In this blog I want to tackle the ongoing battle of online vs paper. It comes up again and again on the Independent Childminders Facebook group where I am an admin and it causes no end of problems because the group owners and admin have taken a decision that we don’t allow members to promote any of the paid-for online systems on our group. To be honest, the threads always end in a ‘mine is better than yours’ bunfight which we end up deleting anyway!
I thought it might be useful to use this blog to share how we record ongoing learning and progress in our provision – Knutsford Childminding. We are 2 childminders who work together with 5 part-time children in the EYFS and we were both graded ‘outstanding’ at our last inspection.
Over the course of a month we usually do short 3 written observations for each EYFS aged child linked to the prime areas of learning and about 3 additional photo observations linked across all areas of learning – this means that approximately 30 times a month we record what we see and hear. We are, of course, constantly observing children and noting each child's progress in our heads – every time we play alongside children or sit and chat and read a book with them or talk about their weekend or do some artwork together we are observing.
In our provision we use a hand-written Play Plan which I have designed to record children’s learning – we jot down observations as quickly as possible after we have seen them and add photos if relevant. The photos are printed on a little photo printer straight from the camera and we add handwritten notes. It takes us a few minutes to write each observation – we have tried typing them but we find it takes pretty much the same length of time once we have sat down at the end of the day, turned on the laptop, downloaded the photo etc. We have discussed whether to have a laptop or tablet on during the day but we have decided that’s not for us – we are far too busy playing with the children to be typing.
We then assess the observations, making very quick links to Early Years Outcomes (note comments below) and think about what learning characteristics the child is using at the moment. We plan for each child’s individual learning – usually at the time, as the play and learning are happening but sometimes in the longer term. Every 4 months (3 times a year) we write a short 1 page summary for parents (except for the 2 year progress check which is 2 pages long and written when the child is 26 months old) and add the child’s progress to their tracker chart.
Sometimes, early years providers tell me that using technology to record learning is quicker than writing. I can’t say whether I agree or not – I have never tried to do ours online. What I do know, however, is that many colleagues are being bamboozled into buying into software which they then do not use because it takes them longer and over-complicates the whole process.
For example, in some instances colleagues are using long observation forms and trying to fill them with lots of text which is not a requirement… and they are trying to find links for every observation in Early Years Outcomes (2013) which is not a requirement (it is not a tick list)… and they are worrying about missing observations for the various Early Years Outcomes statements which is not a requirement (again – it is not a tick list)… and they are following up multiple ‘next steps’ planning statements because that’s how their software works which is not a requirement… and they are writing or generating lengthy and often complex reports which is not a requirement.
We know that Ofsted are focusing on teaching, learning and children’s progress (and safeguarding – always safeguarding) during inspection and I advise colleagues during Observation, Assessment and Planning training that it’s worthwhile sitting back and looking at what you are already doing and thinking about how to pare things down, especially if you are duplicating documentation.
If you are thinking about using a tablet or laptop to record children’s learning and you want to access an online system, there are all sorts of different types of record keeping options out there: which one do you choose? My advice is that it’s important to try out some of the free trial versions first with a few pretend children – are they helpful? Do they really save you time? Do they do everything you need or are there gaps you will still have to complete manually? If you sign up for a free trial and don’t really use it then I think that’s a sign of things to come don’t you?!
Think about the financial outlay – most systems cost money month after month and you might need to buy new technology to operate them. How much will it cost to print the documents bearing in mind that some paperwork on the online systems is very colourful? Is the software up-to-date? I am aware that some online systems are still using Development Matters (2012) and forcing users to observe each of the statements (and only those statements - there isn't the option to add an observation without a link to a statement), as if the guidance is a check list - did I mention that it’s not a tick list?
Consider how long it will take you to set things up. Ask colleagues - how long do they spend writing or typing? What if you get all the information into the system, press the wrong button and it disappears? Are you a confident online user? What will happen if the system fails or the provider loses all your information? Are parents happy to give you permission to put their child’s photos and often very private information online: remember that you need signed parental permission before you start?
Investigate the provider – do they have a good reputation? Are they known to be honest and reliable? Are they helpful if things go wrong? Can they shut your account, meaning you lose all the children’s information without warning, if you have a disagreement with them or if your direct debit fails one month? There are Facebook groups for on-line software which you can join to ask advice but do be careful: there will be members on the group paid to promote certain types of software – we regularly spot them and remove them from the Independent Childminders Facebook group.
Anything based on a computer is reliant on a good, strong internet connection … is it stable outside as well as in the house? How will you record observations on outings – will you need to duplicate documentation? What would you do if the software, hardware or internet connection wasn’t working during an Ofsted inspection? How often will you download and back-up the software to keep it safe in case of data loss? Will your information be secure - we know emails, for example, often go astray? Are the company registered with the Information Commissioners Office? What would happen if your provision was broken into and your laptop was stolen or you lost your electronic devices?
Partnership working is very important - what do parents think about using an online system? How will you engage them in their child’s learning journey if they do not have a computer at home? What will you do if some parents prefer paper records and some are fine with online – will you run 2 different record keeping systems? What will you do if parents say it’s fine and then change their minds – or don’t interact with the software when you have bought into it? How will the children be included in your record keeping process – it is important they can take ownership of their learning journey? If you work with other agencies or professionals to support children’s learning, how will you engage them?
And the most important question – the question you should always ask yourself whatever record keeping system you use – how well does your record keeping support you (and your staff if relevant) to know what each child can do and what they are working on next and to raise outcomes for every child?
I hope this blog has given you some things to think about … I have tried to be objective. I don’t advocate one method of record keeping over another – I just talk about what works for me and try to help colleagues to make informed decisions.
If you have any questions, please ask. You could also join in with one of my free, interactive webinars made available to all providers via Childcare.co.uk and I offer face-to-face training locally.
Chat soon, Sarah.