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Early warning systems

The nursery voucher scheme goes on trial this week and Opposition MPs have already raised the alarm over quality control. Diana Hinds asks how nurseries and playgroups will be inspected.

With the nursery voucher scheme starting trials this week, and the legislation now past its third reading and moving inexorably towards the statute book in July, many people are beginning to ask about nursery inspections. What will be inspected, when and how, and by whom? The Office for Standards in Education is masterminding the inspection programme, and although some details have yet to be finalised, a basic framework is now in place:

When will the inspections happen?

PHASE1: the first nursery inspections in the four pilot authorities - Norfolk, Wandsworth, Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea - will begin in October. Six hundred providers of nursery education, in the private and voluntary sectors, will be inspected before April 1997. The Government has allowed at least Pounds 4 million for inspection in the first year. Maintained nursery schools and classes will continue to be included in OFSTED schools inspections, on a four-yearly basis.

PHASE2: the Department for Education and Employment anticipates that nationally there will be initially about 12,000 providers of education for four-year-olds taking part in the voucher scheme, in the private and voluntary sectors, all of which should be inspected between April 1997 and March 1998, their first year of receiving vouchers.

Who will the inspectors be?

There are no registered nursery inspectors, yet. OFSTED estimates it will need between 2,000 and 4,000 to complete Phase 2, and plans to train at least 2,000 by spring 1997. Training for Phase 1 inspectors will begin next month.Last month, OFSTED began to advertise in the national press (including The TES) for potential inspectors. Applicants should have "recent and relevant experience" in early years, and qualifications will also be taken into account. Because applicants are likely to be already working in a pre-school or nursery, OFSTED anticipates that they will take on one or two inspections a term - although with 12,000 establishments to cover, OFSTED admits that the more they do the better.

Attracting up to 4,000 new inspectors in the short time available is no easy task - and the growing public opposition to nursery vouchers will not help. Gillian Pugh, director of the early childhood unit at the National Children's Bureau, fears that the selection criteria may not be sufficiently rigorous, possibly opening the door to people without adequate teaching skills and experience of inspection.

Successful applicants will be invited on a three-day training course, after which some will be selected to be registered nursery inspectors. OFSTED has already identified about 40 trainers with early years experience, but needs to find more.

What will they inspect?

Inspections will focus on educational provision, as set out in OFSTED's framework (see Nursery Education Scheme: The Next Steps, DFEE), in four key parts:

the educational programme. How well does it contribute to children's progress in the six areas of learning identified in the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's Nursery Education: Desirable Outcomes for Children on Entering Compulsory Schooling. They are personal and social development; language and literacy; mathematics; knowledge and understanding of the world; physical development; creative development.

the quality of teaching. Is it based on a sound understanding of the "desirable outcomes" for children's learning? Does it set high expectations, and use appropriate methods and resources; is it well planned and organised?

assessment of children's progress. Is this done effectively, and is assessment information used to provide children with suitable activities?

partnership with parents: is information given to them about children's activities, attainments and progress, and are there opportunities for parents to be involved in children's learning?

Social services will continue their annual inspections, under the Children Act, of premises, health and safety. Many people, however, feel the new nursery inspections are a missed opportunity to integrate the two.

"This will perpetuate the division between care and education," says Margaret Lochrie of the Pre-School Learning Alliance.

How will the inspections be carried out?

As with OFSTED schools inspections, nursery inspections will be put out to competitive tender. New inspector contractors are expected to form. They will bid for batches of, say, 100 nursery inspections advertised by OFSTED, and then subcontract to registered nursery inspectors.

The Pre-School Learning Alliance is among organisations thinking of becoming a contractor. Margaret Lochrie says: "We don't yet know enough about it. If they were to restrict us to inspections of non-PLA groups we would probably not be interested. Nursery inspectors, I believe, should cover the full range of provision; if this is done objectively, it might even help to improve communications between different providers - which is certainly much needed. "

The model is for a three-day inspection, with one day to prepare, one day to make the visit, and one day to write up. Inspectors will base their judgments on what they see, as well as on children's work and discussions with children and staff.

In the case of playgroups operating only in the morning, this could mean an inspection visit of as little as two hours. But OFSTED denies that these are "light-touch" inspections.

Reports will be completed within five weeks or less, and sent to the provider, who must make them available to parents.

If education provision is judged satisfactory, "final validation" is granted, and the nursery or playgroup will be inspected again in two to four years.

If there are weaknesses in education provision, final validation is deferred, and a reinspection carried out within a year. If there are substantial problems, and no evidence of improvement, the inspector can recommend that the nursery be withdrawn from the voucher scheme; the final decision lies with the Secretary of State.

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