Headteachers of nursery schools were advised last week to ask Office for Standards in Education inspectors for their home telephone numbers when an inspection of their school is scheduled and ring them whenever they needed to iron out any worries.
They were told to grill inspectors on their code of conduct, persuade them to run lunchtime workshops to generate staff involvement, and to timetable an opportunity for every member of the school community, from the cleaners to the governors, to talk to the inspector on how the process can improve performance. Finally, headteachers should appoint a senior member of staff as a "resident inspector" to monitor quality continuously.
The confidence-boosting for early-years teachers and workers came from specialist adviser for the early years and former HMI Jean Ensing, at a conference organised by the City of Westminster.
Nursery providers fall between two stools in the inspection process: many want to avoid it altogether yet they want recognition of the specialised skills needed to nurture a pre-school child's foundation of learning. This was a period of learning in its own right "not in the sense of supporting the structure which comes later," said Jean Ensing. They should therefore ask for an early-years specialist in the inspection team.
Nursery staff see themselves caught in a pincer grip between national curriculum pressures and the OFSTED framework and their reaction is often to panic. Some schools deliver crates of paperwork to the inspector "and, of course, nobody will have taken it on board," said Jean Ensing.
So much of good early-years practice is instinctive, she continued, but this was no longer enough. Nursery teachers and early-years workers had lost the habit of using professional language to describe what they did, and taking the initiative with both the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and OFSTED could change this. Staff should be prepared to theorise about practical provision, adapting the SCAA revision of key stage 1 and OFSTED standards to their own procedures "not the other way round, or it goes horribly wrong".
Nursery schools and units were hampered by the whole style and approach of OFSTED, particularly the handbook which had been formulated with secondary schools in mind. Many inspectors wanted them to be more like secondary schools, ignorant of the fact that all pre-school learning links activity, exploration, reflection and talk and cannot be compartmentalised.
The OFSTED principle of asking nursery teachers not only to describe the "activities" provided but the "areas of learning" covered was wrong, according to Jean Ensing. Even though it was probably only inserted to collect data, it fuelled the redundant debate over how the early-years curriculum is labelled. "Labels carry little meaning but a lot of emotional baggage," she said.