Securing a robust supervision system into each settings practice is a challenge, yet it is a key component to our work for many reasons. The role of supervision in early years settings remains a requirement in the latest statutory framework for the EYFS.

Providers must put appropriate arrangements in place for the supervision of staff who have contact with children and families. Effective supervision provides support, coaching and training for the practitioner and promotes the interests of children. Supervision should foster a culture of mutual support, teamwork and continuous improvement, which encourages the confidential discussion of sensitive issues. (Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage, Sept 2021 paragraph 3.22).

The call for supervision as a requirement became an outcome from the Plymouth Serious Case Review (2009) which looked at the failings of a nursery and the abuse one practitioner inflicted on many children during a short period of employment. One of the many failings was staff’s lack of knowledge of safeguarding and where to go with concerns. The Tickell Review (2011) tightened up the statutory requirements around staff supervision and training and understanding of abuse in the workplace and the start of a mobile phone policy in settings.

The role and responsibility for providers to ensure that practitioners receive supervision needs to be embedded in practice across all settings. Knowing what supervision actually entails is essential in order to provide it effectively. It is also important to explore the meanings of supervision, mentoring, coaching and performance appraisal and where they may be interlinked. The EYFS uses these terms without fully explaining the differences.

Sturt and Wonnacott (2016) layout four functions to supervision which explain why supervision is helpful to embed in practice:

Managerial function

Are you doing what your provider/leader/manger thinks they are paying you to do? Everyone works better when they know exactly what is expected of them.

Development function

Could you improve what you are doing with some training/professional opportunities for growth?

Support function

What support do you need? What would help you emotionally to do your job even better?

Mediation function

Whenever you are at work are you behaving and therefore representing the provision, as is befitting your role?

Each of these four functions can be looked at in more detail. It is important to remember that supervision needs to be flexible to respond to individual needs and that the balance across the four domains will vary in every session.

In discussion with colleagues, the following benefits of one to one supervision were highlighted:

  • As a leader you are more up-to-date with the ‘temperature’ of the setting, how staff are feeling about their performance and where they might need support. The staff on the ground know what is going on and any issues can be identified, explored and resolved before they escalate. 
  • Individual staff can talk about their key person working, and/or wider observations about individual children, in terms of their learning and development and any barriers that might be present or possible. This aspect can also support safeguarding concerns, where both you and the practitioner can be professionally curious and ‘think the unthinkable’ about children’s welfare, in a safe confidential space. This might of course lead to action to protect a child. 
  • Support can be given more readily by you when it is required – some team members might not ask for help unless they see a window to do so. These meetings create that window which can open up your relationship with each practitioner and will enable them to ask for support when they need it, outside of these meetings. 
  • The supervising relationship can help reduce potential fear of the appraisal/performance system in the setting as you or a line manager will be meeting each team member on a regular basis.

The balance between support and challenge

Within the supervision relationship, there is an important balance we need to provide so that practitioners are encouraged to be the best they can be, exploring ideas with motivation and confidence. With a support-only approach, supervision can become just a ‘cosy chat’ where little learning takes place. With a challenge-only approach, the practitioner can become very anxious or defensive. The best place for supervision, and therefore the best place for learning, takes place where there is both high challenge and high support as this table illustrates:

High challenge

Practitioners feel under pressure, can lose confidence and avoid taking risks for fear of reprisal

Practitioners explore new ideas with strong motivation, trying new skills and developing their professional knowledge and understanding

Low challenge

Quality of care and standards tend to drift downwards as staff feel uninspired

Staff keep doing what they have always been doing and can get bored or laissez faire about their practice

Low support

High support

Adapted from Cook (2016).

Finding time as a leader, and continuing to develop your skills as a supervisor are challenges in themselves. It might be worth asking yourself who is supporting and challenging you – do you have a coach, mentor, peer to provide the same platform that you are expected to provide for others. Remember to look after your own needs as well as those of your team. Supervision is a huge topic - necessary and worthy of your time to do well to safeguard children, strengthen your team and stretch yourself.


  • Cook, J. (2016) “Leadership and Management in the Early Years”, Practical Preschool Books
  • Sturt, P. and Wonnacott, J. (2016) “Supervision for Early Years Workers”, Pavilion

About the author:

Ruth Mercer is a coach and consultant, with a career background in early education. Ruth is committed to creating a positive learning environment for staff, children and families. She has a successful track record of 1:1 coaching for leaders and group coaching across the maintained and PVI sector. She supports leaders and managers in developing a coaching approach in their settings through bespoke consultancy and introductory training on coaching and mentoring for all staff.

Ruth is currently writing about coaching with a playful approach.

Contact: ruthmercercoaching@gmail.com

Website: www.ruthmercercoaching.com

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