Early learning and childcare and school age childcare services inspection: consultation analysis
The analysis report of the consultation on inspection of early learning and childcare and school age childcare services in Scotland.
Following recommendations in the Muir Report (2022), the Scottish Government undertook a public consultation to explore support for the creation of a shared quality framework for the inspection of Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) and School Age Childcare (SAC) services in Scotland. The consultation document suggested that a shared framework would support and strengthen an integrated approach to inspection, enabling the Care Inspectorate and His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education (HMIE) to work together, assessing the quality of settings at the same time, using the same framework, and aligning and quality assuring their findings.
The consultation ran for 16 weeks between July and October 2022, and asked 32 questions (including 13 closed and 19 open questions). Feedback was sought on the vision and guiding principles for the framework, the current inspection landscape, and proposals for a shared quality framework.
Various methods were available for people to provide input to the consultation. This included the submission of written responses, either via Citizen Space (the Scottish Government’s online consultation portal), emails, or postal returns. The Scottish Government also conducted a series of online events that sought feedback to eight questions which were consistent with those asked in the consultation document.
In total, 254 responses were provided to the written consultation, while 11 events recorded comments provided by 380+ attendees. Feedback was received from a wide range of respondent types, including local authorities, trade unions, ELC and SAC representative and membership bodes, academic organisations, the inspectorates, and parents/carers, however, the largest proportion of responses came from practitioners and childcare providers themselves. Views were largely consistent, both between the different respondent groups and the different response formats.
The Vision and Guiding Principles
Both the draft vision and proposed guiding principles were well supported, with most of those who answered the questions indicating that they either fully or partially supported these (96% supported the vision and 95% supported the principles to some extent).
Respondents felt that the vision and principles would provide greater consistency, clarity, collaboration, a more supportive approach, and a streamlined and less bureaucratic system for inspections. They also felt that the principles were clear and consistent, and highlighted the importance of collaboration, listening, and the needs and rights of children.
Various details were perceived as missing, however. Respondents mainly wanted more information on ‘how’ the vision and principles might work in practice, as well as information about the expected timeframe for implementation. Other more specific suggestions were also offered, including that the principles should include playwork, focus more on diversity and inclusion, and make links to other policies and legislation. Scepticism was also expressed over how achievable the vision and principles might be.
The Current Inspection Landscape
Around two in five respondents (who answered the question) had been inspected by both the Care Inspectorate and HMIE under separate visits (42%), while 21% had received joint visit inspections. Similarly, 40% had been inspected by the Care Inspectorate as a single agency inspection, while only 6% had been inspected by HMIE as a single agency inspection. Most of those who had been inspected by the Care Inspectorate noted they had last been inspected within the last five years (93%), whereas less than a third (31%) had been inspected by HMIE (where appropriate) in the same timescale.
Notwithstanding the disruption caused by COVID-19, 39% of respondents indicated that their experiences of inspections had been mainly positive, 28% said it had been neither positive nor negative, and 21% said it had been mainly negative.
The percieved benefits of the current inspection approach were linked mostly to positive experiences, and included instances where inspections/inspectors had:
- Been supportive and collaborative with practitioners/providers, including recognising strengths and good practice, had allowed for collegiate discussion with practitioners, built rapport with staff and had been ‘hands-on’ during sessions or with the children, considered the local context, and framed necessary changes in a positive way;
- Consulted with staff, the children and their families;
- Resulted in clear and simple guidance being provided; and
- Identified improvements and framed these in a positive and supported way.
While HMIE inspections were perhaps considered to be more supportive, the ongoing relationships that could be built up with Care Inspectorate inspectors was highly valued.
The inspectorates also detailed the benefits of their own frameworks, with both stressing that these had been designed following stakeholder consultation and that they supported both self-assessment and inspection.
