Pre-school sector fears the new inspectors will lack early-years skills. Julie Henry reports
THE spectre of a vast new early-years watchdog is beginning to haunt playgroup leaders and childminders.
The Bill introducing the Early Years Directorate - dubbed Oftot - has its second reading in Parliament next month.
The inspectorate will monitor whether new early-learning goals for the under-fives which include being able to count to 10 and write their own name by the time they go to school, are met.
Playgroup leaders and childminders are suspicious of the new directorate, according to the Daycare Trust, a childcare information charity. Recent claims that inspection pressure has led to unacceptable stress, and even suicides among teachers, will do little to reassure the 100,000 childminders and organisations who are contemplating the new arm of the Office for Standards in Education.
Lucy Lloyd, head of policy at the trust, said the challenge for OFSTED was to get the sector on board.
"When you talk to people in the field they are worried about whether inspectors will have the necessary skills and expertise to judge what they do. They are also concerned that the directorate's approach should not be like OFSTED's approach to schools.
"The sector welcomes better regulation and the directorate will take thi forward but it needs to be done carefully, with measures appropriate to the field."
At the moment, local authority social service inspectors check on safety, while OFSTED assesses the quality of education. The new body will take over both responsibilities as well as the safety-checking of registered childminders.
The directorate will be up and running by September next year, giving nurseries, playgroups and childminders a year to get to grips with the early-learning goals which make up a foundation stage of the national curriculum.
The report from the first dual scrutiny, of Hillfields Early Excellence Centre in Coventry (see picture story), has just been published.
Details about the new body, which could employ up to 1,600 people, are sketchy but education minister Margaret Hodge has revealed that the directorate will have regional offices. She said: "We don't want childminders dotted all over the country having to ring Covent Garden."
The minister also said the key to the success of the new inspectorate would be the person chosen to head it. The body is being described by the Department for Education and Employment as a "distinct arm of OFSTED".
Officials will not be drawn on whether it will be directly under the control of chief inspector Chris Woodhead or given a degree of independence.