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The Trouble with Quality

Quality is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as, “The standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something”; a clear definition of quality in early years care is much harder to find. Some people argue that there is no definition of quality, others that “you know it when you see it”. I, however, believe it’s useful to regard ‘quality’ as a flexible, relative term. By this I mean that it is different for each individual at different times. Just as no two people will have the same view about what makes up a quality sandwich, the same can be said of quality early years care.

By way of example, a parent whose child attends your setting will have an opinion on what she thinks quality early years care looks like. This opinion may change daily depending on their mood, personality, knowledge and recent experiences. This parent’s opinion on quality is just as important as anybody else’s, and should be recognised and respected as such. A good way of observing this is by asking each of your parents/carers to name five aspects of what they believe quality early years practice looks like. While some views will doubtless be shared, I think that you’ll find that each individual has a different opinion on which five aspects of quality are most important to them. You can ask the same question to each member of your staff too and see what the results are.

This of course raises the issue of how we go about recognising and managing all of the

different versions of ‘quality’ in our settings. Remember, it’s not just parents and practitioners – there are various ‘stakeholders’ involved in early years care, including the children, employers, Ofsted inspectors, outside agencies and the government, and each group has a different perspective on quality.

In my opinion, the successful pursuit of quality is dependent on good communication. The only way you can discover each individual’s view is by asking them. It may be through a questionnaire, a face-to-face chat, through social media or through a translator, but a two-way dialogue must take place. By communicating and building relationships with individuals, we can get to know them, empathise with them and involve them in our critical self-reflection and quality improvement.

And it is vitally important that it is a two-way dialogue, as sometimes you may have a

situation arise when two individuals have conflicting views. Parent A believes that children should be kept inside whilst it rains, unlike Parent B, who wants her child outside every hour, rain or shine.

You must ensure that both parents’ views are respected and thoroughly listened to. It is then a job for a member of staff to respond and make sure that both ultimately feel that they have had their individual views listened to and recognised.

Benchmarking Quality

In early years there are different ‘benchmarks’ of quality, Ofsted inspections being the most obvious. They set criteria against which a setting’s quality is judged. These criteria are the same across the country and not dependant on individual differences, culture and geographic location. I always inform prospective parents/carers who are viewing our setting that our Ofsted rating is just one opinion and that they should not judge any setting by that alone. Their ‘criteria’ and opinions on quality will be different to Ofsted’s, and they need to find a setting that meets their personal standards, views and needs. The same can be said of quality assurance schemes, as they also mark a setting against an agreed set of standards that do not take into account individual differences. Vroeijenstijn, in a 1991 paper entitled ‘External Quality Assessment: servant of two masters?’, says “it is a waste of time to try to define Quality”. The basis of this argument is that quality is a relative concept, that different interest groups or “stakeholders” have different priorities and their focus of attention may be different.

‘Quality’ is different for each individual. We need to find out what our parents/carers, children and staff believe quality is so that we can meet their individual needs. I recommend asking them: look at the parent/carer questionnaires, observe the children and fully immerse yourself in your setting. If every individual involved in the setting has a different opinion on quality then they will also have an opinion on whether the setting is meeting their quality criteria.

Quality Early Years Care is a destination with many different and sometimes conflicting routes. Quality Improvement never ends and Owners and Practitioners will never reach total perfection for every user of your setting. Saying that though, with hard work, determination and excellent communication skills you can get pretty close.

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