Childcare Environments

Reflect, Develop, Improve – Sue Cowley Talks Setting Self-Evaluation

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The key to improvement for any early years setting lies in reflective practice. The more that you and your staff are able to reflect on and analyse what you do at present, the better able you will be to build on your strengths and to improve on your weaknesses. The central purpose of self-evaluation is to improve your provision and to ensure better outcomes for your children, whether you are a childminder, or working in a PVI or school based nursery setting. Over a period of eight years, by undertaking a process of detailed and ongoing self-evaluation our preschool has moved from a “Requirements Improvement” Ofsted grade to an “Outstanding” one.

It is very important to see self-evaluation as an ongoing process rather than as a one off event. Self-evaluation is a journey rather than a destination, and it is not something that is ever completed. Once you get used to a reflective mindset, it becomes part and parcel of the way that you work. Self-evaluation is an enjoyable process because it allows you to celebrate your achievements – it is not only about focusing on where you are going wrong. You will need to note down your observations and targets on a self-evaluation form (SEF) and then revisit and revise this at the very least once a year, but preferably on an ongoing basis.

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What format should we use?

Ofsted provide an online SEF that settings can use. We experimented with using this, but we didn’t find it particularly user friendly. There is no compulsion for you to use the Ofsted SEF – you are free to use whatever format you find most useful. At our setting we use The Bristol Standard, which is a quality assurance framework backed up by a process of mentoring, support and regular assessment. We find it helpful to have external support and oversight of the self-evaluation process.

There is no one correct way to write your SEF – you can write it as a narrative, but you can also complete it as a list of bullet points. Remember that a hard copy of your SEF can include notes, annotations, and so on. Our Bristol Standard folder is very much a working document rather than a finished product. You need to comment on all the areas that are included in the Ofsted SEF, but there is no need to give excessive detail for each one. You should identify your strengths and give evidence of these, as well as noting your targets, how and when you will achieve these, and the benefits for the children of you meeting them. By focusing on your priorities for improvement you show an inspector where your setting is going next.

How will an inspector use our SEF?

The inspector will read your SEF before visiting to inspect your provision, to gain a sense of what your setting is like, ahead of time. If you are not using the standard online Ofsted SEF, you should make sure that you submit your SEF to Ofsted. This could be done electronically or you could send them a hard copy of any paperwork that you have. On the day of an inspection, make sure that you have a copy of your SEF available, confirming that the inspector has seen the most up to date version.

Self-evaluation: How do we get started?

Before you get going with your self-evaluation, it is important to be clear what the ethos of your setting is. What are your ultimate aims? If you were to write a ‘mission statement’ or a ‘tag line’ what would it say? Talk about this with staff, to make sure that it is a team effort. Give due consideration to the thoughts of all stakeholders – parents, children, committee members if you are committee run setting and the local community as well. What do the people who use your setting think about it? What do they need and want from your provision?

setting self-evaluationSue’s setting consistently ask for parent and carer feedback in order to identify areas for improvement

You can use a set of questions about the different areas of your provision to get the process of self-evaluation started: what do people think you are doing well at the moment and where do they have concerns? You could send out questionnaires to parents, to find out what their children enjoy about your setting and what they would improve. At our setting we send out two questionnaires every year – one at around Easter time and another ‘leavers’ questionnaire for the children who are moving onto school. We find this feedback invaluable for identifying the next areas for focus and improvement.

Identifying your strengths

A key part of self-evaluation is to identify your strengths in the different areas of your provision. What are you doing well already? In the Ofsted SEF, this is divided up into five areas, including quality of teaching, learning and assessment and outcomes for children. To complete The Bristol Standard, you must look at ten dimensions, including areas such as relationships and interactions, the physical environment and leadership, management and staffing. Whatever format you use, you should show how you are keeping up to date with the latest developments. For instance, developing the use of ICT in your setting and meeting any new statutory requirements.

