End-of-term report: Excellent all round

28th June 1996 at 01:00
Couldn't do better, said the inspectors. Gerald Haigh went along to a nursery school which had not been looking forward to OFSTED's visit to find out why it got top marks.

Are inspectors capable of picking up the subleties of life in a nursery classroom? Will they have any experience of the activities of very young children? Faced with an inspection by the Office for Standards in Education, this is what most unnerves early-years teachers. It worried Liz de Keller, head of North Islington nursery school, so much that, once she had checked their details, she asked for, and was granted, a change in the make-up of the team due to visit her school. "My chair of governors and I," she says, "told OFSTED that we wanted the inspection to be valuable to the school."

And she got what she wanted. The inspection team did what all heads hope for, which is to recognise and understand the nature of their school's vision. In fact, their report, published today, was more than glowing ... "This is an excellent school of outstanding quality with a number of particular strengths, " it begins, and it goes on to highlight a host of positive qualities. The phrases leap from the page: "a richly stimulating, happy, secure and harmonious place"; "excellent leadership"; "quality and breadth of vision".

Sure enough, it is a lovely place. When I went, the outside play area was alive with activity. Some children blew soap bubbles and watched in hand-clapping glee as they soared in the London sunshine. Some played in sand and water, and I queued with others for pretend ice creams at the pretend shop.

Yet OFSTED would not just have applauded North Islington nursery for displaying its children in the garden like flowers. Their report speaks of good management, careful planning and the keeping of "clear and pertinent records of the progress that every pupil makes".

Liz Colmer, the teacher who had set up the bubble-blowing, provided an example of the relationship between play and learning. Young Tim had just been up to her to ask: "How come the bubble comes off and floats away?" She told me how she had discussed the properties of bubbles with Tim, encouraging him to think, to watch each bubble's development. Liz explained how she would make a note of this mark of Tim's progress on a label which could then be stuck into his records.

Clearly this kind of interaction would, on any day, be repeated hundreds of times among the school's 86 full- and part-time pupils. Seen in that light, the professional task of the nursery teacher - keeping sensible individual records, spotting problems and achievements, planning work - seems daunting. The staff manage to do it, though, as the OFSTED team recognised.

The positive language of the report echoes the feelings of Niki Cooper, who has had two children in the school. "It's a fantastic environment - an exemplary facility for three- to five-year-olds." Niki is impressed by the way the staff know the children. "They are always spot on, and always respectful of the child and uncondescending."

Liz says the philosophy is child-centred. "It just doesn't work if it's not centred on the child." She wants to turn out children who are ready for learning and confident.

She admits this "might sound airy fairy", but there is nothing vague about the way the teachers and nursery nurses review and plan their work, in daily after-school meetings. There is "a very tight structure underneath a system of free choice for the children".

So, a child tries to write her name? It is seen, valued, recorded and built upon. Another has difficulty cutting with scissors? Someone sees this, and notes the need for special help.

Given that chief inspector Chris Woodhead has renewed suspicion of "child-centredness", and also given that the voucher system could threaten nursery schools, Liz de Keller is grateful for OFSTED's vote of confidence. She regards it as significant that the report says the school provides excellent value for money.

So, is there reassurance here for all those nursery and pre-school teachers who are still waiting for OFSTED? Liz de Keller, despite her good experience, is not so sure. Not only does she feel that she was lucky to get inspectors with the right background ("I know other heads who have had a very different experience"), but she is also very concerned about the way that OFSTED deals in the currency of "lessons" and "homework", for example, in a way which is inappropriate at this level.

And in the end she is not too sure what it was all for, other than a reward for a hardworking staff. "The process of preparation was useful for focusing the mind, but the key issues for action were all in the school development plan anyway."

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