The role and performance of Ofsted - Education Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by SkillsActive


This submission focuses primarily on the role of Ofsted as regards inspection of playwork settings (after-school and breakfast clubs, holiday playschemes, and adventure playgrounds) registered on either the Early Years Register or General Childcare Register. It is based on the views of both employers and practitioners, highlighting the problems, in particular the lack of understanding of the ethos of playwork settings they consistently encounter when dealing with Ofsted inspectors.

1.  What the purposes of inspection should be (relating not only to schools but to all organisations, settings and services under Ofsted's remit)

(a)  For settings on the Early Years Register and the General Childcare Register, the purpose of inspections should be to ensure that settings meet the requirements of the registers upon which they are registered. The potential problem with this is that requirements can be too rigid and too rigidly interpreted. SkillsActive has worked with Ofsted to develop some degree of flexibility so that frameworks such as the Early Years Foundation Stage can be delivered in different ways depending on the nature and purpose of the setting. Even though the system allows for some flexibility, settings often report to us that Ofsted do not always allow this.

(b)  We believe that the purposes of inspecting educational establishments would be fundamentally to monitor the learning and development of children as well as ensuring their safety. For settings in the playwork sector, primarily after-school and breakfast clubs, holiday playschemes and adventure playgrounds who operate according to the playwork principles, formal learning and development is not a priority. We would therefore argue that the purpose of inspecting a playwork setting is simply to ensure the safety of children in the setting's care.

2.  The impact of the inspection process on school improvement

(a)  Ofsted should also be looking at how the school provides for the wellbeing of its pupils as regards attitudes towards play and break-time. Evidence has shown the importance of freely-chosen play to children, and recent projects in schools have demonstrated the practical benefits of freely-chosen play to the well-being and behaviour of children.

(b)  As a specific example, South Gloucestershire Council has invested a significant amount of time in developing play opportunities in its primary age schools through the creation of a "Learning and School Effectiveness Play Adviser" post. Over the past five years, play development support has been provided to over half the authority's primary schools. A programme to support play development called Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) has been developed and delivered to thirty schools. South Gloucestershire Council have made the following recommendations. They suggest it would be beneficial if future Ofsted inspectors:

(i)  Understood what conditions need to be in place for play to flourish in schools.

(ii)  Understood the value of high quality play opportunities for children of all ages within the school day.

(iii)  Understood the difference in managing risk thorough risk-avoidance and risk-benefit.

(iv)  Understood that the law requires that risk is managed on a basis of "as low as is reasonably practicable" and so must weigh up evidence of risk, cost, likelihood, severity and degree of benefit and negative outcomes.

(v)  Made a presumption that the communities where children live, play and travel are also safe enough for children to be at school without being secured in unless there is significant evidence to prove otherwise.

(vi)  Please see the Annexe for case studies.

3.  The performance of Ofsted in carrying out its work

(a)The introduction of the Early Year Register has had an impact on the delivery of play provision by many of the providers responding to an online survey carried out by SkillsActive in 2009[23]. There are some key points to mention here.

(i)  One significant point to make from the data is that some clubs have decided to take themselves out of registration with Ofsted so that they do not have to abide by the requirements of the registers. How wide ranging this measure was last year is unclear. Intuitively, it could be argued that de-registration means no requirement for qualified staff and thus a reduction in quality that the Early Year Register was designed to ensure.

(ii)  There were concerns raised about the emphasis of Ofsted's inspections being on the children covered by the Early Year Register, even when this group of children formed a relatively small proportion of the children for whom the setting provided care. (most playwork settings cater to a small proportion of children in the Early Years age range)

(b)  One other respondent, who had encouraged settings to stick as closely as possible to the playwork principles whilst delivering the EYFS, suggested that Ofsted inspectors did not really know what a playwork setting should be and thus by implication could not inspect it adequately.

(c)  Nationally, Ofsted released a very good guidance document, "Regulating play-based provision"[24] as well as particular guidance to inspectors which states that "Where a setting subscribes to a particular approach - for example, Playwork Principles, Steiner, Montessori or High/Scope; or settings that adhere to a particular faith - the inspector carrying out the inspection must be familiar with this method."[25] There is no evidence from employers that this central guidance has had any significant impact. Ofsted themselves say that "In a play setting, playworkers should be planning for play by providing the best environment possible; they should not be planning the play itself." This aligns well with the playwork principles, but again, in practice this seems to have had little influence upon inspectors.

