(The following events may or may not have happened and not necessarily in this order. All names are fictional).
There is nothing quite like the words ‘Ofsted are here’ to set the heart racing as you dash for the door and drive in a blur to the nursery. The stream of consciousness is already playing in your head, as it will continue to do for the next 9 hours (yes, 9 hours) roller coaster ride –
“Thank goodness I was home today”
“Did they ask to see her id?”
“Has she signed in?”
“Has everyone else signed in? Did everyone sign out yesterday?”
“Who’s off sick this morning?”
“What sort of person is this inspector – friendly, aloof or confrontational? What will her personal obsession be – good behaviour, numbers in the garden, cushions on the floor or the Chinese word for toilet prominently displayed?”
“Has she inspected us before?”
It matters. The outcome matters. We have prepared for this moment for years. Every policy, safety check and form has been checked and double checked. Staff have been drilled. They know what signs of abuse to look for; who the safeguarding officer is; all about disqualification by association; they have an in-depth knowledge of the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum and their role in planning, assessment and observation; they know their key children and how to track their progress. They all know this but when asked, challenged, confronted or put on the spot by an OFSTED INSPECTOR, will they crumble, forget everything and utter that fateful phrase “I don’ know”?
It’s our one chance, one shot at performing to the required standard, every single member of the team, including the newest and the weakest. One mistake, one substandard performance, one missing piece of paper could blow it.
I can’t park on the front as it takes up a space for parents so I am 2 minutes away in a 2 hour parking zone, most probably resulting in a parking ticket as I forget to go back and move it. I am running with my laptop bag to the entrance muttering to myself – “Don’t forget to sign in, don’t forget to sign in.” I barge in through the door, forgetting to sign in! The manager chases after me and hands me the signing-in sheet. Not knowing where “she” is, there are furtive glances exchanged with the team and a hissed “Where is she?” A nod of the head indicates the next room, so it safe to follow up with a whispered “How’s it going?”
“Alright, she seems very nice.”
Voice in my head, “That could be a ploy. Soften them up first, wolf in sheep’s clothing etc.”
I take a deep breath and head into preschool. Utter panic sets in as I spot 3 unfamiliar faces in the room, all wearing id badges. Surely not 3 inspectors?! It turns out the Foundation Stage teachers from the local school have chosen this morning to visit our children moving to their school in September. That’s brownie points already! But first I have to unpick the confusion caused by introducing myself to 3 different people on the assumption that they have arrived to inspect us. The inspector is the one with the clipboard. She is also the smiley one!
She tells me she has been made very welcome and what she wants to do when. She doesn’t want me here until 12:30 as she wants to spend time in all the areas, observing. Three and a half hours for me to pace the floor, fretting! I tell her I will see her later. I check the visitors book on the way out to see if I can decipher her signature – is that a ‘P’ or a ‘T’? I’m off home, 10 minutes after I arrived, to Google her! Of course I forget to sign out. Someone shouts after me, “I’ve signed you out!”
I missed breakfast. I don’t want a drink. I feel sick. My mind is going again –
“Is the latest Ofsted complaints poster up?”
“When was the last fire drill?”
“Is everyone wearing their name badges?”
I can’t stop it churning out questions and scenarios. What if? It’s going ok so far but anything could happen in the next three and half hours and I’m not there.
Laptop on, browser open and I’m on the Ofsted site. I can’t find her. I can’t find anywhere she has inspected before. Was that a ‘P’ or a ‘T’?
I call the nursery, hissing again, down the phone, “Sorry, it’s me. I know it’s only 10 minutes since I left but how’s it going?” “Fine, she’s still in preschool. They’re chopping carrots.” Chopping carrots? 3 year olds with knives being watched by an inspector? What could possibly go wrong?!
“Well, keep an eye on them.” What a ridiculous thing to say.
“When you have a moment, can you sneak a look at the visitor’s book and phone me back with her name, I think I must have written it down wrong. Call me back”
I don’t want a drink but I start to make a cup of tea anyway, and look at emails without reading them and look at the garden, newspaper headlines and the tv. “What’s taking them so long?” The phone goes.
“I can’t read it very well, I’m not sure if it’s a ‘P’ or a ‘T’.”
“Don’t worry, that’s exactly what I’ve got.”