Identifying areas for development

Remember that the most important thing to focus on is the outcomes for the children. When you decide to make a change to an aspect of your provision, think carefully about why you are doing this. What difference will it make for the children when you achieve this target? It can be useful to audit your resources, to help you think about the areas where you might need to develop. For instance, the diversity of the resources you offer, or whether you give enough weight to every area of the curriculum. Consider carefully what kind of training your staff might need to support development in areas where you are weakest. If you can show how staff have engaged in professional development activities, this helps demonstrate a drive for improvement.

What kind of evidence can we use?

After the initial information gathering process, you will be able to identify some of your strengths – what do you currently do well? You will need to give evidence to show how you do this. Evidence can take a variety of forms – it could be comments from questionnaires, photographs of your provision, samples of children’s learning, written examples of something you have done, data from assessments, minutes of meetings, certificates from training attended. For instance, one of our setting’s strengths is the garden we created with parents and local volunteers for the children to play in. The ‘evidence’ for this strength includes the plans we had drawn up for the space, the local press coverage of the garden build, photographs of ‘before’ and ‘after’ and information about how children use their new garden for learning.

self-evaluation outdoorsEven settings with limited space can be transformed to incorporate an outdoor play area

SMART Targets

There is no point in setting vague targets, or ones that are impossible to achieve. The key to success is to take small steps forwards and SMART targets are a great way to help you do this. SMART stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Agreed
  • Realistic
  • Time based

Step One: Specific

Vague statements are not much help when it comes to self-evaluation: if you want to achieve something you need to be clear about what it is. For instance, one of our aims as a setting at the moment is to improve our use of technology – this was the one item picked up for development in our most recent Ofsted report. As a rural setting based in a community building it has been tricky for us to get linked up to wireless Internet, but we have now achieved that goal. The next step is to move over to digital learning journeys from our current paper ones. So, while our overall target is “to continue to improve our use of technology” the specific tasks we need to complete to achieve this are:

  • apply for a grant to fund the purchase of 2 iPads;
  • purchase the Tapestry digital learning journey software;
  • organise training for staff in the new approach;
  • hold a workshop for parents to show them how the new learning journeys work.

Step Two: Measurable

For a target to be of value, you have to be able to check that you have achieved it. We can measure our success in relation to our overall target by checking off each of the tasks listed above. The more specific your targets are, the easier it will be to show that you have completed them.

Step Three: Agreed

It is really important to achieve ‘buy-in’ from staff when making changes to your provision. We have experienced a slight lack of confidence from staff in moving over to new technology. However, by gradually introducing equipment such as laptops, along with suitable training, we have managed to bring them along. We also needed to sound out parents – do they have access to the technology that will let them read the learning journeys online? If not, will we continue to provide paper copies? You will need to agree who is going to be responsible for completing each task.

Step Four: Realistic

The fourth step is typically where finances and practicalities come into play – your targets cannot be impossible to achieve. For instance, several years ago we decided that we wanted to introduce freeflow and to have our children moving freely between indoors and outdoors during sessions. However, our setting opens onto a car park. While there was lots of talk at the time about digging up the tarmac and creating a beautiful garden, in the end we had to settle for overhauling a strip of land alongside the building and buying some temporary barriers that we could move into place when we were in session.

Step Five: Time Based

If you want something to happen you need to set a timescale within which to achieve it. Otherwise targets have a habit of hanging around like a bad smell. Set yourselves a date by which each task will be done, and work out how you are going to ensure that it has happened. Repeat this process with each of the areas for development, and before you know it you will have completed your SEF.

The great thing about a detailed self-evaluation is that it allows you to demonstrate the quality of day-to-day practice to Ofsted. You can show inspectors your strengths, and also let them see that you know what your weaknesses are and that you are working to improve on these. A SEF gives you specific information to share with an inspector who does not know about all the great things you are doing. It also gives you the confidence to say ‘this is us’.

Useful Links:

The online Ofsted SEF:

Information about The Bristol Standard:

Information leaflet for parents and carers about The Bristol Standard:

Sample statements for a SEF:…/Sample%20statements%20SEF.docx

Model SEF statements for childminders:

Sue Cowley is an author, teacher and teacher trainer, and she has helped to run her local preschool for the last eight years. Her website is Sue’s latest book “Road School” tells the story of what happened when she and her partner took their children out of school for six months, to educate them ‘on the road’. Visit for more information.

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