Last reviewed 30 March 2009

Tony Powell looks at the early years' SEF.

The importance of the SEF

The SEF has become one of the most important documents for school management. Its use is so widespread, and probably universal, that it is sometimes difficult to remember that it is not compulsory. However, there is a very strong recommendation that all schools and now all registered providers who will be required to deliver the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) from September 2008 complete the Ofsted SEF.

Although use of the SEF is not compulsory, self-evaluation is. From a negative point of view, providers that are not aware of their weaknesses will not be able to remedy them. More positively, nor will they be able to build on their strengths. If a provider does not have some form of self-evaluation statement when they are inspected, then leadership and management will be criticised. It is sensible to use the SEF as the framework.

Common flaws

One of the most common errors in SEFs is that they describe provision in excessive detail. The best way to complete the SEF is firstly to make clear judgments using each of the prompt questions. Then go back and briefly describe what you do to achieve this judgment. A good link is to think of the word “because”. For example: “The children make a very good contribution to the life of our community because…” Illustrative examples and selected quotes are good practice but not lengthy lists. Then state the main sources of evidence. The inspector can ask to see this during the visit.

Weighing your judgments

Think about the big picture. It is tempting to complete the SEF section by section from those where you have lots of evidence to others where there isn't as much. Have the impact on the children's progress at the forefront of your mind and think about how each aspect of your work contributes to this.

Settings are asked to make 13 separate judgments on their performance. The big picture is the four summative key judgments and the rest are supplementary. The key judgments are in Part B: the quality and standard of the early years provision.

  • Learning and development of the children in the early years provision.

  • How effectively is the welfare of children in the early years foundation stage promoted?

  • How effectively is provision in the early years foundation stage led and managed?

  • How effective is your provision in meeting the needs of children in the early years foundation stage?

Getting started

Some settings will have been inspected in the recent past and there will be a strong temptation to put off writing the SEF until the next inspection becomes imminent. Time will fly before the next visit and you may not leave enough time to do the setting justice. Also, it will almost certainly nag at the back of the mind as an important task that needs to be completed. Even more importantly, this approach is based on the SEF being a task solely associated with inspection. In fact, effective settings and schools realise it is an integral part of leadership and management.

It is important not to try to produce a perfect SEF first time. Sketch it out, draft it and redraft it and share it with others to get their perceptions. Best practice is to create a cycle for self-evaluation, improvement planning and the professional development of staff. Plan ahead and revise different sections over the year or a longer period. Involve all staff and stakeholders in the process. Share judgments with parents and carers and ask them for their views on your provision and outcomes for their children.

Check each section by asking the following.

  • Is this an accurate picture of what we do?

  • Does an outside observer need to know anything else about this section?

The structure of the SEF

The SEF is divided into three parts.

Part A: setting details and views of those who use the setting.

  • Section 1: your setting.

  • Section 2: views of those who use your setting.

Part B: the quality and standards of the early years provision.

  • Section 3: the learning and development of the children.

  • Section 4: the welfare of the children.

  • Section 5: leadership and management of the provision.

  • Section 6: the overall effectiveness of the provision.

Part C: information about compliance with statutory requirements

It is important to recognise that the structure of the SEF is derived from the way that Ofsted inspects. It is a progress model or value for money model, in the phrase disliked by people who see education and care in different terms.

Using the SEF for inspection

The SEF is the basis for the inspection. The role of the inspector is to test the judgments in the SEF and validate or challenge them as appropriate. She or he will always be looking for good and innovative practice so that this can be disseminated. All inspectors are aware that at the end of the visit they must make their own judgments and write a report using the Ofsted schedule. This report is actually being written at each stage of the process, including the scrutiny of the SEF.

As inspectors read through the SEF they will be making notes on questions such as the following.

  • What type of setting is this and what services does it provide for the children?

  • What are the characteristics of the children and the community?

  • Is there any evidence about the abilities of the children and what progress they make?

  • Does this setting evaluate its performance carefully and use this information to improve its quality of provision for the children?

  • Are judgements backed by evidence or are they assertions?

  • What strengths and areas for improvement has the setting identified?

  • What are the views of parents/carers, children and staff?

  • Is there some obvious good practice to be celebrated?

  • Are there any important areas that appear weak?

The baseline for the inspection is the capabilities and abilities the children have on entry, their characteristics and the context of the setting. If the children make good or outstanding progress this leads to the logical presumption that teaching and care and guidance are very good. The reverse is also true.

Constructing the SEF

There is a logical order for completing the SEF. This will help the setting to think through the sequence that an inspector will follow.

Complete Part C

Part C is compliance with statutory requirements. If the setting is not compliant this may lead to suspension of registration so this is obviously a priority. If requirements are only partly in place, explain why and what is being done. Very importantly, state whether this is having a negative impact on the children. For example, some policies and procedures may be being completed but this will not necessarily have an adverse impact on the children's experience.

Complete Part A

Make sure that this accurately describes the socio-economic context of the setting, the characteristics of the children and their skills and experiences on entry. This is very important for the setting's own evaluation of its progress, as well as for inspection. Think carefully about the implications. For example, if the children entered nursery with weak personal and social skills how did this affect early priorities and provision? Did staff need to spend a lot of time settling the children and developing their social skills before moving to other areas of learning? Do not be tempted to be too negative or overly optimistic.

For almost all settings there will be quite large differences between cohorts of children. Do spell out these differences because they have an impact on progress.

Complete Part B: section 4, the welfare of the children

Refer back to Section A and your judgments about skills and experiences on entry.

Have the children made good progress from that point? If there are differences between cohorts, this is a good reason for updating the SEF regularly. Ask questions such as the following.

  • If this cohort of children started with weak social skills, are they now working and playing well together?

  • If the children started with weak skills in communication and language, what progress have they made?

Complete Part B: section 3, learning and development

Making the link between educational outcomes and provision is the most important part of self-evaluation and the most difficult because many factors are involved. If the children make good or outstanding progress in some area of learning think through what the setting does in this area to make this happen.

Consider this typical comment from an inspection report: The children make excellent progress in speaking and listening. One reason for this is that teachers and nursery nurses are very skilled in asking questions that require them to think carefully.

Complete Part A: section 2, the views of those who use the setting

At this stage, the setting will have a good understanding of its strengths and areas for development. Match this against the evaluations of parents/carers and others by gathering their views. Many settings use general questionnaires and surveys and these are very useful. They can be supplemented by more specific questions to confirm the setting's own views of its practice.

Complete Part B: section 5, leadership and management

If children make good progress this will be due to good provision. In turn, this is due to the frameworks and procedures put in place by leadership and management. In particular, if the outcomes for the children are improving, what steps have leaders taken (ethos, policies, self-evaluation, new initiatives and so on) to bring this about?

Complete all of the evaluation statements.

Complete Part B: section 6, overall effectiveness

Look back at the text for the previous sections before making this overall evaluation. Remember that the word “effective” means “achieving the desired effect”. Think carefully about the mission statement and aims for the setting. Are these being achieved?