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How to take your nursery from good to outstanding

All about Ofsted Nursery Ratings
25 min of reading
27 May 2021

Receiving an Ofsted rating that left you disappointed can be frustrating. After all the effort put into your setting, it doesn’t seem right. We’ve tackled the Ofsted inspection ourselves with our very own Blossom Tree setting – and came out the other side with an Outstanding! We want to help settings do the same. Get your rating from Good to Outstanding with our methods, tools and advice from Early Years experts who actually did it.

What you can expect from this guide:

    Ofsted Nursery Ratings

    Let’s break it down. There are 4 ratings Ofsted assigns. These are: Inadequate, Requires Improvement, Good, and last but not least, Outstanding. What does each rating mean exactly?


    The lowest rating Ofsted hand out is “Inadequate.” This states that the setting does not provide proper or an acceptable quality of education and care for children. Serious improvements will have to be made immediately (or at least in time for the next inspection in the following 3 years).

    Requires Improvement

    For an Ofsted Requires Improvement nursery, you provide an acceptable quality of education and care for children, however, it still needs work. Areas needing improvement will be identified by your inspector.


    This is where you’re most likely sitting. For an Ofsted Good rated nursery, you usually receive a brief, 1-day inspection as they provide for all children’s needs and prepare them well to continue their education journey.


    And finally, “Outstanding.” To receive this rating, your nursery needs to be exceeding expectations on every level and ‘stand out’ from the average. From practitioners to administrators to children. At an Ofsted Outstanding nursery, your staff are brilliant role models who put caring for the children first. And the children are well-behaved and happy.


    Outstanding settings receive fewer inspections. (unless concerns are raised).

    How does the Early Years Inspection Handbook help?

    To achieve an Outstanding, The Early Years Inspection Handbook needs to be studied and its principles put into practice at your setting. This is the guide your inspector will follow to a tee, so everything you need is there – it’s the execution that can get a bit tricky.

    Expert tip

    Audit your setting against these criteria. This will help you -and your staff- gain a thorough understanding of what an Outstanding setting entails.

    Pay extra attention to part 2 of the handbook for your Ofsted nursery. This includes the evaluation schedule which specifically sets out clear criteria for each inspection judgement. Your inspector will be trained to use these grade descriptions when confirming grades. Therefore, it’s important for you and our staff to have a good read of this handbook.

    Covid-19 Handbook Update

    As an act to support the EY sector during the pandemic, in April 2020 the government temporarily disapplied and modified certain elements of the EYFS statutory framework. If EY providers make use of any modifications and disapplicatons, details on where to apply ‘reasonable endeavours’ and ‘best endeavours’ are included.

    Insider tip

    Take note of your policies and procedures. Inspectors are unlikely to check all policies, however, according to the Early Years inspection handbook, ones to get ready most likely are:

    How to do this using Blossom?

    Practitioners can access The Early Years Inspection Handbook anytime once uploaded to the Blossom platform.

    Active Early Years registered providers at their most recent inspections, by year.
    Active Early Years registered providers at their most recent inspections, by year.

    Getting that 24hrs notice

    The anticipated phone call finally comes. You can expect to receive a telephone call at around midday on a working day before the start of the inspection.

    You will always get 24 hours notice unless Ofsted has received a concern about your nursery. In that case, this will trigger a surprise inspection.

    After the call, you will be surprised how quickly the word spreads of the anticipated inspection in your setting. You want to have control over it as you do not want panic to ensue. After you hang up, try to resist the urge to frantically make a ‘to-do list. We’ve saved you the trouble. Here’s our one:

    Doing all this makes the inspection less daunting for your staff (and you).

    Blossom Tree’s Own Inspection Experience

    You may be interested to know that the night before our own inspection, we threw a pizza party! It was more of a celebration of what we had accomplished together as a nursery. This excited and relaxed energy carried into the inspection the next day – which the inspector immediately picked up on.

    Documents to have ready

    It is no secret that your Ofsted nursery inspector will need to review certain important documentation during their visit. And you need to be ready. Fiddling around at the eleventh hour to find papers is the last thing you want on the day (and it is avoidable stress).

    Sorting documents for the inspection can get a bit confusing and stressful. Our main piece of advice is to prepare these the day before the inspection. Here are the documents that need to be readied according to page 9 of The Early Years Inspection Handbook:

    How to do this using Blossom?

    Blossom customers are able to find nursery, staff, and child files instantly. Documents can be uploaded to the system for cloud-based storage and quick, stress-free access. Plus you are able to generate formative reports (such as termly/half-termly reports) to make Ofsted inspections less stressful.

    Inside the inspector's mind

    Let’s get inside the mind of the inspector for a second. If you know what the inspector is looking for, you can ensure that your setting meets those requirements. It’s important to create an open and honest dialogue with your Ofsted nursery inspector. Remember, these are people who have been Ofsted Outstanding nursery teachers and leaders themselves. So there’s no “pulling a fast one” with them.

