What does ‘outstanding’ mean to you and how can you ensure it applies to your setting? Rebecca Miller presents some straightforward first steps to achieving early years excellence…
Most early years settings would agree that their goal is to achieve an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted inspection, but ‘outstanding’ can mean very different things to different people. Given that most settings are not run autonomously, the challenge is to create a clear understanding of what the term means to the individual decision-makers and other stakeholders, and then formulate the vision, practice and actions that will most closely produce it.
Ofsted, highlighting the key inspection judgements and what they mean, describes ‘outstanding’ as the provision of exceptionally high quality. However, despite very specific guidelines laid down by the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework its expectations are open to interpretation – given the huge variety of early years settings and the unique needs of the families and communities they serve, one size most definitely does not fit all.
To establish a clear picture of what your vision of an ‘outstanding’ setting is, it is first essential to be proactive in examining the beliefs behind your actions. Then, in determining your desired end-result, you are more able to act with awareness and intent rather than with a continuous knee-jerk response to others’ opinions and expectations of what that end-result should be.
I have talked with many managers who describe their frustration at being overwhelmed with information, expectations and sometimes-conflicting demands; they feel trapped in the repetition of behaviour and actions that increasingly contradict the values and beliefs they hold and the positive outcomes they are striving to create. This may include a feeling of being bogged down with dealing with day-to-day pressures and problems, which impacts on their ability to focus on what they really want to do and achieve.
It is the process that is important here. Keeping in mind the end-result or outcome requires focus and flexibility; it is easy to become over-involved in the little details and the worry of being seen to have an obvious end-product that can be evidenced through paperwork.
When exploring what is important to you and what your individual interpretation of ‘outstanding’ is, it is important to create your views by stating them in the positive and feeling confident that what you are saying accurately reflects your beliefs, values and priorities. If you are not absolutely clear at this stage then how can you confidently express yourself to others who are also placing a judgement on your setting?
For example, if we look at a statement you may make such as, “We are a centre of excellence for quality care and learning”, consider the following questions:
● What, specifically, does that mean to you?
● Who else considers you to be excellent? On what basis and criteria are you making that judgement?
● Are you excellent because you are a sustainable business or because of the quality you provide based on feedback from parents, happy and confident children or happy and well-motivated staff?
As you consider the above questions, are you beginning to get a picture in your mind about how your setting looks, sounds and feels? This may sound a little whimsical, but to be really clear about what is important to you, it should feel right. When something feels right, it is generally working well.
When it doesn’t feel right, you are identifying obstacles and issues that are holding you back and creating negative patterns of thoughts and behaviours that will then impact on everyone else in the setting, creating frustrations such as the ones listed earlier.
Therefore, at this stage, it is important to hold back on any of the potential problems and obstacles that may surface and concentrate solely on the best possible imagined outcome that fits your ideal view of what being ‘outstanding’ means to you.
On a sheet of paper, write down everything you can think of that matches your ideal interpretation of ‘outstanding’. Take into account:
● things that already reflect this in your setting;
● examples of good practice you may have seen elsewhere;
● specific examples of what your ideal would be in terms of environment, staff, financing, children, families other partnership agencies, Ofsted;
● how they already view you and how you like them to view you.
Write freely using whatever adjectives and descriptors you like that come to mind.
Don’t allow yourself to be restricted by negative thoughts or “yes, but…” points; you are writing your ideals and expressing the things that truly matter to you as a person, manager, educator and service provider
When you have finished, look at what you have written and then list everything in order of priority. Now consider the following:
● What is absolutely essential to you?
● What other items on your list do you feel strongly about and matter the most to you?
● How much of that is already in place within your setting?
Now that you have a priority list that accurately reflects your beliefs and values, you have a starting point from which to begin the identification of the next steps. Begin by identifying the specifics of what would need to be seen, heard or felt in order for those beliefs and values to be be clearly evident in your ‘outstanding’ setting. For example, imagining that money is no object, consider:
● What environment would you create?
● What would the children be experiencing on a day to day basis?
● What qualities would have in your staff and how many would there be?
● What systems would be in place to support your ideals?
● How, specifically would be dealing with outside agencies?
● What resources would you provide?
● How would you be managing your time effectively?
● What would the ideal atmosphere be?
Reality may now be creeping in with an insistent knock on the head, but the point is that without having your ideal vision firmly in mind, it is all too easy to get lost in the day-to-day problems, frustrations and issues inherent in running a setting. This is your opportunity to explore what you feel passionate about and what you are committed to creating in your unique setting.
Once you are clear on your own thoughts and ideas, you can consider the views and opinions of others. Every individual will be approaching the task from their unique view of the world and their priorities may be different from yours.
The most successful settings I have worked with are privately owned or run with a minimum number of decision makers; however, even if your setting does have to involve the decisions of others, it is possible to create a general purpose end goal as long as the overall vision is the same. This is can be more difficult if a manager has inherited the staff or setting, particularly if they have become manager after previously working alongside staff as a colleague. In those cases there is an even greater need to be clear about what you want, and to identify some of the barriers you feel are holding you back in creating your ideal and becoming a strong manager and leader.
Next up, read Rebecca’s article on how to communicate your vision of ‘outstanding’ 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.