Self-evaluation has an important place in improving the quality of provision in early years education. Early Years Update discusses how self-evaluation can be used for maximum benefit

Reflective practice and self-review has played an important role in many early years settings for some time, and is now crucial as Ofsted begins to look closely at how  improvement is being promoted through providers’ self-evaluation. From September 2008, Ofsted will expect all providers to have up-to-date information about the quality of their practice, based on a system of self-evaluation; this information will then be used as a starting point for their inspections. Ofsted’s recommended Early Years Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) and accompanying guidance are available on its website.

Why is self-evaluation important?

The introduction of the Every Child Matters (ECM) agenda has had a major impact on the national vision for public services, including early years provision. This change should be reflected in the vision that individual settings and individual practitioners have for their work with children and their families.

There is an expectation that self-evaluation will evidence how settings are accountable to their stakeholders – children and parents – in each of the five outcomes of ECM. Not only will settings have to demonstrate how they enable children to enjoy and achieve, stay safe and be healthy, but also how they provide opportunities for children to make a positive contribution and to develop skills for the future.

With the introduction of the EYFS, it is now a very good time for settings to be reviewing their vision for the future and the way in which they will deliver it. Agreeing and stating your vision and values at this stage will define the philosophy behind your way of working and gives clear messages about what you think is important.

All providers of early years education and care should aspire to the highest possible standards in all aspects of their work with children and their families. In order to do this they need to have a very realistic view of the quality of their current practice so that they can strive for continuous improvement. An effective system of self-evaluation should provide a clear picture of how well the setting is doing, what evidence supports this and how the setting intends to build on its successes and remedy any weaknesses.

All early years settings should be clear about:

  • what they are aiming to do
  • how well they are succeeding in achieving their aims
  • areas of quality practice that need to be maintained
  • areas of practice and provision that need to be improved
  • how they plan to achieve their aims in the future.

Benefits of self-evaluation

For the setting

  • Helps clarify the setting’s aims and objectives
  • Provides evidence of improvement
  • Sets higher standards and provides quality control
  • Helps to ensure the good use of resources
  • Informs future policy and practice

For staff

  • Helps the staff to see their work in a wider context
  • Provides access to the views of other team members, the children and their families
  • Suggests areas to develop further
  • Highlights good practice that is worth disseminating
  • Provides feedback on performance

For children and their families

  • Offers an opportunity to have their own views heard
  • Provides an opportunity for more active participation than usual  
  • Provides further information

What and how to evaluate

Early years settings should evaluate all aspects of the work they do. This needs to be carried out over time, with a written record being kept and updated at least annually.

Effective self-evaluation requires the open and honest participation of everyone involved in the life of the setting. It provides the opportunity to develop a clear understanding of the present position and a shared vision for the future. There are three distinct stages in any self-evaluation process:

  1. Where we are now.
  2. How do we know how well we are doing?
  3. What to do next.

1. Where we are now

The self-evaluation process should begin with an audit of where your setting is now and how the work you do addresses the five Every Child Matters outcomes. You may be surprised to discover how much of what you do already falls into these areas.

This initial evaluation will help you begin to identify your strengths and areas for improvement. This is the stage at which you will decide how far you are meeting your setting’s stated vision and aims. You might also ask whether the needs of the children and families that you work with have changed and whether or not you are meeting these new needs.

The questions posed in the Ofsted Early Years Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) Guidance are a good starting point for evaluating all aspects of your provision. The updated version of Are You Ready for your Inspection? issued by Ofsted in July 2008 to all providers on the Childcare and Early Years Registers gives a summary of what inspectors consider when making their judgements, and will be useful when you are judging the quality of your provision. Further detailed information will be available on Ofsted’s website in September, when inspection guidance on using the early years evaluation schedule and on conducting early years inspections is published.

2. How do we know how well we are doing?

Once you’ve formed an initial view of the quality of your provision, you’ll need to answer the question: ‘How do we know this?’ You will need to have evidence to back up your overall judgements of the impact of your services.

