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Ofsted  Big Conversation in the North West took place on Saturday, 12 March and what an action-packed event it was!

We were warmly welcomed by Elaine Sagar, Chair of the Steering Group who confirmed that the event had grown over eight years to provide even more support, guidance and information as well as opening dialogue between Ofsted and the sector before introducing two fellow Steering Group members as guest speakers: Cary Rankin, Chief Executive Officer at Thrive Childcare and Education and Lecturer at The University of Salford and Jo Kinloch from Mulberry Bush Nursery Group. 

Cary and Jo delivered an insightful and reassuring presentation about Ofsted Inspections from the perspective of the provider.  There was a sense of déjà vu as Cary had previously delivered similar content at the OBC in September 2015 and Jo in March 2016.  Nonetheless, we very much looked forward to their contribution and shared experiences.

So, it all starts with the much-anticipated call from Ofsted; usually around 12.00 noon on the day before the intended inspection is due to take place and is the initial time that you need to take a moment and gather your thoughts.  They reassured us that the Early Years Inspection Handbook paras 61-68 contain all the relevant information, so it’s a good idea to have this to hand.  The inspector should advise whether the visit will be for a routine inspection or is complaint driven and allows us as providers to make a great first impression, to build a positive relationship with the inspector and to impart knowledge – it is also the first opportunity in the process to find out crucial information. Whilst there will now be no specific mention of Covid in the Inspection Handbook regarding covid any more, we should be prepared to discuss its impact even at this early stage. We should be mindful though that if Covid is having such a detrimental effect on daily practice that we have the right to defer, as mentioned in para 69 of the Inspection Handbook.

The overriding message from Cary and Jo is ‘Don’t panic!’  We face many questions regarding that often-dreaded Ofsted call… What will I do when the call comes? Do I tell my staff? What happens if someone else in my team takes the call?  How do we best use the time available?  

These are all best answered by being organised prior to the call; in formulating a go to plan… So, what should that plan look like?  Firstly, inform managers, the wider management team and the team within the setting.  Together we can then acknowledge that the visit is taking place and decide on how best to present our setting and practices to the inspector.  This plan needs to cover the evening ahead and the day of the inspection itself, with the possible rearrangement of diaries and schedules.  It would be a good idea to defer any settling visits etc. The tone of the plan and how it is executed needs to be positive and upbeat, where everybody has a role and is being supported.

 

The evening before the inspection should be spent productively and is an ideal time for gathering data and ensuring that it is up to date; prime examples being Complaint’s file, SENCO and Safeguarding. Base rooms need to be well stocked with resources that children are familiar with, not new things that the children haven’t used before as they will deviate towards them.  Organisation of Joint Observations and activities need to fine-tune to maximise the display of strong practice and progression.  Is there clear intent? How are activities to be implemented? What supportive interventions need to be considered? How are we going to evaluate impact and any next steps?  The Leadership Team also need to consider the dynamics of the cohort in attendance on the day of the inspection.  What SEN, EYPP and Two-Year Funded children will be present?  It is likely that the inspector will focus on these children at some point.  One vital component not to be missed is to set out a Timetable for the inspection – what do we want to show off, when and where?  After all, it is our opportunity to shine and show the inspector our amazing provision.  Once all this is done then it is time to meet with the full staff team.  They need rest so that they are fresh and ready to work positively and proactively on inspection day.

On the day itself we need to ensure that all security and safety protocols are completed efficiently before setting the scene.  This is when we can self-rate our provision; being mindful to check for confirmation that the inspector is seeing evidence of that throughout the day.  The Learning Walk and Joint Observations will be agreed upon between the inspector and Manager will have much less focus on imparting information as before.  The new focus will be on observing practice alongside the inspector, commenting on Intent, Implementation and Impact in every room and with every child.

One thing remains the same – the child’s needs come first, and we need to be confident in sharing our knowledge of our cohort with the inspector.  If we are worried, we need to tackle it there and then and ask for questions to be rephrased.  It is extremely likely that Covid 19 will be discussed, how children were kept safe throughout lockdowns and beyond, how we adapted our approach to safeguarding during the pandemic, and how we promote strong health and safety and personal hygiene practices within the setting.  Towards the end of the Walk or Sit (if it’s more comfortable to be sat down!), the Provider or Manager accompanying the inspector should ask ‘Have you seen everything that you need to see in order to award me the grade I am expecting?’ ‘What else do we need to show you?’  If the inspector suggests any recommendations, then do not be afraid to discuss them at length as these will promote improved practice within your setting. 

The main message form Cary and Jo is to seize every opportunity whilst you can – it is your inspection, and you need to make the most of it.  Believe in yourself!  They certainly got that message across as we were all fired up and ready for our phones ringing on Monday morning.

Following on from Cary and Jo, we were given a definitive presentation by Rachel Flesher, HM Inspector and Early Years Senior Officer for the North West Region with guidance on what to expect from an inspection.  From their perspective it is all about getting it right from the very start.  You don’t get a second chance at making a strong first impression!  This encompasses planning and preparation, the notification call and the initial planning meeting.

First to come is the notification call.   It is the initial opportunity to build a positive relationship between the inspector and Provider/Manager, to gather vital information and to plan the inspection visit.  It should give the provider support in preparing for the visit and set out joint expectations for that visit whilst understanding the impact of Covid.  

