WHEN nursery manager Nicole Perry learned Ofsted inspections were getting tougher, she looked to other childcare providers for help.
Their response was not what she expected.
"I rang up, said who I was and asked if it was okay for me to come and look around, but a lot of them wouldn't let me in because they see us as rivals," she said.
"When it became clear I wasn't going to get anywhere, I called back and pretended to be a parent. I borrowed my friend's child and visited lots of different places to see what they were doing that we weren't. So, when Ofsted turned up, we were ready."
Miss Perry, 28, is the manager of Playdays, in Keeley Road, Croydon. Following an inspection by Ofsted in February the nursery was rated 'good', one of only half to have made the grade in Croydon since the inspectorate raised its expectations in November 2013.
Of the 27 inspections since then, 14 resulted in 'requires improvement' or 'inadequate' ratings. At the other end of the scale, so far none have been judged to be 'outstanding'.
Miss Perry is among childcare professionals to believe the changes which, perhaps unsurprisingly, have not met with universal approval, were required in order to tackle "complacency" within the industry.
"The inspections have got a lot tougher, but I think that was needed," she said. "Everyone was too set in their ways. We needed a shake up to continue to improve rather than just plodding along.
"I think some were taking their result for granted. They thought 'oh, we're fine, we've had a good for five years or so, so why should we do any different'.
"They assumed Ofsted would come in and say they were good, but they didn't because they didn't know what they needed to have in place.
"That's why results are getting worse, because people didn't want to put the work in."
If results are slipping, does that mean standards are too?
Five nurseries have received Ofsted's lowest mark since November. All were described as providing caring settings and generally good levels of teaching, but each was penalised for failing to keep children safe.
At Selhurst Children's Centre the criticism was easy to understand, as security failings meant a child went missing and was later found outside in the street. It has since been re-inspected and judged to be 'good'.
Other providers have felt harshly treated after being given the lowest possible grade for issues which, to some, might seem natural pitfalls of childcare, such as Blossoms Day Nursery, in Waddon, which was criticised for leaving twigs and sand – described as "trip hazards" – in the children's play area.
Last week Purley Day Nursery & Montessori Centre was rated 'inadequate' after a complaint suggested poor food preparation had led to a bout of diarrhoea among children and staff, even though the inspection could find no hygiene failings.
It was judged to be failing because it was not excluding children for 48 hours following a bout of sickness.
Despite the verdict, Ofsted praised the way staff met children's needs. Owner Sharman Allerton has appealed.
Gateway Montessori, in Purley, was censured in March, not because there had been an incident, serious or otherwise, but because staff could not demonstrate they understood safeguarding and welfare requirements.
The inability of nursery staff across the borough to show they understand what is expected of them prompted Croydon Council to send out an e-mail reminding children's centres that failure to "directly describe [safeguarding] processes is an automatic Ofsted inadequate". Sue Moses, chief executive of Gingerbread Corner, one of 13 childcare centres to have been rated as good in the last nine months, believes inspections have become too much of a "box-ticking" exercise. "There's a lot of concern about polices and the exact way they are worded, and not necessarily with how they are followed," she said. "Some of the expectations are unrealistic. I know someone who was told their outside toys were dirty. They were outside toys; you can't clean them every minute. "I wouldn't like to see Ofsted make it any harder for there to be an element of risk in play. If you're saying twigs on the floor are a hazard, then children aren't safe in a park or at home in the garden." Another problem, she explains, is that too much of the new framework seems open to the interpretation of the individual inspector, a common criticism of the Ofsted process. "Another inspector, I'm certain, wouldn't have picked up on the twigs," she said. "A lot of your end result is down to how the inspector interprets the rules. "We missed out on outstanding because two of our playrooms didn't have smaller areas to stop two-year-olds being distracted. We had never been told that before, but we could have had another inspector who thought our set up was perfect. "So parents need to pay attention to Ofsted reports, of course, but they should also visit the nursery themselves and decide whether the criticisms are real issues or if, in their eyes, it's a non-issue." The struggle to meet Ofsted's rising expectations may not, then, reflect the quality of childcare available in Croydon, and parents should look beyond its reports before deciding where to send their children. But the consequences of a poor report are serious. Anything below a 'good' restricts access to government funding for 15 hours free childcare for two year olds. "A good rating is crucial in terms of reputation but if you can't take children who need that funding then parents are going to go somewhere else that does because their fees will be lower," said Mrs Moses.