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A response to HMCI's comments on the quality of early childhood education

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Thursday, 2 November, 2017

When HM Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, spoke recently to the Education Select Committee, one has to assume that she wasn't heeding the seasonal instructions about handling incendiary objects with care.  With more than a whiff of her predecessor's ability to court controversy, she said:

Very broadly, our view on early years is that the looking after children side is pretty good; the education side is not quite so strong. In my commentary, we cover the early years. We have found that the EYFS, against which we have to inspect because it is the statutory framework that all early years providers are working to—childminders, nurseries and so on—is not as strong as it should be. Full compliance with the framework still does not mean that children are well prepared for primary education. We are going to be reporting on that pretty shortly, so I hope we will see some raising of expectations on the education side.

The early years sector, unsurprisingly has been reacting to at least three aspects of this statement:

  1. the suggestion that the quality of early education in the sector is less good than the caring aspects of provision
  2. the allegation that the EYFS is weak and not up to the job
  3. the claim that the job of the EYFS is to prepare children for primary school

At the risk of similarly ignoring seasonal safety advice and returning to a lit firework, I want to pick up on the first of these.  (The others are equally important and deserve to be covered separately). However, I will start by saying that I think the sector should be unafraid of having an open discussion about what we mean by quality in this context, and be willing to open up to scrutiny some of the structural factors which are acting as barriers to quality at present.  There have been huge strides made in improving the quality of provision in the sector, and it is not denigrating practitioners, settings or the sector to acknowledge that this is a continuing journey.  By engaging with Ofsted, and with politicians, on these questions we can move towards a shared understanding of what high quality early education means, how policies can promote and incentivise it, and how Ofsted can be an effective means of quality enhancement rather than just a guarantor of threshold standards.

At a time when Ofsted ratings of the early years sector are at an all time high, with 93% of settings graded as Good or Outstanding, it may seem odd to be questioning the quality of early childhood education in the sector.  So let's reflect on why HMCI might have done so:

  1. We know that the highest quality early years provision is effective at reducing or eliminating the attainment gap between groups of children, and yet the EYFS Profile data nationally still shows persistent gaps based on factors such as socio-economic background, gender, SEND and geographical location. Amanda Spielman's comments at the Committee were directly in response to Lucy Powell's question about the apparent mismatch between Ofsted's assessments of quality and children's outcomes at the end of the EYFS.  This may be an uncomfortable question, but we should not duck it.
  2. Research has shown that Ofsted grades are not particularly good at measuring quality in a way that correlates with improved outcomes for children, so it should come as no great surprise that a rise in success against Ofsted's criteria does not necessarily lead settings to improve those aspects of quality which improve children's outcomes. Ms Spielman seemed to suggest that Ofsted was constrained in how it could assess the sector by the statutory nature of the EYFS.  I would suggest that does not mean that the EYFS should change, but rather that the requirements on Ofsted should.

Internationally, we see two approaches to trying to create a high quality system of early childhood education. One is to have a workforce of graduate teachers and/or pedagogues who have the professional training required to deliver high quality provision based on their professional expertise (the approach taken in most of Northern Europe).  The alternative approach (followed in England) is to have a much more detailed written specification of the curriculum and how to deliver it. This may appeal to policy makers as it - superficially at least - reduces the cost of the workforce by requiring a much reduced level of qualifications, and hence wages.  The problem is that education is not a production line, practitioners are not machines and children are not widgets.  It is not realistic to think that the existence of a written curriculum can produce a uniform experience.  

It would be simplistic and untrue to say that graduate practitioners provide higher quality provision than level 3 qualified staff - a much more complex mix of factors comes into play.  The evidence of recent SEED research about the importance of childminders' experience as well as their qualifications, for example, is worth bearing in mind. Nevertheless, there is evidence that graduates and teachers have a key role in driving up quality of provision in a way which impacts on outcomes.  The differences in quality between the maintained and non-maintained sectors in the areas of greatest deprivation come down largely to staff qualifications - schools have to employ teachers, and have to offer education as a public service, not dependent on whether there is a viable local market. 

Despite the evidence that qualifications correlate with quality, neither Ofsted criteria nor national funding mechanisms take this factor  into account.  The hard reality is that having a better qualified workforce would cost more - though as more recent SEED research showed, it would be a more cost effective investment than increasing the number of hours early education each child received.

Ultimately, this is one reason that we should not be afraid of opening up a dialogue about the quality of early childhood education in England. We need policy makers to understand that the most significant impact on quality and outcomes will not come from tinkering with the curriculum or inspection criteria, nor increasing the number of hours of provision for a subsection of the population.  If politicians want to make a difference, especially to the most disadvantaged children, they don't need to spend more, they just need to retarget investment to raise the qualification profile of the workforce, and ensure that pay and conditions across the sector ensure retention of that expertise.