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Observations of staff (Part 1)

By looking at the achievement of children we are able to consider the quality of the setting. If children are doing well (laying the) foundations for good future progress (Ofsted 2014) it is testament to the quality of the staff working with them. To be able to observe, assess and plan for children’s progression is a difficult task and we know that the success or otherwise of children in early years is largely down to the quality of the adults that are working with them “The quality of pre-school centres is directly related to better intellectual/cognitive and social/behavioural development in children” (Sylva,K et al. 2003)

The opposite of this is also true: poor staff with weak understanding of child development do not observe well enough and plans are not sufficiently well targeted to provide what children need. Consequently, children in these settings do not do as well as they could and should.

It falls to the management team of a setting to ensure that their staff are ‘up to the job’.  Strong, effective staff mean better outcomes for children. In the early years inspection handbook (Ofsted 2015b) inspectors are instructed to judge the quality of the leadership and management of a setting against rigorous descriptors. Managers must be able to identify weak practice, target training and facilitate rapid improvements – not unreasonably I think, given the short amount of time we have to get children moving in the right direction. During the inspection, managers can expect in-depth questioning about staff CPD and this relates directly to the ‘Outcomes for children’ evidence that inspectors collect (FSF 2016). This means that managers must know what their staff strengths and weaknesses are. The joint observation during any inspection lets inspectors know whether managers have got a good understanding of their staff. It is as beneficial during the joint observation to point out weak practice and what can be done to improve it as it is to celebrate practice that is of a high quality. On a day to day basis though, not just during inspections, managers must know what is going on with their staff. Although some things might be obvious, my experience tells me that other staff are very quick to report shortcomings, it will be by observing staff at work and by professional discussions with them that managers will identify areas for continuous professional development.

So, to achieve the best outcomes for children we need staff who can identify what the children ‘need’ and managers who can identify what the staff need. This is the mark of the successful setting.

Too often I hear of managers who spend all their time in the office and don’t know what is going on, on the ‘shop floor’. Ofsted talk about the importance of ‘what is it like to be a child in this place’; when I am supporting managers I talk about ‘what is it like to work here?’. Managers sometimes don’t realise that the things they think of when they are sitting in their office are hugely impractical and really don’t work for the staff working with children. I always advise managers to work alongside their team before they decide that there is a problem with their staff. If they work with them, within the constraints of the resources … the space … the timetable … they might start to see that it is not the practitioner who needs development, but the setting’s operational plan

How do you observe staff?

There are clear Union guidelines for observing teachers in schools (National Union of Teachers 2016) with an agreement that 3 hours of observation per performance management cycle (probably annually) is appropriate. Any statutory observations that need to be conducted such as those for capability or competency reasons or observations as part of an Ofsted inspection would be in addition to this. This is hard to apply rigorously in early years settings but my experience tells me that one ½ hour observation of each ‘group’ per half-term is sufficient for the management team to gauge staff effectiveness without being too onerous for staff. Managers in early years settings tend also to be ‘round and about’ the staff every day anyway and have a good understanding of what is going on already.

When I am observing my staff I think carefully about what I am trying to achieve before I begin. I then plan with the staff when would be a good time to come – I don’t believe that ad-hoc is fair and it puts staff on edge. I would rather plan when I am going to come and allow staff to be ready – I am sufficiently astute and in tune with my setting to know if staff don’t always have their resources ready or if they don’t always group themselves in a particular way – If I see something different from usual I will raise this in my professional discussion afterwards. Children are great levellers anyway – they’ll soon say “why are we doing it like this today?” or similar! I then arrive at the agreed time and settle myself unobtrusively in the room and I just watch. I look around and take note of the environment, the displays, the resources, how things are presented to children – I think “Would I like to play in here?”, “Would I be safe playing in here?”, “If I didn’t want to play with my teacher what could I do? What could I learn?” – this helps me to look at whether children can reach things for themselves safely, whether there are places to set up games and toys. I then watch to see what the staff are doing. Ofsted’s definition of teaching (Ofsted 2015a) is great guidance in these situations – ask yourself: 'What is it that the staff are doing that means that the children are learning?' On the other hand … 'What is it that staff are not doing that meant that ‘that’ happened?' Whilst observing I will be on the look out for other aspects of our setting’s policies and procedures. For example, I will expect to hear consistent behaviour management techniques being used and I will look at personal presentation (jewellery, uniform etc). I will make notes for myself so that I can have an informed discussion with staff afterwards. The notes are typed and included in staff development files.

