Inspection of early learning and childcare and school age childcare services: consultation

This consultation is seeking views on a vision for how inspection of registered childcare services will contribute to improving outcomes for children and families, the current approach to inspection and a proposal for a shared quality framework.


In Scotland we have set out to ensure that all children receive the highest quality early learning and childcare (ELC) in order to give them the best possible start in life. International research, as referenced in recent impact assessments, and evidence from our own Growing Up in Scotland Study shows that based on Care Inspectorate grades, all children, but especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, can benefit from attending ELC and that high quality ELC contributes to children's care, learning, wellbeing, progress and achievement, and to closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

We also know that high quality school age childcare can promote positive social interactions and relationships for children, building their social skills and confidence, as well as providing the opportunity for play and learning in a safe environment. That is why we also have ambitious plans to build a system of school age childcare, providing care before and after school and during the holidays, which is free for those on lowest incomes.

Funded ELC policy framework

In August 2021, the Scottish Government and local authorities, working with partners across the private, third and childminding sectors, almost doubled the funded entitlement for ELC to 1140 hours per year for all 3 and 4 year olds and 2 year olds who would benefit most. The latest Improvement Service data shows that over 111,000 children are now benefitting from funded ELC. We have committed to going further, expanding funded ELC to one and two year olds, starting in this Parliament with those children who will benefit most.

To assure parents and carers that any provider offering funded ELC hours can offer their child a high quality ELC experience we have introduced the National Standard, which includes a set of criteria requiring settings to obtain grades of 'good' or better on Care Inspectorate quality evaluations to be a funded ELC provider. In recognition of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic providers are currently subject to Interim Guidance, which allows local authorities to apply flexibilities to a small number of criteria in the National Standard, including those relating to Care Inspectorate evaluation grades. Quality improvement support is in place at a national level through the Care Inspectorate ELC Improvement Programme to support those services who do not currently meet, or are at risk of not meeting, the Care Inspectorate evaluations required in the National Standard. There will be a further review point on these flexibilities in late 2022 and, following this, updated guidance documents will be made available in Spring 2023 to support full implementation of Funding Follows the Child and the National Standard from August 2023.

In January 2020, Education Scotland published the refreshed national practice guidance 'Realising the Ambition: Being Me', supporting settings to implement play-based and child centred learning and outdoor educational experiences. We know that ELC plays a key role in implementing the early level of Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence across all settings, supporting continuity of learning and a coherent educational journey for children. All of this vital work contributes towards our ultimate goal – to ensure that children in Scotland grow up loved, safe and respected so that they realise their full potential.

Education reform

On 21 June 2021, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published recommendations for education reform in Scotland in their publication Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence, into the future following a review of Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence. This included a recommendation that the Scottish Government should simplify education policies and institutions. Specific to inspection of education, the OECD recommended that we consider refreshing the remit of the inspectorate of education.

The Scottish Government accepted the OECD recommendations in full and published its response online. On 22 June 2021, we announced a range of transformational measures, including a commitment to move the role of inspection out of Education Scotland. Professor Ken Muir OBE was appointed to lead work to design the implementation of this recommendation and he, together with his expert panel and advisory group, carried out an extensive programme of engagement, published online, with stakeholders across all stages of education between September and November 2021 to inform his report.

A programme of educational reform aiming to deliver that vision is now being taken forward. The information gathered as part of this consultation will inform and support the implementation of these wider education reforms.

Professor Muir's recommendations

Professor Muir's report, 'Putting Children at the Centre: A Vision for Scottish Education' was published alongside the Scottish Government response in March 2022. As part of that report, Professor Muir recommended that a new education inspectorate body be established, which should re-engage with the Care Inspectorate to agree a shared inspection framework for early years provision in Scotland. This new education inspectorate, which will take over the work currently undertaken by Education Scotland, including in respect of ELC, is expected to be operational in 2024.

During Professor Muir's consultation events the current inspection approach, whereby some ELC establishments are inspected by both Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education ('HMIE', currently within Education Scotland) and the Care Inspectorate, came in for regular criticism. It was felt that this part of the sector was disproportionately subject to external accountability, to a greater extent than other parts of the education system. It was also felt that greater clarity around the roles and responsibilities of scrutiny bodies was required. Professor Muir found that there was strong support for a shared inspection framework being developed as a means of reducing confusion, bureaucracy and workload.

