22/04/2015

MSA Chairman’s update March 2015

At the start of the year, MSA was pleased to welcome Stephen Tommis to our National Council meeting. It was good to have him come for the days meeting and he proved to be a positive listener and contributor to our discussions. I have since had other meetings with Stephen and our discussions about the way forward for the charity and MSAs role within it have been very useful. It is most helpful for MSA to have such support as well as a sounding board for ideas and developments.

As the general election approaches, MSA continues to monitor the political parties comments on education in general and the early years in particular. The idea of extending the 15 hours free entitlement to 25 hours a week has many implications for our work, and as such policies become more defined we will be commenting to the parties on their proposals. Besides these political developments, there are other initiatives emerging which affect our work. Ofsted is pursuing its intention to have a Common Inspection Framework (CIF) across all its inspections from the early years to further education and from state schools to private, voluntary and independent education. This is due to come into effect in September. There is also talk of schools, whether state or private, being allowed to admit 2 year olds, with comments such as school is the best place for 2 year olds to learn being made as though this was a statement of the obvious. Other organisations such as the Food Standards Agency have published regulations which affect our members work.

The Ofsted initiative is one of those ideas which sound fairly straightforward but which have some potential issues in their detail. Its fine to talk about teachers and other adults setting targets for older children who are following a National Curriculum or some other prescribed curriculum, but for early years the situation is more complex, being firmly based on concepts of children being allowed to develop at their own pace and not having a predetermined and prescribed set of skills to acquire or tasks to fulfil. Similarly the role of the adult may be very different at various stages of education. In part, this goes back to an old theme which I have written about before. When nursery vouchers were introduced in the mid-1990s, an analysis of the Ofsted inspection reports showed clear differences between the outcomes for different types of provision. Thus playgroups, as pre-schools were then called, were very strong on personal, social and emotional development, but much less effective in teaching phonics and numeracy skillsat the time, they said that was not their role. By contrast, independent schools nurseries were very clear that their main focus was on those phonic and numeracy skills, and less directly on social skills. Social Services day nurseries were not particularly strong in any one area, but as they had the backing of local authority training, quickly developed across all aspects. The effect of this very generalised analysis within Ofsted was interesting. Instead of suggesting that parents might value the choice between different providers offering different emphases in their provision, the pressure was quickly placed on ensuring that all providers should meet common standards and should be assessed according to the same externally devised criterianot their own aims and purposes. The CIF approach suggests that something similar might be emerging with pre-schools and early years settings being judged by the same or similar criteria as provision for older children. That runs counter to the view taken by the experts who developed the EYFS, who strongly opposed the idea of the structure and approach of the National Curriculum for over fives being applied to provision for younger children. Ofsteds proposals are at the pilot stage for now, and I have led one of only three pilot inspections they are currently intending to conduct using independent inspectors, so we will watch carefully to see what develops.

The  two-year-olds in school issue clearly has a major potential impact on pre-schools in the private, voluntary and independent (PVI) sector. Besides the obvious issues of how much primary schools know about the needs of such children and their capacity to provide for them, both in staffing terms and in accommodation, the current uneven playing field between the PVI sector whereby nursery education benefits from far higher levels of funding and cross-subsidy from the primary sector, raises further ethical issues when schools are being advised to work with their local PVI providers. This includes acting as childminder agencies as well as bringing PVI services onto the school site. This latter approach can work well, as we have seen with Montessori provision at Stebbing Primary School in Essex. But we need to be aware that the process works best when it is two-way with the school acknowledging the particular skills needed to run the PVI services and especially accepting the undoubted value and benefits of Montessori provision.

I have been concerned for some while about the number of government initiatives affecting our work in the early years and primary educationsome 38 initiatives in under two years and still counting. The emerging pattern is that cross-government initiatives seem to be rather better co-ordinated in the main than do initiatives within the Department for Education. Here the classic case of one part of the DfE apparently not talking to another was the revision of the EYFS last March, closely followed by the issuing of Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) in April. Indeed the situation was compounded by KCSIE not referring to the early years, instead only talking about schools and colleges. DfE has been able to apply KCSIE to 3 and 4 year old funded provision, and is seeking to extend it to all provision. But besides such DfE policy developments, other organisations issue directives which affect our work.

Last June the Food Standards Agency issued advice on the Food Information Regulations which seem to have passed many people by (see www.food.gov.uk). Confusions had already arisen around the EYFS statement that staff involved in handling and preparing food for children must be trained did this mean all must have a level 2 food hygiene certificate? When we met Liz Truss the then Minister for early years she dismissed the idea as nonsense, saying that some in-house training is appropriate for basic food handling such as helping a child to prepare fruit or salad vegetables (and some local authorities do not seem to have accepted that view). But the new regulations which came into effect on 13 December 2014 apply the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulations 2014 (see http://food.gov.uk/science/allergy-intolerance/label/). The new regulations apply to institutional catering such as schools, hospitals and care homes. As such they apply to any pre-school which is preparing food for the children from ingredients which are not pre-packedsuch as bread which needs to be unpacked and then have something spread on it, or other items which need preparation with or without cooking. The guidance refers to details of allergens which need to be listed clearly in an obvious place such as a menu, chalkboard or information pack. The new law names 14 allergens which need to be listed publicly, and providers will not be able to say that they did not know what was in the food. The 14 allergens include cereals containing gluten, crustaceans such as crabs, prawns and scampi, celery, eggs, fish, milk, nuts and soya. In applying the regulations all staff must be trained on handling allergy information requests from their first day in the job. Whilst the guidance is helpful, it does not appear to have fully taken into account the reality of establishments which do not have catering as their prime purpose. Clearly many small schools may need to think twice about providing meals and restricting the range of snacks which are on offer. MSA is seeking advice from Ofsted as to its stance on this issueis it going to be another point for inspectors to look at when they visit, and as such is it, in effect, another addition to the EYFS. Also we are pursuing our existing links with the Food Trust to get their views on how to apply the regulations in small settings.

We will continue to try to keep you updated on such changes, meanwhile keep an eye on our website, and above allenjoy the better weather come spring.

Dr Martin Bradley

National Chairman

Montessori Schools Association