Everyone should have their say
Consultation with key stakeholders is an essential part of a setting’s self-evaluation. It is essential that the views of all staff, parents, appropriate outside agencies and children themselves are incorporated.

Finding different ways to consult with very young children is a challenge, but is an area of practice that many early years professionals are developing. By talking and listening to children we can find out whether or not they feel safe and what they are enjoying, as well as achieving!

The parents and carers of EYFS children will have their own views on what their children enjoy, and what help they might need to support their children’s learning at home.

Observing and evaluating
How the adults in your setting interact with children will have a major impact on the quality of the learning and development and teaching you provide. Observations of how adults interact with children and support their learning should be recorded. The purpose of any observations must be to inform practice and to improve its quality. This means that the focus for observations must be discussed and made clear in advance, with staff who are being observed receiving developmental feedback to enable them to reflect on their practice. Observation and evaluation of how adults interact with children can identify professional development needs of staff and link directly to performance management.

Reviewing children’s progress Each setting will need to provide evidence of how its policies and practice help individuals and groups of children make progress over time – for example, how well they do between starting nursery and the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage or when they move on to another setting.

This evidence will be available from a range of assessment information including ongoing observational assessment, learning and development records and the Foundation Stage Profile, depending on the age of the children you are working with. You should consider:

  • the progress made by individual children
  • the progress made by different groups, such as girls and boys, different ethnic groups, and those with special needs
  • how far the progress children make in their learning and development helps you meet the five ECM outcomes.

Reviewing written information
The self-evaluation process should include a full review of written policies, records and planning to help you determine where you are in terms of compliance with the statutory requirements of the EYFS. It will highlight any areas which need to be rectified immediately.

Why self-evaluation is good for you!

The whole self-evaluation process can support your own professional development and that of your team, through developing your skills, knowledge and understanding.

  • It can help to develop your analytical thinking skills.
  • It can help to foster logic and reasoning skills.
  • It enables you to learn more about the work done by your colleagues in other parts of the setting.
  • It helps other staff, parents, and other professionals to learn more about the work you do.
  • It helps you to celebrate success!

3. What to do next

Self-evaluation will help you to identify your priorities for improvement, building on things that are done well and focusing on areas of weakness. The next stage is to set out your development priorities in a plan, detailing targets for improvement and how the action needed will be implemented, monitored and evaluated. The action plan should be:

  • based on the outcomes of the self-evaluation of the key areas of provision
  • focused on a few priorities in the short term
  • linked to the setting’s longer-term aims
  • explicit – written with clear timescales, identifying what needs to be done by whom, what action and resources are needed and what targets for improvement are to be achieved
  • linked to other systems, such as performance management, to help identify good practice and professional development needed
  • monitored and evaluated regularly, to review success, timescales and evidence of the impact on improvement
  • produced in consultation with all staff, parents and carers, children and other stakeholders.

Developing the capacity of staff
Introducing a system of self-evaluation is a challenging task. Reviewing the effectiveness of a setting’s self-evaluation will make a major contribution towards a judgement on how effectively the setting is led and managed.

There will be major implications for staff training, to ensure that practitioners have the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills associated with each of the steps in the self-evaluation process. Senior management teams need to ensure that all staff are aware of the setting’s policy for self-evaluation and improvement and understand their roles and responsibilities in helping to deliver the strategic vision and the immediate targets for improvement. Managers will need to be skilled in understanding the criteria for monitoring and evaluating quality and improvement. 

Your setting’s self-evaluation may lead to a reassessment of staffing structures and the responsibilities of individual members. Supported by effective performance management, self-evaluation can build the skills and expertise of all staff, not least by identifying and sharing good practice.

To download the Early Years Self-evaluation Form Guidance or Are You Ready for Your Inspection? go to the home page of the Ofsted website and type the name of the publication into the search box in the top right hand corner.