Opinion:Prioritise mental health

Labour recently created a furor with its bold pledge to scrap ‘unfit for purpose’ Ofsted during the Labour party conference. In truth, I initially felt some excitement given my continued deep dissatisfaction with Ofsted's role in early years. However, it seems they have not considered the implications of their pledge thoroughly.

Labour's proposed two-stage inspection consists of ‘health checks’ run by local authorities and in-depth visits from inspectors if concerns are flagged.

Getting rid of one broken system and replacing it with another without addressing all that was wrong in the first instance will achieve nothing.

Ofsted's emphasis on academic outcomes is to the detriment of children's mental health, self-confidence, imagination and creativity. Empty promises from Labour, which lack careful planning and consultation with teachers and early years practitioners, will not win the day.

Primary school teacher, Andrea Sofroniou, explains: ‘If Ofsted inspectors were instead encouraged to prioritise well-being instead of literacy and numeracy, they could better support teachers to create a curriculum based on well-being, where all children feel safe, secure and happy.’

Why do well-being and happiness remain such anathema? I would posit it's because well-being and happiness cannot easily be measured. This ideology is what must change.

One former Ofsted inspector expresses concern over training for inspectors, highlighting the problems caused by the emphasis on paperwork: ‘Training for inspectors needs to go beyond the parameters of ‘how to’ and instead equip inspectors to encourage practitioners to achieve child-centred provision. The sheer bureaucracy of the system can go against this.’

This is echoed by many early years practitioners who feel stressed and anxious as a result of having to fit their provision into tightly regimented tick-boxes.

One childminder told me: ‘There are too many tick-boxes during inspections in your own home, putting immense pressure on us and not enough support to ensure that our overall goal is the well-being of the child and their family.’

Ofsted should be encouraged to actively assess settings on their mental health policies and practice. Some settings are doing fantastic work in this area but there is minimal consistency across settings. In practice, Ofsted reports still barely mention mental health and well-being.

Instead of banishing Ofsted, it should instead be supported to refocus on what they inspect, how and why, with serious consideration of the following:

  • The Department for Education (DfE) revising its overall priorities, to emphasise emotional well-being over academic outcomes.
  • Inspectors should be trained on the neuroscience of early brain development.
  • Ensuring inspectors have received sufficient training in early years practice.
  • Consistency in the inspections and feedback.
  • Creating a new regulatory framework that stems from practitioners' expertise, with mental health at its core.

It certainly is time for change, but any such changes cannot be implemented on a whim and must include meaningful consultation with the early years workforce.

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