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June O'Sullivan, LEYF CEO

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Ofsted Annual Report? A great read, but please tell us something we don’t already know.

Last week Ofsted produced its Annual Report, the first from her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children Services and Skills, Sir Michael Wilshaw. It also had the First Ofsted Annual Lecture on Early Years given by the Director of Education, Sue Gregory. The report admittedly was slightly overshadowed by the news of the Royal pregnancy, but the findings merit as much attention as the Duchess of Cambridge’s morning sickness.

The report used findings from 24,559 inspections of which 6074 were in nurseries or childcare on non-domestic premises. The report was framed within the usual context that good quality early education is critical to children’s subsequent educational progress and life chances, and that education in the Early Years has an impact on children’s later learning and achievement. And so say all of us.

The report confirmed what we always knew, namely that the large majority of the 1.3 million places available for children under the age of 5 are provided by nurseries, that the sufficiency of places is variable across the country and there remains considerable turnover in the sector.

On the standard of service, the report noted that 74% of Early Years provision is now good or better, compared with 65% three years ago. There was, however, little improvement between this year and last in terms of proportion of good or outstanding. This suggests that improvements brought about by the introduction of the EYFS are levelling off. A third of children had not reached the required standard in language and literacy by the age of 5, a figure that rose to two fifths in deprived areas. Overall, nurseries were rated better at preparing children for school than childminders.

Unsurprisingly, the provision remains weakest in areas of highest deprivation. This is particularly true in the case of childminders, where the gap between the quality of provision of high and low deprivation is wider than for any other type of childcare provider. In the UK, children from the poorest fifth of homes are on average 19 months behind children from richer homes in their use of vocabulary by the age of five. This is worse than two of the three major English speaking countries (in Canada the gap is 10.6 months, and Australia 14.5 months).

In her lecture, Sue Gregory commented on the disproportionate funding for schools and alluded to a special premium for those Early Years providers operating in poorer neighbourhoods or with higher proportions of families living in poverty. In its recent report, the IPPR said that Early Years and youth have seen cuts of 20%. At the Daycare Trust Annual Conference on Tuesday, Lucy Lee of Policy Exchange noted that since 2000 funds to Early Years had gone up just 5.6% while schools had received increases of 55%. So for all the talk about how important we are in setting the scene for successful education, we are still short changed both in reputation, funding and correct support. Is it any wonder that the poorest areas are still feeling the pinch and getting the worse deal?

The Ofsted report findings show that what makes the most difference is the quality of the interaction between adults and children, which leads them to developing good quality early skills. In the best settings, children’s interest is constantly stimulated and adult intervention is well timed so as to respond to children’s curiosity and to challenge their thinking. That will only happen with the involvement of well qualified professionals with at least a relevant Level 3 qualification. The Nutbrown Review 10 year timescale is considered unambitious because it is longer than most children spend in the whole of their early years and primary school education. The report also found that the quality and type of local authority (LA) support for early years provision was variable and often not targeted effectively at those providers that most needed improvement. They listed the top ten LAs and the worse ten. Luckily LEYF is neither operating in the top 10 LAs or the bottom ten LAs. This suggests we are in the satisfactory majority of 132 LAs. Apparently, what makes for outstanding is where LAs offer tailored support to meet the requested needs of particular groups or providers.

Overall, the report notes that too many children are still entering school without the basic skills they need to learn. However, pre-schools and nurseries are better than childminders at preparing children for their next stage. While most childminders provide children with good level of care, many have found it more challenging to provide for the learning and development set out in the EYFS.

The report includes a suggestion that the quality of early learning would benefit from strong links between weaker and stronger providers. It also suggests that good and outstanding providers with high quality leadership and management should operate as nuclei or hubs for networks of childminders and weaker group care providers in their area.

So, what does this report say that we don’t already know?

  • The Early Years matters a great deal
  • To get the best from the sector we need well qualified staff who have all received relevant and robust training
  • Funds need to reflect what we do and be equitable to schools
  • Pay attention to our poorest children, they deserve the best
  • Make all nurseries communication-rich environments at every level
  • Ensure the quality of the interaction between adults and children is rich, stimulating and well-timed so as to respond to children’s curiosity and challenge their thinking (a critical factor for high quality)

The Minister, Elizabeth Truss, had obviously read the report because her speech at the Daycare Trust Conference reflected these very points. Unfortunately, she tempers her thought with continual references to deregulation and reduced ratios. In my view, this will be the unraveling of all the work we have done to get to 74% good and outstanding, with still much to do to get 100% in all areas.

To have high engagement with small children, you need a lot of capable staff. I spent the day with two year olds the other day to remind myself of the demands they place on staff, both physically and emotionally. We had twelve children and four staff with a fifth available… and me! We worked hard to ensure we were responding to those children, following their schemas, playing and talking to them, giving them cuddles while keeping them safe, fed and clean. Fewer staff would have been a high-risk strategy. Babies also need hips and we each have just two.

The Minister is fond of quoting Europe, but the OECD has admitted that the statistics that often finds the UK towards the end of the league tables are old, unreliable and insecure. In fact the OECD is about to re-do them. The European child-adult ratios are lower than ours, but that does not make them right. French visitors to LEYF last week noted how they admire our ratios and want to follow us, especially in their crèches which offer services to those under the age of 3 years.

Let me leave you with the thoughts of a young struggling teacher, Ursula Brangwen in DH Lawrence’s book The Rainbow. In the light of all our research, ask yourself is this what you want for staff and children?

And before this inhuman number of children she was always at bay. She could not get away from it. There it was, this class of fifty collective children, depending on her for command… there were so many that they were not children. They were a squadron. She could not speak as she would to a child. Because they were not individual children; they were a collective inhuman thing.

The Rainbow, DH Lawrence (p376)

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