The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

Deep dives: what do they mean for schools?

Ofsted are now assessing a school's quality of education by carrying out 'deep dives' into subject areas. Elizabeth Holmes looks at what this means for schools, and what to expect during an inspection.

Mention the 'deep dive' in certain education circles and there is likely to be a sharp intake of breath. As the new education inspection framework (EIF) becomes embedded in the system, much is being made of what this aspect of school inspection might entail.

Focusing on curriculum

Ofsted is keen to explain that curriculum is at the heart of the quality of education on offer in a school. For the purposes of inspection, this means:

  • exploring intent (curriculum design, coverage and appropriateness)
  • implementation (curriculum delivery, pedagogy, and assessment)
  • impact (attainment and progress).

In their EIF and deep dives slides, Ofsted explains that deep dives into the curriculum include:

  • discussions with senior leaders, pupils, teachers and curriculum leaders
  • scrutiny of pupils' work
  • visits to a connected sample of lessons.

This is, as Ofsted explains, so that the curriculum offer can be connected back to the big picture of what happens in the school.  

Preparing for inspections

Ofsted has often repeated its stance that schools and other providers do not need to do anything to prepare for inspections, or indeed the deep dive element. The idea is that Ofsted will see how schools operate on a day-to-day basis. 

It is, however, important to be up to date with what the inspection will entail. In the Inspecting the curriculum document, Ofsted explains that the new quality of education judgement is at the heart of inspection specifically to put 'a single conversation at the centre of inspection'.  

The deep dive is just one part of the inspection. It begins with a 'top level' view of what is happening in a school; leaders will be asked about what children are learning and how they are doing, and an agreement will be reached on the pre-inspection call about the areas of the curriculum that are to be explored more deeply.

During section 5 inspections this will usually be around 4-6 curriculum areas and for a section 8 inspection this will be 3-5 areas.

Questions about the curriculum

According to Ofsted, on the day of an inspection, inspectors will want to talk to the curriculum leads for each subject of focus. The key questions at this stage are:

  • what are children learning?
  • what do curriculum leaders expect that inspectors will see when they observe lessons and speak to pupils?

Individual lessons and subjects

Significantly, individual lessons are not judged.

The purpose of the observation is 'to see if what’s happening in lessons fits with what leaders have told us about the curriculum, and their aims for the curriculum in that subject area.' 

Inspectors also want to know whether a lesson 'fits in with the sequence taught over time. Is it supporting what children have already learnt?'

In order to help reach a conclusion on this, inspectors will look at pupils’ work as well as have conversations with them about their learning. Individual subjects will not be graded during a deep dive. 

Concerns within the profession 

While Ofsted has said that the pilots have shown 'that it’s a really good way to get a sense of whether education is strong in a school, and whether the curriculum is where leaders think it is', there are concerns within the profession about this aspect of the EIF.

Twitter has seen considerable discussion among teachers about just how these deep dives will play out in inspections and whether there will be any negative impact on existing workload.    

Paul Garvey (@PaulGarvey4) an education author who also offers inspection support, feels that although deep dives are a new concept, they build on things that Ofsted has always done.

Classroom visits, book scrutinies, talking to leaders, pupils and governors and triangulating what they say – this is what Ofsted has always done. The focus is different, however. It used to be standards; now it is curriculum.

There is no doubt it is causing increases in workload, especially for subject leaders and they need to be prepared for some searching questions, even in the smallest of schools.

Prepare well is always my mantra!

Ofsted is keen to explain that curriculum is at the heart of the quality of education on offer in a school

Chris Ellison (@TeacherEllison) put together a list of deep dive questions, which he compiled from various sources. The questions are categorised into 'meeting with the HoD', 'learning walk', 'looking in books' and 'talking to pupils', and available via his twitter account. 

Chris is a deputy head teacher at Kennet School, Thatcham, leading on curriculum. He is very positive about the new inspection framework.

I think it focuses teachers and leaders in schools on the curriculum, which is surely what we should be spending most of our time discussing. I’m pleased that Ofsted appear to be taking more interest in what children are being taught and how the implementation of curriculum is being led.

Interpreted properly, I think that the new framework will challenge schools to prioritise these sorts of conversations and, if they do, they will also be well prepared for the requirements of deep dives. I think where schools focus too much on solely preparing for deep dives and don’t enter into the spirit of ongoing curriculum development, this will lead to rather superficial conversations which will cost heavily in terms of teacher workload without leading to significant school improvement.

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