The IPPR report, Early Developments, concludes that ‘Ofsted is not always the best judge of early years quality, particularly for the youngest children, and functions primarily as an inspector rather than a supporter of quality improvement’. These flaws in the current system could further undermine quality if, as proposed, the local authority duty to provide training is cut, leaving ‘Ofsted as the sole arbiter of quality’.
‘Weakening local authorities will leave a gap which Ofsted cannot comfortably fill,’ notes the report. Such a gap ‘risks stalling or even derailing the continuing improvement of the workforce, as boosting quality will require training, development and professional interaction as well as monitoring.’
As evidence of Ofsted’s weakness as an assessor, the report points to the Daycare Trust study, which found a broad alignment between Ofsted and ECERS scores in better-performing centres but no significant overlap between Ofsted grades and ITERS-R scores.
In Ofsted’s failings as a driver of quality, the report notes that settings often consider ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ scores ‘not as a minimum standard, but as an indication that they need make no further improvements’, making it difficult for local authority advisers to promote best practice. The assessment categories, it also concludes, are ‘so broad that they operate more as a traffic-light snapshot of performance than as an indicator of best practice’.
As well as assessing revised Ofsted scores against ECERS and incorporating elements of these scales into Ofsted inspection criteria, the report also recommends: ‘Placing a duty on Ofsted to train inspectors specifically in early years practice, and ensuring that they fully understand different types of early years settings’ and ‘Considering developing Ofsted’s role by publishing school-readiness scores by provider, and drawing up more finely-graded Ofsted scores, with suggested action points in detailed feedback.’
Reponding to the criticism, an Ofsted spokesperson said, 'It is hard to understand how the IPPR can produce an informed report without talking to us, or observing an inspection. That said, we agree that a child’s early years are vital in building a secure foundation for future success. That is why Ofsted is playing its role in improving early education and care by getting tougher on weaker providers.
'Only provision that is good or outstanding is good enough for young children. So from November the satisfactory judgement will be replaced by "requires improvement" and "inadequate" settings are likely to be reinspected after six months.
'Our early years inspectors are fully trained experts and whilst there is always room for improvement we believe the public can have confidence in our inspection judgements.'
TEN EVIDENCE-BASED LESSONS
The criticism of Ofsted is one of ten evidence-based lessons for policymakers outlined in the report, which also sets out some concrete measures ‘which are easily implementable in the short term, but which could be of great benefit to the next generation of children throughout their lives’.
1 Children under 12 months old - Young infants need affection, stability and responsive communication, which is best provided through financially supported parental leave policies and key-worker care.
2 Children aged 8–22 months — Young toddlers need low child-to-adult ratios, with warm, predictable interactions. It is more important that childcare professionals have experience, a good grasp of English and sector-specific training than it is that they have high levels of formal education
3 Children aged 18–36 months - The cognitive development of older toddlers is best met in lower-ratio group provision, though this could involve a trade-off with poor behavioural outcomes in formal care.
4 Children aged 30–50 months - For pre-school age children, formal group care provided by professionals with high-level, childcare-related qualifications should be prioritised above small group sizes.
5 Graduate staff - Graduates, particularly those with degree-level qualifications in childcare, drive up the quality of early-years settings for children and staff. But the impact is greatest where they spend a substantial amount of time directly interacting with children.
6 Duration of care - Duration of care in months matters more than the number of hours per week: it is more beneficial for children to access care at a younger age than to have more hours in care later.
7 Avoiding ‘schoolification’ - Despite the focus on education outcomes, beware of the ‘schoolification’ of content and practice. Adopting school-type learning too young can be detrimental to development
8 The role of Ofsted - Ofsted is not always the best judge of early years quality, particularly for the youngest children, and functions primarily as an inspector rather than a supporter of quality improvement.
9 Promoting equality in childcare provision - Open-to-all, mixed provision can have the greatest positive impact on development, but currently the least affluent are doubly disadvantaged by being less likely to access care, and more likely to experience low-quality care.
10 Improving the home learning environment - Childcare which has a positive influence on the home learning environment has the greatest impact on development.
In light of these lessons, the report concludes Government policy for early years education and care should:
- prioritise qualifications and ratios to meet age-related developmental priorities
- use funding mechanisms to boost uptake by the most disadvantaged children in high-quality care settings
- ensure monitoring and assessment reflects best developmental practice
- build the professional infrastructure, and accountability and support structures, that is necessary to drive quality.
Early developments: Bridging the gap between evidence and policy in early-years education forms part of IPPR’s ‘Childcare: A strategic national priority?’ project.