4.  The consistency and quality of inspection teams in the Ofsted inspection process

(a)  With regard to consistency, the Playwork sector, which covers after-school and breakfast clubs, holiday playschemes and adventure playgrounds for children, has had significant issues with the performance of individual Ofsted inspectors. Some playwork employers have raised concerns that Ofsted is inconsistent in its approach to inspections across the out of school sector. As Ofsted inspectors are not trained in play or the playwork principles (which underlie professional practice and playwork qualifications) as a matter of course, different inspectors will have a varying understanding of these and what a setting is trying to do. With little understanding of what a play setting is trying to do, it is no surprise that (to give one example) Ofsted inspectors inspecting a holiday playscheme reported that the setting had insufficient numeracy activities.

(b)  An online survey just completed to feed into Dame Tickell's call for evidence on the Early Years Foundation Stage highlighted that the current lack of understanding of playwork by Ofsted inspectors is also an issue consistently raised by employers. One of the recommendations of the report based on this survey is that "Ofsted inspectors should attend mandatory training in play and playwork"[26]

(c)  Anecdotal evidence suggests that that there are also large differences in interpretation of requirements by different inspectors. Some are asking for playwork settings to complete learning journals and display planning on the walls, whilst others would not.

5.  The weight given to different factors within the inspection process

(a)  Some playwork settings have told us that Ofsted inspectors are much more interested in the Early Years Foundation Stage aged children (0-5) than they are in children in the older age ranges. This can sometimes lead to settings concentrating on what they are doing for this age range at the expense of the older children.

(b)  Settings have also informed us that Ofsted are much more likely to focus on the learning and development goals required by the Early Years Foundation Stage than anything else, such as the welfare requirements.

6.  Whether inspection of all organisations, settings and services to support children's learning and welfare is best conducted by a single inspectorate

(a)  Certainly in terms of playwork settings, we would like to see Ofsted continue to carry out its role inspecting against welfare requirements, but not learning and development, for example as contained in the EYFS. We have indicated to Dame Tickell as part of her review of the EYFS that playwork settings should not have to adhere to the learning and development requirements, and we would like to see a sector-initiated framework addressing quality standards.

7.  The role of Ofsted in providing an accountability mechanism for schools operating with greater autonomy

(a)  SkillsActive is not commenting on this section.

October 2010

Annexe 1

8.  The Impact of OFSTED inspections in relation to risk management, play and outdoor learning in South Gloucestershire primary Schools.

(a).  South Gloucestershire has invested more time and effort than most other local authority in the country in developing play opportunities in its primary age schools through the appointment of a "Learning and School Effectiveness Play Adviser" post. Over the past five years play development support has been provided to over half the authority's primary schools and a comprehensive programme to support play development called Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) has been developed and delivered to thirty schools.

(b)  An independent evaluation of the of South Gloucestershire's OPAL programme is currently being carried out jointly by The University of Gloucestershire and The University of the West of England. The interim report was published in August 2010 and has been attached to this submission.[27]

9.  Case One

(a)  Wellesley Primary

(i).  The school had worked closely with the local authority play adviser over 18 months to develop an outstanding approach to play. They scored 98% in the OPAL audit which looks at the prerequisite conditions for play across a suite of 15 criteria.

(ii)  The approach to risk management was a well thought out risk-benefit approach and the levels of supervision for the grounds were in accordance with the guidelines which the schools' health and safety adviser, the head of health and safety for the Council and the play adviser had agreed and ratified. Approaches to play fighting with the Playpod scrap materials were governed by a scrap-on-scrap basis; an approach which has been developed from a research, evidence and experience and which responds to children's need and wishes for a more robust approach to rough-and-tumble play.

(iii)  The OFSTED inspector glossed over any of the outstanding achievements of the school and focused on the fact that some play took place in places that were away from the direct sight-line of adult supervisors.

(iv)  The inspector also expressed a view that the well managed and successful approach to scrap-on-scrap play was "over boisterous" and therefore should be curtailed. These judgements were not based on playtime observations or on studying of the accident and incident book. If this had been studied, it would have been clear that there had been an 80% drop in accidents and incidents in the play ground since the school improved its' play opportunities.

(v)  The judgement of the inspector was based on an interview with a small group of children who expressed a view they thought that some children might find the play fighting intimidating, though none of them had actually felt intimidated themselves.

(vi)  The negative impact of the comments made by the inspector has been dramatic as the school concerned is viewed within the authority as the best example of best practice primary school play and therefore there has been a knock on effect to other schools. What is cause for concern is that the inspector's comments and judgements were not based on evidence. It is also of concern that the inspector did not have sufficient awareness or training to be able to notice that this was probably one of the top three schools in the country in its understanding and provision of play and outdoor learning. It has been visited by the schools throughout the South West as well as the Assistant Director of Play England and the University of Gloucestershire who were immensely impressed by the school's achivements.

(vii)  The head at the school did not want to "rock the boat" by challenging the inspector but has since told me he would be happy to show OFSTED around his school to demonstrate the value of what the is doing.

