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Exploring practitioners' understanding of quality

Background to the research

The concept of ‘quality’ in early childhood services has been the subject of international debate over past decades (for example, Moss & Pence, 1994; Dahlberg & colleagues, 2007).  It took on particular significance here in England when the Labour Government came into office in 1997 as part of their vision for the development and expansion of children’s services.  Throughout the legislation underpinning the significant and rapid changes since then, it is interesting to note that ‘quality’ is frequently cited but rarely, if ever, defined.  This continues to be the case in recent legislation introduced by the Coalition Government, including the new Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (DfE, 2012).

Policy suggests that there is an explicit and agreed model of what constitutes quality early years education and care and quality practitioners but this is unlikely when you consider  that ‘quality’ is a relative, values-based and therefore subjective notion (Moss & Pence, 1994; Dahlberg & colleagues, 2007).  Considering the range of stakeholders involved in early years services, including practitioners, children, parents and politicians, this makes the process of definition extremely complex. Approaches have often involved the examination of structures (resources used in the provision of care, for example physical environment, materials, people) and processes (the activities that constitute care, for example interactions) in relation to outcomes, particularly those relating the latter to children’s educational attainment or measurable aspects of development.  This was the approach taken by the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education project (Sylva et al. 2004) which informed Labour Government policy. But there are other approaches.  For example, Lilian Katz (1993) argues that definitions of ‘quality’ should be based on multiple perspectives derived from all of those involved. As part of this, the ‘inside perspective’ of practitioners is considered essential.  The Understanding quality project aimed to contribute to this debate.  The research team visited 18 early years settings across two London boroughs and two shire counties between May 2007 and March 2008.  These included nursery schools and classes, Reception classes and Sure Start Children’s Centres.  We spoke to 165 practitioners including nursery nurses, head teachers and centre heads, teaching assistants and teachers about what ‘quality’ meant to them in the context of their particular setting.

Different ways of understanding ‘quality’

‘Quality’ has attained a common-sense status in current public and policy debates about early years services and it is largely associated with national goals, standards and targets.  Tanner & colleagues (2006) refer to this as an ‘official’ definition of quality predicated on it being something objective that can be measured and evaluated.  All the practitioners in the Understanding Quality project referred to these ‘official’ measures, for example Ofsted inspections and children’s attainments against the Foundation Stage profile.  These were viewed as an indicator of ‘quality’, especially if a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ grade was achieved in an inspection, but they were not always an end goal.  Practitioners also discussed less tangible aspects in terms of the experiences they aimed to provide for the children, relationships with parents and the wider community as well as with the children and each other.  In fact most felt that quality provision was impossible without positive relationships founded on mutual trust, shared values and a common purpose.  They tended to speak of these in aspirational terms, feeling that they were working towards it rather than having achieved it.  This supports the idea of quality as a process - something people do – although they recognised the integral role of structural factors, for example resources, physical space and funding, in providing the conditions for these processes.

Broadly speaking, there seemed to be two distinct ways of understanding ‘quality’:  as a locally-determined, dynamic process; or as a target, something to be achieved but essentially static and defined by statutory frameworks and regulations.  Tanner and colleagues (2006) argue that there is room for both and that the ‘official’ approach could be viewed as a useful starting point in the quality-defining process (ensuring equality of access to services, for example) upon which a more flexible, collaborative and inclusive approach can be built. There was evidence of this approach in some of the settings we visited where practitioners discussed the way they identified problems and attempted to achieve shared understandings by working through differences within the staff team.  For example in one Children’s Centre, practitioners deliberated policy concepts such as ‘inclusion’ during a focus group, considering what it ‘looked like’ in their setting through the exploration of each other’s professional perspectives and experiences and it seemed evident that this was a familiar way of approaching their work.  In these settings, relationships were well-established and it was safe to question and even to disagree.  One explanation for this might be that  the leaders of these settings foster a culture in which contest and argument are viewed as healthy in pursuit of ‘quality’.  Also, as we observed this culture of debate more frequently in Children’s Centres than other settings, another explanation might be that some settings were accustomed to thinking about change in many aspects of their work as they were in various stages of transition.  In other settings, we observed more constraint and less evidence of dynamism.  In these settings, practitioners appeared to be struggling to understand new roles in the face of rapid change or to challenge deeply entrenched attitudes and structures and these practitioners tended to talk about ‘quality’ more in terms of external indicators.  Clearly this is a complex picture and further research is necessary to investigate how cultures develop in different early years organisations.

