Gill Jones: Focusing on the job at hand

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Under 5.
These are good times to be working in the early years sector. The quality of provision is very high. The most recent Ofsted statistics show that more than nine out of 10 nurseries, childminders and others on the early years register were judged good or outstanding at their last inspection. 
The statistics also show that the overall effectiveness of early years providers at their first inspection has risen over time. In August 2012, 74% of them were good or better. Fast forward to today and that proportion is now 94%. The credit for this improvement clearly has to go to the managers and staff in nurseries and pre-schools. But I believe the accountability system also improves standards for young children; Ofsted has helped to make their early education better. 
Knowledge base
Today, anyone working in the early years sector is able to benefit from a wealth of research about children’s development. When I started to work as a teacher in primary schools – not that long ago – staffroom discussions about neuroscience and cognitive psychology were not common. We now know so much more about how young children develop. I urge early years staff and managers to use that knowledge base. 
Of course, a lot of research confirms what early years staff already know – that the way a young child develops in the first five or so years of life has a profound effect on the rest of their life. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these first few years determine, to a large extent, a child’s life chances as an adult.  
The word gap 
I’m sure you’ll agree, intuition tells us that poor language skills will limit learning. So, in April I was dismayed to read that the Oxford University Press had found that four out of 10 children had such a limited vocabulary that it was affecting their learning. Most of those surveyed – 86% of primary teachers and 80% of secondary teachers – responded that they thought it was very or extremely challenging for children with a limited vocabulary to read national test papers, and will therefore do less well in exams. 
Researchers at Oxford University Press blamed this ‘word gap’ on too little reading for pleasure. So it’s really important that children develop a love of reading early in life. And we cannot assume that all parents are reading to their child at home every night. 
"The reality is that the work you do has long-lasting effects."
This is where early years practitioners come in. It’s up to you, I believe, to instil a love of stories and reading among young children. The reality is that the work you do has long-lasting effects. 
So this is not just about school readiness. Rather, it’s about encouraging children to enjoy language in a way that will serve them well at school and beyond. Of course young children need to be in a safe and happy environment before they can learn the basics of literacy and numeracy. That is why inspectors will always ask about disclosure and barring service documentation as soon as they visit childminders, nurseries and other types of early years settings. 
Reducing regulations 
That said, at Ofsted we are keen to keep regulations to a minimum. Just recently, we had a meting with United for All Ages about inter-generational care. Afterwards, we wrote guidance for inspectors to make clear in what circumstances we would register and inspect facilities that care for older people and young children, without imposing unnecessary burdens, while still also meeting our legal responsibilities. 
Earlier this year, we abolished the self-evaluation form, which some early years providers has used to prepare for our inspectors. I do hope that the removal of this form has given early years managers a little more time to focus on the day-to-day job of looking after young children. 
"...this is not just about school readiness. Rather, it’s about encouraging children to enjoy language in a way that will serve them well at school and beyond." 
We are also currently working on improving the online registration service for childminders. The existing system can be confusing and does not work well on some devices and browsers. In designing the new registration service, we have carried out many hours of testing with childminders. And we’ve have a good response. 
Rather than phoning us, which I know can be time-consuming, childminders will be able to use the new online system to pay their annual registration fee and keep us up-to-date. We are working hard on the new service, which will go live later this autumn. I expect that the current service will be switched off by this time next year. 
This project is part of Ofsted’s commitment to making your lives easier and allowing you to focus more on the job in hand. We will also be looking at what lessons can be learned to build similar online services for the nurseries and pre-schools run by Alliance members. 
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