Nursery inspection scheme under attack

Diane Hofkins

Government proposals for accrediting private nurseries and pre-schools under the controversial voucher scheme could lead to a "mum's army" of unqualified inspectors, say local authorities. They warn that there will not be enough qualified inspectors to visit each nursery within the first year, as the Government intends, and criticise the lack of insistence on training for nursery workers.

Schools and playgroups may also be charged for validation and inspection of their education standards. The discussion paper on quality assurance for the scheme, sent out for consultation by the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health this week, says if fees are charged, they will be set at a "reasonable" level.

Charging state schools would mean a change in the law. Other providers are already charged Pounds 100 for registration and Pounds 75 for annual inspection under the Children Act.

The document proposes that the Office for Standards in Education should have ultimate responsibility for training, licensing and recruiting inspectors, who would operate with a much lighter touch than those dealing with primary and secondary schools.

It says there may be scope for recruiting some practising early-years professionals, or that lay inspectors licensed by OFSTED for primary inspections "could receive specific training to inspect pre-school education". Inspectors would have a free five-day training course (possibly shorter for those with relevant experience). The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority will publish proposed curriculum targets next week.

Alan Parker, education officer at the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, said OFSTED was already hard-pressed to find nursery school inspectors for its own four-year cycle. He felt the proposals could open the gate to unqualified inspectors. "This is mum's army writ large," he said. He was concerned that institutions that don't come up to scratch can retain their initial validation for three years.

The proposals ask whether OFSTED or social services departments should be responsible for inspecting private and voluntary provision. Umbrella organisations like the Pre-School Learning Alliance or the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools could be licensed to carry out inspections under OFSTED supervision.

But Gillian Pugh, director of the Early Childhood Unit at the National Children's Bureau, said the social services inspection system is "as pushed if not more pushed than OFSTED". She warned that social services inspectors are not always knowledgeable about education and that the document sidesteps the issue of training for early-years workers.

The DFEE says all inspection reports will be available to parents. Nurseries will be expected to tell parents about a wide range of matters including staff numbers and qualifications, educational programmes and activities, and policies on admissions and timetable.

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