Practitioners' experiences of inspections were, however, reported to be highly variable, and respondents outlined a wide range of challenges, issues and problems created by the current inspection approach. These included:
- A lack of consistency both between and within the inspectorates - it was said the requirements were confusing and open to interpretation, with inspectors often taking different approaches and having different views on issues; that providers had received conflicting advice and feedback; there were differences in the knowledge and experience of individual inspectors; and that inspectors changed too often;
- The use of multiple frameworks - staff needed to be knowledgeable across a wide range of documents; the frameworks had different expectations, conflicting views/purposes, and contained overlap; this created confusion and duplication of effort for providers;
- Documents contained too much jargon;
- Too much paperwork, with the lack of pro-forma templates seen as particularly challenging for childminders;
- Created work for practitioners that often needed to be done outside of working hours;
- Inspections were based on a ‘small snap-shot’ rather than representing a true, longer-term picture of service provision;
- Inspections were highly stressful for providers and practitioners, often created fear and panic among staff, and impacted on the normal delivery of services;
- Inspections did not take account of local challenges, such as those generated by both COVID-19 and the expansion of the funded ELC hours, as well as the staffing issues created by both; and
- That inspections did not recognise differences between settings, e.g. ELC and SAC, nurseries and childminders, or funded and unfunded providers.
Only 13% of respondents agreed that the Care Inspectorate and HMIE currently cooperate with one another and coordinate inspection activity effectively. The main areas where respondents felt they were successful in this regard included the planning and conduct of joint inspections, and in relation to the timings of single inspections to ensure a sufficient gap between inspections of any one setting - although not all agreed that this was done successfully each time. However, a range of arguments were made to suggest that the two agencies did not currently work well together, including that the agencies had different and competing priorities and expectations, they lacked consistency in the quality indicators they considered, but also had blurred/overlapping roles. It was noted that they had different approaches and timescales for inspections, and respondents perceived there to be a lack of communication over inspection findings. Several also felt that the organisations had little respect for one other, and noted that a previous attempt to develop a shared framework had failed.
Most respondents (80% of those who answered the question) felt that more could be done to improve cooperation and coordination between the inspectorate bodies in the short and medium term. It was suggested that the inspectorates needed to work together to co-produce a coordinated and streamlined approach to ensure they would work from the same principles, inspection criteria, quality indicators/themes, guidance and paperwork. However, it was stressed that all themes and both inspectorates needed to be given equal weight, and that there needed to be a clear division of roles and responsibilities. It was argued that genuine and effective communication, coordination and partnership working was needed - not ‘tokenistic’ efforts. In addition, it was felt that the disparity in pay and conditions between the inspectorates also needed to be recognised and addressed.
Local authorities’ roles in monitoring and supporting quality improvement in ELC and school age childcare provision (where appropriate), and how this aligned with the inspection functions carried out by the Care Inspectorate and HMIE received mixed responses. Some felt that the process was supportive, well aligned with inspection requirements, and particular elements were welcomed, such as having a named contact, a Quality Improvement Officer or Support Officer. Others, however, felt that their local authority requirements tended to align with one inspectorate more than the other, involved unrealistic timescales, and that the level of monitoring and support varied across the country. Some noted a lack of local authority involvement/visits and no local authority support for SAC or unfunded ELC settings. Most also felt that the local authority requirements added a third layer of regulation, scrutiny and inspection, and felt that this was overwhelming, and generated a large volume and duplication of documents and paperwork.
A Shared Quality Framework
Just over three quarters of respondents who answered the question (78%) supported a shared framework. It was hoped that this would ensure a more consistent approach; provide clarity around expectations, as well as clear criteria and focus for improvement actions; provide a streamlined and less bureaucratic system; and reduce the burden on providers. A few were concerned, however, that the proposals focused on self-evaluation rather than inspection, while others felt that existing frameworks could be updated rather than starting again (and potentially losing elements of the current inspection regime that did work well). Those who were against a shared framework argued that more tailored approaches were required for different settings, or that a shared framework would not remove the challenges associated with having two separate inspectorates involved.
Various percieved benefits of a shared framework were outlined, including that it would:
- Provide consistency and clarity;
- Provide a more streamlined and joined up process;
- Be easier for staff to use and support a more manageable workload;
- Be a more supportive and collaborative approach;
- Understand and promote the relationship between care and education;
- Better align ELC and school (enhancing transitions); and
- Provide an opportunity to develop sector specific guidance.
