The sector has called into question the effectiveness of Ofsted’s inspection regime following a TV report revealing safeguarding and health and safety failings at a nursery rated Good.
While the Good Morning Britain report ‘Are nurseries safe?’ (see box) received criticism from the sector for failing to paint a ‘true picture’ of the standard of provision across the whole sector, it has sparked debate about whether the inspection regime needs overhauling.
In a discussion thread on Nursery World’s LinkedIn group, early years providers, practitioners and consultants argue that the time between inspections and the removal of checks by Ofsted on nursery managers makes it easy for low-quality providers to continue to operate, putting children at risk. They also claim that the reduction in local authority support for early years settings is a contributing factor.
Nurseries and childminders used to be inspected at least every two years, but this was extended to every three years in 2005, and four years in 2008. More recently, in 2014, Ofsted extended the length of time new settings are inspected post-registration from six months to within 30 months.
A number of providers have indicated that they give no value to Ofsted inspection grades. Tom Shea, owner of Child First Nurseries, told Nursery World, ‘There are too many ways providers can get around not providing high-quality provision. It is easy to correctly fill in the paperwork that Ofsted requires.
‘The notion that your next four (or more in many cases) years are to be based upon an inspection – pre-warned, by an agency that has this as its secondary interest (getting fees for inspection and doing it profitably is their first) –and what is happening on that day is at least offensive and, seeing Good Morning Britain, potentially dangerous.
‘Let’s stop defending poor practice – either change it or close it. I do not believe that all practice is great, that everyone in the sector really does care, that there aren’t people doing this as a way of making lots of money.’
Writing in the discussion thread on LinkedIn, Richard Bennett, owner of the Old Barn Day Nursery in Banstead, said Ofsted does nothing to fill the sector or parents with confidence that the inspection process is worthwhile.
‘It was much better when the council’s inspection and registration unit was responsible for nurseries because the inspector attended each setting regularly, knew the children, and knew the manager and staff well. Constructive criticism led to sustained improvement. Now, Ofsted comes in once in four/five years and makes a subjective judgement that lasts for another four/five years.
‘Ofsted appear to have no objective criteria that they are prepared to share with the sector, no tick-box evaluation sheet that we can all see; indeed, nothing that would give the sector or the parents any confidence that the whole exercise is worthwhile.
‘Ofsted and the inspection regime are not fit for purpose and achieve nothing worthwhile for the sector. The whole process needs to be scrapped now and a new system put in its place.’
Former Ofsted inspector and managing director of training company Influential Childcare, Debbie Alcock (pictured), has suggested that Ofsted should carry out annual regulatory checks of early years settings.
She said, ‘Annual regulatory inspections could help, as providers would know what they had to do to improve quicker. It would also mean they wouldn’t be left so long for something awful to happen to a child or the rot is too deeply embedded for change to occur.’
However, Peter Elfer, author and principal lecturer in early childhood studies at University of Roehampton, claims that since Ofsted took over the regulation of early years settings in 2000, there has been a ‘significant’ improvement in safety.
He said, ‘Generally physical safety of nurseries has got much better since Ofsted took over. Staff are extremely vigilant about children not getting hurt. While it is rare for things to go wrong, there are, however, rogue nurseries and staff.
‘But there’s a different risk that’s got more difficult and that’s the anxiety of staff getting emotionally close to children. Staff want to get close to those in their care, but it is risky to them. For example, holding a child for too long can be at best seen as inappropriate and at worst a safeguarding concern.’
A spokesperson for Ofsted said, ‘We do recognise the concerns highlighted by recent media reports and we are open to feedback from the sector. It is important to communicate that it is the Department for Education – not Ofsted – which creates legislation; we inspect against government policy.
‘We believe the current system of inspection in which we risk-assess all pieces of information we receive about individual early years settings is much stronger than in the past.
‘Ofsted is one part of a wider system in place to safeguard children. Inspectors simply cannot be in every setting, every day, neither would that recognise the excellent work done in many settings. We inspect to a cycle but we also carry out inspections within cycles when we have reason to believe that a setting has declined in quality. This includes frequent no-notice inspections of early years settings we have judged less than Good and on occasion where we have been passed information on settings that are Good or better.
‘We are currently in the process of bringing our early years inspections in-house. This will allow us even tighter control over the inspection process.’
Broadcast a fortnight ago, the Good Morning Britain report on ITV, ‘Are Nurseries Safe?’, was based upon an undercover investigation into one nursery, along with interviews with whistle-blowers, parents and ‘experts’.
The nursery, rated Good by Ofsted, was found to be employing staff without carrying out DBS checks, and failing to adequately supervise children and follow healthy and safety procedures.
The report also suggested a ‘catalogue of injuries’ at nurseries across the UK, including burns, head injuries and broken bones, and quoted figures claiming that five nursery workers are reported to authorities every day for being a potential danger to children.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said, ‘Headlines like “Are nurseries safe?” paint a grossly unfair and negative picture of the early years sector.’