Professional values

Practitioners engaged with ‘official’ definitions of ‘quality’ to varying degrees and discussed the importance of dialogue but they also held personal conceptions of ‘quality’.  Individual histories influenced their thinking in a number of ways.   Some discussed their particular educational background or professional heritage and continuing professional development in relation to their specific role, was highly valued in all settings. Many felt that they had learned or were learning ‘what works’ from experience; this might be whilst working within one setting or perhaps working in several different contexts had shaped their views.  For others their professional values had developed in a more personal context, based perhaps on their own childhood experiences or their experiences as parents. Several discussed the importance of developing their own philosophy through a combination of these factors and how important the culture of the setting was in this respect, for example the teacher below:

I sort of hunted around for jobs and it took me quite a long time to find somewhere that was actually functioning in a way that I felt that I could learn a lot from and also fitted in with my philosophy. (Children’s Centre, Teacher)

Definitions of a ‘quality’ setting were elusive in these discussions, for example practitioners used terms such as ‘atmosphere’, ‘ethos’ or a ‘feel’.  Colleagues were viewed as incredibly important, even inspiring, by experienced and inexperienced practitioners alike.  Many mentioned a key figure or mentor in their present or past, someone who modelled the professional values and practical knowledge that they were in the process of developing:

When I first came here I met one of the girls I work with, she was at the Drop-In at the time, and…it was how she worked, I knew that I wanted to be like that…She was really good with the parents, the children.  She was firm but kind and it was just in general…she always knew what to say to the children, to the parents and she managed to …you know if there was a problem to calm it down.  She always got the right things for them to play. (Children’s Centre, Learning Support Assistant)

Many practitioners spoke of the emotional complexity of their role and the need to achieve ‘a balance of sensitivity, empathy and professional boundaries’ in their relationships with children and families, as one Children’s Centre Head put it.  Another practitioner said this:

It’s the kind of job where there’s no right or wrong answer because it’s all about you. At the end of the day it’s how you affect the lives of everybody because you’re dealing with people that are sometimes sad, emotional, depressed, have a lot of problems. And . . . it’s not sitting at a computer . . . you can’t just erase it and it’s not going to make it better . . . it’s ongoing, that’s what I’m  trying to say. It’s kind of different every day. (Children’s Centre, Early Years Educator)

There is a body of literature that has established emotions as essential to quality provision for young children (for example, Osgood 2006; Taggart 2011; Webb and Vulliamy 2002). This can result in heavy demands on practitioners and several Heads discussed concerns for the emotional health of their staff.   As a further challenge, Osgood (2006, 8) argues that practitioners are self-regulated by internal constructions of their professionalism, describing this as an ‘ethic of care’, but this runs counter to dominant conceptions of ‘quality’ that revolve around externally prescribed standards against which practitioners must measure their competence. We found evidence of this ‘ethic of care’ in our observations and interviews, as evidenced above, and some practitioners were very eloquent in expressing their objections to product-oriented conceptions of ‘quality’:

I think that whole outcomes driven thing is hugely damaging and I find myself playing two games.  I play one for Ofsted and I play another which suits my philosophical viewpoint.  So I have developed mechanisms whereby my staff can respond to that whole outcomes debate.  We do it…I hope in a way that does not pervade what we do week on week….. we take data from snapshots… three times a year to actually inform us in terms of being able to have the conversation with the school improvement partner, with Ofsted, but we refuse to be driven by that…because life is much more than that.  Children are too valuable for that. (Children’s Centre, Head of Centre)

Practitioners in all the settings demonstrated their commitment to the children’s welfare, development and learning through warm, positive relationships and there were no doubts about their sincerity.  They aspired towards developing children’s confidence and independence, creating activities based on play and a balance of adult and child initiated activities, as recommended by the EPPE report (Sylva et al 2004) and the EYFS non-statutory guidance. But practitioners in school settings, particularly Reception classes, frequently struggled with the pressure to prepare children for the national curriculum and the expectations of their colleagues in Key Stage 1 and above.  More often than not, this meant that adult-led activities relating to ‘school readiness’ and formal learning were prioritised over child-initiated play.  The practitioners’ comments provided evidence of the impact of this pressurised context both on their professional identity and confidence and the children’s experiences:

I think it’s an awareness of where they’ve got to be... I feel as a teacher, if I don’t get them ready for that, then I’ve let them down. Now some of those children aren’t ready and there’s nothing I can do to help them, it’ll come but they’re not there. I guess it filters through doesn’t it? I mean if they are struggling in Year 2, we didn’t get them set up for it in Reception. So I guess it ripples down.  There’s not a particular person saying, “You have to get them up to this point”, it’s the climate we live in. (School, Reception Teacher)

