Analysis: Settings raise concerns after bad inspection experiences - Nursery World survey

Katy Morton
Thursday, April 28, 2022

Respondents to our survey claim they have suffered intimidation and judgements made unfairly due to the impact of Covid and staffing problems. Katy Morton reports

A word cloud showing how downgrades affected nurseries
A word cloud showing how downgrades affected nurseries
  • Nursery World survey highlights respondents’ negative experiences of Ofsted inspections under the Education Inspection Framework (EIF).
  • Findings reveal the impact being downgraded has had, including losing funding, ‘tarnishing’ reputations and making staff demoralised.

New findings from a Nursery World survey reveal alleged instances of Ofsted inspectors intimidating nursery staff, being rude to parents, inspecting against the old EYFS and penalising settings for using bank staff or struggling to recruit, leaving nurseries ‘on edge’ and staff quitting their jobs.

Of the 162 nursery owners/managers that responded to Nursery World’s online survey on inspection under the new EIF, 30 per cent said they had been downgraded, with 74 per cent of these believing the judgement was not fair. Their reasons included an inspector referring to the old EYFS three weeks since the framework was updated, inspectors generally lacking understanding and empathy for the impact of Covid on children and staff, and judgements being based on new staff not knowing children well enough.

One nursery owner/manager said their inspector had mentioned ‘trying to catch them out’, while another inspector reportedly threatened to mark the setting down if staff questioned her guidance.

One respondent’s employees were expected to know the birthdays of various children whom the inspector pointed to, which she described as ‘very intimidating’.

It comes after an open letter to Ofsted last year, signed by 600 people, raised concern over claims of ‘harrowing’ and ‘confusing’ early years inspections. As Nursery World went to press, Early Education was due to meet with the inspectorate to discuss the concerns in the letter.

An Ofsted spokesperson told Nursery World it ‘does not set out to “catch staff out”’, and it ‘expects its inspectors to uphold the highest professional standards in their work and treat everyone they meet fairly, with respect and with sensitivity’.

Of those survey respondents who were downgraded, 66 per cent said they had made a formal complaint to Ofsted.

Findings from the survey, which ran from 1 to 11 April, show most respondents (61 per cent) were inspected within the last six to eight months and because an inspection was due (77 per cent of respondents). A total of 13 per cent received a complaint-driven inspection, while for 10 per cent it was a new registration inspection.

The majority (64 per cent) received a grade of Good, followed by Outstanding (19 per cent), Requires Improvement (10 per cent) and ‘inadequate’ (6 per cent).

However, Pennie Akehurst, managing director of Early Years Fundamentals, has previously stressed that recent data on grades is not ‘representative of the whole sector’ due to the backlog of inspections caused by Covid-19; this means the inspectorate has prioritised new registration visits, settings previously rated ‘inadequate’ or Requires Improvement, that had serious safeguarding concerns or were sitting on a judgement made six or more years ago.

For 57 per cent of respondents, their grade did not change from their prior judgement, while 13 per cent were upgraded and 30 per cent downgraded.

Of those downgraded, 54 per cent said it had an impact on their business; this included a loss of funding for 40 per cent of these nursery owners/managers. Many of those who said they had lost funding had received a Requires Improvement grade.

According to the Department for Education (DfE), early years settings judged as ‘inadequate’ remain eligible to claim funding until their local authority removes them from its directory of providers able to provide ‘free’ early education places.

Nursery World spoke separately to one nursery owner in London, whose setting was graded ‘inadequate’ in its first inspection due to a staffing crisis and has now lost its funding from the local authority. The owner wished to remain anonymous.

She said that ahead of the no-notice, complaint-driven inspection, it lost a new member of staff to another setting with less than 24 hours’ notice, while another had been involved in an accident that morning so was unable to come to work. A senior member of the team was able to step into ratios temporarily as an employee from another of the settings travelled across London to provide cover. However, the same senior member of staff left the room she was in to attend to the Ofsted inspector, putting them out of ratio.

