Leading up to this year's Froebel Trust conference, Susana Castro-Kemp introduces her recent research looking at how Ofsted defines high-quality early years provision.

Susana's new research examines what makes an 'outstanding nursery' and challenges Ofsted to review their current inspection guidelines. She will be presenting her Froebel Trust funded research project (Froebel meets Ofsted: What makes an outstanding nursery?) at the Froebel Trust Online Conference 2023 on Saturday 4th March.

Susana Castro-Kemp is an Associate Professor in Psychology and Human Development at UCL's Institute of Education in London.

Froebel meets Ofsted: content analysis and text mining of Ofsted reports of nursery settings in England

An article by Susana Castro-Kemp

The principles of Froebelian education are widely regarded as pioneering for the recognition that the first years of a child’s life are a unique opportunity for growth - and that play, creativity and the use of symbols can enhance that window of growth. Froebel also recognised the complexity of development as a systemic event, difficult to ‘itemise’ in different sections.

Children are holistic beings, and they grow and learn in holistic ways, through play. This is widely recognised by most experts in the field of Early Childhood Education and Care, with evidence easily found through a simple Google search (e.g. Keung et al., 2019; Wilson, 2007; Yogman et al., 2018).

But what happens in practice? Are these widely recognised gold standard principles of education and care being regarded when evaluating the quality of early years provision? To what extent are the quality assurance procedures in place recognising the need to approach development and learning in these terms? Is Ofsted concentrating on play, creativity and holistic development, for example? Do inspectors value Froebelian principles? What is valued in Ofsted inspections, beyond the guidance available in the Ofsted handbook?

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Children are holistic beings, and they grow and learn in holistic ways, through play.

Susana Castro-Kemp

My team performed text-mining with 'R software' of 279 Ofsted reports. Text-mining is a process that can be used to reveal meaningful patterns in written documents. We aimed to observe differences in content between reports; and to showcase the extent to which Froebelian principles of Early Years pedagogy may be present, specifically in the sections of the reports referring to:

  • effectiveness of leadership and management
  • quality of teaching, learning and assessment
  • personal development, behaviour and welfare
  • outcomes for children.

Words and expressions associated with key Froebelian principles were included in a text-mining protocol; for example, we searched for the words ‘autonomy’, ‘independence’ and related terms to examine the extent to which the reports look at the value of children as autonomous learners; we used the terms ‘play’, ‘creativity’ (and ‘creative’, for example), as well as ‘outdoor’ to look for evidence of assessment of children’s creativity and symbolic activity, the central importance of play and engagement with nature (which are key Froebelian principles).


Percentage of Ofsted reports where play is mentioned in the section on quality of teaching, learning and assessment

Within the Leadership and Management criterion of Ofsted assessment, we found that Creativity is the principle most frequently regarded by inspectors, but only 29% of reports refer to this; approximately 10% refer to engagement with nature and play, and 18.6% refer to academic areas of achievement (e.g. maths, literacy, language, cognition, etc.), thus suggesting an approach to development and childhood that differs from the holistic stance of Froebel.

However what inspectors look at most frequently when assessing Leadership and Management seems to be safeguarding, mentioned in 99.6% of reports. Staff training and development is mentioned in 69.9% of reports. But when we look at the section on quality of teaching, learning and assessment (which we presumed to be the ideal section to examine aspects of Froebelian pedagogy), play is only mentioned in 52.7% of the reports; however, learning and skills are mentioned 80% and 65% respectively. Looking at the terms correlated with these key words we found that the preoccupation within this area is mostly with teaching specific sets of discreet skills, rather than holistic and play-based development.

When looking at Personal Development and Welfare, play is mentioned in only 39% of providers’ reports, but here the focus is clearly on whether staff encourage children to be autonomous and to engage in their own self-care.

When looking at children’s outcomes, the most common expressions are those that are often related to school readiness (e.g. ‘make good progress’, ‘in their learning’, well prepared for next stage’, ‘school’), thus suggesting, yet again, an almost sole focus on academic achievement as the outcome of early education and care, rather than holistic development or the integrity of the period of early childhood in its own right.