Here is an excerpt from a recent baby room observation (bold type is my conclusion, bullets are my supporting observations)

“Staff make their behavioural expectations clear and as a result children behave extremely well and are kind to each other. Staff are excellent role models they speak gently and politely to children and give all children time to think and share their thoughts.”

  • Good organisation in room – staff clear roles
  • Makes tidying up a game – encouraging chn to use their skills putting away books and puzzle pieces – lots of language extension
  • Other staff interact with chn in passing to show interest and involvement – warm relationships -
  • Ch in chair – MOS encouraging sitting carefully
  • Well done x, well done y – you did it together. Encouraging chn to be in the space – well done, good sharing
  • Chn know clear routines -  ready to sing – older ones sign singing - encouraging children to know their friends – giving them choices about names ‘is this x or y?’
  • Staff show good awareness of what chn are looking at – encourage them to make friendship groups – demonstrating gentle fingers and sharing toys      

I will also include points for development:

Here are the development points from the above observation

Sometimes planned activities are too long and don’t meet the needs of all children. During singing time, some children became distracted and lost focus. Staff did not react quickly enough to the needs of the children and stuck with their ‘plan’ rather than taking their lead from the children”

  • Need to develop: pace of singing. Took a very long time need to consider balance between working out names and keeping pace of activity going.
  • Singing time – babies keen to choose and join in – those distracted join in and enjoy songs

I will make sure that next time I observe in this room the points for development have been effectively addressed.

I have also included new or training staff in my long observations, as observers, alongside me. This is an effective way of getting them to see what it is you’re ‘looking for’. When we do this I ask permission from the staff member being observed first as it is quite intense being observed by two people who are talking about you! However, staff know it is a mark of their excellence that means we want to watch them and so they are generally delighted to help their colleagues out in this way. I remember working with a young NVQ2 trainee in a baby room laying on our tummies on the floor watching our baby room supervisor encouraging babies to crawl by putting tempting toys just out of reach. As we chatted about what she was doing and why, you could see the ‘lightbulb moment’ in this young staff member and I still see her having ‘tummy time’ with the babies … and she’s just completed her Level 3.

We are developing peer observations in our setting. Our manager has introduced the SSTEW scales to her observations and staff are learning to use them alongside her and this has given them a clear framework to work with – I’ll let you know how we get on!



Early Education, 2012. Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). London: Early Education.

FSF, 2016. The Day of the Inspection part 2. Leadership and Management. Available from: http://eyfs.info/articles/_/leadership-and-management/the-day-of-the-inspection-part-2-r204

Machan, M., 2016. Everything you need to know about observation and why we do it. Available from: http://eyfs.info/articles/_/teaching-and-learning/everything-you-need-to-know-about-observation-r213

National Union of Teachers, 2016. A classroom observation protocol. Guidelines for NUT school representatives. http://www.teachers.org.uk/files/active/0/Observation4798.pdf Accessed 12/12/2016

Ofsted, 2014. Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage. Department for Education

Ofsted, July 2015a. Teaching and play in the early years – a balancing act?. Department for Education

Ofsted, August 2015b. Early years inspection handbook. Department for Education.

Sylva K, Melhuish E, Sammons P, Blatchford I, Taggart B and Karen Elliot. 2003. The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project : Findings from the Pre-school Period. Institute of Education, University of London, University of Oxford, Birkbeck, University of London.

FSF Rebecca
Rebecca's family hail from Liverpool but she was born and bred in the south of England. She gained a PGCE from Cambridge and an MA in Education researching school improvement. Rebecca taught in the primary sector for several years before setting up her own nursery, gaining EYPS and later working in nurseries and other early years settings helping identify areas for improvement. For some years she was the FSF Education Adviser and Web Content Editor and she is now an Education Consultant for the FSF and Tapestry.

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