Last reviewed 6 September 2021

Ofsted inspections have now resumed for registered provision, and the revised Early Years inspection handbook is effective from September 2021. Rachel Dearnley provides a summary of the major changes and looks at how to prepare and contribute confidently to an Ofsted inspection at any time.

Early Years Inspection Handbook 2021 and the Early Years Foundation Stage 2021

To be confident on the day of an inspection relies on a number of things. It is important to be fully conversant with the format of the Early Years Inspection Handbook 2021 and the Early Years Foundation Stage 2021. The only way to do this is to read both documents and consider the things that you may not do securely in your practice and provision.

The inspection itself is neither the guiding principle on which to base your decisions about what you do for children and families and why, nor is it about satisfying an Ofsted inspector and ticking boxes. It’s about what you do for your children and families from the very start. Getting to know each child and their family well, plus their community and culture, and identifying their needs and interests is important. From this, the creation of an ambitious and well sequenced curriculum can emerge that meets the needs and interests of your children, as well as providing a safe, nurturing and exciting environment so that no matter what their starting points, all children thrive in your care and are ready for the next step on their learning and development journey. This is where the potential for outstanding practice lies.

Getting to know the Early Years inspection handbook

The Early years inspection handbook for Ofsted-registered provision for September 2021 is available here.

It is comprised of two parts plus one Annex.

Part 1: How we will inspect early years providers registered with Ofsted. Paragraphs 1 – 166. It explains what will happen before, during and after an inspection.

Part 2: The evaluation schedule. Paragraphs 167 – 201.

It explains how inspectors make their judgment of Outstanding, Good, Requires improvement or Inadequate and the grade descriptors for overall effectiveness, quality of education, behaviour and attitudes, personal development and leadership and management.

Annex A: Inspecting before and after-school care and holiday provision.

You should also be familiar with the document Inspecting safeguarding in early years, education and skills 2019.

New Timing of inspections: paragraph 28 of the handbook now states that “Ofsted must inspect each provider within 6 years of the date of its last inspection”.

Major Changes

The major changes are summarised in a document released by Ofsted in June 2021 here. The changes to the handbook, effective from September 2021, are as follows:

Inspection during the COVID-19 Pandemic: paragraphs 6–24

  • Inspections will be conducted with safety protocols in place and the inspector should agree these with the setting during the notification call.

  • The current context and disruptions of COVID-19 will be considered when making judgments and will take account of any adaptations that have been made to provide the very best experiences for all children, including for those whose starting points are delayed or gaps in knowledge are wider. Leaders should be prepared to discuss what they are doing to address any loss in learning caused by the pandemic, particularly for vulnerable children so that they catch up and are well prepared for their next stage in learning.

Clarification for providers: Dispelling myths, paragraphs 52 to 55

  • This section highlights practices that Ofsted do not require. Inspectors will base their judgements on conversations with leaders, practitioners, children, observations, parent’s views, and a joint learning walk.

Providers do not need to:

  • Provide specific EYFS curriculum planning for inspection.

  • Provide any progress tracking data.

  • Do any additional paperwork for the inspection.

Preparing for an inspection

Vision: (Intent)

“Leaders have a clear and ambitious vision for providing high-quality, inclusive care and education to all. This is realised through strong shared values, policies and practice.”

Early Years Inspection Handbook 2021 Grade descriptor for “Good” - Leadership and Management.

Being confident in an inspection is dependent upon the setting’s journey to fulfilling a shared vision so that all children in the setting thrive. Developing a vision should reflect what it is you do, what makes your setting unique, how you strive to enable every child to flourish in your care. For a vision to be realised, it must be owned and understood by every member of staff so that it becomes part of everyday practice.

When the Ofsted inspector arrives on site, will they be clear about what your vision for your children is? Ofsted inspectors go to great lengths to prepare for your inspection by looking at any information that is available, eg Facebook page, Instagram page, website information, etc. This provides them with important prior knowledge and a starting point for their inspection. How visible is your vision, is it stated on your website, is it displayed for all to see and, most importantly, does your vision shine through in everything your practitioners do, and therefore is reflected in what your children know and can do?

Can leaders talk about and demonstrate their vision, plus the intent, implementation and impact of the curriculum? The learning walk is a good opportunity to talk about your “coherently planned and sequenced” curriculum. What is your approach to cultural capital, and how well do you understand the backgrounds and experiences of your children and use this information to plan effectively? How do you broaden children’s minds and outlook on life, to reduce the effects of disadvantage by developing knowledge and understanding of their community and the wider world?

Teaching and Learning: (implementation)

“Children benefit most when teachers engage in stimulating interactions that support learning and are emotionally supportive. Interactions that help children acquire new knowledge and skills provide input to children, elicit verbal responses and reactions from them, and foster engagement in and enjoyment of learning.” (Yoshikawa et al. 2013)

Read paragraph 182 of the Early years inspection handbook to understand the Ofsted definition of teaching in the early years which is entirely different from more formal, passive teaching further up the education system. It reflects not only how children in their earliest years learn, but also what adults can do to support this learning. Further guidance can be found in the Development Matters document and Birth to 5 Matters.

