Last reviewed 1 November 2013

Judith Allen looks at the issues in the news for October.

Ofsted focuses on teaching, safeguarding and safety

Ofsted is to emphasise safeguarding, safety, and teaching in the new early years inspection framework coming into force on 4 November.

Providers will be advised that they must focus on children’s learning as well as care, and be prepared to follow “structure and routine” as well as children’s interests.

Ofsted will also shortly be carrying out surveys in all areas of childcare to look at the best examples of teaching, culminating in a report to be published in April 2014.

The new framework will also assess providers on children’s readiness to start school, in areas such as whether children are toilet-trained, can write their own name and are interested in books.

Under the new inspection regime, inspectors will take into account what providers tell them when making their judgments, and not, as before, based on a snapshot of a couple of hours.

With regard to safety and safeguarding, Ofsted will now ensure that inspectors check providers have verified the DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks.

Provisions that are judged as “requires improvement”, which will now have some descriptors on the Ofsted website, will be visited again by an inspector after around six months to support them and find out what they are doing to improve, and then be re-inspected within 12 months. Inadequate providers will be re-inspected after just six months.

Ofsted plans to consult on the inspection of childminding agencies and will develop a framework for inspecting agencies, pending the Children and Families Bill, currently going through Parliament.

Early years rates and VAT changes may be considered

There is the possibility that changes to business rate relief and VAT for providers could be considered alongside plans being researched for academies and free schools.

Many providers say costs are high due to VAT and rates — the issue of high business rates has been raised with the education secretary, as well as the providers’ inability to claim back VAT.

Reportedly, the Government replied that the suggestions made seemed sensible and timely as they were already having discussions over the same issue of VAT with free schools and academies. Movement on one or both of these costs (rates and VAT) would ease the loss-making position most providers suffer from inadequate funded places for three- and four-year-olds and help many to have a lower cost base.

It was pointed out that providers deserve no special arrangements by right, but both rates and VAT go a long way to explaining why childcare costs in England and Wales remain as high as they are.

The National Day Nurseries Association has long campaigned on the issue of business rates and VAT for nurseries. It says the inability for providers to claim back VAT adds to their bottom line and is a barrier to investment in equipment and buildings, while high business rates have a direct impact on fees. Recognising their vital educational and economic contribution as partners to government by making childcare zero-rated for VAT and giving providers full relief on business rates would go a long way to helping them deliver more affordable childcare.

A Department for Education spokesperson said that business rate relief is already available for some small childcare businesses.

Schools get legal duty to support children with medical conditions

An amendment is to be proposed to the Children and Families Bill, requiring all schools to support children with diabetes, asthma and epilepsy.

The amendment will mean that all schools will have a legal obligation to make appropriate arrangements for supporting pupils with long-term health conditions such as Type 1 diabetes, epilepsy and asthma.

New statutory guidance will also be issued to schools next year.

It follows a campaign by Diabetes UK and other charities to introduce a legal duty on schools to support children with long-term health needs.

According to the charity, under the current system children with long-term health needs do not always get the additional support in school they need as a result of their condition.

Phonics reading check and Key Stage 1 results have been published

Government statistics have been published with this year’s phonics check. The results of the testing overall show improvements; however almost 177,000 six-year-olds have been identified as being lower than the expected level.

Almost 423,000 six-year-olds (approximately 69% of all six-year-olds) reached the expected level (32 out of 40) — which is an improvement on last year, where 58% of children achieved the expected level.

The Government introduced the phonics check for six-year-olds after figures showed 1 in 11 children left primary school in 2010 with the reading age of a seven-year-old.

Children who do not reach the threshold in the light-touch check are given extra reading help by their teachers so they can catch up early in their school career, before it is too late.

Phonics is internationally proven as the most effective method to teach children how to read, with a range of studies, including from the USA and Australia, supporting its use.

The check has increased schools’ focus on phonics. Over the last two years, 13,400 schools have taken advantage of government funding to buy high-quality synthetic phonics products or training so they can improve their teaching.

Poor company credit scores push up energy costs

Small business owners are not taking the potential effect of their company credit score seriously enough, according to a survey by Makeitcheaper.com.

Just 15% of respondents were aware of their credit score and more than 10% were not even aware they had a credit score. Only 20% were aware that their credit score could affect their energy tariffs.

Makeitcheaper.com estimated that 30% of firms have a score of less than 40 out of 100, which could restrict access to the cheapest tariffs from energy and telecoms providers.

Engineering and manufacturing firms had the best overall credit scores, with an average of 78/100, while hairdressers and restaurants had the worst, with an average of 49.

Read more about the survey here.

Depression caused by mothers' fear of getting it wrong

According to new research, isolation and the pressure to “do things right” are key contributors to developing either pre- or post-natal depression.

The study involved 1500 women with perinatal mental health problems, and was carried out by the Royal College of Midwives, parenting website Netmums, baby charity Tommy’s and the Institute of Health Visiting.

The four organisations that published the research have designed a new wellbeing plan to help women and healthcare professionals address emotional health before and after birth.

The most common causes of this depression were described, by more than half of those taking part, as isolation, the pressure to “do things right” was cited by 22% and a lack of practical and emotional support by 21%. Only 12% felt that their mental health had been impacted by their hormones.

Symptoms were described as reluctance to leave the house with some having suicidal thoughts, and others saying they had felt depressed for more than 18 months. However, nearly all felt unable to give a full account to a health professional, as they rarely saw the same person.

This was an issue echoed by the 2000 health professionals also surveyed as part of the research, where less than half said that they saw the same woman throughout her care.

Bedtimes must be stable

Children with erratic bedtimes are more likely to be hyperactive and experience emotional difficulties, a new study has found.

Researchers analysed the “bedtime data” of more than 10,000 children involved in the UK Millennium Cohort Study at three, five and seven years old. Alongside the data, they also looked at reports on the children’s behaviour from their mothers and teachers.

They found that at the age of three, children were most likely to have irregular bedtimes with around one in five going to bed at varying times. However, the effects of erratic bedtimes on children’s behaviour built up over time.

According to the researchers, as children progressed through early childhood without a regular bedtime, their behavioural scores, which included hyperactivity, conduct problems, problems with peers and emotional difficulties, worsened.

The reason given for this is because irregular bedtimes disrupt circadian rhythms — which are physical, mental and behavioural changes that follow a 24-hour cycle and respond to light and dark — leading to sleep deprivation that affects the developing brain.