Inspections come as a shock to some nurseries and playgroups, particularly to those which have worked informally - without writing things down and using filing cabinets. A few nurseries think the inspector was unfair and judged them without seeing enough or without bringing up their criticisms in the verbal report. Most, however, regarded inspections as a useful way to push up standards.
The reports, which are available on the Internet, run to about seven A4 pages. They begin with "main findings" and continue with some sharper "key issues for action". Each nursery has to draw up an action plan and each is assessed on whether it promotes "desirable learning outcomes" in six areas.All of which dovetails neatly into the national curriculum at age five.
The main findings reveal whether the nursery provision is acceptable or not - and whether the nursery gets a superior or inferior pass. The strengths and weaknesses in six areas - personal and social development, language and literacy, mathematics, knowledge and understanding of the world, physical development and creative development - are described in detail. And areas such as planning, teaching quality, resources and links with parents are also judged.
The proprietor of Ascot nursery has been operating happily for 25 years without so much as a filing cabinet. She says she found the inspection "daunting", although the inspector was friendly. And for Carol Ducrow, leader of Woodlands Park playgroup in Bourneville, Birmingham, it was "nerve-racking to know you were being observed when you had little ones to sort out".
Ascot nursery, with 56 children on the register, was put on one to two years' probation after the inspector criticised it for its lack of written plans and pupil records, and said improvements were needed in some subject areas. On language and literacy, the report said: "When phonics have been learnt there is no progression beyond this stage to reading. The individual story reading session is very short."
Mrs Pat Evitt, the nursery's proprietor, responded quickly to the report. After receiving it, she rang her local feeder school for help. The primary head came to visit. "She said she would prefer us not to do reading," explains Mrs Evitt. "You only get one or two who can read at four."
Since the inspection, Mrs Evitt has spent #163;500 to #163;600 of her own money on items highlighted by the report. She is getting a filing cabinet and has also bought some maths books but is unable to afford a computer.
the reference to inadequate time for story reading was a bit unfair, says Mrs Evitt. Time was short because, on the day of the inspection, there were two birthdays. She chose a short story because of that; usually stories are longer.
If the inspector had spent more time, she would have got a more comprehensive picture. Generally, however, Mrs Evitt sees the report as a challenge. "It's good because it keeps you on your toes," she says.
Carol Ducrow also had complaints about the fairness and thoroughness of her report. Her playgroup was criticised for not including physical activities, indoors or outdoors. This simply wasn't true, she says. Woodlands Park has a climbing frame, which it puts away in the winter, and the inspector was shown photographs of children playing on it.
The criticism of nursery inspections - made by local authorities and early years experts - that they lack thoroughness and consistency because they are one person's view gleaned from one day or two half sessions was echoed by some of the nurseries.
Wendy Scott, chair of the British Association for Early Childhood Education and a nursery inspector, says: "How can you make judgments of continuity and progression if you're not there for more than a day?" When she did her inspector's training with nine other experienced people they came to differing conclusions about whether the nursery they were examining should be reinspected after one to two years or two to four years.
Mrs Scott has carried out an evaluation of a sample of early inspections for the National Children's Bureau. She found discrepancies and inconsistencies. Some inconsistencies of judgment were unacceptable. "There are hundreds of inspectors from a wide range of backgrounds," she says. "They have had a very attenuated training; they are expected to make subtle judgments in a very short space of time. I know several who have said that if they had had more confidence, they would have failed the nursery."
OFSTED rejected the criticism, saying that the inspection arrangements seemed to be working, but a spokesman stressed that OFSTED was not complacent. New guidelines for inspectors will be issued after the election.
Both Mrs Scott and Margaret Edgington, vice-president of the National Campaign for Nursery Education, wonder who is going to help the private nurseries improve their teaching, planning and resources. "Where are the training opportunities and the money to improve facilities?" asks Mrs Edgington.
One of the features that hits you about the reports is that inspectors seem to be following a checklist. Time and again nurseries are marked down for lack of a computer. "The lack of technological resources, such as programmab le toys or a computer, inhibits the children's knowledge and understanding of the world," said the inspector of Bridge House kindergarten in Orpington, Kent. Nurseries are judged also for not having time lines or the alphabet on display.
Sue Owen, principal officer in the early childhood unit at the National Children's Bureau, points out that nurseries are receiving conflicting messages. The OFSTED inspections are in danger of producing a kind of checklist mentality, whereas social services inspections of nurseries say that that is not
good early years' practice. She advocates a more holistic approach which takes account of children's social and educational development and best practice.
The nurseries I contacted reported a small amount of interest from parents. Some have made more effort than others to make the report available. If they play their cards right, nurseries should be able to seek help with resources from more well-heeled mums and dads.
Some nurseries have been lucky. Bridge House kindergarten was given a computer after the inspection report. Mrs Jane Williams, who owns Bridge House, found the inspection "quite useful".
Philip Evelegh, owner of two kindergartens in London - Pooh Corner in Kensington and The Crescent in Wandsworth - believes the inspections will raise standards. He hopes that Labour, if it gets into power on May 1, will keep the inspection system going for private nurseries and playgroups once vouchers have been abolished.