When BBC One's programme Nurseries Undercover: The Real Story filmed children being pulled around by the arm and called 'minger' and 'imbecile', it ignited widespread fear and paranoia about the state of the nation's nurseries. Even for those who took a more measured view, this was a worrying indictment of nursery regulation in the UK.
One year on, Ofsted is attempting to raise the bar. As a result of a consultation with the sector in the wake of the documentary, it is steaming ahead with no-notice inspections. Settings now live with the knowledge that an inspector can call at virtually any time.
Additional pressure comes with the realisation that when the momentous event occurs, it will not be a routine run-through of various checks.
Nurseries are now required to show they are meeting four of the five outcomes for children contained in Every Child Matters - 'being healthy', 'staying safe', 'enjoying and achieving' and 'making a positive contribution'.
Undoubtedly much thought and preparation is needed to ensure that even the best nurseries do justice to their practice when it comes to demonstrating these facets.
And this is precisely the point over which some settings are becoming stressed, as the Nursery World postbag has highlighted (see Letters, page 34). If a nursery is having a bad day or if unforeseen staffing contingencies mean that things are not running quite as they usually do, how can it be sure that it will secure the grading it may rightly deserve?
Others have countered strongly that it is only the weak settings, with poor standards and management, who are feeling beleaguered. As one reader writes, 'We all have days when things don't go according to plan. What inspectors want to see is how we handle those situations, whether the policies we have in force cover these issues adequately, and whether the management and staff are up to the challenge.'
But it is not just snap inspections that settings take issue with. Some suggest that Ofsted is struggling to cope with its expanded remit and that the sector is suffering as a result.
This is the view of Alice Sankey, head of the early years department at Bright Sparks Nursery at St Mary's College in Liverpool, who is crying out for an inspection. Hers was cancelled earlier in the year and has still not taken place.
She is unhappy with the idea that an inspector will arrive unannounced - not because she has anything to hide, but because she wants to be personally involved, as do all her staff.
'An inspection benefits our staff and their development, and also supplies valuable feedback to parents. We want to receive good comments so we can pass them on,' she says. 'But we have been without an Ofsted recommendation for the past academic year.'
One owner and manager of a day nursery argues by letter that the unannounced arrival of inspectors for a full inspection is impolite and impractical.
She writes, 'As a busy manager of a day nursery I have various commitments throughout the day - showing prospective parents around, meetings with clients, accountants, bank managers and training staff. Inspectors are not sympathetic at all to a problem day or the practical realities of staffing and running a day nursery.'
She suggests that Ofsted may be equipped to judge bad practice, but how efficient is it when it comes to gauging good practice? 'Let's face it, you will not get a full picture of everything that takes place in less than a day,' she says. 'It also frustrates me that nurseries do not have the right to reply to what the inspectors report.'
However, childminder Steve Whitewood begs to differ on this point, saying it is possible to have a constructive dialogue with Ofsted.
'We have always agreed with inspectors and found them hugely professional,'
he says. 'Where there have been queries we have written to them and received feedback.'
He adds, 'Ofsted is very transparent about what it is looking for and the five outcomes have been well publicised. Inspection reports are published on the web, so it should be straightforward for settings to check on what they need to do.'
Ofsted believes it has made its requirements clear to the sector. It has issued detailed guidance to registered settings and local authorities, and also by working closely with organisations such as the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) and the National Childminding Association (NCMA).
As a spokesperson for Ofsted points out, 'Under this new framework our inspectors are trained to inspect a setting from the perspective of "what is it like for a child here?"'
The NDNA also issued a briefing paper to its members in April, providing a link to the Ofsted publication Are you ready for inspection? and has been holding seminars, attended by an Ofsted representative.
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of NDNA, says, 'There are some settings which are nervous about on-the-spot inspections, but the majority of our members tell us they accept them and do not have a problem with them. With any change there will be some uncertainty and it will take time for the whole of the sector to feel completely at ease with the new inspection framework.'
Play Hut, in Darlington, is one nursery which is comfortable with the new system, although it corroborates the view that all staff like to be involved when an inspection takes place.
Proprietor Lindsay Long says of Play Hut's recent encounter with Ofsted, 'There was a lot of interaction with staff and they were told by the inspectors what they were doing well. It made them feel valued.'
Ms Long says her nursery was not in the least phased when inspectors turned up unannounced at 8.10am.
'We approached the situation by presenting our practice almost like a product - by this I mean showing written evidence of nursery life, much like working for an NVQ. We were able to provide them with a range of documentary evidence - from planning sheets, photographs of days out and letters written to parents. The inspectors were able to take this evidence away with them and this freed up their time to look at activities going on in the nursery that day.'
Childcare consultant Laura Henry emphasises that the current inspection system requires nurseries to think differently about how they present their practice, rather than necessarily making changes to the practice itself.
She emphasises that it boils down to terminology and suggests some settings may be panicking because they are not clear on how to show what they are doing effectively.
According to Ms Henry it should not be too difficult for settings to demonstrate they are achieving the five outcomes for children, even if this may appear daunting.
'It is possible for inspectors to make a clear judgement on all of these areas from a one-off inspection, but it is vital that settings have gathered their evidence,' she says. 'At the same time, inspectors also want to see staff positively interacting with parents and showing a commitment to working in partnership with them.'
Room for improvement
While some argue that Ofsted should adopt a more organised and systematic way of working - perhaps in the form of frequent, preliminary spot checks or annual evaluations - the NDNA highlights more insidious problems with the inspection process.
Purnima Tunuku says, 'The real issue lies with the fact that the new inspection framework is not equal for all providers of childcare. For example, nurseries which are attached to a school do still receive notice before inspection. The same applies to childminders and although this is for practical reasons - obviously, the inspector needs to know that the childminder will be at home - this still does not create a level playing field.'
She adds, 'A more serious issue has also arisen. If a nursery is inspected in the school holidays and there are three- to five-year-old children in attendance, so nursery education sessions are not being delivered, the maximum award a nursery can achieve is "satisfactory". Our members feel strongly that this is unfair.'
Few would disagree that these anomalies need to be ironed out in order to create the much desired 'level playing field', with a truly efficient system of inspection which accommodates a wide variety of settings.
If this can be done, the argument will continue to weigh in favour of snap inspections. In principle the sector has already endorsed them as the only way to banish the nightmare vision of Nurseries Undercover.
* 'A healthy approach' (Nursery World, 1 September 2005) by Laura Henry - the first in a series on inspections