By Barbara Isaacs
When we applied to open our Nursery in the summer of 1991 we were caught up in the initial implementation of the Children Act 1989; we had to wait for more than six weeks for the local Social Services department to be ready to come and visit and provide us with our first registration document. This process allowed us to get to know our point of contact with whom, over the years, we forged a strong and friendly relationship before she became an Ofsted Inspector. She was wise and knowledgeable and her approach was to share and guide rather than instruct. She was the first person to suggest that we needed to establish a Montessori support group in Oxfordshire which we managed to do quite informally in 1993. The teachers, children and their families benefitted from it for many years, long before the national Montessori organisations established their own associations and networks.
Over the twenty years during which the nursery was open we experienced a wide array of regulations, guidance and advice on how to run our setting. In the early days, it often came from not so knowledgeable early years colleagues who knew little about alternative or progressive approaches to early years, let alone pedagogies such as Montessori. ‘Jumping the hoops’ was the expression a colleague used when describing these negotiations with external regulatory bodies such as Social Services, Local Authority (LA) Advisory Teams and Ofsted. For several years in the early 2000’s, we experienced more than three visits from these teams during any one academic year, each one with their own agenda and list of requirements. All of this regulation related directly and indirectly to the government’s universal grant funding available, initially, to families of 3 and 4 year olds and later extended to some 2 year olds. The Early Years Foundation Stage, originally published in 2008 and revised in 2012, 2014 and in 2019, is the current regulatory document which guides our practice and which Ofsted use when they prepare their own Inspection handbook.
Over time, we learned to navigate the new landscape and campaigned for the benefits of Montessori education to children and their families. I have learned not to rush to argue, but to reflect on what all these changes meant to the children attending our nursery. Of course our duty is to keep them safe, but also to give them opportunities to grow in independence, to be given time to develop their powers of concentration, to engage in and forge new relationships and above all enjoy their time with us. As time progressed, we grew bolder in our approaches to the various authorities; the bottom line was:
We felt stronger in our capacity to challenge because we had the opportunity to meet with other early years practitioners in our area, few of whom were Montessori, but who had similar concerns for the children’s well-being and opportunities to learn. We all benefitted from our regular meetings organised by the LA and from activities offered by organisations such as the local Early Education group operating in our area. These meetings also gave us the chances to speak about our practice and to make others familiar with the Montessori approach and challenge some of the myths surrounding what we offer to children. Our prepared environments were often the one area of good practice which was admired and inspirational for others.
The pandemic has of course challenged us all as we have had to rethink our connections and contact with children and their families and the authorities and colleagues. The recently revised EYFS offers us an opportunity to review our recording systems and begin to really appreciate the benefits of the freedoms our classrooms offer and how they foster the gradually emerging self-discipline of the children – referred to as self- regulation – the new focus of the new EYFS.
Our invitation for Wendy Radcliff to join us for our webinar on Tuesday 5 October gives us an opportunity to reflect again on our practice as the Ofsted focus remains on the individual’s child experiences in our setting, and is more in line with our original question:
The format of the revised inspections invites us to share with the inspectors our practice by “taking them for a walk in the setting”. It is an opportunity to articulate the Montessori pedagogy using accessible language. Moving away from our Montessori jargon should be our aim as we celebrate and express pride in our work with children. It also gives us an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to the children through a range of policies and procedures and highlight our knowledge of the individual children and their families.
This approach to the inspection also means that every member of your team could have a chance to practise such a “walk “ and contribute their views of the development and learning offered to the children by the prepared environment and demonstrate the on-going learning of the adult team in the setting. This is of course an excellent preparation not only for the inspector but also for possible impromptu visits to the setting by a parent – which should be possible now that the covid restrictions are easing.
This blog is really meant to be a word of encouragement. Yes, it is always a challenge to have anyone come to our setting and judge what we do. My word of advice would be – try not to be on the defensive, be confident because you have prepared for the visit and be proud in sharing and celebrating what you know and what you do well.