Following a recent webinar, Paul Brooker, Ofsted East of England Director, explains the dos and don’ts of early years inspection in schools.
The early years of a child’s education are arguably the most vital. Despite this, the opportunity for every child to succeed remains far from equal. Postcode and parenting still play a significant role in determining a child’s life chances. Children who start behind tend to fall further behind and then find it difficult to catch up.
If Ofsted is to be a force for improvement, then our inspection of early years must support and develop the very best practice and ensure that economic disadvantage does not cause educational disadvantage.
Early years (EY) inspection
In coming to a judgement on EY provision in a school, inspectors gather evidence from a range of observations, discussions and documents. So talking to children, staff and parents is crucial.
There are four criteria that inspectors take into account:
1. Effectiveness of leadership and management
Inspectors evaluate how well leaders secure high-quality provision and drive improvement. Clearly, the work of leaders is best judged by the quality of teaching. However, in early years, it is vital that adults promote positive parental engagement and create an environment where children are nurtured to have positive attitudes towards learning.
Inspectors are also duty-bound to make specific checks, for example, that safeguarding procedures are effective, whether additional funding for disadvantaged children is used effectively, and that the curriculum meets the statutory requirements of Early Years Framework Stage.
2. Quality of teaching, learning and assessment
Teachers are understandably often anxious about what they think inspectors expect to see during an inspection. Inspectors know that teaching and learning can take a variety of approaches and we make no presumption that one approach is preferable, whether it is child-initiated play, adult-led activities, classroom-based or outside.
In good schools, it would be usual to see consistently high-quality teaching that creates a stimulating environment and meets children’s needs. It is for the school to decide how it uses the time effectively to direct children’s learning, but we want to see evidence of phonics and how well schools are increasing children’s vocabulary, since this is fundamental for children’s reading and writing.
Inspectors will evaluate whether teaching is purposeful, if assessment is used judiciously to support children’s development, and whether children are encouraged to be inquisitive learners.
While we are not prescriptive, our Bold Beginnings report does recommend that children should sit at a table when they are being taught to write. We don’t stipulate that every child needs to have a desk and a chair in the classroom, but we know that sitting comfortably at a table helps children with their posture. Similarly, being able to grip a pencil correctly gives children essential control in forming letters, so why would we not expect this to be taught from the outset? Schools should make sure that they use resources suitable for the task.
3. Children’s personal development, behaviour and welfare
Here, inspectors evaluate whether children experience a wide range of activities that motivate them to learn and make them eager to join in. We want to see children following simple instructions, cooperating, sharing and talking with each other, and taking a keen interest in all types of learning.
Children at this age should also know the basics about keeping themselves safe and staying away from danger, such as how to use scissors properly or not to touch very hot objects.
4. Outcomes for children
The outcomes for children are inextricably linked with the other three elements of the EY provision judgement. There is a perennial discussion about whether standards are more important than progress; both are equally important in EY.
Reaching a good level of development is crucial for 5-year-olds because this is the best way to ensure that children do not get left behind when they move into more formal education in key stages 1 and 2. However, some children make remarkable progress in their Reception year, without reaching a good level of development by the end of it.
In evaluating outcomes, inspectors look at levels of development against national benchmarks and specifically check outcomes for different groups of children, including disadvantaged, most able and children with special educational needs and/or disabilities.
If we are to judge children’s progress, a school must be able to present reliable information about children’s starting points, and their progress to date. We don’t expect to see assessment information in any specific form, but if we are to gauge children’s progress schools must be clear about their starting points.
The best schools enable children with low starting points to catch up quickly.
Clearly, inspectors don’t just look at reading, writing and numbers, but consider development across all areas of EY learning, including children’s personal, social and physical development.
Reducing anxiety and workload of inspections
It seems inevitable that an inspection event triggers a frenzy of anxiety and activity, but it is important that ‘fear of inspection’ does not fuel pointless activity and unnecessary additional workload for hard-working adults. With this in mind, let me bust some EY inspection myths:
During inspections, we do not require you to:
- provide a lesson plan when being observed
- ensure that adults are always interacting/talking with children
- demonstrate particular learning styles
- use the outdoor environment
- deliver an adult-led session
- always operate a free-flow environment
- provide photographic evidence of what children have done in the past
In essence, inspectors want to get a sense of what the early years provision is typically like. We never expect schools to do anything special or different.
So the message is: if you are looking to showcase your EY provision, please do not try and ‘second-guess’ Ofsted’s preferences. We don’t have any!
For details of how we inspect EY, listen to our recent webinar on 'Inspecting the early years in schools: Ofsted webinar for schools in the East of England'.