OFTOT leader says she can fix it

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
Julie Henry talks to Maggie Smith, the new inspection chief for the under-fives

MAGGIE Smith, the director of the new nursery arm of the Office for Standards in Education, has come full circle since her days as a single mother in West Yorkshire.

Thirty years ago, Ms Smith's attempts to establish a local nursery fell foul of the kind of rules that the early-years directorate, dubbed OFTOT, will be enforcing from September when it takes over the registration and inspection of nurseries, cr ches, playgroups, after-school clubs and childminders.

She recalls: "The council was only prepared to give us temporary registration because it doubted we had the experience or the resources to make it work. I don't blame them."

Ms Smith went on to play a leading role in the charity Gingerbread and in children's services in Bradford and Manchester. Her early-years experience has reassured the sector.

Two years as manager of children's services at the charity Barnardo's has also given the 53-year-old experience in directing hundreds of staff and volunteers. The transfer of 1,300 inspectors currently employed by local authorities presents the biggest challenge to the new director. Senior OFSTED figures have admitted it is a "logistical nightmare".

Eight regional centres will be established with inspectors who will work from home. Many worry about being isolated, some do not have office space and others do not have the IT skills.

But Ms Smith says that the nursery sector is pleased with how the directorate is shaping up. "These professional people have felt undervalued. They have battled for every resource. Now they will have the support they need, such as legal teams who are experts in early-years law.

"My challenge in the first year will be keeping the patience of those who will beaffected by the inevitable hitches."

MPs on the Commons education select committee have urged the directorate to be more supportive than the school inspection regime, which, they say, has caused a "current climate of extreme stress".

Ms Smith insists OFTOT will be different. "Early years is a diverse mixture of professional and parenting skills. It would be foolish to take the same approach as OFSTED."

The new early-learning goals and the school foundation stage will place an emphasis on education.

Ms Smith said: "Inspectors were looking at things like cracked tiles. While these affect the child's well-being there was not really the desire to understand a child's needs in terms of good learning experiences."

Some of the standards which have been set have outraged the early-years lobby, particularly the minimum qualification levels and the right of childminders to smack children and smoke in front of them.

One early-years expert has said Ms Smith, who "doesn't shun a fight", could be a high-profile ally in the fight against ministers.

But Ms Smith said while it was right for the sector to make its views known, decisions would be made by ministers and enforced by the directorate. She also warned the sector against expecting too much too soon.

"Previously we had no national minimums and standards were variably applied. Arguing about the detail is understandable but I hope that people will recognise the huge change that is occurring and allow the basics to be established and then move on."

Parents need to have confidence in where they place their children, said Ms Smith. "We have had a culture for a long time which made parents feel guilty about leaving their children with anyone. We have to make sure all the options out there are good for the child."

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