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How do you create nine Outstanding nurseries? It sounds like a fantastically good joke, an early years myth used to tempt and tease. For nurseries which have dug deep to achieve a ‘Good’ rating from Ofsted inspectors, making the leap to ‘Outstanding can seem like a search for the early years’ holy grail.
The woman behind nine top ratings in Devon and Cornwall at the Happy Days Nurseries group is Jo Beighton, director of childcare and education, but she’s not sitting back to admire her team’s successes. She’s set herself a target to make all 16 of the group’s nurseries Outstanding.
Takes one to know one
Inspectors say ‘Children make excellent progress from their starting points.’ ‘Staff have very good understanding of how children learn.’ But such Outstanding statements in Ofsted reports don’t tell others exactly how the journey to excellance was made.
Talking to some nursery managers at very ‘Good’ settings keen to get an ‘upgrade’ to Outstanding, comments such as ‘a good day’ and ‘bad day’ for inspections, are sometimes made when their reports come out. But Jo Beighton believes she has a winning formula that disproves this view. Her confidence stems from her career as a national quality and training manager of Ofsted inspectors. The former childcare lecturer nurtured inspectors, showing them how to develop their skills from 1997 to 2001 and also wrote quality inspection frameworks and knows what they want. After auditing Happy Days for the first three months and presenting to the group’s board what each nursery needed to do, she was let loose.
Happy Days founding director, Sarah Karkeek set up the first nursery with her husband 25 years ago and since then Ms Beighton’s input has led to Outstanding judgements following inspections at:
• Happy Days Penrice (March 2016) • Happy Days St Austell Integrated Neighbourhood Nursery (March 2016) • Happy Days Nursery & Pirates Club, St Minver in Wadebridge (20 January 2016) • Happy Days Penair in Truro (5 January 2016) • Happy Days Treloggan in Newquay (22 February 2016) • Happy Days Treliske in Truro (October 2014) • Happy Days Nursery in Exeter, Devon (August 2014) • Happy Days Nursery Summercourt (January 2013) • Happy Days Treloweth nursery (April 2015) (received its third consecutive Outstanding rating in an area with high funding for disadvantaged children).
“There are things that you can definitely do without lots of money, however a company has to be totally committed. Part of that is being willing to spend the money.”
"With some nurseries admitting they cannot justify the cost of bringing in an inspector as a consultant for the term, she says “there are strategies people can use.”
Train a staff member to be an inspector
Still a registered nursery inspector, Jo Beighton heads up the group’s internal taskforce (Childcare and Education (C&E) team), which develops in-house training and helped another member qualify to be a registered nursery inspector last year.
“There are opportunities for people to apply. New inspectors give fresh eyes. Also it’s important that we create diversity of inspectors and also [diversity of provision] in the sector. Because parents need to have choices.”
Use the skills of your neighbour
“There are lots of people out there with skills in the sector. As well as using the skills of individuals in the company, externally you can do that.
“In your town, set up networks, get to know other providers. There will be different skill sets in different nurseries.”
Ms Beighton recommends offering to do things on a ‘swap basis’ whether it be give behaviour management training or some other skill.
“You could spread that training expertise and it doesn’t have to cost anybody anything other than the time.”
Be reflective and swap
“Continually ask at all levels, ‘What’s working, what’s not?’ It is quite difficult to do because when you’re involved in the middle of something to have that objective view and be able to stand back is quite tricky. Somebody coming in from another setting to give you that is really useful.”
Ofsted also publish online tools they use including the inspector’s handbook on how to carry out an inspection and the evaluation schedule used to make inspection judgements. “Working with a range of nurseries, you could between you actually draw up an audit to look at the things Ofsted are looking at and again take it in turns to swap. Take it in turns to visit one another’s setting and give that critical feedback.”
Good firms ‘that don’t charge the earth’
To complement its own trainers in its C&E team, Happy Days uses external firms too. Jo Beighton uses Exciting Education based in Devon, which has teachers and ex-local authority advisors, She recommends different nurseries club together to get a firm to develop training for them.
'Not a bad move to have GCSE C baseline for Level 3'
Jo Beighton agrees with the Government’s requirement for entry onto a Level 3 (NVQ) course requiring people to have a minimum grade C in English and Maths.
“Our whole ethos as a company is to maximise children’s brain development. Staff have really got to understand child development and brain development. They need to have good grasp of English, reading research, lots of writing, analysing cohort data, all of that takes a base level of good skills.” She acknowledges a lack of students doing training has caused a shortage of Level 3 qualified staff. "What we’ve got at the moment is a gap. The Government have recognised the level of expertise required to educate children but what’s missing is the funding and support. The funding of training and the support to pay a recognised wage at the end of that.” A lot of the nursery group’s staff have degrees such as BA Hons in Early Childhood Education. Happy Days has helped many staff without degrees to gain the qualification. She says the group has a good retention rate.
“Your nursery is only as good as staff in it. Qualifications play a part in recruitment, but what’s really important to us is the personality traits, passionate people, who actively chose to work in early years.
“For parents it’s about the staff. Parents said it’s the feeling they get that the staff are there for the children.” To build strong links with families, Happy Days also has two keyworkers for each child.
‘CCTV not necessary‘
On the question of CCTV she says “I don’t think it’s necessary. We have a rigorous recruitment process.” Safeguarding is on the agenda at every meeting. Happy Days nurseries are designed with glass panels, between rooms and in the top half of walls into bathroom areas so staff can always be seen and are “not in a position of vulnerability’ while also giving privacy to the child.
All mobile phones and computers must be stored in reception and signed in. Nursery cameras to capture learning are locked in a safe in the office and are signed in and out. Images are printed off by the management team for children’s journals or are displayed on screen in reception and deleted then from devices.
Free flow in each room, indoor and outdoor, even for babies
"Making changes in a child’s life is difficult, their development slows down. Moving them from room to room slows down development, so we limited the number of changes children have to make.”
Babies from three months enter the big open space of the Explorers’ room until they are ‘about two, depending on their individual development’. They are then moved to the Adventurers’ room and remain there until they start school. Children can play inside or out throughout the day regardless of weather- a point praised by inspectors.
When a change is made such as a new dish on the menu, children can vote for what they like, even to choose new activities and there is a democracy tree for parents to vote for an activity.
‘An iron is an iron'
Children play with toys that feed their imagination. “If you have lots of representational toys it limits imagination. An iron is an iron. A block or a material like cork could be an iron one day and a telephone the next day."
What’s next for Jo Beighton? For her, the answer is a simple one. Seven years after starting on her quest, she replies: "I’ll have finished my job at Happy Days when I’ve got all provisions Outstanding.”