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Early Years 2012 Conference: June 19th, 2012

Sarah Teather, Minister of State for Children and Families, gave the keynote address, focusing on families in the early years. She has commissioned new research on affordability and availability of high quality provision. Working with Maria Miller, she will be particularly interested in childcare for school age children, and she outlines how difficult it often is for parents with a school age child and a pre-school age child. How do they match up dropping off and collecting times effectively?

Ms Teather emphasised that quality is the key objective to the present government, and, she said, "The reason I am in politics". High quality early years provision makes a huge difference to a child's life chances, particularly in areas of social deprivation. She wants to see stronger career pathways, which are essential to social mobility. "You hold their future; you have the power to shape not just their lives but the whole of society". She stressed the crucial role the early years workforce plays, confirming that "the sector has huge, huge skills". She wants to see "A strong sector, a confident sector, a professional sector, which is no more than our children deserve".

In answering a question regarding the observation that NVQ level 2 is the average qualification of practitioners working with the under 2s, Ms Teather said that the most qualified person in the setting should be working with the children who need it most. This is very often the babies and toddlers, where early quality interaction is essential.

Liz Bayram, Joint Chief Executive of the NCMA, considered how to increase capacity whilst still ensuring quality. Local authorities are in the process of changing the parameters that will permit childminders to offer the free entitlement. She said she believed the reformed EYFS is less burdensome, yet more and more skills are being demanded of childminders, for example, being able to complete the 2 year progress check. Ms Bayram stated that many would need support in this.

Pilots have been carried out in several authorities, for example, Hampshire, where 20% of childminders currently offer the free entitlement. The parameters set by this LA are that the childminder must have achieved a level 3, and their Ofsted report must be good or outstanding. Across LAs there are various support mechanisms, for example bursaries to achieve level 3 and fast track routes to level 3. The biggest barrier still appears to be that the childminder receives lower rates once the two year old turns three, and this is clearly a disincentive. Why should childminders go through all this and then earn less than doing their "day job" (Liz's words, not mine).

Childminders who have had Ofsted inspections recently (part of the pilot new inspection framework) have said that inspections have focused much more on the child's experiences and not paperwork. Good news for all! She felt the recent news regarding childminders being inspected possibly as a network was wrong, and that each childminder should have, and would want to have, individual accountability. She ended by claiming that it would be a very different landscape for childminders two years from now.

Ann Gross (Director, Early Years, Extended Schools and SEN, Department of Education) gave a brief overview of recent successes, for example the reformed EYFS and the two year entitlement, and reminded everyone that the outcomes from the payment by results and EYFSP trials would be published in the autumn. Her colleague, Sue Robb (Head of Early Years, 4Children) emphasised that quality provision is key; "That's what delivers the outcomes for children- especially our most disadvantaged children". Referring to the reformed EYFS, she said that opportunities have arisen to reflect on and revisit assessment systems and structures. She said that when observing children, we should now be taking into account the characteristics of effective learning, and including this information in written records; eg, what the children have learned and how. Talking about Ofsted inspections, she said practitioners should be able to articulate the good practice that goes on in our settings; to be proactive in celebrating our successes. She said we should evaluate our systems and make sure they are not too burdensome. But more important than this, "Is every child making the progress they are entitled to make?"

Liz Elsom (Divisional Manager Early Years and Childcare, Ofsted) began her talk by confirming that the new inspection framework will be in operation from September 2012. She reviewed the foci of purpose of inspections to date, for example, to protect children; to ensure providers meet legal requirements; to improve outcomes for children through actions and recommendations; to promote high quality care; to reassure parents. From September 2012, the foci will be on rigorous registration- to minimise risks to children; to allow more autonomy to providers to manage their own service, for example the numbers of children, or whether they are able to provide overnight care. She said that all the information was obtainable from the EYFS and that providers should be perfectly able to work it out for themselves.

Where Ofsted receive concerns about provision, full inspections will be carried out, where the concerns will be examined within the context of the level of quality of the setting overall. The responsibility of ensuring suitability of setting managers lies with employers, not Ofsted.

Inspection focus will be on PSED and the progress of learning, including how the setting supports different groups of children, for example, babies, or children with EAL. Settings will need to identify the different needs of individual children and of groups of children, so that they may be supported to make the best possible progress.

