Last reviewed 24 March 2021

Rebecca Fisk suggests some ways that leaders and managers can grow staff confidence to contribute to improvements to early years provision.

All early years providers want customers to their door. These are the paying parent and those whose children are eligible for funded early years entitlements. The providers that do particularly well in business are those that understand that quality provision is key to parents feeling their child is safe, stimulated and well cared for. Successful early years businesses involve staff, parents, and children in improving their provision. Leaders and managers have a central role to play in securing the investment of time, thought and training to continuously improve the setting’s provision in its widest sense. Gaining and maintaining a good or outstanding judgement from an Ofsted inspection can make or break a provider, as parents often seek the ‘best’ provision in their local area.

What does Ofsted say?

The Ofsted handbook (2019:14) states that ‘leaders and managers of settings should have an accurate view of the quality of their provision and know what to improve…the inspector will discuss how the provider evaluates the quality of its provision, checking whether they take account of the views of the parents and the progress made by the children to determine what it needs to improve.’

Inspectors will talk to parents and staff to gain their views on the quality and care of education provided (Ofsted 2019:13). This necessarily means that the relationship between the provider, the staff and the parents will be key in developing the trust needed for open and honest feedback. Staff are the key asset in this relationship, showing parents that they are willing to gain feedback, able to adjust practice and make improvements not only for individual children but also within the provision as a whole.

Developing staff’s ability to self-evaluate provision

So how to managers help staff know what is quality and develop an open attitude to feedback from parents and each other? Developing a clear vision with staff about the type of ethos and atmosphere you want the provision to embed is a good starting point. Researching into evidence-based examples of good practice and quality early years provision is one way to get staff talking about their understanding of quality. Why not select some articles and documents for different staff to read, and ask them to feedback five key points for discussion in staff meetings? This can build staff confidence knowing that each member of staff is expected to contribute, and that they are ‘all in it together’. You can carefully select the article, video clip or statement you wish staff to look at so that it matches the level of education and experience they have. You want them to succeed in being able to select some points for discussion that relate to practice, so if someone is anxious about this, they can buddy up with a more experienced member of staff. You could even get them to ‘mystery shop’ the websites of other providers and learn from what your competitors are doing, giving you the same ‘view’ that parents have when they are searching for local provision.

In a Department for Education study into good practice in early education, they found that where managers were able to integrate and embed self-evaluation into their daily practice, they were more open to change and showed a willingness to respond to information and feedback. They also found that where providers used self-evaluation underpinned by good knowledge and understanding of what was happening in the wider early years sector, they were able to improve the quality of their provision. This included a knowledge of shifting policies and procedures, new research and new initiatives and approaches. (DfE 2017:55).

Leaders and managers who are open to staff expressing their views about how practice needs to change will build their staff’s confidence in their own knowledge and experience drawn from working directly with children. Staff will be aware of things that may not work quite so well in the routines, the environment, or the supervision of children. They are well placed to raise these issues and make suggestions for change. Change does not have to be huge to improve issues, for example, one playgroup in a large community hall noticed that the children were not using the role play corner well and were lacking care of the resources in that area. They moved it into the centre of the room, and the children’s play completely changed, was much more productive, cooperative, and respectful towards the toys and each other. The children had not engaged with the area at first, until it felt part of their space and they had better access to it, enabling them to interact in larger groups and develop their role play collaboratively.

Peer observations

Within a trusting and supportive environment, where supervision and mentoring is encouraged, peer observations can really improve staff confidence in knowing what quality provision is. The good practice in early education case studies (DfE 2017:55) found that where quality was good manager and staff valued regular peer observation. Examples include:

“senior member of staff observing junior members of staff, and vice versa – as crucial to embedding a culture of self-evaluation. They described how these peer observations took place at difference times of day and unannounced, which provided a fuller and more accurate picture of staff practice. Peer observations were viewed as supportive and a positive means of encouraging staff to develop their own practice. Manager observations of staff were also seen as necessary because their expertise was felt to encourage and challenge staff to reflect and improve on their practice”.

This open and reflective culture enables the staff to become more skilled and experienced and allows them to tailor their practice to the needs of children. These are the key themes which emerged from the case studies in the study of early education and development. It is such evidence-based research that is vital to use when evaluating provision and aiming to improve and sustain quality.


  • Staff will gain confidence and competence in being able to evaluate their own and other’s practice within a supportive and enabling childcare environment.

  • Leaders can motivate and inspire staff to be fully included in the improvement journey of the setting, by building trusting relationships, acknowledging their strengths and areas for development, and allowing them to try out their ideas.

  • Establishing peer support arrangements, through observation, buddying, and mentoring can go a long way to improving practice.

  • Ensuring supervision is of high quality and that additional support is available or adaptations made for staff to feel included are also key considerations.

  • A whole setting approach to self-evaluation, incorporating the views of children, parents and staff is central to high quality provision.