The current inspection and regulatory landscape

High quality ELC not only provides nurturing care for children but also supports their learning and development from an early age. Because of this, both the Care Inspectorate and HMIE have statutory functions which provide them with a role in relation to inspection of some services. All nurseries, childminders and school age childcare services must be inspected by the Care Inspectorate, regardless of whether they provide funded ELC hours, while local authority and private and voluntary nursery and childminding settings that provide funded ELC hours can be inspected by both the Care Inspectorate and HMIE.

Regulation of all ELC and school age childcare services is separate to inspection of services, and is carried out by the Care Inspectorate. All ELC and school age childcare settings must register with the Care Inspectorate, who can investigate complaints and, where services are not meeting the requisite standard, can make recommendations for improvement and/or issue requirements for change. Where a service does not make the required improvements and there is a serious risk to health and wellbeing of children, the Care Inspectorate has additional enforcement powers. HMIE do not have a regulatory role in relation to ELC or school age childcare services.

Changes to the regulations that govern the inspection of ELC and school age childcare may be required over time as we develop and deliver on commitments to expansion over the course of this Parliament, for example as we build a new system of school age childcare. That is not the purpose of this consultation, which focuses on how we can make the system work better based on the existing two inspection bodies.

The core roles and responsibilities for inspection of ELC and school age childcare settings are currently set out in legislation:

  • The Care Inspectorate has powers to inspect all ELC and school age childcare settings, whether or not they provide funded ELC.
  • Both the Care Inspectorate and HMIE (or the new education inspectorate, when this is operational) have a role in inspecting ELC settings that provide funded ELC.

Whilst work is underway to establish a new inspectorate body for education, we expect this consultation to help set direction and inform how that new body carries out its duties.

Where both HMIE and the Care Inspectorate are inspecting the same service, the organisations currently inspect under two separate frameworks:

These frameworks are essential tools for supporting practitioners, childminders and settings to provide high quality ELC and school age childcare services. However, initial feedback we have had from the sector is that there is not clear enough alignment between them, even where they are covering similar topics.

In the interim period, while proposals to develop a single shared framework are consulted on, developed and agreed, the priority must be to ensure that the existing frameworks are implemented effectively and that inspection continues against each of these frameworks in an integrated, supportive and efficient way. For inspection bodies, this means working closely together over this period in line with their duty to 'cooperate and coordinate' inspection activity, as set out in legislation which can be found on webpages relating to Acts of the Scottish Parliament, to ensure that arrangements for inspection are as joined up, clear and effective as possible while eliminating unnecessary burdens.

Local authorities also have a duty, set out in Early learning and childcare: statutory guidance, to ensure that the funded ELC entitlement is made available for eligible children in their local area. In line with Funding Follows the Child, local authorities have a role to act as the guarantors of quality and are responsible for assessing and monitoring compliance with the National Standard for all funded providers, including those provided by local authorities. Local authorities adopt various practices to fulfil this role including, in some cases, initiating their own quality assurance visits.

Alongside individual settings, practitioners, teachers and staff, HMIE, the Care Inspectorate and local authorities play a critical role in keeping children in ELC and school age childcare services safe and ensuring that they have rich and nurturing experiences. We recognise the strong commitment to professionalism both within settings and within these organisations, and the crucially important, and sometimes difficult, role that inspectors and quality assurance teams play.

The two inspectorate bodies have different roles and responsibilities and bring different expertise and experience to the inspection of ELC through their work. It is important to recognise that early learning, child development and the nurture and care of children are intrinsically linked and cannot be separated. For example, we know that practitioners caring for very young children have a vital and skilled role to play in supporting their physical, emotional, social and educational development, just as staff working with three and four year-olds do for the children in their care in the period before they transition to primary school. It is important to ensure that we do not place too great an emphasis on distinguishing between these or codifying them in organisational practice or cultures. It is essential that all the elements of the ELC experience – early learning, child development and the nurture and wellbeing of children – are appropriately brought together and reflected in the overall approach to inspection.

Linked to this, research by Public Health Scotland on childcare quality and children's outcomes shows that the best experiences for children are provided where there is a range of staff with complementary skills and higher level qualifications. Our ELC and school age childcare workforce is diverse and since 2017 we have seen a 52% increase (1,598 full time equivalent) in the full time equivalent number of degree qualified staff and those working towards a degree level qualification.

