To the Point - Restrain the beast

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Nancy Stewart is concerned about the extent of Ofsted's changing role and powers

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Few look forward to the day Ofsted calls. There is more reason now to be deeply worried by developments that will increase its role when it is already far too powerful. It is like a hungry tiger, roaming the early years landscape and gobbling up things that should be left to others. It's time to put Ofsted back in its cage.

Ofsted is meant to be an inspection agency, maintaining a register that ensures that legal requirements are met. And yet the current intention is for inspectors to pay little heed to welfare requirements. Meeting basic standards for children's well-being should be assured - parents need to know that this is a regulated and inspected area.

But the Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, thinks Ofsted does more than inspect. He has great ambitions for sorting out education from birth onward. So Ofsted is establishing a regional structure to challenge local authority work, basically replacing the former National Strategies. It intends to have a role in quality improvement, with regional 'improvement seminars' for early years settings and a reduced role in quality improvement for local authorities.

And now Sir Michael seems to think Ofsted can replace processes like the Tickell review and consultation across the sector to become the policy shaper for early years assessment.

There are clear dangers here. An inspecting body loses its impartiality if it is also the improvement body. And Ofsted is as ill-suited to advise on improving quality as on policy. Its emphasis on basic skills betrays a lack of understanding of early years learning, where evidence shows it is not pushing early attainment but supporting how children learn that pays off in the end.

Ofsted could inspect whether settings are meeting the statutory EYFS requirements on a pass-fail basis. It could indicate whether settings are allowed to be open, and perhaps also report on children's progress based on outcomes.

It is when Ofsted enters the arena of how the requirements are met that difficulties arise. Quality is a notoriously slippery matter, and Ofsted is such an unreliable judge of quality that it certainly should not become the sole arbiter. Inspectors have been known to lay down their personal laws on all aspects of provision and practice, undermining the sector, which nervously tries to second-guess the next high-stakes inspection.

Rather than Ofsted unilaterally deciding its role and remit, we need a full debate on the best way to take forward issues of regulation and quality improvement.

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