Early Years Voices: How to get prepared for Ofsted

Oustanding settings Little Barn Owls explain the Ofsted inspection process and how you can be your best self on the day
A photo of Kerry Smith and Charlotte Moss of Little Barn Owls Farm and Forest Schools
July 31, 2023
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January 2019

In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • Little Barn Owls have three settings in Sussex, all of which have been awarded an Ofsted Outstanding grade. However, even if you know your practice and provision are second to none, the run-up inspection day can still be a nerve-wracking experience, especially if you’ve not experienced a visit from Ofsted for a while (or ever).
  • Your first port of call will always be Ofsted’s own Early Years Inspection Handbook, but hearing from others in the sector who’ve thrived through their inspections can help too.
  • Charlotte Moss, the manager of Little Barn Owl's forest school setting in Southwater, and their group head of children and adult education, Kerry Smith, offer their tips for inspections day, and how they keep their provision outstanding long after the inspectors have left.

The day before your Ofsted inspection: receiving "The Call"

Charlotte had only been in her role since September when she got “The Call” in January, so it was her first inspection as a manager.

"I was on the floor with the children when the Ofsted inspector rang," says Charlotte, "She asked if I needed 20 minutes just to get out of the room and sorted. That was a blessing as I could just take a moment to catch my breath!"

As well as letting you know that the inspector will visit the following day, the initial phone call is to outline the plan for the inspection and share any relevant information that Ofsted need to check.

“During “The Call” the day before, our inspector went through all of the paperwork I needed to show her, which was really helpful so I could be prepared,” says Charlotte, “She told me the main policies and procedures she wanted to see, so I could quickly refresh those in my memory too.

The inspector will also let you know some of the inspection activities they'll be undertaking, such as the learning walk, joint observations, and spending time gathering evidence of safeguarding practice, child development, and your provision's professional development programme.

This advanced warning also gives you a chance to tell your team, the children, and the parents about the inspection.

“We put a post out on Famly to let the parents know that Ofsted was coming the next day and to expect to see her at the setting,” says Charlotte, “We let them know that the inspector might want to talk to them, so they were welcome to have a chat to her.”

A photograph of a pre-schooler at Little Barn Owls nursery exploring a lamp shaped like the moon

Preparing for the inspection with your team

While you may feel nervous or excited about the inspection, Charlotte’s advice was to be as calm as possible when telling your team. If they see that you’re calm and feeling ready, they will too. Even seasoned early years educators get nervous when their setting gets The Call, so take the time to really explain the process to your newer team members, who might not know what to expect.

“As it was some of the staff’s first Ofsted inspections, we broke down for the team exactly what would happen and how the day would run, so they know exactly what to expect.” says Kerry, “The worry around Ofsted so often comes from the 'unknown', so we wanted to fully explain to them how it works.”

The Little Barn Owls leadership team wanted to make sure that every member of staff could really shine on inspection day and show off what they’re best at. As they know the educators really well, it was just about planning the right opportunities.

“We spoke to each of them about their individual strengths, as those are what we really want to show off to Ofsted,” says Kerry, “Our environment is always set. Our standards are always set. Our safeguarding is always set. But on the day we really want to show off where our staff’s strengths are and elevate that.”

The big ideas

The inspirational leaders ensure their passion for exceptional quality care and education is reflected across the nursery and forest school. They meticulously identify priorities for the curriculum and implement training, support and coaching for staff. As a result, children gain outstanding knowledge and skills to prepare them for their next stage of learning. Ofsted Inspection of Little Barn Owls Forest School Nursery.

What happens during your nursery Ofsted inspection?

When Little Barn Owls had Ofsted to visit, the inspector was there from 7:30 am to 7:30 pm, but your inspector won’t necessarily stay that long.

“On the call, we’d already talked about the routine of the day,” says Charlotte, “She’d told me she wanted to be here right for the start of the day, to talk to the parents as her starting point, so I knew the plan too.”

The inspector ensured that there was time to visit the forest, which is a huge part of Little Barn Owl’s provision, and also did a joint observation with Charlotte, followed by a reflection meeting. However, for the team at Little Barn Owls, this is nothing new.

“We observe our staff daily so when the inspector and I did the joint observation of an educator, it didn't faze them,” explains Charlotte, “When we had the discussion afterwards, the inspector wanted to check if I’d noticed the same things she had, and then if the educator also felt the same. It was about consistency.

A photograph of a pre-schooler at Little Barn Owls nursery painting in red and orange with an image of Jupiter projected above them

Despite feeling like things have to be perfect for Ofsted inspection day, this is actually far from the expectations they have of you. In fact, acknowledging what you need to work on and explaining how you’re going to do it, is part of being outstanding.

