School improvement and early years advisor and author of the Oxford International Early Years Curriculum
Ofsted’s inspections are inadequate for our sector
Ruth Swailes, school improvement and early years advisor, discusses ways Ofsted could improve their inspection experience to work constructively with early years settings to maintain standards, rather than leaving behind so many accounts of bad experiences among professionals.
Recent tragic events have brought the discussion about accountability and quality to the fore once more. The tragic death of headteacher Ruth Perry should be shocking, but for those of us who work in education it’s probably not the first time we have heard a story like this. My role as a school and early years improvement advisor means I speak with thousands of practitioners, teachers and headteachers every year. I ’m often involved in supporting these people before and during inspections, and sometimes I visit after an inspection to help, advise and support. The process can be extremely damaging to staff mental health, even when the outcome is positive.
I ’ve been involved in education for a long time. In my probationary year we were told a new body was being set up with the purpose of informing parents about the quality of education in their local schools. Fast forward 30 years and Ofsted is barely recognisable from those early days. I ’ve been through every iteration of the Ofsted framework, as a teacher, head, advisor or inspector. I ’ve had fair inspections and ones which I ’ve considered biased. I ’ve worked with great inspectors and some who appeared to get a kick out of the power they wielded. But what I ’ve noticed over the last few years is that the inspection framework currently being imposed on our primary and early years settings feels very rigid and is not fit for purpose.
If you’re a two, three or four -year-old in a maintained primary nursery school, the staff who work with you are inspected using
‘The process can be extremely damaging to staff mental health, even when the outcome is positive.’
a different framework to the staff who work with two, three or four -year-olds in the private, voluntary and independent sector. This is just one of the problems with the current regime. This is something we raised when colleagues and I met with senior HMI in December 2020. Although we were told they recognised this as problematic, nothing has happened to address the disparity.
If you’re a member of staff working in early years in a maintained school, you could be inspected by someone with no direct experience of teaching early years or even primary. In some parts of the country secondary teachers inspect primary schools, leading to questions such as, ‘what’s the history curriculum for the two-year-olds?’, or ‘when does the playing stop and the learning start?’ in nurseries. Inspectors advising leaders, ‘don’t think of reception as early years, think of it as pre-key stage one’, have a blatant disregard for the statutory framework. The recently leaked ‘Ofsted Aide Memoire’ sheets appear to contradict Department of Education advice about breaking down the Early Learning Goals into steps to create a curriculum, Ofsted’s own Myth Busting document ( January 2023) and the statutory EYFS. These have no referenced research base but are used to judge practice by people with no experience of early years. This leads to
‘What I’ve noticed over the last few years is that the inspection framework currently being imposed on our primary and early years settings…is not fit for purpose.’
practitioners trying to second guess Ofsted, instead of putting the child at the heart of the practice. The high stakes nature of inspections can be make or break staff, leading to increased anxiety, excessive workload and a fear that getting the wrong inspector could be career ending. This is neither healthy or conducive to best practice. The outpouring of stories over the last month, declaring, ‘it could have been me’, following the Caversham tragedy has led to a call for change. So what can we do instead?
No one is arguing that we shouldn’t be accountable. We know that what happens in the sector is life changing for the children in our care, and so it’s too important to leave to chance. Here are some simple changes which could make inspection a positive force for good: · Early years settings, including nursery and reception classes in mainstream schools should be inspected using the Early Years Inspection framework. We have a separate statutory Birth to 5 framework for learning, and this should be reflected in the inspection process. · Inspectors must have significant experience of working in the phase they’re inspecting. · Clerical errors which can be addressed during an inspection shouldn’t lead to the downgrading of any setting. · Reducing settings to a single grade isn’t helpful; instead the report should state what the setting does well and areas for improvement. Those with more areas for improvement than strengths should be inspected more regularly. · Overhaul the complaints process. This should be carried out by an independent body. These five simple changes could make the world of difference. One thing is clear, we can’t carry on as we are. eye
6 • eye • June 2023 • Volume 23 No 23