Can staff, parents, children and Ofsted see clearly what you mean by ‘outstanding’? It’s vital that they do, says Rebecca Miller…
In my first article we established what ‘outstanding’ means to you. Now the focus is to determine to whom you specifically need to communicate and the key messages that you want them to receive.
The sheer volume of expectations from the different people who use and view your setting means that you will have numerous ways of communicating with them. The effectiveness of those means is determined by how those different people then respond and communicate with you. This can be both rewarding and challenging and requires you to be clear, consistent and flexible while always remaining authentic in what you say and do.
Being clear and consistent about what you want your staff to know and do is vital in the running of a successful setting. The more clear and consistent you are, the less opportunity there will be for confusion and misunderstandings. What exactly would you like your staff to say about working for you? What specifically, do you need to communicate to them in terms of roles, responsibilities, attitudes and expectations?
Once you are clear about what you want and therefore what to expect, you can communicate this so that every staff member knows exactly what to expect, what to do and how they will be treated. They will also have absolute trust in your ability to be open and consistent in your management. The essentials to ensure clear communication and therefore good practice include having:
● Clearly defined job descriptions outlining expected attitudes, behaviour, attendance expectations and responsibilities;
● A staff handbook explaining all the beliefs, attitudes, knowledge and skills you require. This could also include your training and development programme, mentoring programme and specific training you as an employer will provide;
● Clearly written systems to evidence the practice and lines of communication within the setting;
● Specific details of when room and staff meetings will take place and whether or not staff attendance is compulsory and in addition to paid working hours;
● Details of what, exactly, staff can expect from you as a manager in terms of time, resources, flexibility and communication;
● The frequency and nature of staff appraisals;
● How staff’s individual skills, capabilities, knowledge and ideas will be taken into consideration.
It is vital to understand parents’ needs and requirements but also to be very clear about what it is, exactly, your setting provides. The key is to know what the most common needs of the community you serve are, while also being flexible enough to provide individual consideration. The aim is to run your setting as a sustainable business while also providing the highest quality care and education as you have now determined that to be.
Evidence of parents’ interest and satisfaction with what you offer, according to their understanding of an ‘outstanding’ setting, may include:
● Their children attend regularly;
● They pay their fees regularly and on time;
● They take an active interest in the setting and become involved with various supportive events;
● They understand and support the practice you offer;
● They maintain close relations with their child’s key worker;
● They attend parent’s information evenings;
● They recommend you to other parents.
If this is not the case, part of the reason may be that you are neither communicating clearly enough nor engaging parents in appropriate ways to seek their input. Every setting I have worked with has had the necessary information available in some form – be it written literature such as a prospectus or newsletter, information on a website or display boards, or via verbal communication with staff and other parents.
However, while all of these may be in place, the effectiveness with which they are used or accurately reflect the actual practice in a setting may differ. This is often a result of lack of confidence felt by the manager or staff; staff turnover resulting in updated information not being shared; lack of time; lack of clarity in what is written; lack of consistency in expectations of, or communication with, parents; lack of access by both staff and parents to relevant information; lack of interest; and too much difference between what is being said and what is actually observed by parents when they come in to the setting.
Ofsted has a clear legal framework and set of criteria against which they judge a setting. You will also no doubt be judged by the local authority through specific assessment systems that will impact on the amount of funding or access to support and training your setting receives. Some settings actively seek out participation in other Quality Assurance Programmes.
One of the key tools used by settings is the Self Evaluation Form (SEF). It is not a requirement but it is considered to be an excellent investment of a setting’s time to complete as it will specifically evidence all areas of a setting’s environment, practice and statutory obligations in their provision of care and learning.
Used properly, the SEF is an invaluable reflective tool and is most effective when used to inform a Development and subsequent Action plans. These plans form the most effective means to communicate what you do and why, and to communicate what you consider to be an ‘outstanding’ practice, through your clearly defined vision, values and beliefs about ‘outstanding’.
In my experience, when a setting is completing the SEF or other Quality Assessment forms, it is very easy for staff to write the words Ofsted are looking for and be incredibly convincing in what they say they do – but if that is not really an accurate reflection of the systems and practice in place then they are vulnerable to imposing more changes that may move them even further away from their interpretation and intention of being ‘outstanding’.
I have known many managers who write out endless Quality Assessment forms to comply with the requests of various external agencies or partners and then do not communicate this effectively to their staff. The result is often a great deal of confusion and misalignment of what staff have believed to be the setting’s intentions. They may then lack the confidence, not only in what they do, but in how they communicate that when external inspectors arrive.
The SEF represents your opportunity to be absolutely clear in what you intend – but if staff, parents and children are clearly involved in the process then they are more likely to be confident to reflect that in their practice and then communicate it to others.
Consulting with children is high on the EYFS agenda, and many training initiatives and tool kits have been created to actively take into account their views to continually improve the services and activities they access.
Essentially, your communication with the children in your care comes directly from the environment you create and the attitudes, skills and dispositions of the staff you employ. An important issue to consider here is exactly how clear is your vision of how an ‘outstanding’ environment actually looks, sounds and feels.
Are you happy with the environment you provide and how well children access and thrive within it? What exactly are the experiences you wish to provide for the children and how can you demonstrate that their views and opinions, from babies upwards, are truly being valued and are reflected in your practice?
Rebecca Miller is an experienced executive coach and trainer with a background in education. This article is an edited extract taken from her book Clearly Outstanding.