What does it mean to teach young children?
We kick-started a debate about that very subject in April, when we published the Ofsted Early Years Annual Report.
I am proud of this document, the first time we have published the early years report on its own. That meant we were able to garner attention for the sector and our findings that otherwise would have been drowned out by a greater attention on schools.
We launched the report at a well-attended session in Westminster, with leading figures from the early years sector. In launching this report in a speech, Unsure start, HM Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said that the early years presented a unique opportunity to shape a child’s future.
My presentation on the issues of the early years presented a unique opportunity for the sector. In attendance were Anne Longfield, Chief Executive of 4Children, and Purnima Tanuku, Chief Executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, among others.
I respect their positions on the early years. I know there are good early years providers outside schools and we recognised that in our annual report, which stated that 78 per cent of all early years providers are either good or outstanding.
However, I have been perturbed by claims that our approach would lead to the 'schoolification' of childhood. At worst, this is wilfully wrong.
Ready to learn
The whole point about our approach to the early years is to make sure that all children, regardless of their background, are ready to learn on the first day when they turn up at primary school.
Of course, at Ofsted we are not prescriptive about how nurseries, childminders and other early years settings ensure that young children are safe, cared for and learn and develop well.
In fact, we set out what we meant by teaching young children in a short letter earlier this year from HM Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw to Ofsted early years inspectors. We know that children as young as two can learn and be taught new vocabulary and begin to use it in a meaningful way. They can build small towers while counting play bricks, climb stairs and begin to play with a ball.
We are not interested in prescribing how or what providers should teach. That is already set out clearly in the Early Years Foundation Stage. We are interested in seeing if providers themselves are focused on helping children to learn and develop to be ready for school.
Our current evaluation schedule for inspecting early years provision makes this clear. Teaching, as our evaluation schedule says, is a broad term which covers the many different ways by which early years staff help young children to learn.
We want to see adults assess what children know, understand and can do, as well as take into account their interests and how well they learn. Early years staff will then be able to plan the child’s next steps and monitor their progress.
So when inspectors go into early years provisions they should see how well early years staff are helping children to learn, teaching children to socialise, and challenging children to think and find out more. They want to see really good professional practice.
Our discussion on teaching is emphatically not a 'misguided drive to over-formalise' childcare. Rather, it is recognition of the fact that the best early education is creative and engages young minds to fulfil their natural curiosity. Ofsted inspectors want to see really good professional practice and children being challenged to think.
I would expect that early years providers would be proactive in telling our inspectors about the great things they are doing.
So what are the best ways to help young children learn? I want to hear from you. I want Ofsted to be a facilitator that spreads best practice as well as the organisation which inspects and regulates the early years sector.
I want to turn now to our inspection arrangements. Recently Ofsted announced that support and management of our inspections of schools and further education institutions will be brought in-house from September 2015. That will not include early years inspections. I know that there has been disappointment in the sector with this decision.
Remember, it is only two months since we published a substantial document on the early years. It is also important to consider the practicalities. The current inspection cycle ends in 2016 so to make significant changes before then would be very unsettling. There is also uncertainty about how many inspectors we will need to undertake inspection of the new childminding agencies and we are in discussions with the Department for Education over the possibility of further reforms.
Most early years inspectors are contracted out. I believe that to bring all of them in-house would, in the short term, be an administrative distraction when we need to focus on other matters.
For all of these reasons now is not the time to bring inspections in house. But, make no mistake, we will continually improve quality within any contractual arrangements we have in place.
I hope everyone with an interest in early years will agree that we are engaging positively with the sector. One example is around complaint-driven inspections. Since Gill Jones and I took on responsibility for early years we have made it a priority to address this issue.
In May we piloted a new approach – which is more proportionate and less risk-averse - to dealing with complaint-driven inspections. Because we do not automatically inspect after an investigation, there are now 13 less complaint-driven inspections each day. That translates to approximately 3,000 less complaint-driven inspections a year.
To put this into perspective in April, before the pilot, we received 1,063 concerns and this led to 342 complaint-driven inspections. But during the pilot in May, we received 1,144 concerns and this led to a much lower number of complaint-driven inspections – 137 in total.
Of course, if a concern requires a quick inspection then we will inspect. We must always make sure that children are safe.
What matters is that our inspection reports celebrate outstanding practice and, when necessary, point out what is wrong so that the journey to good or outstanding can begin. We have taken important steps already and are giving greater support to training inspectors.
But early years professionals can play a constructive role too. If they have experience of a good or outstanding provider then they can help others get to good or better.
As I have said at a number of events recently we are committed to working with the sector to improve our inspection practices. I look forward to hearing your views.
Nick Hudson, National Director, Early Education