The effectiveness of leadership and management in monitoring the quality of provision and in meeting safeguarding and welfare requirements will also be a primary focus of inspections.

There will continue to be four grades of judgements- outstanding, good, satisfactory and inadequate (1 and 2). There will be a consultation on changing "satisfactory" to "adequate: requires improvement". Liz Elsom put forward the view that settings that were "stubbornly satisfactory" (ie satisfactory at several subsequent inspections) might be more inclined to improve with this new title of category. Ms Elsom described these settings as "they put something right, only to drop something else". She talked of the possibility of a setting which has successive "satisfactory" inspections of being judged "inadequate" if there has been no improvement between inspections.

The inspection process will be flexible, and the proposed timetable will depend on the size of the setting and the opening hours. There will be a meeting with the manager and the registered provider. There will be less focus on paperwork, and more on observing practice. Settings will be able to nominate one member of staff (perhaps the EYP) to conduct a simultaneous observation of practice, alongside the inspector. This will make clear what the inspector is seeing and how s/he makes judgements through collecting evidence. There will be a dialogue between the inspector and this nominated person about the emerging findings, so that the final judgement, given at feedback, will come as no surprise.

Referring to the two year progress check, Ms Elsom stated that most checks will be carried out in settings, although by 2015, they will be integrated with Health Visitors' checks. If a child does not attend an early years setting, then the health visitor would carry out the check and complete the paperwork.

Cathy Nutbrown (Professor of Education, University of Sheffield) launched her final report on the Review on Early Education and Childcare Qualifications. She began her talk by saying that she was "impressed by the sheer level of commitment" within the early years workforce. The focus of her report was, again, quality; that qualifications should be of a high standard and meet the needs of all learners. She emphasised that we need a new long term vision for the early years workforce because "staff determine good quality". The training should be robust, with the right blend of theoretical knowledge and practical skills.

Professor Nutbrown stated that practitioners must have the skills to work with infant pedagogies, because "learning begins from birth" and high quality early communication with babies is essential. She referred to the EPPE project, summarising the evidence that highly qualified staff offer better outcomes for children.

Discussing the current qualifications available, she said that the market is overpopulated with hundreds of qualifications, which are confusing and often not fit for purpose. Many cannot equip the workforce with the knowledge and skills necessary. She listed essential components of an early years qualification:

  • Child development theory
  • Special Educational Needs and Disability
  • Inclusion and Diversity
  • Covering the age range birth to seven

Professor Nutbrown has recommended that level 3 be the minimum for everyone working within the early years, by 2022. At this, the auditorium applauded loudly! She responded by saying that it is essential to raise the expectations of the workforce and that she was recommending practitioners must have achieved at least a level 2 in English and Maths prior to entry onto a level 3 qualification pathway.

Turning her attention to tutors on the various qualifications available, she insisted that they must remain up to date in their practice and CPD. New staff should be included in a mentoring support programme for the first six months, and there should be clear progression routes to EYPS. Strong leadership is essential, and teaching qualifications have been shown to have a significant impact on quality. She recommended there be an early years specialist route, studying the learning and development of babies and young children from birth to seven years of age, and that such teacher training would be "building on EYPS". She observed that EYPS does not have parity with QTS.

Finally, Professor Nutbrown discussed the possibility of introducing an early years licensing system, perhaps issued from a Royal College of Education. Having considered this in depth, she concluded that this would perhaps not bring any added value. Would it raise the status? Would it improve quality? There would be no guarantee, and it would certainly be very expensive to set up and maintain. She ended by saying if her recommendations are accepted and adhered to, the licensing system would not be needed.

Ending her talk, Professor Nutbrown stated that she did not underestimate the financial implications of her recommendations, but that we "cannot afford to compromise on quality of education and care for babies and young children".

Graham Allen MP (Chair, The Early Intervention Review Team) introduced the concept of an Early Intervention Foundation, to promote early intervention systems and procedures. He presented the financial implications of following the pre-emptive process of early intervention, and the figures were very convincing. Clearly, early intervention does offer the opportunity to be more successful and cheaper than the alternatives. He discussed the concept of supporting individuals to develop their social and emotional capabilities, where they can make some informed choices in their lives, for example, when to have a baby or to engage in sexual activity. For further information on this subject, please see Early Intervention: The Next Steps (January 2011) and Early Intervention: Smart Investment, Massive Savings (July 2011). The government will be voting on whether or not to support the creation of an Early Intervention Foundation.