10.  Case Two

(a)  Hawkesbury Primary

(i)  Hawksbury Primary School is a small village primary set on the edge of fields a few miles North of Chipping Sodbury. The head reported that the OFSTED inspector had advised her that the stone field wall which runs around the boundary of the school was not sufficient for child protection purposes, as strangers could gain access to the school grounds from the fields.

(ii)  OFSTED must be challenged on comments like this for the following reasons:

(iii)  Current Health and Safety law requires that risks are mitigated "As Low as is Reasonably Practicable" (ALARP). It does not require all risk to be eliminated. This means that decisions on risk must weigh up the evidence and look at what the benefit will be in relation to the cost and what the negative impact may be. In the case of the evidence of risk posed from outside the schools, there should be a presumption that the environment is safe enough unless the statistics on abductions from rural village schools show that there is an unacceptable level of risk. Advice given should consider what will be likely the reduction of risk in relation to the cost and also what will the negative impacts be.

(iv)  The negative impacts of surrounding primary schools in high security fencing may outweigh the positive gains. In the Case One the OFSTED inspector based a recommendation to the school to take action because of a perception that children thought others might feel a threat. In relation to the enclosure of many primary schools with very high fencing, consideration must be given to how this makes children feel. Research by CABE in relation to what they call "target hardening" has demonstrated; the more physical evidence in an environment that an area is dangerous, with feature like high security fencing and CCTV cameras; the less safe people perceive an area to be. My own research with children backs this up. The message children get from high fences around that schools is; their own communities in which they live their daily lives, and where they should be learning to travel and play independently, are dangerous and a threat to them. It raises the question of how we will ever build sustainable communities if children are made to feel these communities pose such a threat that they must be secularly separated from them. In an interesting contrast Sweden's schools are forbidden from fencing themselves away from society as this gives the wrong message about the relationship between the school, society and children.

11.  Case Three

(a)  Little Stoke Primary

(i)  The head at this school called in the Play Adviser immediately after an OFSTED inspection. The inspector had been looking a the early years outdoor area and said that a gentle tarmac slope, running from the classroom to the outdoor area was a health and safety risk, and the area should not be used until the school had taken steps to mitigate the risk, or supervise the children when they were using the slope. I inspected the area and despite having had ten years experience in both risk management and out door play in schools could not perceive any unacceptable risk. This may seem like a small issue but it is not. Schools are very risk averse institutions and have needed a lot of encouragement from Early Years Advisers and the Play Sector to move way from a risk aversion model of risk management to a risk benefit model. If inspectors are not aware of the difference and issue advice based on a principle of elimination of risk of all risk, either in the name of health and safety or child protection, then immense damage will be done to the ability of schools to meet children's basic needs and to deliver the EYFS.

12.  Case Four

(a)  Bromley Heath Junior School

(i)  This school was the second in the country to reach Platinum level in the Outdoor Play and Learning Awards. This means that it scored 96% against the 15 criteria for creating the best possible conditions for outdoor play and learning. Along with Wellesley it is probably one of the most outstanding schools in the country for the way it has embedded outdoor play and learning into the culture of the school and enabled the children to experience a very rich and diverse range of outdoor play and learning opportunities. This has had a huge impact on the pupils' enjoyment of school and on a range of social and development skills which enable them to be more imaginative, creative and co-operative learners.

(ii)  Although the OFSTED inspection did not criticise the school for its approach neither did it recognise the achievements the school had made or how this contributed to standards, learning and happiness.


(a)  The case studies and the independent evaluation report suggest that head teachers, parents, pupils, play experts, academics and researchers, school improvement partners and above all children acknowledge the benefits of high quality play opportunities in schools.

(b)  Play in schools can only take place if the conditions are right. The most important conditions without which play cannot take place are:

(c)  freedom to take appropriate levels of risk

(d)  freedom for children to playfully and independently explore the relationship between themselves and the physical and social environments around them.

(e)  OFSTED inspections of schools which excel in providing outdoor play and learning opportunities in South Gloucestershire have, at best, failed to notice the contribution of play to the happiness and learning of the children and at worst confounded and eroded good practice.

23   The Early Years Register, General Childcare Register and Early Years Foundation Stage - Holiday Playschemes Impact Assessment, SkillsActive, 2009 Back

24   Regulating play-based provision, Ofsted, 2010 Back

25   Conducting early years inspections, Ofsted, 2009 (revised 2010) Back

26   Playwork settings and the Early Years Foundation Stage, A response to the call for evidence by SkillsActive, SkillsActive, 2010 Back

27   Not published on the Committee's website. Back

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Prepared 17 April 2011