    How an inspector prepares for the inspection

    They will conduct sufficient research on you and your setting. They will pick up information from a variety of sources such as word of mouth, and of course your website.

    What types of evidence do they gather?

    Inspectors must spend as much time as possible gathering evidence about the quality of care, teaching, and learning. According to the handbook, they will:

    How will an inspector decide their judgements?

    Based on evidence gathered (and the criteria set out in part 2 of the handbook as set out above) your inspector will put forward a grade for your setting.

    How to do this using Blossom?

    Blossom customers are able to provide this evidence easily with features such as:

    How are the parents involved in the inspection?

    It is essential to notify parents that an Ofsted inspection will be taking place. Remember, Ofsted nursery ratings are important to your parents as well. The inspector will make sure to chat to parents and gather evidence on their opinions of your setting. So send out a notification email or text so that they’re not caught off guard.

    Things the inspector is looking to find out are:

    We’ve made this easier for Blossom customers with our easy-to-use and modern Parent App. It enables parents to:

    Tips for safe recruitment in EYFS

    It is vital to have and practice strict recruitment policies at your setting. These should prioritise children’s safety and wellbeing. You need to ensure that you monitor and improve your recruitment processes. They need to be continuously improving as children’s safety is of paramount importance. Here are some policies that you should implement:

    Appropriate policies:

    Write out the approach that you take to recruiting staff or volunteers to work with your children. Cover your policies and procedures in detail. This makes sure that you carry out thorough and legal policies and procedures.

    Barring and disclosure checks:

    Early years services must have clear and current policies which set out proper disclosure and barring checks for potential recruits. By doing this, you prevent employing someone who has been barred from working with children.

    Right to work checks:

    With this check, you make sure that prospective employees are legally able to work within the UK. The law states that under the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, as amended by the 2016 Immigration Act, employers need to check this. Failure to comply with this may not only result in heavy legal penalties for you, but makes children vulnerable to potential risk.

    Check qualifications:

    This one should be obvious, but you always need to check that any prospective early years employee is actually qualified to work with children. If you decide to go forward with an interview, ask them to bring along their certificates and other evidence of qualifications. Having them in your hands allows you to examine the original documents for authenticity and make copies for your records. In England, you can go a step further and check qualifications with the Department for Education on the website.

    Don’t forget about checking references!

    This may be obvious but be sure to contact previous employers directly to verify their credibility.

    Don’t discriminate:

    At all stages in the recruitment process (and in life generally), it is imperative that you do not adopt any attitude of discrimination. Not only is it illegal, but you want to create a recruitment process that focuses on respect, equality, inclusivity, and diversity. This sets the tone for your setting overall.

    Insider tip:

    Make job offers conditional. Offers only become binding once it satisfies any stipulated conditions you may set out. This adds an extra layer of protection to your nursery.


    Early years settings should be safe environments where children can learn and develop without the threat of abuse or harm. Although inspectors will not provide a separate grade for this crucial aspect of a provider’s work, they will always make a written judgement in the report about whether the arrangements for safeguarding children are effective.

    It is clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has increased safeguarding risks EY settings. Make a point to inform your inspector on how you have adopted your approach and policies to ensure that:

    Master learning walks

    The learning walk on your inspection day encompasses a 15-20 min walk with the manager and inspector. And this is the time to let the nursery shine! If your nursery follows a specific pedagogy (e.g. you like learning outside) inform the inspector. If you have certain activities planned, again inform your inspector so that they can make time to observe this.

    It’s good to focus on things you are doing well (rather than what needs some work). If you wish, you can delegate some duties of the walk to other managers/ leaders in your setting. However, ensure that they are well prepared – with specific points to highlight. Overall, make it a celebration of your nursery’s achievements and what impact it has made.

    Insider tip:

    If you’re sitting with an Ofsted Good nursery, conducting a mock learning walk is excellent preparation to hit your learning walk out of the park. And it can get those nerves down and your confidence up. Practice your learning walk every couple of months so that when the time comes you’re a pro.

    Inspection outcomes where there were no children on roll.
    Inspection outcomes where there were no children on roll.

    What is reflective practice?

    Razia Nurmohamed, Quality Director at our very own Blossom Tree, shares her thoughts:

    “Reflective practice is a critical tool to improve. It helps us to think honestly and raises our self awareness. This self analysis is uncomfortable for many people until they realise the impact it has on developing and extending their knowledge and practice. It is a continuous process that guides our decision making and drives our individual and collective practice forward. It is important to consider the positives as well as considering things that don’t always go well. We incorporate the 3 i’s into everything we do from planning to behaviour management to any change we wish to implement. These are all analysed and evaluated. The impact of this self reflective practice takes us [children, staff and parents] from strength to strength.”