Lastly, we produced a ‘sentiment’ analysis of reports and observed that, as one might expect, the overall tone of the report reflects the grade given, with a more positive tone being significantly related to a higher grade (e.g. Outstanding). However, and somewhat surprisingly, this is not the case for the section on Outcomes for Children, where the tone remains unchanged regardless of grade given, and presumably (given results described above), stays focused on the need to be school ready.

When looking at children’s outcomes, the most common expressions used in Ofsted reports are those related to school readiness...

Susana Castro-Kemp

In a different study (Castro-Kemp & Melander, forthcoming), our team looked at what makes an Outstanding nursery, from the point of view of inspectors, and based on the content of the reports. What seems to distinguish an Outstanding-rated nursery from others is a focus on staff training and continuous professional development, management with high aspirations, the existence of a clear system to monitor children’s progress, clear links with other professionals and a balanced curriculum (within the Effectiveness of Leadership and Management category).

Inspectors are also likely to be looking at a focus on early numeracy and on making good use of learning opportunities, in order to rate a setting as Outstanding in terms of Quality of Teaching, Learning and Assessment. Within Personal Development, Behaviour and Welfare, inspectors are more likely to mention the focus on language and communication, the offer of nutritious meals and the promotion of hygiene habits in order to rate a setting as Outstanding. Lastly, when looking at children’s outcomes, for a setting to be rated Outstanding it is likely that inspectors will be looking at how children maintain attention, how 'disadvantaged' children progress, and on how children show creativity and imagination. However, when we examined the link between these factors and the outcomes reported for children in their 27-month progress reports we found only very limited associations, meaning that being Outstanding is unrelated to performing better, in line with findings from previous research (e.g. Blanden et al., 2018).

The question remains of whether Froebel should still be relevant in inspections today and how? As Ofsted recognises (and receives repeated calls to address) the need to review its guiding principles and overall approach to inspection, we argue that looking back at Froebel may be helpful to move forward towards a much fairer process of quality assurance, where children are recognised as whole beings and play their main language; and where early education staff are recognised for facilitating a child’s overall development, rather than pursuing artificial indicators of school readiness.

Ofsted inspection guidelines could benefit substantially from a (re)encounter with Froebel: (re)focus on the whole child through play, creativity and imagination; (re)imagining independence and autonomy in everyday life; (re)conceiving educators as facilitators of that holistic growth; and (re)positioning outcomes as participation, quality of life and wellbeing.


Blanden, J., Hansen, K., & McNally, S. (2018). Evaluating the impact of nursery attendance on children’s outcomes [PDF Report]. Nuffield Foundation.

Castro-Kemp, S. & Melander, A. (under review). What makes a nursery ‘Outstanding’? A study of inspection reports of Early Years settings and children’s reported outcomes in England.

Keung, C. P. C., & Cheung, A. C. K. (2019). Towards holistic supporting of play-based learning implementation in kindergartens: A mixed method study. Early Childhood Education Journal, 47(5), 627-640.

Wilson, R. (2007). Nature and young children: Encouraging creative play and learning in natural environments. Routledge.

Yogman, M., Garner, A., Hutchinson, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Baum, R., ... & COMMITTEE ON PSYCHOSOCIAL ASPECTS OF CHILD AND FAMILY HEALTH. (2018). The power of play: A pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. Pediatrics, 142(3).

About the author

Susana Castro-Kemp is an Associate Professor in Psychology and Human Development at UCL's Institute of Education in London. Her research interests lie in the areas of inclusion of young children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, Early Childhood Education and Care, Education Policy and Education in the Global South. She has an extensive track record of published and funded research across these areas, often involving a transdisciplinary approach and mixed methodologies. Her most recent research focuses on the inspection process of non-domestic early education settings in England.

Susana will be presenting her research at the Froebel Trust Online Conference 2023 on Saturday 4th March. Free tickets available to reserve now.