The initial planning meeting comes next, and this is where the inspector will gather key information about staff and children; including tracking, to plan joint observation(s) and key activities and routines within the setting and to agree an inspection timetable.  At this point the inspector will consider effective management of the inspection and find out as early as possible where leaders of the provision judge themselves, discuss self-evaluation and continuous improvement.  The inspector will then explain how the Early Years Inspection Handbook is used and how the grade ‘good’ is used as a benchmark.  Ofsted consider this to be an effective =way to manage providers expectations from the start and will test out what they have been told during the inspection.

The Inspection has a very clear picture.  Alongside Leaders and Managers, the inspector will complete a Learning Walk so that they can see the curriculum in action, finding evidence of what has been learned from observation(s), talking to parents, staff and children, from tracking children’s experiences and making connections throughout the day, whilst keeping the whole Quality of Education judgement in mind before bringing it all together.  Providers must be aware that now is not the time to challenge judgement but to ask for clarification to know what the key messages and findings are; where there are areas for improvement and development so that when grading is raised there are no surprises.

The inspector will ensure effective management of the process by maintaining open communication between all stakeholders, a professional relationship and being engaged, using the inspection handbook and framework and appropriate use of inspection activities.  The inspector is time constrained, so it is prudent to manage that time effectively before reaching final judgements with professionalism and integrity of conduct throughout.  All these mean that the inspector can consider all the evidence presented and prepare for feedback.

During the inspection it is important that inspectors and providers establish and maintain a positive working relationship, based on courteous and professional behaviour.  After the inspection the inspector must meet set quality assurance standards.  The Provider will receive a draft report that must be checked for factual accuracy and the Provider has five working days to comment.  Any amendments must be notified with the option to proofread any amended report.  Where the Provider considers there are grounds for complaint, then this must be formally submitted within five working days using the official process.  If this is not the case, then Ofsted will publish the report on their website 3 working days later.

Elaine White, Senior HMI Early Years for the North West region made a much-welcomed return to the Big Conversation and provided a regional update with answers to some key questions.  These ranged from querying trends emerging from inspections undertaken since they were re-instated (in terms of recommendations/actions and any noticeable changes in the number of Require Improvement or Inadequate grades, the cycle of inspections, whether inspections as a result of a concern raised and Ofsted’s risk assessment process always means there will be a no-notice inspection, or in some cases settings might receive the usual pre-inspection phone call, what would be the desired period of retention of Covid Cases reported to LA and Ofsted, how Ofsted are prioritizing new regulations.  

Elaine reiterated that Amanda Spielman, Ofsted Chief Inspectors discussions regarding effective regulation of the early years sector and how more prominence to work can be given via a five-year strategic plan that will be published soon.  This is as a result of the outcome of the pandemic on young children.  She has noted that there are still concerns regarding the pandemic on language and communication skills and their social skills and commented that many first-time parents with children born during the pandemic are anxious about leaving their child, and that children are taking longer to settle.  These are realistic concerns and as a sector we must address them with government guidance and support.

Rachel Bucker, Early Years Hub and Steering Group member facilitated an informative and highly effective Q&A session with several questions put straight to members of the Ofsted panel.  We were fortunate to obtain immediate and appropriate guidance on best practice that allayed any concerns that Providers may have.

Next up was Shaddai Tembo from Critical Early Years for a thought-provoking presentation entitled Keeping Childhood Political; Reflections on social justice in the early years.  Shaddai is a Lecturer at Perth College UHI, a third year PhD student, a former early year’s practitioner and family support worker, a trustee for Early Education and the fatherhood Institute and Co-Convenor for SERA EY Network.  As if all of that isn’t enough – he is also an occasional writer for CriticalEarlyYears.org.  The purpose of Shaddai’s session was to reflect on the need to keep childhood political mobilizing Paulo Freire’s oft-cited phrase that ‘the educator has the duty of not being neutral.  It focused on our responsibilities as educators in promoting social justice and challenging inadequacies against innocent childhoods, toward political childhoods, with claims and realistic cases and by challenging how we are keeping our cohort childhoods political.  

Our final contribution came from Alistair Bryce-Clegg from ABC Does and he brought Curious Capital to our attention.  Citing Pierre Bourdieu’s definition of Culture Capital as ‘the knowledge that serves as currency that helps us navigate culture and alters our experiences and the opportunities available to us’ we need to now extend that and afford them an opportunity to be co-operative, committed, curious, confident, creative, imaginative, show perseverance and resilience and can reflect.  Alistair’s basic mantra is to enable children to get outside, climb trees, jump in puddles, throw snowballs and have fun learning rather than being constrained indoors by adult led activities.  He firmly advocates actively invoking the Characteristics of Effective Learning will allow our children to become independent, happy and socially mobile children that are ready for the challenges that lay ahead in ‘big school’ and beyond.

The Senior Leadership and Management Team at Kidzrus Group really enjoyed the morning’s session.  It was informative and thought provoking, reassuring and allayed any fears that may have been present beforehand.  We would like to thank the guest speakers for sharing their experiences and the Ofsted panel for their expert guidance.  We take away so much information that will allow us to build on and improve our practice and look forward to the next session.

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