Unpicking Ofsted Reports, part 7: Quality of teaching and learning

Pennie Akehurst, a former council head of early years and childcare, finds the common reasons why settings fall down on teaching and learning

In the spring term of this year, the quality and consistency of teaching and learning was the third most prevalent inspection issue. There was no single reason for this. Ofsted’s own judgements say there is commonly a need to:

  • ensure staff guide children’s learning and development through interaction that responds to each child’s emerging needs and interests
  • give older children more time to consider their responses to questions and to find their own ways to solve problems
  • improve large-group activities to better support children’s individual needs, especially the younger ones, to keep them engaged and motivated and review activities to make sure that they offer differentiation and challenge
  • make sure that every child benefits from a well-balanced mix of adult-led and self-initiated activities
  • ensure that staff complete regular and accurate assessments in order to plan appropriate next steps in learning
  • establish children’s levels of achievement, interests and learning styles promptly on entry, to identify clear and accurate starting points for their future learning.

I will now focus on the issues that I feel will make a significant difference.


Food for thought

Those of you who have worked in early years for quite a while will know that the content of early years qualifications has varied significantly over the years, with tremendous variation in what has been delivered under the heading of ‘child development’.

As the role of early years practitioners has become more demanding with a greater range of responsibilities, child development content seems to have been squeezed into shorter blocks of face-to-face delivery to make space for other equally important things, such as a more detailed understanding of safeguarding.

Understanding child development (how children learn and typical stages of development) is at the very core of everything we do. Without those solid foundations, some practitioners won’t have the depth of knowledge required to accurately assess what children know, understand and can do, which is likely to have the following consequences:

The judgements made about where a group of key children are in their learning and development is likely to be wrong, which means that next steps may not be appropriate.

If practitioners don’t understand typical development, they are unlikely to recognise children who may have particular developmental or learning needs.

Early safeguarding issues may be missed because of a lack of child development knowledge.

Overreliance on Development Matters

Practitioners who are less confident in their child development knowledge have relied heavily on Development Matters. This has gone unnoticed in many settings because when it was initially launched, we were encouraged to ‘Use Development Matters as part of your daily observation, assessment and planning’.

The document has therefore become an integral part of some recording systems and, over the years, this useful information has been reduced to statements which can be ‘ticked off’. This was never Early Education’s intention – they state clearly that, ‘When using Development Matters it is however important to remember that babies, toddlers and young children develop at their own rates and in their own ways. The development statements and their order are not necessary steps for every child and should not be used as checklists’ (see https://www.early-education.org.uk/development-matters).

A proprietor who has been quick to recognise this in her own staff is Sheila Worthington of First Steps in New Mills and Furniss Vale. ‘It got to the point that when I asked what a child’s next steps were, the staff member would just quote statements from Development Mattersback at me, but when I tried to unpick it further with them, there just wasn’t enough knowledge there.

‘Sometimes observations would be clearly showing where children needed to go to next, but the staff member would choose a gap they’d spotted in the Development Matters statements because it seemed more important,’ she says.

Ms Worthington decided to go back to basics with staff to make sure that every single staff member had an in-depth knowledge of child development and how children learn. The journey has been time-consuming but worthwhile as she now feels that there is a consistency of understanding across the team which has had a significant impact on the accuracy of observations and children’s next steps.

When asked about how she went about making the changes, she says, ‘We didn’t take Development Matters away from staff straight away. We spent a lot of time planning training on child development and even spent time in each of our rooms putting the training into practice by looking at the equipment and talking about why you would use it and what skill it helped to develop.

‘We use a whole range of tools and knowledge to assess and support children in their development, such as the different stages of child development, the Characteristics of Effective Learning, children’s emotional well-being and involvement in activities and development wheels.  All this knowledge is gained through observation of the children and fed into a development map, which then gives a very clear picture of the child to enable more accurate planning.  What we’ve done has been influenced by the work of people like Di Chilvers, Alistair Bryce-Clegg and even Mary Sheridan.’

Sheila’s staff still use Development Matters, but the difference is that they aren’t reliant on it, because every member of staff now knows what sits underneath those statements.

Pennie Akehurst is managing director of Early Years Fundamentals, www.eyfundamentals.org

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