The case for change

The case for education reform in Scotland is supported by the OECD's report and has been further strengthened by Professor Muir's recommendations. For some time, ELC services have been raising questions over the bureaucracy of inspection approaches, including the pressure on some to adhere to two separate inspection frameworks, and this was reflected during Professor Muir's engagement sessions and responses to his call for evidence. The sector has also been vocal in expressing its concerns about the layering effect of some local monitoring and improvement activity on top of national approaches and the impacts of this on staff capacity.

We are committed to ensuring that inspection of ELC and school age childcare services provides independent assurance and is fit for purpose, collaborative, supportive and effective. It is essential that the feedback loop created through inspection encourages and supports continuous quality improvement across the sector while eliminating unnecessary burdens and duplication, and ensures that children consistently receive high quality ELC and school age childcare.

Efforts towards a shared framework

Work on a shared framework between the Care Inspectorate and HMIE began in 2017. The two organisations worked collaboratively with stakeholders to develop a shared approach that could be used by both organisations during inspections between 2017 and 2018. In late 2019, HMIE, the Care Inspectorate and the Scottish Government agreed that work on the shared framework should be paused to enable the sector to focus on the implementation of the 1140 expansion and meet the National Standard, originally due to be introduced from August 2020. When work ceased on developing a shared framework in September 2019, the Care Inspectorate continued to develop their own framework. The planned launch of this by the Care Inspectorate was spring 2020 but this was delayed due to the pandemic.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Care Inspectorate has continued to support settings through inspection and/or wider improvement support. The Care Inspectorate issued a report on their work during the pandemic, which included the suspension of routine inspections (replaced by the development of key question five - 'operating an ELC setting during COVID-19' - focussing on children's health and wellbeing). This was used as a self-evaluation tool and inspection focus for settings until full inspections were reinstated. They used the key question and reported on 389 self-evaluations undertaken by settings. The Care Inspectorate reinstated their quality themed inspections in September 2021. In addition to the self-evaluations, the Care Inspectorate undertook 1,620 inspections since March 2022. The Care Inspectorate also increased contact with settings to provide support, reassurance and guidance in the delivery of high quality care and learning to children and families in the context of the pandemic. Enhanced notification data informed Public Health Scotland and the Scottish Government of COVID-19 outbreaks and staff absences across the sector, and the Care Inspectorate developed interim registration and variation guidance to support settings to flexibly meet the needs of children and families during the pandemic.

Similarly, Education Scotland took the decision to pause routine inspections in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic to allow settings to focus on providing support to their colleagues, children and local communities. Instead, HMIE focused on supporting establishments to take forward plans for recovery and continuity of education provision. They worked with colleagues from across Education Scotland and in partnership with local authority colleagues to provide bespoke support and professional learning opportunities, including providing guidance to support the aims of 'Realising the Ambition'. From September 2021, HMIE carried out visits to settings that were identified, pre-pandemic, as requiring a further inspection, as well as three national thematic inspections focused on outdoor learning, approaches to supporting children's and young people's health and wellbeing, and local approaches to recovery. Since March 2022, HMIE have been carrying out 'recovery' visits on a voluntary basis to engage with a selection of ELC settings to focus on continuity of learning, safeguarding, and the wellbeing of children and staff.

Options for wider reform of inspection

During his consultation Professor Muir heard from some stakeholders that their preference would be to move to a single inspection body for all ELC services in Scotland. Establishing a single body would require legislation and structural changes to take place, and we are mindful of the wider education reforms that are currently under way. Ministers have been clear that they would not wish further organisational changes to delay rapid progress being made to improve and streamline the approach to inspection of funded ELC in particular, and are confident that significant improvements can be delivered with the commitment of both inspectorate organisations and the support of the sector.

This consultation therefore seeks views on the proposal to develop a shared inspection framework, in line with Professor Muir's recommendation. The shared framework is intended to bring the currently separate inspection approaches together to provide clarity to the sector, support high quality provision of services and better support outcomes for children and families. It would reduce the inspection burden on providers by providing one document from which settings can receive clarity on what is expected from each of the inspectorate bodies.

We are also conscious of the work that has already gone into the development of a shared framework between the Care Inspectorate and HMIE and are keen to ensure that these proposals build on that important work whilst also considering the current context. Doing so presents an important opportunity to harness the experience and expertise of both the Care Inspectorate and HMIE and to maximise the impact of inspection and improvement activity across the sector while reducing the inspection burden on providers.



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