Unpicking Ofsted reports, part 8: vulnerable children

When it comes to vulnerable children, how should settings approach areas such as assessment and planning and performance management, asks Pennie Akehurst

In the spring term, the four top trending areas for Ofsted recommendations were:

  • assessment and planning systems
  • the quality and consistency of teaching and learning
  • monitoring and self-evaluation systems
  • performance management.

It is therefore worth taking some time to consider the issues that sit under these areas with vulnerable children in mind.

Assessment and planning systems
Typical criticism:

  • Staff do not accurately assess what children know, understand and can do, so next steps in learning are often inappropriate or mismatched.

We cannot underestimate how important it is for all staff to have sound child development knowledge and an understanding of how children learn. If we are going to effectively meet the needs of all children, we need to understand what typical development looks like. Without these solid foundations, there are likely to be delays in identifying when children aren’t meeting developmental norms.

Staff also need to understand the community that they serve. This knowledge must go beyond merely identifying a child as part of a vulnerable group such as children with social care involvement, children accessing a two-year-old place or children whose primary language is not English. The whole staff team needs to understand the characteristics of each group and what these could potentially mean for development. For many practitioners this will involve introducing reports and literature that they may not have considered before – 1001 Critical Days, information on adverse childhood experiences and even older research such as Graham Allen’s report on early intervention, for example. In some cases, it may mean that staff need to access training about specific cultures or religious groups or on particular educational needs.

The quality and consistency of teaching and learning
Typical criticisms were:

  • Staff do not consistently plan challenging activities to move children on.
  • Staff do not establish children’s levels of achievement, interests and how children learn promptly on entry, to identify clear and accurate starting points.

Being part of a vulnerable group doesn’t necessarily mean that you are vulnerable. Initial conversations with parents/carers will help us to start to plan to meet needs and interests, but it is crucial that we develop trusting relationships with our parents, not only because they will have valuable information about their child’s development; developing trusting relationships means that we are more likely to be kept in the loop about things that are happening at home, things that may cause children to worry, get angry, feel sad or affect how safe a child feels.

Monitoring and evaluation systems
Typical recommendations were:

  • review and improve ways to accurately monitor information about the progress of different groups of children more effectively to ensure they all make good progress
  • improve the effectiveness of monitoring of children’s progress to successfully reduce any gaps in their learning.

In many of the reports that I reviewed, inspectors acknowledge that there were tracking systems in place, but highlight that data is either inaccurate or that data wasn’t being used consistently to understand where there are gaps in learning and where progress is slower for both individuals and vulnerable groups.

Without monitoring systems that enable us to review the accuracy of staff observations and assessments, we cannot guarantee the quality of our tracking data. If we are unsure whether our data is accurate then we won’t be able to identify gaps in learning with certainty.

It is therefore imperative that we find the time to observe staff working with children and to sample observations, assessments and next steps to ensure that the assessments made by practitioners are precise and present a rounded picture of what children know, understand and can do. Only then will we have reliable tracking information that can be analysed to better understand what is happening for our vulnerable groups, and the make-up of our community will determine which groups we need to focus on.

Performance management

Typical recommendations were to:

  • implement effective systems for supervision and coaching to support staff in their ongoing professional development and promote consistently good-quality teaching and learning.  
  • use effective supervision to target inconsistencies in the quality of teaching and ensure all staff receive consistent support, coaching and training.

All of the areas above will influence our conversations with practitioners. We’ll highlight gaps in knowledge, skills and training, but we can also focus on individual children whose progress is slower than their peers’, for example.

This will provide an opportunity to respectfully question the plans practitioners have put in place to take children’s learning forward and to redirect thinking if we feel children aren’t receiving an appropriate level of challenge.

But it might also be worth considering the knowledge that our practitioners have about vulnerable groups. What do you do to ensure that staff have the knowledge and skills needed to work with vulnerable children?

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

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