Five steps to embed a culture of continuous improvement in early years settings

Posted by Lorna Dick on June 18, 2018

Five steps to embed a culture of continuous improvement in early years settings


High quality early years provision has a positive impact on the daily lives of young children, and in their longer-term learning and achievements. The wealth of research substantiating this statement is well known to those who work in the early years sector.  

But how do we know that the quality of childcare is of high quality and continuing to improve? Ofsted reports that 94% of childcare providers inspected to 31 December 2017 achieved grades of good or outstanding.This outcome shows we have made great strides in quality improvement over the past decade. However, with most of this improvement resulting in good, rather than outstanding outcomes, we can do more to achieve our vision of excellence for all.

Of course, there is no definitive way to continue to improve quality. However, there are characteristic behaviours and activities that feature in settings that are keen to sustain and enhance high quality provision.

"Ofsted reports that 94% of childcare providers inspected to 31 December 2017 achieved grades of good or outstanding"

The five steps that follow are designed to highlight these characteristics.  They are not an end in themselves, but each step aims to nurture and establish a culture, behaviours, activities and initiatives that engage everyone involved with the setting to accept the challenge, the responsibility, and the credit for their part in achieving high quality practice, progress and performance.

Make quality improvement everyone's responsibility

Articulate the vision for excellence clearly.

Be certain that everyone involved with the setting knows, understands and supports the vision for quality. Make it clear that each person has a critical role in ensuring that children attending the setting have experiences of the highest quality. 

Know how different stakeholders perceive quality and capture a definition which is understood by all

Identify all individuals who care about, or have a vested interest in, your setting. Each will have a perspective on quality and its measurement.

There is no single definition or measure of quality in early education and care. However, there are key elements which are critical to the well-being of young children and have a positive impact on their development.  Leaders need to make sure that everyone involved with the setting understands the elements that are integral to high quality performance and outcomes, and how they contribute to their achievement. 

Any definition of quality should:

  • Include ‘structural basics’, such as qualification levels and ratios
  • Capture the more complex ‘dynamic’ aspects of provision, the ‘process’ quality indicators. This includes children’s actual experiences, their interaction with adults and peers and their participation in different activities
  • Incorporate broader dimensions, such as leadership/management and partnership with parents/carers and others involved with the children attending.
Put expert knowledge into practice to meet each child’s needs

Establish a learning culture and make performance management a driver for improvement.

It takes a special person to work with children every day, and that person requires specialist knowledge. Those who work with young children need to know how to most effectively support each child’s physical well-being and motor development, social-emotional development and language and cognitive abilities during this critical phase of life.

It’s important that leaders select the right practices, aligned to the setting’s values, to build a high impact learning culture. Performance management processes can support ongoing professional development activities designed to continuously improve knowledge, competence and performance. Settings with an embedded learning culture include targeted development opportunities to enable practitioners, for example, to keep-up to-date with relevant research findings that have an impact on children’s outcomes.

"Those who work with young children need to know how to most effectively support each child’s physical well-being and motor development"

Embed reflection and self-evaluation in practice

Empower leaders/managers/supervisors and practitioners to make decisions and changes in the way they do their work.

Effective self-evaluation includes everyone in the setting. Leaders empower practitioners to see themselves as learners, seeking to improve their practice. The establishment of open and transparent evaluation systems and processes will support practitioners to be self-aware of their own, and the provision’s, distinctive strengths and aspects for improvement.

The steps in a continuous cycle of self-evaluation are well documented and readily accessible.

Many settings may have relied on the Ofsted Self Evaluation Form (SEF) to guide their internal assessment. Discontinuation of the Ofsted form leaves a gap in the tools available to early years providers to inform their assessment of their provision. One avenue open to settings who seek a framework to guide their internal evaluation  is a quality assurance scheme that supports the delivery of high quality early education and care.

Celebrate improvement and nurture its continuation

Recognise and commend the impact of the work of leaders and practitioners.

Settings that focus on continuous improvement benefit from enhanced communication, improved morale and a shared sense of purpose. They should also take time to confirm, commend and celebrate those achievements that contribute to developing high quality provision.

Of course, quality does not have a ceiling and there is no ‘finish line’ for improvement. However, it is important to recognise where changes to practice have made a difference and to reflect on progress and achievements in performance and outcomes.

It can be easy to lose track of the need to celebrate improvement in the day-to-day activity in the setting, and this is where it can be useful to have a systematic process, such as a Quality Assurance scheme in place.   

"Effective self-evaluation includes everyone in the setting"

Settings who use the criteria and standards of a developmental quality assurance programme have a secure framework to continually guide their improvement and an in-built opportunity to pause to celebrate their achievement and the impact of their work through external accreditation.

There are many quality assurance schemes available and it is a decision for each setting to decide if, and when, they wish to participate in such a programme.

Wherever you are on a quality improvement journey, and whatever process you choose to use in your setting, these five steps will contribute to the development of strong practitioners and teams who strive constantly to achieve even higher quality. Only the best provision is good enough for our children, their families and society.

WATCH: An introduction to Quality Mark

The internationally acknowledged accreditation programme for the improvement of English and maths provision, including:

How it guides sustainable continuous improvement;
What it means for  your stakeholders;
An outline of the audit tool,
Details of the support mechanisms to help you on your setting's improvement journey.


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