MSA Chairman’s update January 2014

The Montessori Schools Association (MSA) monitors the outcomes of Ofsted inspections of our members on a regular basis. It has become clear that since about June last year inspectors judgements have sharpened and in some cases settings which were formerly viewed as being good or outstanding have been downgraded to either requiring improvement or inadequate. Although the numbers involved are lowbarely into double figures across our school membership of over 680, and thus far none of the settings have been MEAB accreditedthere are some common factors which all members should be aware of.

When we put aside specific judgements on individual settings, such as security, which relate to the particular circumstances of the inspected school, there are some common issues which affect many if not most of the settings. These centre on the use or otherwise of the key person system, which is a statutory requirement of the EYFS. Most of the settings judged inadequate did not have such a system and it is clear that Ofsted now considers this to be a major factor in supporting a judgement of inadequate. Linked to this are issues about how far all staff are involved in planning and assessing for the children. Where staff are not involved, again inadequate becomes the overall judgement. Staff awareness of planning and the extent to which they proactively get involved is part of thiswhere staff simply follow the schools curriculum policies or do as the owner/manager or teachers say, this is not seen as acceptable.

Just to be clear, MSA supports Ofsted in its judgements where these are justified. A well-run setting must involve staff in crucial aspects such as planning and assessmentwithout that, staff do not have the capacity to tailor activities to the needs of individual children, and capabilities and presentations lose a lot of their value. Whilst this is all well and good, at times Ofsted fails to take account of the circumstances of a setting.

We are able to help settings which receive critical inspection judgements. We can offer consultancy support as well as advice, so if you find yourself in such a situation, do remember that MSA is here to help.

When we set the Ofsted judgements against data gathered from our MEAB accreditation visits things get a lot more complicated. Last year we realised that we had information which was not being used fullywe obtain but do not publish attendance numbers in our MEAB reports, as this is information which we consider must be up to settings to decide whether or not they make it public, although the information helps us to plan our visits. Moreover it has become very clear that we are amongst the few national organisations (if not the only one) with an on-going update of information on attendance patterns, and we are able to draw conclusions from that data. It is obvious within the sector that free places are taken up mainly in morning sessions. That has resulted in a growing imbalance between the numbers of children attending morning sessions and those attending in the afternoons, with the latter being much lower than the formeragain obvious to people working in the system. In an extreme case there were 28 children in the morning and four in the afternoon. The significance of this is again clear to anyone running a setting: staff cannot be employed full time and so must go part time. But it is not simply a matter of saying to people, come in for the morning and leave at lunchtime. Personal factors intervene and so staff work patterns do not coincide with childrens attendances. That means that a key person system is not possible in an increasing number of schools. Ofsted does not seem to have grasped that point and we are raising it with them as for many schools a child may have to have more than one key person during the week. In my view that makes the notion of requiring such a system inappropriate and merely tokenistic. It is surely better to have one person co-ordinating planning and assessment when staff are part time, providing that the staffs view and comments are taken into account when doing so. They must be contributors to the overall processand we would view anything which did not draw on their judgements as being inappropriate. Settings must be able to say how they gather staff views and act on them.

The key person issue is just one of several aspects of the EYFS statutory requirements which do not really stand up to close scrutiny. I have written about them in the past and we have raised them with Elizabeth Truss, who agreed with our views. Things like training for food hygiene and confidentiality in discussions are not well-expressed in the statutory requirements and are in urgent need of revision.

We are also monitoring the funding for two year olds. Proposals that state schools open their doors to such young children are inappropriate, even if there is the necessary accommodation and capability to offer extended day care. In addition the funding level does not inspire much optimism for the quality of the service. Many of our members are not joining the two year old funding scheme and we support that action as a judgement which individual settings must take. Our view is that there is a need for coherence in government policies: they cannot want to have a graduate workforce without recognising that this has cost implications. The current level of funding for two, three and four year olds does not support a graduate workforce. Also the funding for 15 hours does not support full time care, which leads us back to the issues of imbalance between morning and afternoon attendance numbers. Thus far politicians have not made the link and the sector is being squeezed more than ever.

Besides these concerns, there have been a number of specific cases recently which have affected the publics perception of Montessori. In particular, the withdrawal of funding from Discovery New School, as the first free school to be closed by the government, has hit the headlines. We sought to work with Discovery since the school was proposed, but did not get a response from the management. Following its inspection last May when it was judged to be inadequate, I again made contact, but the school was not able to meet me until September. Shortly after that the head and the administrator were suspended. We have been working closely with the governors and the acting head to support them and to try to turn things round. I visited the school with an extremely experienced Montessori primary teacher with an outstanding track record and we quickly identified issues which corroborated Ofsteds judgements. Since then we have put in place a staff training programme, added our support for the schools trustees and continue to offer quality assurance support. However at the time of writing the Department for Education has not reconsidered its closure judgement. There have also been cases where in one instance a Montessori school owner claimed funding for three and four year olds places when the child did not attend. Neither the school nor the owner were members of MSA and I have issued a statement to that effect. Since the recession we get about one letter or email a month from aggrieved parents who complain about non-refunded fees or other issues. I was pleased to respond to one father who said that if McDonalds can run a franchise, why cant Montessori? In other cases we have been able to support settings where complaints have been made unreasonably.

Just as with inspections, we can support settings which encounter problems whether with parents, inspectors or the wider public: so do take us up on that offer.

We have several exciting initiatives in hand. Besides the work with parents in Bristol which Barbara has developed, a project in Lambeth is taking shape to create a Montessori setting funded through the local authority, and MCI is widening its range of courses. Our work with the state sector continues to develop. Internally, we have sharpened our budget oversight and monitoring to provide increased value for money. We are also hoping that a bid from the Czech Republic Montessori Association for EU funding to enable some of their members to spend a week in schools in the UK will materialisethat should see up to 40 Montessorians coming for a week to some of our members and in return we will be able to go over there. This also links with our contacts with both the Netherlands and Slovakia. Barbara and I are due to visit some Montessori nurseries and a training college in Tanzania to evaluate their work, at the invitation of EdUK aid, a small charity based in Hampshire which funds the settings.

As ever, life in Montessori continues to be both stimulating and challenging.

Best wishes,

Dr Martin Bradley

National Chairman

Montessori Schools Association