Again, however, a wide range of potential challenges, issues and problems were outlined, along with discussion of elements that would be needed to ensure success. These included:
- Communication and collaboration, both between the two inspectorates and with/between providers - although many felt that it may be difficult to get the two inspectorates to agree;
- That a streamlined framework, with accessible, jargon free documents which did not alienate any sector/type of practitioner was necessary;
- That it needed to include explicit links to other policies, e.g. How Good is our School?, National Standard, and Realising the Ambition, among others;
- It needed to reflect all sectors/types of provider;
- Avoid the framework becoming too big or too generic, and avoid the needs of one inspectorate becoming dominant;
- Joint training between the inspectorates would be needed to ensure shared understanding and implementation, and time, resources, training and support would be needed for providers to embed the new framework;
- Resourcing issues existed for both inspectorates and providers which may impact or limit successful implementation;
- The timing of the change was considered to be problematic, following COVID-19, the extension of the funded ELC hours, and the implementation of the Care Inspectorate’s Quality Framework; and
- That a shared framework would not be enough to tackle the problems (e.g. inconsistencies may persist), but rather, more radical restructuring may be required - i.e. the development of a single inspectorate to be responsible for the sector.
Despite these challenges and potential shortcomings, most did feel that the use of a shared framework would be an improvement over the current system.
Just under two thirds (63% of those who answered the question) felt that a shared framework would meet the needs of the sector to simplify the inspection landscape and reduce the inspection burden. It was argued that this would provide a clear vision and shared inspection language; remove conflicting messages; provide better clarity and transparency on expectations; allow for consistency of approach and a simplified landscape; reduce burdens of paperwork and staff preparation time; and remove feelings of being ‘over-regulated’. Again, those who felt it would not meet the needs of the sector argued that it did not go far enough and that a single inspection body was needed, or that it was not possible/ appropriate to apply a single framework to all settings.
Just over two thirds (68% of those who answered the question) felt that the shared framework should apply to all ELC services, including funded and unfunded nursery and childminder provision for 0-5 year olds, and to childcare provision for children of school age (over 5 years old). It was felt this was necessary to provide the most collaborative and consistent approach to inspection, and to provide a consistent benchmark/standard for all services. It was suggested that having different frameworks would undermine the approach and could result in some sectors being considered as inferior. Caveats were provided, however, in that respondents thought the framework should be applied proportionately to different settings, and that it would be important to avoid stifling innovation, competition or the unique nature of different types of providers. Those who were against applying the shared framework in this way again felt it was not possible/appropriate to apply a single framework to all settings, and/or were concerned about staff retention/the sustainability of some sectors if requirements increased as a result (particularly the SAC sector which is not currently subject to HMIE requirements).
Most respondents supported the use of a shared framework, however, the preferred method of implementation varied. Some expressed a preference for a shared framework to be used by the two inspectorates, several preferred a shared framework which would be implemented via shared inspections only, while others advocated for the creation of a single inspection body to be responsible for the sector. The fact that consideration of the creation of a single inspectorate was not included within the consultation document was believed to be a missed opportunity by some, and it was suggested that the wider education reforms offered the opportunity to be more ambitious in this respect.
Another common concern which was discussed throughout the consultation was the potential impact of the proposals on the SAC sector, childminders and those not delivering funded ELC. It was felt that either the shared framework needed to fully reflect and be appropriate to these sectors, or that it was inappropriate to apply a shared framework in this way.
Other issues discussed by respondents either in response to the final question which invited ‘other comments’, or which were raised across the consultation, included:
- The need to respect and treat all practitioners as professionals;
- To promote equality, inclusion and diversity in inspections - including additional support needs (ASN), physical, sensory and/or learning disabilities, Gaelic medium, race/ethnicity and gender;
- That practitioners and local authorities needed to be involved in developing the shared framework to ensure it represents all settings and types of providers;
- Existing good practice needed to be retained; and
- Any changes needed to be mindful of the challenges faced by the sector which were created by the extension of the funded ELC hours, as well as COVID-19 and the ongoing recovery.
Overall, there was strong agreement that the current inspection framework needed to be reformed, with general support for the creation of a shared framework to bring about improvements. While respondents outlined potential challenges which may need to be overcome regarding implementation, or suggested that more needed to be done to reform the inspection landscape, it was felt that a shared framework would be beneficial and an improvement on the current system. There was less agreement, however, in relation to the possible coverage of the shared framework. The content of any shared framework and the way this is applied in practice will be crucial to its success. It will need to be applicable to the range of different settings and service providers, while still being streamlined and manageable, and providing consistency. It was also felt that practitioners and other stakeholders needed to be involved in the drafting and development of any new framework to ensure that achieving best outcomes for children remains at the heart of inspections.
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