Comments such as the one above evidence a top-down approach in terms of the status of early years, and status was an issue that came up time and again in different forms within our data.  Inequalities in relation to pay, conditions and training further complicated the already complex understandings of ‘quality’ amongst different roles and different settings.  It manifested itself as a lack of confidence in some cases, with nursery nurses and teaching assistants expressing their feeling that there are certain duties and roles that they cannot carry out in their work because they do not have the skills, or because they are not teachers. Whether they actually have these skills is a moot point; that they perceive that they do not is deskilling and demotivating.   More confident and experienced practitioners working in childcare and early years provision expressed dissatisfaction with the perceived higher professional status of teachers, conscious that some teachers may not know as much about young children or playful learning as they do.  However, there was also a lack of confidence in the initial training of childcare workers, with at least three of the participating Children’s Centres declining to recruit newly qualified staff at NVQ Levels 2 and 3 and two other Children’s Centres were selective about which training providers they use.  The interim report of the Nutbrown Review (2012) revealed that concerns about variation in the quality of training provision and the low status of work in early education and childcare are widely-held.  This situation presents challenges both to the visions of ‘quality’ services expressed by the practitioners in our research as well as to Coalition Government aims to develop ‘quality and consistency in all early years settings’ (DfES 2012: 2).


Although there was no question that ‘official’ outcomes-based conceptions of ‘quality’ influenced the understandings of the practitioners involved in this research, their own definitions were more complex, rarely static and seemed to be linked to the particular context of their setting together with their personal and professional histories. These definitions were further complicated by the struggle in which each of the settings was engaged: schools with the pressure to ensure the children were ready for the National Curriculum; Children’s Centres with the practicalities of establishing themselves and supporting the communities they serve.  The low status of early education and childcare and a lack of confidence in the training also impacted upon practitioners' efforts to develop the positive relationships and shared understandings that were key to their visions of ‘quality’. The focus on standards and ‘official’ indicators seems likely to continue or perhaps even intensify under the Coalition Government, as evidenced by the newly introduced progress and phonic checks (DfE 2010; DfES 2012) and a commitment to stricter Ofsted targets (Wilshaw 2012) (for schools at least, changes for early years providers in relation to Ofsted are yet to be announced).  I do not mean to suggest that standards should be abandoned but that the emphasis on attaining measurable targets is just one way to understand ‘quality’ which is a multi-dimensional, value-laden concept.  Perhaps ‘quality’ could more effectively be viewed as a process rather than something to be attained, as Tanner and colleague (2006) argue, in which case standards could be viewed as a useful starting point, allowing for diverse, collaborative approaches based on the different perspectives of the stakeholders.  But, until structural factors related to pay, qualifications and conditions are tackled at policy level, issues relating to training and status are likely to continue to impact on the quality of early years provision, particularly in terms of the space and opportunity for practitioners and other stakeholders to engage in these types of quality-defining debates.


Alexander, E. 2009. Understanding quality and success in early years settings/practitioners’ perspectives. Swindon: ESRC.

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Osgood, J. (2006) Deconstructing professionalism in early childhood education: Resisting the regulatory gaze. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 7(1), 5-14.

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. & Taggart, B. (2004) The effective provision of pre-school education (eppe) project: Findings from pre-school to end of key stage 1, (London Sure Start).

Tanner, E., Welsh, E. & Lewis, J. (2006) The quality-defining process in early years services: a case study, Children & Society, 20(1), 4–16.

Taggart, G. 2011. Don’t we care? The ethics and emotional labour of early years professionalism. Early Years 31, no. 1: 85_95.

Wilshaw, Sir Michael (2012) High expectations, no excuses, A speech to the London Leadership Strategy’s Good to Great conference, 9 February 2012 cited on http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/ accessed 30 March 2012.

Webb, R. & Vulliamy, G. (2002) The social work dimension of the primary teacher’s role, Research Papers in Education, 17(2), pp. 165-184.?

Michelle Cottle
Michelle originally trained as a primary teacher and taught in international schools for ten years prior to joining the University of Roehampton staff, first as a researcher then as senior lecturer. <br />Michelle's current research interests include policy enactment within early years settings and primary schools; children’s experiences and their participation in research; practitioners’ perspectives on their work with children; quality in the early years; Children’s Centre development. Her previous research examined the impact of particular assessment practices upon children’s learning experiences.<br />

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