Several months after the start of the new foundation stage, Helen Ward looks at the impact of inspection on the new under-fives curriculum.
How popular should Ofsted expect to be? The watchdog has had a somewhat rocky relationship with schools, as any organisation charged with pointing out failures might expect.
At the union conferences two weeks ago, Ofsted claimed 84 per cent of teachers believed it was important that their lessons were observed by inspectors. But Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, noted that this didn't mean they liked it.
Love or hate it, Ofsted's role as an independent voice is an important entity for all teachers - not just to pick up schools that are failing, but to speak out when those failures are caused by policy.
That is why there is widespread interest in how inspectors are coping with judging the new early years foundation stage. This was the name for the new curriculum for under-fives that was introduced in September 2008. Much of it is based on large-scale research and good practice, and the principles are widely supported among the teachers asked to carry it out.
It calls for a play-based curriculum that includes outdoor learning and is largely child-initiated - a quite different approach from the more formal learning that is commonly used for older children.
But it also includes the need to assess children at the end of the reception year against 13 complex nine-point scales. Among other things, they must be able to write their name and understand why rules are important.
Local authorities must set targets based on these assessments. But there are concerns about the workload connected with these assessments and fears that they could lead to overly formal teaching.
Ofsted is in a unique position to be able to report on whether these concerns are justified, but will inspectors have the skills and time to pick up on this?
Concerns from early pilot studies about the time it would take to inspect and make six judgments about early years classes led to the watchdog agreeing that inspections where one inspector visits for one day were insufficient. Instead, they concluded, an additional inspector would be needed to enable thorough visits to be undertaken.
Documents obtained by The TES show that a pilot has already begun to streamline these six judgments to four. And there are other problems, including the backgrounds of inspectors.
At a May 2008 parliamentary select committee, Miriam Rosen, director of education at Ofsted, said where one inspector visited a primary school, they might be somebody who is "primary trained rather than specifically early years trained, but we still consider that to be appropriate. They will have had appropriate training."
But schools do not necessarily agree. Kathy Roebuck, head of St Giles CofE Primary near Halstead, Essex, was inspected in November 2008: the early years provision was rated as satisfactory.
The report from inspectors said activities were too tightly directed by the teacher and there was a lack of opportunities for children to develop early writing skills. There are nine children in reception and no nursery at the school.
Mrs Roebuck said: "My judgment was that our early years was good and we were disappointed by our Ofsted. I thought it was a snapshot and he (the inspector) really didn't have the time. In my case, his judgments were done in a two-day inspection with us, but effectively a day and a half was spent looking at the school. He left the early years until the last morning and spent half an hour in there, and on that he made his judgment.
"Making a judgment regarding accessibility to writing after children had only been in school six weeks did seem steep when we worked hard for children to have experiences such as forest-school activities."
David Fann, head of Sherwood Primary School in Preston, Lancashire, had a different experience. His early years provision was graded outstanding in January this year.
"We had two inspectors who spent the day here," he said. "The early years inspector spent about 45 minutes in three different sessions. He really did look in detail and I have to say I was impressed with his knowledge and the way he talked to the children.
"I think some Ofsted teams can come in with an agenda. The problem is always the threat of having the odd team that is not up to the job or which is very results-driven. But there can also be benefits in terms of giving ideas for further development."
The stage we're in
- 2000: Foundation stage curriculum introduced as a distinct phase for three to five-year-olds.
- 2002: Birth to Three Matters, guidance for those working with younger children.
- 2003: Profile introduced to assess achievement at end of the key stage. Areas of learning and early learning goals now a legal requirement in all state-funded settings: nurseries, childminders and pre-school.
- 2004: The Government's 10-year childcare strategy proposes bringing together the curriculum (see 2000, above), Birth to Three Matters and welfare requirements into a single quality framework, covering birth to five.
- 2006: Formal consultation on the new framework starts. Open Eye campaign launched, which calls for it to be issued as guidance rather than be made statutory.
- 2008: Early years foundation stage becomes statutory in all settings.