What are the implications of recent changes to Ofsted inspections of early years education? Early Years Update explains

Since the introduction of the Foundation Stage in 1997 there have been concerns raised by providers of early education and childcare in the private, voluntary, independent (PVI) and maintained sectors over the disparity in inspection arrangements in the different sectors.

With the introduction of the Early Years Foundation Stage from September 2008, the Childcare Act (2006) has brought together education and care in a cohesive framework. It has also legislated for the development by Ofsted of new inspection arrangements for all early years settings. Other government changes, such as the Children’s Plan and Children and Young Persons’ Bill, have likewise impacted on the arrangements for inspections of early years education provision, particularly in terms of inclusion.

The government’s commitment to a move to less regulation means that Ofsted must carry out inspections that are proportionate and minimise bureaucracy for those subject to inspection. Requirements set out in the Education and Inspections Act 2006 ensure that Ofsted works in ways that encourage all settings which it regulates and inspects to improve, be user-focused and efficient.

Whose inspector calls?

The Childcare Act has removed some of the legislative barriers that have hindered the delivery of a common inspection system across all early years settings. A major change for the independent school sector has been the introduction of the right of the secretary of state to approve a body other than Ofsted to inspect early years provision in independent schools. From September 2008 the Independent Schools Inspectorate, not Ofsted, will inspect the EYFS in all independent schools that are affiliated to the Independent Schools Council. Ofsted will continue to inspect non-affiliated independent schools.

Developing the new inspection arrangements
When it began to develop the new inspection arrangements, Ofsted set out to align its inspections of early years education across all settings in the private and voluntary sector, and maintained and independent schools. However, there were several barriers to developing a common inspection framework, including the following factors:

  • most schools take children who are not in the EYFS
  • prescribed cycles for school inspections were not in line with those for early years
  • school inspections are required by law to make additional judgements that are very difficult to assess in terms of PVI early years settings, such as value for money.

Nor could Ofsted, in the current political climate of reduced regulation, introduce a separate inspection of the EYFS with a separate report for every school.

After a period of consultation from May to October 2007, a set of common judgements was developed by Ofsted for inspections of the EYFS wherever it is delivered. These common judgements link directly to the requirements set out in the Childcare Act for inspections of registered provision, and to the current Section 5 Schools Inspection Framework. This means that wherever Ofsted inspects the EYFS, parents and others will be able to see common judgements.

Underpinning those judgements is a system of benchmarking standards, which means that inspectors consider practice in all sectors against the same criteria.

The new inspection arrangements also apply to children’s centres; any changes are still subject to discussion and will not be implemented until September 2009 at the earliest.

Building on what already exists
Wherever possible, Ofsted has built on the inspection arrangements with which providers are already familiar. The four common judgements on which provision will be inspected are:

  • How effective is the provision in meeting the needs of children in the EYFS?
  • How effectively are children helped to learn and develop?
  • How effectively is the welfare of children promoted in this setting?
  • How effectively is provision in the EYFS led and managed here?

Inspections will continue to have at their heart the question of ‘what is it like for a child here’, but there will be an increased focus on the holistic development of children, including their learning and welfare.

There is a continued focus on outcomes for children – including, for the first time, a judgement on economic wellbeing. This judgement focuses on how well settings help children develop skills for the future: it looks at how children are being helped to become independent learners, how they are helped to develop literacy and numeracy skills, and how well their personal, social and emotional development is supported. Meeting welfare requirements may be new for some schools, especially where they have not previously had registered provision. All schools that have children in the EYFS must now meet the relevant welfare requirements.

The way inspections are carried out will remain the same (see box below).

How the inspections will work

The way inspections are carried out will remain the same. Inspectors will take into account a range of evidence obtained from:

  • first-hand observation of children and how adults interact with them
  • discussions with managers and staff
  • discussions with parents
  • talking with children
  • considering documents, including planning and assessment records.

Ofsted will continue with the principle of little or no notice of inspection. The inspection grades will remain the same: outstanding; good; satisfactory and inadequate – with two types of ‘inadequate’, based on willingness and capacity to improve.