Sue Robb (Head of Early Years, 4Children) led one of the afternoon seminars, launching the parents' guide to the EYFS. Apologising for its delay, she blamed No 10 Downing Street for hanging onto it, and not releasing it for publication until the previous day! Here are the main points she covered:

  • Parents contributing to the Nutbrown review stated that they didn't understand the EYFS
  • "Parents" has been largely replaced by "Mums and Dads" because many fathers thought "parents" excluded them
  • The aims of the guide are to explain what the EYFS is about; to outline what mums and dads can expect from a child's setting and how they can support their own child's learning; to explain assessment processes; to share what and how their child will be learning
  • Parents said during the consultation process that they don't like receiving lots of paper from their child's setting as it usually gets lost. They requested strongly that the guide should be available online and accessible via a selection of apps. Ms Robb said this was "a real message on how we should communicate with parents"
  • Parents also said during the consultation process that they did not appreciate being patronised and wanted to be informed about the early years curriculum using appropriate, not childlike, language. They also wanted to be told the truth about their child's progress and any difficulties they were encountering. Ms Robb asked the question, "So how do we convey difficult messages to parents about their child's development? How do we get the skills to deliver these to parents?" One parent was quoted: "I want to know what he's really like but I want to be told in a way that doesn't make me leave the nursery crying".
  • Parents referred to information from settings regarding activities for them to complete at home with their child. Often, these were extensive lists and virtually impossible to complete. They also felt that letters from settings giving lengthy detail about domestic arrangements (clothing, money, etc) took precedence over information about what their child is doing, and why, and what exactly they are learning.
  • Parents talked about the "femininity" of most settings and how some fathers felt awkward approaching staff members.
  • Asking parents to contribute to learning journeys with little information of how to do this, was seen to be a problem for parents who may have had difficult prior experiences with education themselves.

Introducing the parents' guide, Ms Robb explained that there are free text boxes and areas for settings to personalise the document. There are also areas that cannot be tampered with! Criticisms at the launch included:

  • "Children's Centres" have been missed from the list on the front
  • No mention of SEN- this is being addressed in the July update

The final seminar of the day discussed skills, training and knowledge expansion within the childcare workforce.  Stella Ziolkowski (Director of Workforce Development, NDNA) began her presentation by stating that there will be 260,000 two year old places needed by 2014-2015. Staff development is likely to include working with outside agencies in coordinating care for children; supporting parenting skills; behaviour management.

Reviewing practice is essential, ensuring that it is compliant with the characteristics of effective learning. How will settings reflect on their provision to identify strengths and areas for improvement in this area?

Jean Gross (formerly the Government's Communication Champion for Children) considered the two year old progress review. She initially discussed the essential components of quality provision for this age group:

  • a secure base
  • an environment that is on a domestic scale (small, intimate)
  • not too much going on, e.g. a room that is too busy and bewildering
  • support to develop independence and to cope with "Mine", "No!" and "I do it!"
  • support for the "language explosion"
  • crucial interaction: what Ms Gross described as the "serve and return" interaction, and not bombarding children with "What colour is it? How many legs has it got?"

Naomi Eisenstadt CB, (Senior Research Fellow, Oxford University, & the first Director of the Sure Start Unit) drew the session to a close with  "What Sure Start taught me about leadership!" Full of anecdotes, the best one follows:

A little boy was sharing a book with a practitioner. They were looking at a picture where a bearded man was standing doing the washing up. Clearly seeing this as an opportunity to discuss the shared roles of men and women, the practitioner was surprised when the little boy started to laugh hysterically. When he eventually calmed down she asked him what was so funny, to which he replied "That lady has a moustache!"

But perhaps the most amusing quote from Ms Eisenstadt was:

" On entering the education department in 1999, I discovered that the government thought children were born at 5; now they think they're born at 2! They never 'get' babies......"

I hope this gives you an interesting and useful summary of the day; I certainly valued it. Why not raise any of these issues on the forums for further discussion?

Helen Edwards
Helen was a primary school teacher before setting up and running her own nursery for ten years. She worked as a Foundation Stage advisor for East Sussex before achieving EYPS with the first cohort of candidates at the University of Brighton. She was an EYPS mentor and assessor for two providers in the South East, and is currently a reflective practice tutor at the University of Brighton.
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