What to expect from your Ofsted deep dive

Melanie Moore

Melanie Moore

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With deep dives now an established part of school inspection, it’s natural to wonder how well the subject you lead will fare under scrutiny.

This blog is for you, as a subject or senior leader, to help you get to grips with what it means to survive a deep dive. And we asked Ofsted’s Matthew Purves to review the content to ensure this is the most accurate guidance.

What is a deep dive?

A deep dive is a phrase given to the process that inspectors use to gain a deeper understanding of your curriculum. Through close inspection of several subjects, the inspectorate says they can better judge the overall quality of the education you deliver.

Depending on whether Ofsted is carrying out your inspection over one or two days and the size of your school, inspectors will usually take a deep dive into between three and six subjects. Reading will always be included, but other subjects are decided individually. Some subjects are chosen if they are a priority for development or even a strength of the school.

So, what can you expect from an Ofsted deep dive? Here’s a brief outline of each crucial part. 

1. Discussing curriculum plans

Before inspectors even come into your school, they will begin by talking to the headteacher and senior leaders to get a ‘top level’ view of your school’s curriculum. During the conversation, usually a 90-minute phone call, inspectors will want to find out about your curriculum aims, approach and rationale. They may ask for additional meetings if they need more information. These conversations are to grasp the bigger picture of what your school intends the children to learn and when they will remember it.

Inspectors may want to hear or see your long-term curriculum plans in more detail, although Ofsted is 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 choose together. Be prepared for your initial conversation by asking yourself and other senior leaders these Ofsted deep-dive questions. If you and your colleagues can answer them with confidence, then it’s highly likely you’re well prepared for your initial telephone interview.

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

  • How have you designed your curriculum? Why?
  • How does your curriculum meet the needs of 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?
  • What are your plans for curriculum development?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of your curriculum

2. Meeting curriculum and subject leaders

Inspectors usually need to talk in more depth about a chosen deep-dive subject with subject leaders. This will be considered in smaller schools where one staff member often leads many subjects. Wherever possible, inspectors will avoid conducting multiple deep dives in subjects with the same leader, which is a reassuring factor. They will ask questions to understand how a subject has been planned across the school, the rationale behind it, how the children learn it, and how you know this. It is also important to know that inspectors will likely drill down into the programme of study specifics. To do this, they may ask questions such as, ‘Where is clay work taught and developed?’ in art and design, or ‘Where is light covered?’ in science. However, it is important to know that inspectors will not make final judgements on individual subjects but on the curriculum as a whole.

In May 2021, the inspectorate released a series of reviews looking at current research evidence on different curriculum subjects. These are valuable references for all subject leaders and can be found here. Another Ofsted article for primary subject leaders can be found here

Another helpful activity is to use the deep-dive questions for subject leaders below for discussions with subject leaders. If you and your colleagues can discuss and answer the questions, this is a good indication that they know their subjects well and can hold meaningful and constructive conversations with inspectors.

  • How do you ensure subject coverage?
  • How do you ensure progression in your subject?
  • How is your subject sequenced?
  • Does children’s learning match the intended subject curriculum?
  • Is the quality of education meeting the same standards across different subjects?
  • Do children know more and remember more in your subject? How do you know?
  • Are subject misconceptions addressed?
  • How do teachers and children record learning? Can this be easily accessed?

3. Observing children’s learning

It is a great reassurance to most teachers that the inspectorate does not judge individual lessons. However, they will want to see if what’s happening in a lesson matches the outline given by the subject and senior leaders. For example, inspectors are likely to visit four to six history lessons if a deep dive is undertaken into history. When they do, they may ask questions such as, ‘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?’

They may want to know how you ensure that Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) children benefit from the same ambitious curriculum as other children. 

Inspectors may also be interested in how essential subject vocabulary is used in teachers’ lessons. Ensure that language is used consistently across the curriculum and is equally ambitious in all subjects. Having a clear plan for key vocabulary across all subjects is really helpful and ensures consistency across the school.

Lesson resources are coming under increased scrutiny from Ofsted. Good resources should identify and introduce children to knowledge 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 learned the knowledge they need to do it.

Remember that the teaching resources you use should meet the needs of the lesson and the children that use them. Any resources you use to support learning should be of good quality, ambitious and reflect the vocabulary, key concepts, and knowledge taught in any lesson.