  • Outstanding – exceptional provision where the standard of care is exemplary. It is highly effective in making sure children make significant progress. Practice is worth disseminating and inspectors will make very few if any recommendations.
  • Good – strong provision where children are well cared for. It is successful in making sure that children make good progress. Practice is worth reinforcing and developing. Inspectors will make recommendations for further improvement.
  • Satisfactory – sound but could be better. The standard of care is acceptable. Children’s progress is steady but slow. Inspectors will make recommendations for further improvement.
  • Inadequate 1 – weak provision where the standard of care is not good enough. One or more of the learning and development requirements or welfare requirements are not met. Children make too little progress and there has been too little improvement since the most recent inspection. The quality of provision gives cause for concern but is likely to improve without external help and support. Inspectors will issue a notice to improve and will re-inspect in 6–12 months.
  • Inadequate 2 – poor provision that needs urgent attention. The standard of care and/or early education is unacceptable. One or more of the learning and development requirements or welfare requirements are not met. Children may not be adequately safeguarded and make little or no progress. There has been too little improvement since the most recent inspection. The quality of provision gives cause for concern and is unlikely to improve without external help and support. Inspectors will issue a notice to improve for learning and development requirements and/or take enforcement action such as issuing a compliance notice. Inspectors will monitor progress and re-inspect when the provision becomes satisfactory or take action to cancel registration.

Inspection reports
Inspection reports will look different. Inspectors will convey inspection judgements in a table called a record of judgements at the end of the report. The reports will not contain explicit judgements in the text. Rather the text will be used to describe the quality of the outcomes for children, the organisation of the provision and the reasons for the inspectors’ judgements.

Inspectors will continue to share the judgements with providers at the end of the inspection and Ofsted will publish all reports on its website as it does now. Ofsted will also publish the letters that arise from monitoring visits on its website so that parents can see the progress being made by the setting.

Following an Ofsted inspection, the provider will receive either a letter confirming that they are meeting requirements, or a letter that details what the provider must do in order to remain registered. If an inspector judges that providers are not compliant, Ofsted will take action to deal with this – either by issuing a legal notice setting out what must be done or, in extreme cases, taking enforcement action.

As with other inspection reports, these letters will be published on Ofsted’s website.

From September, the inspection of the quality of provision in the EYFS will focus on each setting’s capacity for improvement and, in particular, the ability of all settings to carry out robust self-evaluation. Self-evaluation has played a major role in the school inspection system for several years but will be a new venture for many settings in the PVI sectors. Ofsted has produced a format for self-evaluation which all providers will be encouraged to use. It is not intended that providers carry out more than one self-evaluation. For example, if schools have registered childcare provision, they need only complete the school Self Evaluation Form (SEF), which will have additional questions on the EYFS – they do not have to complete the Early Years SEF in addition.

Ofsted inspectors will use the SEF to inform a number of pre-inspection judgements that they will test out through their observations during the inspection and in their discussions with managers. Reports will include a judgement on each setting’s capacity to improve as well as the effectiveness of its self-evaluation.

When looking at a completed self-evaluation form, inspectors will expect to see evidence of reflective practice, which goes beyond a setting simply reporting on progress with actions or recommendations from the most recent inspection. Inspections will also focus on how providers meet the needs of the children by reporting on any groups that are disadvantaged by race, gender or ability.

Working in partnership with parents, local authorities, early years professionals and other settings is a key theme of the EYFS. It is also a key theme of inspection. This means providers must provide evidence that will help them to demonstrate their partnership arrangements, particularly how planning, assessment and the activities provided complement the provision children may be receiving elsewhere. There will be a greater expectation that all providers, not just those delivering the free entitlement, will plan for and assess children’s progress. It is envisaged that this will involve some form of written planning and assessment records to support transitions for children, especially for those who attend more than one setting.

Fundamental to the inspection system will be a crucial inspection judgement on the quality of leadership and management of the setting. This judgement will be made for all early years registered providers, including childminders. As part of the leadership and management judgement, providers will be inspected on how well they safeguard the children in their care. The judgements will be made by looking at a provider’s evidence of outcomes on staying safe, and by inspection of the provider’s arrangements for staff recruitment.

The inspection arrangements from September 2008 are set out in a new version of Are You Ready for Your Inspection?, which all registered early years education providers should have received in July.