“Slight problem with the carrots, it turns out Charlie is allergic to them. His face has swelled up. We phoned mum who said the same thing happened at nannies last week but she hadn’t told us. She said to give him antihistamine and it should start to go down in a few hours.”
“A few hours? Did the inspector see?”
“Yes. We explained what happened and what action we took. She seems happy about it. We’ve done a form”
Not even an hour in and the first casualty of the day! Will it go against us?
I’m not really sure why but I phone the bank, carpet fitters and the tree man. As an afterthought I decide that I ought to tell the local authority. “Thanks for letting us know. You’ll do fine. Tell us how it goes.”
10:30 – 2 hours until my meeting with the inspector. There’s lunch to get through yet. Will they use the jugs and let the children pour their own drinks?
I can’t really recall what I occupied my mind with but 12 o’clock came and I am headed back to the nursery, well the 2 hour parking zone round the corner then a brisk walk back to the nursery.
Deep breath and walk in. I remember to sign in but my name badge dropped off in the car.
Lunch is progressing. The inspector is pouring drinks for the children! James has tipped his water out on the table for the second time and is flicking it at his neighbour. Caroline intervenes as only she can by getting everyone to clap James for dinking so nicely. James immediately stops tipping and flicking and coyly drinks. The inspector scribbles something! Then she notices me.
“Shall we collect your manager and go through leadership and management?”
We head for the manager’s office. I am desperately trying to read between the small talk about the lovely time she has spent in each room and the evidence she has collected. It’s all good humoured but what is she thinking?
The manager is still smiling. The inspector is smiling. I’m trying to stop feeling sick.
“I see you haven’t scored yourself as Outstanding in all areas of your self evaluation form,” says the inspector, “If you don’t believe you are Outstanding, I’m not sure I can assess you as such.”
What an opening statement. What’s the right answer to that?! I think quickly, “At the time we wrote that, the manager had only just taken over. She has been in post for nearly 9 months now and we have developed significantly.”
We pass on but I’m not sure how she has taken my answer. Between us, we pass an hour or so flipping between printed documents and the computer showing policies, photographs, letters from parents; page after page of evidence. And all the time being quizzed on what we do and how we do it. None of this interrogation is unreasonable but it is tiring.
We are interrupted to be told there is a parent who would like to talk to the inspector. She goes off to meet her. “Who is it?” I hiss again. “Bella’s mum, she loves us!”
The inspector returns without commenting. We carry on wading through paperwork.
And eventually she is done with us for now and it is back out round the rooms and garden for “a bit more evidence”. I hide in the staff room, waiting for individuals to come in and give a progress report.
“So-and-so didn’t understand the question on safeguarding but thinks she managed to pull it back.”
“Our painting activity was a bit messier and noisier than expected.”
“She’s watching the garden from the upstairs window, 2 boys are whacking each other with sticks.”
Dear God, have mercy on us!
We had been told to expect feedback at 3:30.
3:30 comes and goes. I am hiding round corners listening in on safeguarding interrogations.
“What would you do if a child disclosed information to you that made you concerned for his safety?”
“Where on the body might bruises indicate possible physical abuse?”
4:30 The inspector wants to observe preschool again. Why now?
I remember my car is still in the 2 hour zone. I nip out to move it. Mercifully there is no parking ticket.
5:15 The inspector needs to talk to the baby room staff again.
5:30 We now have 15 minutes to wow her with anything else we feel would be useful. My manager pulls out more testimonials from parents.
5:45 We leave for her to deliberate and ponder the “couple of issues” she needs to consider. (What does that mean?)
5:55 We come back in and she is still scribbling, The inspection handbook is open on the desk. She finishes, turns round and declares “I’m ready.”
So this is what it comes down to, 9 hours later – one word; the overall judgement to be published and ranked alongside all others; the adjudication by which we stand or fall; the assessment that parents use to decide whether to entrust us with their children.
Get on with it!
“Firstly, I’d like to say a big thank you to your team for a most enjoyable day”
Get on with it!
“You might like to take notes as I talk as there will be 1 or 2 things for you to consider”
Uh-oh, Get on with it!
“I saw some lovely practice today, blah, blah,blah………………”
I’m not listening but finally –
“So overall I have judged you as………….…….”
And that’s it. Thank yous, usher her out of the building, don’t forget to sign her out and tell the team the outcome in confidence.
it’s time to laugh or cry but at least it’s over – for now. We have to wait several weeks for confirmation of the judgement in the report.