    Some suggestions to encourage reflective practice at your setting:

    Joint observations:

    At some point during your inspection, there will come a time for joint observations. This is when the inspector and manager (or assigned leader) will take part in observing activities together. According to the handbook, Joint Observations should enable the inspector to:

    Insider tip:

    What they are mainly looking for is the manager’s ability to recognise anything done well and more importantly anything that needs improving. How well you observe will relate to solutions you put forward to better the nursery and methods you put in place to continue operating at a high standard. This is what your inspector is evaluating.

    What about policies?

    Inspectors are unlikely to check all policies held by the provider. However, they most likely will consider your setting’s:

    What are the 3 I’s?

    When it comes to Ofsted nursery ratings, consider the 3 I’s. Separately they are: intent, implementation, and impact. However, it should be noted that your inspector will not judge them separately. Rather, they will reach a single graded judgement for the quality of education at your Ofsted nursery (backed by the evidence they’ve gathered during their inspection).

    But what does each ‘I’ actually mean?


    When Ofsted using the word ‘intent’ they are referring to your setting’s overall way of working. Mainly, the aims you have to help your children develop and learn. So whatever particular educational approach you take (whether it be Montessori like ours or others), show how it centres around the children’s growth. Your inspector will be looking how your ‘intent’ helps children make progress across the seven areas of learning and is play-based.


    This is about how you exercise your stated ‘intent.’ What do you do every day at your setting that ensures your children are making progress? This is what your inspector will be looking for. Specifically, your inspector will examine:


    How do you know that what you’re doing at your setting is making a difference? This is what the final ‘I’ refers to. Show your inspector the impact your setting has on your observations and assessments for each child. On top of this, describe to your inspector how well you do in fact know your children. Talk about their likes and dislikes (as well as any milestones hit since joining your nursery).

    Insider tip:

    The Covid-19 pandemic has a very real and serious impact on children and their development. Be prepared to show how your children’s needs and wants are being met in the context of the virus.

    How to do this using Blossom?

    Our Blossomers are able to link all observations to both EYFS and Montessori frameworks, as well as track observations and child development to show the inspector what the 3 I’s mean at their setting.

    Ofsted quality of education, behaviour and attitudes, personal development, and leadership and management.


    Blossom will be updating its platform to include both the Birth to 5 Matters and Developments Matters documents to comply with the new EYFS framework starting in September this year.

    How to prepare staff

    Make The Early Years Inspection Handbook familiar and readily available. It need not be a scary/stressful document. Chat about it now and then in the common room over tea. The more staff understand what constitutes an Ofsted Outstanding nursery, the more confident they will be on inspection day.

    Tips to help staff prepare. Staff can ask themselves:

    Understandably, some of your staff may experience anxiety around the inspection. Especially if there is pressure to boost the rating. Do not ignore this. And, of course, do not add to the pressure – they’re already aware of the importance. Ofsted nursery ratings matter to staff very much as well. Remind them that it’s alright to acknowledge mistakes, and emphasis that the inspection is a celebration of accomplishments that your staff should be proud of.

    How to do this using Blossom?

    Blossomers are able to upload and store The Early Years Inspection Handbook on the Blossom platform for continued, easy access. Our Staff Rota lets employees know who will be present on the day of inspection, and our child attendance tracking features make it simple to see which children (and therefore parents) will be participating.

    Questions you will be asked

    Unsurprisingly, you can expect to be asked a variety of questions on inspection day. Some are directed at the manager, others Room Leaders, and so on. It’s imperative that you answer all questions with 100% honesty because sooner or later the inspector will find out. (And rest assured that lying won’t work in your favour to bump up your rating).

    OFSTED Questions

    Check out these examples of inspection questions:


    Key children & their development/Observations:

    The inspector will most likely ask several staff members about one of their key children and their development questions such as:

    Questions to Room Leader:

    General Questions:

    Overall effectiveness and sub-judgments of active EY registered providers.
    Overall effectiveness and sub-judgments of active EY registered providers.

    Make all events past and present shine

    Your inspector only sees a snapshot of your setting on inspection day. They don’t know you had a potato planting session a couple months ago, or about that parent picnic…Therefore you need to show them. Photos are excellent tangible evidence that your inspector can collect all in support of improving your rating.

    How to do this using Blossom?

    Blossom’s diary feature sends parents daily updates of their child’s activities (photos and videos), as well as highlights ‘golden moments,’ making it much faster and easier to show off.

    List of things not to do

    Now that we’ve covered everything you should do on the day, what should you avoid?

    The two most important things not to on the day are:

    The main rule is: Keep calm and stick to what you know and do well. Your inspection day is not the time to try anything new.

    We have heard horror stories of nurseries attempting new activities on inspection day and children piping up saying, “Why are we doing this? We’ve never done this before...”

    How to get an Ofsted Outstanding

    Ofsted nursery ratings are stressful for any setting. Boosting your rating from an Ofsted Good nursery, to an Ofsted Outstanding nursery will not happen overnight – but it’s clear that it’s not impossible either.

    Here are the main pointers to take away:

    Good luck!
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