“There are always things to work on and always plans for staff, and we’re really honest about that,” says Kerry, “The Learning Walk is so useful as you’re able to say what each room is working on and how we’re supporting, developing or training staff.”

And, if you have nervous apprentices or newer educators, it might put their minds at ease to hear that most of the questions were aimed at leadership and management, during Little Barn Owls’ inspection.

“We asked, in a roundabout way, if she'd like to speak more to some of our educators," says Charlotte, "But she explained that she wanted to see that our passion, knowledge, and skills are embedded in our practice, as leaders and managers who are training the educators and apprentices. Because if we weren't getting it right, what hope would the team have? If we don't know it, how would they know it?"

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The meeting at the end of the day

Once the inspector has finished all of their activities, they’ll call a final meeting at the end of the day to give you your grade. But you won’t be left in the dark all day waiting for 5 pm - the inspector will let you know throughout the day how things are going.

“It didn’t feel like a negative experience throughout the day, just bracing ourselves for the meeting at the end. Our inspector reassured us that nothing would come as a shock,” says Charlotte, “If she saw something she didn’t like, she would feed back to me as we went. A few times throughout the day, she took me to one side to clarify the process around something, so it wasn’t the case that end the end, she suddenly told me all these negative things. It’s not supposed to be an ambush, you’re working together throughout the inspection.”

And, if the day isn’t running as well as you’d hoped for, it’s not the end of the world and it won’t necessarily mean you get downgraded. If something is easily explained or rectified, Ofsted inspectors will go through this with you.

“Ofsted know that is a nursery, you’re human and they are children - nothing ever goes completely to plan,” says Charlotte, “For example, we had some paperwork up on the wall with the previous month’s date on and she asked us, “Would you like to print out the most up-to-date version?” We did and put it up and that was it. She didn’t just put a red mark in her notebook and keep that to herself.”

A toddler at Little Barn Owls nursery explores resources on a light box

For Charlotte and the team at Little Barn Owls, their end-of-day meeting was a cause for celebration, although they couldn’t share the good news until the full report was out. However, if you’re still waiting for inspection day, check out Kerry and Charlotte’s tips below for an outstanding inspection day.

Kerry and Charlotte’s top tips for an outstanding Ofsted inspection

Know your safeguarding

You have to know your safeguarding policies as that’s at the forefront of everything you do. It has to be consistent across your staff team and not just for Ofsted. Our inspector told us that the safeguarding questions are so important that if they’re not answered properly, you lose your ‘Outstanding’ grade.  Our core function is to keep children safe so everybody has to know how to do it.

- Kerry

Don’t be scared of Ofsted jargon

We do a lot of training on the three Is (Intent, Implementation, Impact) all the time, so the team are really comfortable with it. We also have the three Is as part of practice prompts in our aprons all the time, so we’re using them all the time.

- Kerry 

Trust yourself and your team

We don’t view it as Ofsted coming in to scrutinise us, we see it as our chance to show off the very best that we can do. We weren’t thinking, “Oh no they’ll come and pick everything apart,” we were thinking, “If they have questions, we’re confident enough in the way we do things to explain things articulately and reflect on our practice.

- Charlotte 

Reassure your educators

One of our educators asked me what would happen if the inspector asked her something and she didn't know the answer. She asked could we (leadership) help.  As the manager, I was with the inspector all day anyway, but of course you can support your team - that’s what we’re here for. For the team, they can see we’re present so they don’t feel abandoned!

- Charlotte

Try a “mocksted” inspection

Back when I was a deputy manager, at our Farlington site, we ran a “mocksted” (mock Ofsted) inspection where two of our senior management, Charlotte and Becca, were the inspectors. I hadn’t had any experience yet with Ofsted, as a manager, so it was really useful. We practised joint observations and it reminded me to really explain why we do what we do really thoroughly. When you know you’re own setting so well, you can forget that the inspector doesn’t.

- Charlotte

4 pre-schoolers at a Little Barn Owls nursery sit at a table and paint.

You can’t change everything the night before

We do regular audits, like our Pedagogy and Practice Audit. We unpick all of our practice and our environment termly, and we have clear expected behaviours, so we know we’re always on our A game. We discuss safeguarding at every supervision meeting. The night before Ofsted, the team aren’t expected to suddenly know everything, it’s already embedded in their practice.

- Kerry

You can’t put on a fake front as Ofsted will see straight through it. You don’t want the inspector to ask an educator, “Why are you doing snack like that?”, to have the educator answer, “Well, my manager told me to last night!” It’s got to be embedded in your day-to-day practice.

- Charlotte

It’s a collaborative process

Throughout the day, we were able to say to staff, “It’s ok, just relax, this is what she’s picking up on and you’re doing a great job. She loved this and that’s what we can work on more.” It’s working together.

- Kerry

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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