Quality assurance is a buzzword that needs examining, says Alison Mercer
Quality assurance schemes aim to boost standards by helping early years providers help themselves. They encourage staff to assess their own practice, compare it with the standards they aspire to and develop accordingly. At best, such schemes prompt childcarers to ask themselves what quality is and help them achieve it, increasing job satisfaction by supporting a questioning, reflective and involved approach.
Self-evaluation is a key part of quality assurance (QA), but typically schemes also offer mentoring and support, external assessment and accreditation. From a pessimistic viewpoint, staff who are already heavily scrutinised by Ofsted and Social Services inspections may feel QA is an additional burden - although many have willingly embraced it at their own expense.
Margaret Lochrie, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance (PLA), agrees. 'I think there's an issue in that settings already have to submit to inspections from Ofsted and Social Services. They have to be fairly motivated to voluntarily do something else,' she says. Nevertheless, the motivation is unquestionably there. Ms Lochrie adds that there has recently been an upsurge of interest in the PLA's quality scheme which was established about 10 years ago.
There are an increasing number of schemes available. Early Years Development and Childcare Partnerships, which have been asked to consider QA in their plans for next year, face some tough choices. One of their options is to support sector-specific schemes. The National Day Nurseries' Association is to launch its QA scheme, which was developed with support from the Department for Education and Employment, in May. There are already QA schemes for playgroups, childminders and out-of-school clubs, run by the Pre-School Learning Alliance, National Childminding Association and Kids' Clubs Network respectively.
As of last autumn, there is also a generic scheme suitable for use in a range of sectors, marketed in England and Wales by the Centre for British Teachers (CfBT) and adapted from one developed for the Scottish Independent Nurseries Association by Glasgow University. Partnerships could also promote the Investors in People award, which, although not a specialist daycare scheme, encourages a positive attitude to management - arguably a crucial stage in starting to improve quality. Finally, some partnerships have decided to develop their own quality assurance schemes for all providers.
Inevitably these different strategies will create a patchwork of varying approaches across the country. Peter Williams, an early years consultant who worked on the Kids' Clubs Network QA scheme for out-of-school clubs, called Aiming High, is currently developing a plan to roll out the NDNA scheme across the country. He says, 'Some partnerships are very positive, others don't want the national schemes near them and say that if nurseries want to do this scheme, it's up to them.'
Meanwhile, there is a feeling that some partnerships are uncertain about the best way forward. Maria Jones, early years manager for the CfBT, observes, 'I feel some are holding back and not taking the plunge.'
Partnerships which have decided to develop their own QA schemes include Leeds, Bristol and Sheffield. Christine Goldsack, quality assurance and training officer for Sheffield Young Children's Service, explains that the scheme is part of an overall strategy in the city for improving quality. Sheffield had looked at external schemes but felt some tended to be 'too tick-boxey', she says. Early years training and quality co-ordinator Janet Hassall observes, 'All of the quality assurance schemes ask practitioners to be self-evaluative, and there are practitioners who need support and guidance in how to do that.
You can't self-evaluate without having certain organisational structures in place, and we have courses and mentoring in place to help them get to the point where they can do that.'
There is also the question of expense. For example, Sheffield's scheme costs 90 per setting. The CfBT scheme costs 550 plus VAT. The NDNA scheme for private day nurseries will cost 'not more than 500'.
Qualifying the quality
So who assures the quality of a QA scheme? Professor Eric Wilkinson of Glasgow University, who developed the Scottish Independent Nurseries' Association scheme now being marketed by the CfBT, says the Department for Education and Employment should. 'The DfEE needs to make some pronouncements... I would be urging them to set up an accreditation process for a small number of schemes.'
Margaret Lochrie agrees. 'I think it would be a good idea if the DfEE would look at licensing some of these voluntary schemes. Licensing would be a way round the problem of having too many schemes.'
The DfEE is due to send out a Good Practice Guide to Quality and Training Strategies before Easter. However, this takes the line that it is down to partnerships to decide what to do. It says, 'A good way of ensuring continuous improvements is to encourage all local childcare providers to participate in quality assurance schemes.... A range of external quality assurance schemes are available and under development, including several partnership "kitemarks".
'Once the partnership has decided which scheme to promote, the next step is to make sure that providers are informed about quality assurance options, and supported to implement them - both financially and/or through development work.'
Dr Tony Munton of the Institute of Education's Thomas Coram Research Unit is currently carrying out a major research study into QA schemes for the DfEE, which will include a survey of 600 providers and analyse all the partnerships' plans. Interim results will be available after Easter and the final report is due in the summer. 'I think partnerships may come back to us and say, we want some guidance from someone as to which scheme we should go for. I think the DfEE will look at what providers say. We have got to be driven by the users,' Dr Munton says.
'It might be helpful if the DfEE were to provide a blueprint saying what the key features of a good quality assurance scheme would be. To go through each one and either accredit it or not might be possible, but given the speed at which these things are appearing at the moment it might be more practical for the DfEE to give some guidance on what's good.'
Meanwhile, he believes that providers are generally keen to adopt QA and see it as a way of improving standards. But they want support with the cost. 'The study will establish what the providers say they find most useful,' he says.
'It might be better to have plurality than only one particular scheme for each provider - horses for courses. Hopefully the report will say something about the kinds of schemes that are most useful for different types of provision.'
Winning them over
Mog Ball, a researcher, Sure Start advisor and author of Evaluation in the Voluntary Sector (1988), pinpoints the origins of QA in 1960s business practices and suggests that this is why it is a challenge, however worthwhile, for childcare providers to apply it. She explains, 'In business practice, the approach is, are we making enough of these things, do they work, are we making enough money? By the mid-1980s, business practice had a great influence on social programmes. The difficulty was, how do you look at the practice of a social programme in material terms - how do you measure what you are doing?
'I think the basic principle is that once you have recognised that you need to look at whether a thing works well, you are halfway there.'
She adds, 'It's actually much more about hearts and minds than about apparatus.
Unless you involve the people who are doing the work, they will simply go through the motions, resent it, and see it as extra bureaucracy, and it won't make a blind bit of difference. It's good for making you reflect on practice, but doing it slavishly can poison what you are doing.'
Quality assurance contacts
- National Day Nurseries Association Rosemary Murphy or Karen Walker on 01484 541 641
- Centre for British Teachers
Maria Jones 0118 952 3947
- Kids' Clubs Network 020 7512 2112
- National Childminding Association
020 8464 6164
- Pre-School Learning Alliance
020 7833 0991
- Sheffield Quality Kitemark
Christine Goldsack 0114 265 0319
- Scottish Independent Nurseries
Association 0141 762 0080
- Investors in People
Head office 020 7467 1900