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Monday, August 2, 1999 Published at 15:51 GMT 16:51 UK


Watchdog to check playgroups

Playgroups will come under the scrutiny of Ofsted

The schools watchdog is getting new powers to regulate and inspect standards of childcare across England.

A new arm of the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) will take responsibility for education provided by childminders, children's homes and playgroups.

Niall Dickson reports: "Ofsted will have to show it is the right choice for a difficult job"
Local councils' social services departments currently take responsibility for this area.

The move caused some concern among childcare professionals, whose performance will now be judged by the abrasive Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead.

The Conservatives questioned whether Ofsted was the right organisation to check on standards of childcare.

[ image: Chris Woodhead: Not exactly popular with many teachers]
Chris Woodhead: Not exactly popular with many teachers
Mr Woodhead said it was important to ensure that children's security and general well-being were at the heart of the inspections - but that the quality of "the educational input" was also looked at.

That was what parents wanted, he said on BBC News 24.

"We don't think that there's any conflict between education and care," he said.

Chris Woodhead: "This is what parents want"
"We think that young children must obviously be looked after to the highest possible standards, they must be given opportunities to play and to develop socially and emotionally, but also they should be challenged in their learning and helped to acquire the kinds of skills that they will need when they start primary school.

"It's just common sense, I think."

The Minister for Employment and Equal Opportunities, Margaret Hodge, said: "The safety of our children and the quality of their care and education is paramount.

Margaret Hodge: "We want a seamless regulation inspection regime"
"Our proposals for bringing together the two existing systems will help to create one consistent and uniform set of standards for all providers offering early years services.

"We are sorting out the confusion, the duplication and the unfairness which two separate regimes have created."

But the Shadow Education Secretary, Theresa May, questioned whether Ofsted was the right body for the job.

"Oftsed provides a first class inspection regime for education facilities, but childminders are not primarily educators," she said.

'Incoherent mess'

Ofsted firmly believes that children as young as four benefit from "a deliberate effort to teach them knowledge and skills" in the areas covered by the foundation stage of the National Curriculum.

[ image: Eva Lloyd, National Early Years Network:
Eva Lloyd, National Early Years Network: "Ofsted will need training"
Ministers have stressed that this sets out what children should know by the time they are about six years old - not what they are expected to know when they are three.

The Daycare Trust charity said it had long argued argued for such changes to improve the quality of services for children and increase parents' confidence.

"The current system of regulations is an incoherent mess which does not consistently ensure basic quality standards," said its Director, Colette Kelleher.

"These proposed reforms - together with investment by the government - should provide a greatly improved quality framework to ensure that the increasing number of children's services are of the highest standard."

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