Inspections come as a shock to some nurseries, but most should benefit from the experience, reports Lucy Hodges. Since the advent of the Government's nursery voucher scheme a year ago, 2,500 private nurseries and playgroups have been inspected for the quality of the education they offer four-year-olds. Of those, about 25 (1 per cent) have failed and 99 per cent have passed. Those with a superior pass have another two to four years before they are reinspected; those with an inferior pass have one to two years' respite.
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, teachingquality, resources and linkswith 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 Pounds 500 to Pounds 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 afterthe 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 programmable 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.
Straight from the horse's mouth
The staff of Child's Play nursery in Penistone, Sheffield, were chuffed after their inspection. The inspector had been friendly and given generally positive feedback in her oral report. So, they were surprised to find that the written report was more negative. "We were really disappointed," says Andrea Askey, the nursery's owner.
If the inspector had talked to them about some of her detailed criticisms they could have dealt with them there and then, according to Mrs Askey. In particular, the nursery was surprised to see some of their work described as weak in the report when the inspector could see they were putting those items right. For example, the nursery is redeveloping its outdoor space, and the inspector knew that, butoutdoor play was listed as an item for action.
Mrs Askey thinks the inspector should have spent more time at the nursery. She was there from 8.15am to 4pm. When the nursery sent off its action plan to show how it was rectifying weaknesses, it also sent a copy to the Pre-school Learning Alliance with a covering letter listing its cricitisms of the inspector's report.
Noah's Ark pre-school in Paulton, Bristol, found the whole business of preparing for inspection alien. "Being a pre-school, we're not used to organising to this extent," says Daphne Dix, the play leader. "Ours is very much about learning through play and experience. We're not used to getting records and Lord knows what, and testing the children all the time."
The inspection was gruelling, she says. Each member of staff was interviewed by the inspector individually at the beginning of the day, which meant staff had to arrive at work very early. After that, the inspector observed and talked.
"What I didn't like most of all was that she asked me a question and I would tell her," says Mrs Dix. "Then I would look round a bit later and see her ask a member of staff the same question in a different way."
The pre-school was pleasantly surprised by what the inspector had to say. Among weaknesses identified were that children were not being encouraged to associate sounds with letters and staff needed to teach children to recognise numerals. Mrs Dix said the school did do number work, but the inspector had not observed that.
But Mrs Dix doesn't think the inspection will have much effect. "I don't honestly think it will improve what we provide," she says.