in place, otherwise some providers may struggle to make the necessary changes, and the cost of quality improvement will be passed onto parents, pushing up fees.
“It has been proposed that good and outstanding nurseries should support weaker nurseries to improve. Running a high-quality nursery is time consuming and takes a high level of commitment, so good and outstanding settings may not have the time or resources to support weaker settings. This would only be a viable option if the government was prepared to offer financial and practical support – it should not be seen as a way to improve quality without making investment.
“If the government wants to improve the quality of early years education then funding issues must be addressed. In NDNA’s latest business performance survey 84 per cent of nurseries said the hourly rate they receive for the three and four year old free entitlement does not cover costs, leading to losses of over £500 per year, per child. It is difficult for nurseries to invest in training and quality improvement if they are not financially sustainable businesses. This can be a particular issue in areas of disadvantage, where Sir Michael Wishaw rightly highlighted that quality of early years provision is lower. To address this issue and ensure all children receive high-quality early education, it is vital we get funding right.”
Further to these concerns, Ms Tanuku also has deep concerns over the standard of inspections that day nurseries receive, saying on the BBC last week that too many inspectors “do not have enough early years experience”.
She continues: “To improve the quality of early years provision there must be a high-quality inspection process. Inspections should be transparent and fair so nurseries can feel confident that the grade they receive reflects the quality of the early education they offer. All inspectors should have expertise in early years and should have experience of working in an early years setting – at the moment not all inspectors meet this criteria. There should also be robust appeals process if nurseries feel the grade they receive is unfair.”
Sue Robb, head of early years at charity 4Children, echoes some of these sentiments, saying: “Ofsted’s focus on the need for high quality education in the early years is welcome. We all increasingly recognise that a child’s early years are a vital period for their development, and are especially important in closing the gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their better off peers.
“A significant minority of childcare providers are failing to provide adequate childcare and early education. To rectify this childcare providers in need of improvement will need support, not just more rigorous inspections. Ofsted needs to develop a clear offer of practical support, especially if they are to become the 'sole arbiters of quality', as proposed by the Government.”
Anand Shukla, chief executive of the Family and Parenting Institute and Daycare Trust welcomed the focus on deprived families, but also announced concerns over the regulator’s resources, commenting: “We welcome a more proactive role for Ofsted in supporting early years providers to improve quality. Parents need to be confident that their children will receive high quality and safe childcare. Research also shows that it is only high quality early education that improves the life chances of the most deprived children. It is wrong that low standards can still be seen as acceptable in the early years and sending a clear signal to providers that mediocre care is unacceptable is an important step away from that. However, we have three concerns about Ofsted's expanded role in the early years which we feel are not addressed.
1. Where early years providers are graded as ‘inadequate’ or ‘requiring improvement’ it is unclear who will undertake the support and quality improvement work needed to help providers to improve. In the past local authorities have done this, for example, by providing training and advice to childminders and nurseries. We are concerned that Ofsted will become the sole arbiter of quality in the early years, but without additional staffing, expertise or financial resources to undertake quality improvement.
2. We are concerned that Ofsted, as presently organised, does not have the local offices and knowledge to work with providers to help them improve. Local authorities know the nurseries and childminders in their area and have an interest in ensuring they offer high quality provision. They also tend to have local intelligence and are closest to providers, as was shown in Plymouth where the local authority had concerns about the Little Teds nursery which were not picked up by Ofsted.
3. In expanding its early years role we feel that Ofsted needs to address on-going concerns about its inspection schedules. Early years providers graded ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ will still only receive an inspection every four years and much can change in this period. New guidance means that parental complaints are now not always acted upon. We are also concerned that the inspection methodology used by Ofsted fails to fully measure the breadth of quality in early years settings. Research undertaken by the University of Oxford and Daycare Trust in 2012 indicted that Ofsted grades do not always correspond with internationally recognised quality grades such as the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale.”
Ofsted’s consultation is scheduled to close 24 May, with the regulator aiming to make a revised framework live in September.
Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw comments: “From September 2013, nurseries and pre-schools judged less than good will need to improve rapidly. I want the new designation of ‘requires improvement’ to act as a catalyst to get all early years providers to good as soon as possible.
“We’ll encourage providers that are good or outstanding to support weaker settings. We know that the best schools are joining forces and we anticipate that this will happen in the early years.”
Head of the Thomas Coram Centre, in Camden, Bernadette Duffy, welcomed the focus on improving settings, commenting:
“We support Ofsted’s view that all young children should have the best education in their early years and the opportunity to thrive in whatever school or setting they attend. At the moment too many young children attend settings that are not yet good or better and we need to be doing all we can through the inspection process to help practitioners in these settings. These are crucial years in children’s lives and it is vital that they are in settings that promote their well-being now and give them the best foundation for the future.”