Opting for ad-hoc, budget resources online are not the solution, and you should be equally concerned about the quality of your resources as you are about the curriculum. Making your own resources or opting for a high-quality provider is much better.

4. Talking to teachers

Inspectors do not judge individual teachers. They primarily focus on how teachers plan and deliver lessons to help children learn the curriculum. 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 critical knowledge and skills they are teaching that will be essential for their study in later years. In other words, they want to know 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.

Inspectors might also want to discuss how the lessons they have visited fit within the broader sequence of lessons on that subject. This can include finding out what key concepts teachers want children to take from the lesson, how that builds on what they have learned before and how what they teach prepares children for what they will learn in the future. Ofsted is keen to ensure that meetings with teachers are planned sensitively and timed to limit the interruption to class teaching time.

Teachers must know the curriculum well; a deep dive is not just the responsibility of a subject leader. To that end, ensure staff know that they must prepare themselves by, at the very least, looking at the curriculum for each subject in previous years and the years that follow. This will help them to answer questions much more effectively and confirm to inspectors that everyone knows their role in the teaching of the curriculum. Subject and senior leaders must share subject planning and other helpful information such as subject endpoints, key concepts and any disciplinary techniques needed to teach the subject well.

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 and other evidence to give them a fuller picture of children’s curriculum learning. Work scrutiny may be undertaken alongside the subject or curriculum leader.

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

There is no preference for children to have ‘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. Whether you choose for children to work in topic or subject books, it doesn’t matter; just make sure the work is dated. These practices will enable inspectors to see how subjects progress throughout the school.

As a side note, having nice, clear displays of children’s work throughout school is a valuable visual tool for showing children’s progress in any subject. Establish straightforward ways for children working across the school and ensure that all year groups use the same protocols. For example, if sketchbooks are used in Year 1 and Year 2, they should also be used in Key Stage 2. Similarly, if children have reading record books in Key Stage 2, they should also use them in Key Stage 1.

6. Talking to children

As well as looking at your 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 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 conversations with them. 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 to access the curriculum. Inspectors may discuss the learning of reading with the children.

In any good classroom, talk is part of the learning process and evidence of a positive and respectful classroom where everyone’s ideas and thoughts are valued. In most cases, this will be evident, but you should also encourage teachers to allow time for discussions with the children about what they are learning and what they know. Having regular conversations with children about different subjects can have enormous benefits for both the teacher and child, and if it becomes part of the typical learning behaviours, then talking to an outsider about their learning will not be as daunting for the children.


While the process of deep dives can seem daunting, many schools tell us that inspectors are generally fair and open to discussing any changes or improvements the school has identified in subjects. More recently, there has been an acknowledgement from the inspectorate that your school’s curriculum is not judged as a completed entity but is ever-evolving.

It is essential to remember that deep dives are just one method that inspectors use to gather evidence about the quality of education in your school. Ofsted is also highly interested to hear about your school’s curriculum journey. 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 just implemented and are waiting to see their impact.

This article is taken from the Ofsted inspection framework edition of The Curriculum magazine from Cornerstones Education and has been updated.

One school’s experience of Ofsted inspection

Hartshead Junior and Infant School were inspected on 19th November 2019. Click on the link below to read about their experience leading up to and during the inspection under the new Ofsted framework.

Maestro Users 

If you are already a user of our Maestro platform, there are several ways that it can help you not only be prepared ahead of an inspection but also to show and explain your curriculum during the visit.

  • Save hours of leadership and subject leader time using Maestro’s progression framework
  • Provide subject leaders with the knowledge they need for all national curriculum subjects, including maths and English
  • Evidence the sequencing of knowledge in your curriculum at the click of a button in the ‘intended progression’ tab
  • Take advantage of our teams’ free support before, during and after your inspection
  • Show how curriculum concepts build over time using Maestro’s leadership tools
  • Share long and short-term curriculum plans by using the timetable and intended coverage tab
  • Demonstrate children’s progress using Maestro’s integral assessment and monitoring functionality

Curriculum Maestro can help you address all the issues raised in this blog. If you want support to make the most of what we offer, then call us on 03333208000 or speak to us on Live Chat. 

This blog was updated in November 2022.