Ofsted is consulting on a single inspection framework covering all education institutions but Sue Cowley argues they are not in a position to say how early years settings should be run. Instead, they should focus on being a good regulator

As someone who volunteers in an early years setting and works with schools, I am struck by the differences between the two, particularly where Ofsted is concerned.

The early years foundation stage (EYFS) is a non-statutory part of a child’s education: there is no obligation to send your child to an early years setting until she or he is five. Even then, there is the option of home schooling.

But many parents do use early years provision, particularly since the introduction of early years funding in the late 1990s.

The EYFS has regulations, and a curriculum, but the wishes of parents and the needs of their children are central, not the government’s priorities. Many parents pay for extra hours on top of the funded time, which creates a different balance of power.

The only limitations to parental choice on childcare are supply, how much money they have and where they live. While there is notional “choice” in the state school sector, the government is responsible for supply, and government effectively decides which school place parents receive.

Inspectors must accept the day-to-day reality of running an early years setting

The early years sector has grown up organically in response to a need. There are private daycare nurseries, mostly local, small businesses, with some run as chains. There are voluntary-run pre-schools, often charities, many set up as playgroups by parents or faith groups decades ago. There are state nursery schools (a handful) and nursery classes in schools. And there are childminders and nannies working individually and through agencies.

What has all this got to do with Ofsted? Well, despite the diversity of the early years sector, it has a strongly united voice.

Laura Henry, an early years trainer and consultant, set up the successful #EYTalking Twitter chat, where practitioners share ideas and quiz politicians on what they can do for the sector. June O’Sullivan, chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation, posted a message online after a spate of complaints-driven inspections. This led to demands from providers for better communication between Ofsted and the sector.

When former Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare Liz Truss suggested that higher ratios would make childcare “more affordable”, the sector quickly mobilised with the #rewindonratios campaign. Under intense pressure, the government backed down.

Despite the loud calls from Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw for the sector to ensure children are made “school ready”, early years providers are not clamouring to do what Ofsted says. They are not focused on “what Ofsted wants”, because Ofsted is only their regulator. It is the parents and their children who are their clients and the stakeholders.

Private, voluntary and independent settings cannot be “academised”, as schools can be, if they fail an Ofsted inspection. However, if the children stop coming, or a setting runs out of money, it closes. Plus, parents typically look beyond Ofsted’s result when choosing childcare.

Unlike in schools, early years inspections are already conducted with no-notice – the inspector drops in unannounced. Interestingly, this seems to decrease, not increase, the pressure on providers.

If Ofsted can come at any time, there is no point in worrying about when they will come. Ofsted rightly wants to see what goes on every day; therefore, inspectors must accept the day-to-day reality of running an early years setting. They should look carefully, ask the right questions, ensure the children are
safe and happy – be a good regulator, basically.

But with the government needing to expand supply in the sector, yet paying well below cost for places, they are not in a position to say how settings must be run. This, then, is a salutary lesson for government about how supply and demand works outside the public sector: that there is always the chance providers will tell government to take their £3.50 an hour, and give it to someone else.

 

Sue Cowley is an educational author, trainer and chair of her local pre-school committee