Ofsted inspectors will take time to observe and listen to practitioners as they interact with their children throughout the inspection. Their observations will assess the short-term intent/implementation/impact of what practitioners do in the moment such as how they engage in sustained conversations with children using back and forth exchanges, how they extend their learning and understanding, find opportunities to develop language, thinking, creativity, imagination and self-regulate feelings, as they co-construct and co-regulate with children. To substantiate their findings, inspectors will talk to key persons about their children to establish how well they know them, what they could do when they started, the progress they have made and what the practitioners do to support their learning. The conversation may include how practitioners plan the learning for their children including those from vulnerable groups including SEND, and the impact of this and how they share information and work with parents and other professionals.


The summer term can be an extraordinary time for realising the benefits and impact of what you have done with your children across the nursery. Transitions abound, and the reward comes from watching children move on with their friends, oozing confidence, excitement and anticipation. This is when you know you are getting something right but also provides a good opportunity to reflect on your vision assessing what went well and what needs to be developed next. Identifying your strengths and areas for improvement, and converting this into a development plan.

In an inspection the judgment on impact is made around how well children are ready for the next stage in their learning. Some examples of the grade descriptors that are being judged against include:

  • Can children listen, respond, sing songs and recite rhymes appropriate to their age group?

  • Can they move well and show control and coordination in gross and fine motor skills?

  • Do they hold sustained conversations with adults and their friends?

  • Are they confident learners who are given time to become deeply involved in their explorations and investigations?

  • Can they manage their own feelings and are they supported well by practitioners to do this so that they can then develop a sense of right and wrong?

  • Children’s confidence, resilience, independence and risk taking is promoted throughout the setting.

  • The key person system helps children feel safe and secure and promotes their wellbeing.

  • Children engage in healthy choices around food, rest, exercise and screen time.

  • Equality and diversity are promoted by practitioners and valued by all.

These are just a fraction of the skills and competencies that children will actually acquire on their journey through the setting, so if you base your practice on the requirements of the handbook and grade descriptors, your provision could lack breadth and depth. The Development Matters and Birth to 5 Matters documents provide useful guidance for practitioners, but inspectors will not have regard for these documents in the inspection. It is up to settings to decide on a suitable curriculum and where their influences come from.

Leadership and management

“Leaders provide effective support to all staff, including those with less experience and knowledge of teaching.” (Early Years inspection handbook, grade descriptor for Quality of Education under “Implementation”.)

Realising a vision and creating an ambitious and sequenced curriculum relies heavily on the knowledge and expertise of your practitioners. This will undoubtedly require some training, especially for the less experienced, newcomers to early years.

First you will need to meet the statutory requirements around safeguarding and first aid, keeping accurate records of completed training for inspectors to check. The statutory requirements for qualifications as cited in the Safeguarding and Welfare requirements section of the EYFS are a minimum standard. Though you will be operating legally, be mindful that the team structure promotes good outcomes for the children.

What should lie at the heart of your vision and excellent practice, is the knowledge, expertise and wellbeing of all practitioners. Imperative here, are focussed and highly effective professional development systems that derive from knowing your staff well through supportive relationships, observations, supervision meetings, modelling, coaching and mentoring. Providing high quality training and development that addresses the knowledge gaps in how children learn and develop is key to helping children thrive and could be the way forward to retaining staff in a challenging recruitment market. Growing your staff through your own vision could result in capable, strong, powerful and competent practitioners, who understand how to carefully nurture the young children in their care.

It doesn’t take rocket science to understand that upskilling a workforce will have beneficial effects on the children, but there is evidence here in Fostering Effective Early Learning (2018) research by Iram Siraj, which concluded:

“Extensive research demonstrates that the benefits of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) for children are increased when the service provider and educators are highly skilled and participate in professional development, and the service is of high quality. Upskilling the workforce, including in-service professional development, is considered to be a key to improving quality, and can produce substantial and practical improvements for staff and children alike.”

What you do for children can really make a difference to their long-term outcomes, so think boldly beyond the Ofsted inspection itself to really get to the heart of the lives of the children and families and make a difference with all those you work with. This is where outstanding practice truly lies.

Further information

  • Early Years Alliance (2018) Minds Matter, The impact of working in the early years sector on practitioner’s mental health and wellbeing.

  • Interactions Matter: What research says and what you can do.

  • Fisher, J. (2016) Interacting or Interfering? Improving interactions in the early years.

  • Grenier, J, (2020) Successful Early Years Ofsted Inspections.

  • Ofsted: Inspecting Safeguarding in Early Years 2019.

  • Siraj, I, “Fostering Effective Early Learning (FEEL) Study”.

  • Yoshikawa, Hirokazu, et al (2013), Investing in Our Future: The Evidence Base on Preschool Education”. Society for Research in Child Development, and Foundation for Child Development.