What to expect from Ofsted’s subject ‘deep dives’



17th May 2021

What to expect from Ofsted’s subject ‘deep dives’

With inspectors gearing up to take deep dives into subjects when judging curriculum quality, it’s natural to wonder how your own subject sequencing and progression will fare under scrutiny when Ofsted visits your school.

For this blog, we looked at schools’ inspection experiences and asked Ofsted’s Matthew Purves to review the content, to bring you the most accurate guidance.

What to expect from Ofsted’s subject ‘deep dives’

What is a deep dive?

Deep dives are a methodology that Ofsted inspectors use to gain a deeper understanding of a school’s curriculum. Through close inspection of a number of subjects, the inspectorate say that they can make a better judgement about the overall quality of the education delivered by a school. Depending on whether Ofsted is carrying out an inspection over one or two days and the size of a school, inspectors will usually take a deep dive into between three and six subjects.

Reading will always be included in a deep dive in primary inspection, but the remaining subjects are decided on an individual basis. Some subjects are chosen if they are a priority for development, or even a strength of the school.

So what can you expect from a deep dive? According to inspectors, there are six key parts.

1. Discussing curriculum plans

This stage happens before the deep dives. Ofsted inspectors first need to get a ‘top level’ view of a school’s curriculum by talking to the headteacher and senior leaders. During the conversation, usually a 90 minute phone call, inspectors will want to find out about the school’s overall curriculum aims, approach and rationale. When at the school, inspectors may ask for additional meetings about the curriculum if they need more information. The aim of these conversations is to grasp the bigger picture of what the school intends for the children to learn, as well as when they will learn it.

Inspectors may want to hear or see your long-term curriculum plans in more detail, although Ofsted are keen to stress that they don’t expect to be handed planning folders. These conversations will focus on the wider curriculum coverage, sequencing and progression and on the deep dive subjects that the headteacher and the inspectors will choose together.

Some questions inspectors may ask at this ‘top level’ include:

  • How have you designed your curriculum? Why?
  • How is your curriculum ambitious for all children?
  • What are you trying to achieve with your curriculum?
  • How does your curriculum support your school’s aims?
  • How have you decided to sequence your curriculum? Why?
  • How do you know that children are learning the curriculum content?
  • What is the school’s action plan for curriculum development?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum?
‘A deep dive… involves gathering evidence on the curriculum intent, implementation and impact over a sample of subjects, topics or aspects. This is done in collaboration with leaders, teachers and pupils. The intent of the deep dive is to seek to interrogate and establish a coherent evidence base on the quality of education.’

Inspecting the curriculum, Ofsted

2. Meeting curriculum and subject leaders

Inspectors usually need to talk in more depth about a chosen deep dive subject with the subject leader. In smaller schools, one member of staff often leads many subjects, and this will be taken into account. Wherever possible, inspectors will avoid conducting multiple deep dives in subjects that have the same leader. Inspectors will ask questions to get a deeper understanding of how a subject has been planned across the school, the rationale behind it, how the children learn it, and how the school knows this. Three important things to note are:

  1. Inspectors are likely to drill down into programme of study specifics, such as ‘Where is clay work taught and developed?’ in art and design, or ‘Where is light covered?’ in science.
  2. Inspectors will not make final judgements on individual subjects, but on the curriculum as a whole.
  3. Collection and scrutiny of internal data is not a part of the inspection. In fact, Ofsted have been clear that inspectors won’t look at internal progress and attainment data.

In May 2021, Ofsted released a report on the subject reviews they undertook which is a useful reference here.

‘I hear one or two primary colleagues worrying that Ofsted will expect to see a secondary-style curriculum in a primary school and I just want to say that’s absolutely not the case.’

Matthew Purves, Deputy Director, Schools Ofsted

3. Observing learning

Inspectors will not judge individual lessons, but they will want to see if what’s happening in a lesson matches the outline given by subject and senior leaders. For example, if a deep dive is being undertaken in history, inspectors are likely to visit four to six history lessons and ask the history lead ‘Where does this lesson fit into the planned history sequence that you told me about?’ and ‘How does it build on subject learning to help children transition to the next stage?’

Inspectors may also be interested in how key subject vocabulary is used in the lessons, how teachers ensure that Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) pupils benefit from the same ambitious curriculum as other pupils wherever possible and the flow and pace of knowledge and skills acquisition.

Lesson resources, too, are coming under increased scrutiny from Ofsted. Resources should be matched to the curriculum sequence. Good resources should identify and introduce children to knowledge as outlined in the curriculum, and sequence it correctly. Likewise, if the resources require a child to perform a skill, such as analysis, it must be clear that children have learnt the knowledge they need to be able to do it.