While the EYFS allows early years settings to relax their ratios in ‘exceptional circumstances’, the nursery said the inspector told them the exemption did not apply in this case and marked them down.

Impact on business

Comments from respondents whose settings were downgraded by Ofsted highlight the negative impact it has had on the business including the morale of staff being affected, with some leaving their jobs due to the ‘trauma’ of the ‘inspection experience’, reputations of nurseries being ‘tarnished’ and children being taken out of settings.

One respondent commented, ‘We were Outstanding, which enabled us to lead the cost of fees in our local area. I could therefore always prioritise rewarding staff with strong salaries, attracting the best staff and keeping them, which raised outcomes for children.’

Another said, ‘I have had most of my funding cut. Staff have left due to stress and worry. The staff and myself are on edge with everything we do.’

One owner/manager said they had ‘resigned’ their registration with Ofsted, while another reported that the business had gone into ‘hibernation’ because it no longer had a ‘client base’.

PVIs vs schools

Survey respondents were also asked whether they believed PVI settings and schools are inspected fairly. A total of 65 per cent said no, while 35 per cent said yes.

Reasons given for this perceived disparity in inspections of early years in schools and maintained settings versus PVIs included PVI inspections being more intense, with more time spent in these settings, as well as more flexibility given to maintained and school settings.

One respondent said, ‘There seems to be more flexible understanding of issues (staffing/Covid) in schools than PVIs.’

Staffing pressures

The National Day Nurseries Association said it was ‘very worried about the seeming lack of empathy and understanding displayed by some inspectors’, stressing Ofsted must ‘support providers, not punish them’.

Chief executive Purnima Tanuku said, ‘Although shocking, sadly these survey findings are not surprising.

‘We have heard numerous examples of nurseries being downgraded because of staffing pressures and directly due to Covid cases, even though these are out of their control. Considering the staffing crisis, Ofsted needs to provide more clarity on the existing flexibilities in the EYFS and trust the professional judgement and experience of providers.

‘We are very worried about the seeming lack of empathy and understanding displayed by some inspectors. Inspection activity must be proportional, being mindful of pressures nurseries are under. The regulator has an important job, but it must support providers who are aiming to improve outcomes for their children, not punish them.

‘Such a high proportion of settings feeling they have not been treated fairly does indicate that Ofsted needs to look at how its inspections are carried out and reform its complaints process so that providers have more confidence to appeal judgements.’

An Ofsted spokesperson commented, ‘We know that children do best when they experience high-quality education and care in their early years. Our EIF inspections look closely at what it is like to be a child in an early years setting, focusing on how well the setting enables children to progress and develop. We make judgements after considering all the evidence available and take decisions without fear or favour.

‘If a provider feels a judgement is unfair, or they are unhappy with how an inspector behaved, then we would encourage them to contact us about that.’

The inspectorate suggested that survey respondents ‘heavily’ represented ‘lower grade’ settings within the sector as overall, 97 per cent of early years providers are rated Good or better.

CASE STUDY: Mulberry Bush Bitterne Park

Mulberry Bush Bitterne Park in Southampton received a complaint-driven inspection in February and was downgraded to Requires Improvement largely due to challenges faced in recruiting and retaining high-quality staff.

It is one of two settings operated by TMB Day Nurseries.

Co-owners Rachael Thomson, Oliver Thomson and Holly Smith said, ‘It has reached crisis point during and post the Covid pandemic. As with many other providers, we have at times struggled to be able to simply staff the settings from day-to-day due to employee sickness, especially around mental health, and many leaving not only the nurseries, but often the industry. As a result, we have had to review how we offer childcare across our nurseries during this crisis period. We have pulled staff from our other settings to be able to meet statutory requirements and remain open.’

The trio said that at the beginning of the year they decided to review their remuneration packages for the third time in 12 months. They said the move had proved successful with more high-quality staff joining the settings and fewer leaving, but the Ofsted inspection came before many of the new employees had joined the team due to needing to work their notice periods.

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