Tough love for the early years

Ofsted will deal decisively with failure, but we must also remember our successes and build on them

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All the evidence suggests that what happens to children in their formative years before they start school has a profound effect on their later achievements and, indeed, on their success in life. This is why Ofsted places so much importance on the inspection of childcare and early years education.

This week, we published our third review of the early years. Where our earlier reports focused on safety and achievement, Leading to Excellence explains the organisation, leadership and management qualities that inspectors believe give children the best start in life.

There is much good news. Three years ago, only four in five registered settings met national standards. That figure has increased to 97 per cent, with two in three rated good or outstanding. Inspection has clearly played an important part, and this isn't just our view. Some 91 per cent of parents using recently inspected childcare said they believed inspection helped to improve childcare or early education, and 40 per cent had noticed improvements since the inspection.

And there is evidence that a foundation framework is making a real difference. Despite the controversy over its newest incarnation this September, a curriculum has existed since 2001. Last year, our inspectors found 70 per cent of early education to be good or outstanding, with just 2 per cent inadequate - a big improvement on the 54 per cent and 6 per cent in those categories three years ago.

Of course, there is still room for improvement. We not only cover daycare and nursery education, but also inspect after-school clubs and childminders. And there is a large variation between different settings. For example, 62 per cent of full daycare centres are good or better, but the same is true of only 47 per cent of out-of-school clubs. Moreover, there has been a worrying drop in the quality of childminders this year.

Although just 3 per cent of all provision was judged inadequate, over three years this added up to 5,500 different places that care for and educate young children. A higher proportion of the poorer ones are in the most deprived communities, where care and education are most needed.

That is why we take action where we find failure. A fifth of childcare settings and a quarter of early education providers judged inadequate have since closed. Most of the remainder have improved significantly since inspection: more than 95 per cent of those judged inadequate are now satisfactory or better. We are closely monitoring the few that remain inadequate and open, and will require decisive action by those that do not improve.

But this week's report is as much about what works as it is about where things are not good enough. I am keen that all childcare and early education providers look closely at themselves to see where they can learn from those we judge to be outstanding.

We have identified five features of a good early years provider:

- children are at the heart of everything that happens;

- a robust approach to safety;

- providers are ambitious, focused on learning and constantly seeking to do better;

- children experience stimulating, safe environments; and

- records are used extremely well to support children's development.

Putting children at the heart of everything is about more than being caring and kind; it is about improving children's learning and their capacity to learn, often through play activities. The early years should be years of discovery, when children are experiencing new things and building these into their learning and development.

Critics of the new foundation framework suggest that it will make the early years a joyless experience for children, creating a "tick-box culture". On the contrary, we have found that the existing curriculum, which is similar, has given a valuable structure and is used as a guide rather than a bureaucratic straitjacket. This may explain why teachers polled recently by The TES were generally supportive of it.

Young children are natural explorers, and are keen to learn, but it is important that those from disadvantaged backgrounds get the same sort of chances to do so as those from better-off families. That includes learning to decode words and count, but it is also about learning to mix with other children, to express themselves and to concentrate, through activities such as painting. The best settings treat every child as an individual, responding to their different needs and pace of learning and keeping a real focus on progress: some children will develop faster than others, but each deserves an equal chance to do so.

Accurate records should be kept of children's welfare and progress; these are crucial in helping to decide on the right sort of activities to help in their development and learning. Parents should be partners in this. Youngsters may spend 15 hours a week at a nursery, but will spend the rest of their time with their family. So, staff should discuss how children are doing and find ways to keep parents and carers informed.

Of course, good management also means providing parents with reassurance that children are being kept safe. Staff must be properly vetted and supervised, and the potential for accidents kept to a minimum.

Childcare must be much more than a babysitting service. Days need to be planned carefully so that children have the chance to choose different things to do, to test what they know, and to learn new things. The chance to play outdoors is important and a good way to explore and learn.

Contrary to mythology, inspectors want to see warm, enthusiastic adults who care about the children they are looking after and are ambitious for them. Outstanding providers combine warmth towards children with the provision of exciting, well planned opportunities to learn and develop. And with that comes a recognition that even the best can do better. By giving of their best, they are able to give children the very best experiences at a time when they most need it.

I hope providers, local authorities and others will use the report and its associated website to support improvement so that we will see excellent leadership and management in many more settings during the inspection cycle starting in September.

Christine Gilbert, HM chief inspector of schools.

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