4. Talking to teachers

Inspectors do not judge individual teachers. They are primarily focused on how teachers plan and deliver a sequence of lessons over time to help children learn the curriculum content in class. While a teacher of Year 4 may not have in-depth knowledge of the history requirements for another year group, inspectors will expect them to understand what key knowledge and skills they are teaching that will be essential for their study in later years at school; in other words, how their Year 4 history curriculum builds towards what the children will learn in Year 5 and beyond.

Inspectors may also talk to individual teachers about the lesson they’ve observed, although individual teachers and lessons are not graded in the new framework.

They could also discuss how the lessons inspectors have visited fit within the larger sequence of lessons they are teaching on that subject, what key concepts they wanted pupils to take from the lesson, and how that builds on what they have learned before and gets them ready for what they will learn in the future. Ofsted are keen to make sure that meetings with teachers are planned sensitively and timed in a way that limits the interruption to class teaching time.

5. Work scrutiny

Work scrutiny has been a contentious inclusion in the new inspection framework, but it’s here to stay. Inspectors will look at children’s work, combined with other evidence, to give them a fuller picture of children’s learning of the curriculum. Work scrutiny may be undertaken alongside the subject or curriculum leader.

Inspectors will take a selection of books from a range of classes to scrutinise subject learning, to ensure that learning intentions are tight. They may also look at how misconceptions are addressed in classwork. Inspectors are definitely not expecting a specific style or amount of marking.

There is no preference over children having ‘topic’ or ‘subject’ books or folders, as long as it is clear to the children which subject they are learning. If the subject is more practical, inspectors may not even look at the books.

6. Talking to children

As well as looking at children’s work, inspectors will have conversations with children about their learning. Again, this is to help them build a clearer understanding of how well curriculum content is learned and retained in school (as Ofsted put it, ‘Progress in curricular terms means knowing more and remembering more’). Inspectors will want to meet a cross-section of children, including those whom they have seen in lessons and whose work they have scrutinised.

Inspectors will sometimes ask children to recall and describe their learning in the previous year, which provides evidence regarding progression and sequencing. Inspectors are sensitive to the fact that different children can be more or less talkative and don’t reach conclusions solely based on pupil conversations – the main objective is to connect lots of different types of evidence.

Inspectors will also hear a selection of children read. This includes looking at how early reading is taught to help children become as fluent as they need to be in order to access the curriculum. Inspectors may discuss the learning of reading with the children.

Bringing the deep dives together

The aim of the deep dives is to give inspectors an overall picture of curriculum quality. They will bring the evidence together to see if any issues identified during the deep dives are ‘systemic’. Systemic means the underlying problem or strength, rather than what’s on the surface. According to the framework, where inspectors identify systemic issues, school leaders will usually be asked to provide further information and inspectors may need to gather additional evidence.

The journey, not just the destination

It is important to keep in mind that deep dives are just one method that inspectors use to gather evidence about the quality of education in a school. Ofsted is extremely interested to hear the curriculum journey your school is on. This includes hearing about your plans for how you intend to develop your curriculum, interventions, changes and resources you are going to put in place, or have only just implemented and are waiting to see their impact.

Overall, it’s worth keeping in mind that curriculum development is both a journey and a destination.

This article is taken from the Ofsted inspection framework edition of The Curriculum magazine from Cornerstones Education. It is an Ofsted approved article and has been reviewed by Matthew Purves, Deputy Director, Schools – Ofsted.

Subject deep dive checklist*

Questions to reflect on as senior leaders

  1. Do we ensure clear subject coverage, progression and sequencing in our curriculum?
  2. Does actual taught and learned coverage match intended coverage?
  3. Are transitions smooth between year groups?
  4. Does the provision meet the same standards across different subjects?
  5. Do children know more and remember more?
  6. Are subject misconceptions addressed?
  7. How do teachers and children record learning? Can this be easily accessed?
  8. Do teachers teach, and children learn, key subject vocabulary?
  9. Do teachers have sound subject knowledge?
  10. Do senior leaders, subject leads and teachers have good pedagogical content

*Please note that, although reviewed by Ofsted, this is not an official Ofsted checklist.

Questions to think about in your subject

  1. How have you designed your curriculum?
  2. What are you trying to achieve in your curriculum?
  3. What are your aims for this subject in the school?
  4. What schemes do you follow?
  5. Why is this subject taught in this way?
  6. How do children progress in this subject over their time at the school? (Remembering that progress is knowing more, remembering more and being able to do more.)
  7. How do you ensure that subject knowledge is retained?
  8. How do you ensure that pupils with SEND benefit from the curriculum in this subject? Are expectations high enough?
  9. What do curriculum leaders expect that inspectors will see when they visit lessons and speak to pupils?
  10. How are misconceptions addressed in the subject?
  11. How does this subject link to other curriculum areas?
  12. How do you support staff? How do you avoid unnecessary workload?
  13. What subject resources do you offer children and how are they matched to the curriculum?

Find out more about how Cornerstones Curriculum can help you feel prepared for inspection.

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