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Light touch raises weighty issues

Linda Blackburne reports on the fears surrounding nursery inspections.

Inspections of hundreds of nurseries and playgroups will begin at the end of this month amid serious concerns about the reliability of the inspectors' judgments.

Many early-years specialists are unhappy about the Government's decision to pass or fail a nursery on one inspector's opinion after one day or two half-days' inspection.

In contrast, primary schools with reception classes are inspected by a team of inspectors over a week.

For many former HM inspectors who are considering training for nursery work the so-called "light touch" inspection is an anathema.

The Office for Standards in Education makes no bones about the "light-touch" approach, but says it will review the length of time the inspector spends in the nursery as the work proceeds.

However, Margaret Lally, chair of the National Campaign for Nursery Education, said an inspection lasting about five or six hours was not good enough: "Most people can manage something reasonable in one session when they know the inspector is coming," she said.

And Wendy Scott, chair of the British Association for Early Childhood Education and a nursery inspector, said it was impossible to assess continuity and progression of nursery education in a day.

"To ask one person to do such a complex task in one day is not reasonable, " she said.

The BAECE, which is tendering for an inspection contract, is looking at the feasibility of inspecting on two days and involving more than one person in the inspection.

Many of the 300 new inspectors, about 85 per cent of whom have passed the "rigorous, intensive" three-day training course, said they had found the training rewarding, according to OFSTED.

The 15 per cent who failed found it difficult to make judgments when they were applying criteria set out in the nursery inspection framework.

Those people who failed the training course can try again, but they would not be able to resit the course indefinitely. Training for newcomers will be given priority.

A total of 2,300 people applied for nursery inspector training, but only 1,300 were considered to have the expertise for the job - a balance of qualifications and experience plus substantial recent experience of providing, managing or inspecting the education of four-year-old children.

OFSTED says that these figures prove it is serious about quality and that there is plenty of interest in the training courses.

But there have been a "small number" of administrative errors. A number of trainee inspectors with substantial early-years experience, who had passed the training, were, by mistake, sent letters telling them they had failed.

It appears that the errors only came to light when the trainee inspectors rang OFSTED to find out why they had failed. Those concerned have all received apologies.

OFSTED is about to start recruiting more teams of inspectors to inspect between 12,000 and 16,000 nurseries and playgroups from April 1997, when the nursery voucher scheme is implemented nationwide.

Meanwhile, some early-years specialists are questioning the amount of money the Government is putting into the "light-touch" inspections. Some reports suggest that Group 4, the company administering the work, got the job not just because it offered a quality service but because it undercut its rivals substantially.

But OFSTED denies that the Pounds 14 million Group 4 has been given to carry out 16,000 visits means inspectors will be expected to do the job for only Pounds 875 per inspection. Market forces meant it was much more complicated than that, Ofsted said.

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