Monday, 14 August 2017

Let us give OFSTED judgements the cynicism they merit - my Coalville Times column

This time eighteen years ago my wife and I were awaiting the arrival of our first child, a son, and fretting about all of those things that first time parents worry about.

What sort of diet were we going to feed him? Although he had not yet even been born had we made sure the electrical sockets had been covered? Were all the sharp edges in our home protected?

And, of course, were stair gates in place both top and bottom to ensure that even though he was months off from being anywhere close to mobile he couldn’t inadvertently get up a flight of stairs?

We also worried about how we were going to pay for our infant son. With only one of us working maybe, just maybe we could manage to pay the bills but undoubtedly it would be tough and at least for my wife her promising career would flat line with no guarantee that it would easily be restarted in the future.

After a great deal of debate and discussion of all the options we came to the conclusion that fairly soon after his birth our son would be entrusted to the care of a nursery.

As first time parents we toured every childcare provider and came to the conclusion, as I am sure many do, that none were perfect for our unique bundle of joy but, on balance, one was marginally better than all of the others. We duly paid the necessary large deposit, roughly equivalent to a month’s mortgage payment, and filled in copious amounts of paperwork comparable to what you’re faced with when buying a new car. I’m surprised we were never asked if we wanted T-Cut or gap insurance?

When he was just a few months old our son went off to nursery. There was nothing wrong with the childcare provider that we had chosen it was, we were regularly informed, classified as ‘Outstanding’ by OFSTED; it’s just that it didn’t feel very good either.

Each month we would hand over several hundred pounds and in return we felt that our son was for the nursery just another unit or widget that was going through their childcare factory. You could guarantee that whilst nursery provision was perfectly perfunctory our provider would show a great deal more zeal when it came down to additional opportunities to increase their own revenue.

The reason I mentioned all of this is that after a few years and two additional children we had by then enough experience and were confident enough in our parenting abilities to take the major decision to change nurseries.

It just so happened that we fell upon the subject of last week’s Coalville Times front page, Orchard House, and decided to take look around. We fell in love with the then newly opened nursery.

From the moment our children went to Orchard House they loved it. The management and staff were professional but more importantly cared for our children; the facilities were first rate and not for one minute did we ever feel that the driving force behind the business was making as much money as possible. As parents we couldn’t have been happier with Orchard House Day Nursery.

Now it’s five years since we were parents of children at Orchard House and undoubtedly in that time a lot can change in any organisation. I felt sad when I read last week’s front page and the damning inspection report issued by OFSTED that the story resulted from; this wasn’t the nursery that we as parents had known.

I’m not writing today’s column because I have any links with Orchard House, other than being a ‘customer’ several years ago I have none, but because I want to reflect on OFSTED judgements.

A provider that was outstandingly good for my children has been slammed whilst one which I thought no better than average was regularly praised.

It’s not just nurseries though. If you read statistics well over 80% of children in Leicestershire attend either Good or Outstanding schools. Yet ask parents directly and I guarantee you that nowhere near 80% of children receive what their parents perceive to be Good or Outstanding educations.

As they grew up my two older children started attending a ‘Good’ school. For one the school is indeed brilliant, for the other barely adequate. Clearly the experience of whether a school is good or not doesn’t vary just from parent to parent but from child to child.

Proclaiming that you are a good school isn’t about who can have the biggest banner or paying for signs on a roundabout it is, undoubtedly, about how you can support the individual needs of a child.

On its own being ‘Good’ or ‘Requiring Improvement’ doesn’t necessarily mean you are good or that you need to improve; it means you’ve demonstrated at a given time to what degree you’ve complied with a set of guidelines; and you’re assuming that OFSTED’s own inspectors have even then arrived at the right result (in 2015 OFSTED sacked 40% of contracted inspectors for being not up to snuff).

Of course an OFSTED rating is one factor for any parent to consider in the choices they make for their children; but it is just one factor.

Having gone through this process of raising children three times now, and I certainly don’t claim to be an expert, let me offer if I may a piece of advice.

When it comes to choosing who will look after and educate your children never let a poor OFSTED grade prevent you from considering a provider; never believe an outstanding one automatically leads to an outstanding education. You can’t go wrong with being a little cynical about OFSTED and their judgements.

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