Concern over Ofsted’s deep dive expectations

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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The deep dive is the method being used by Ofsted inspectors to explore the intent, implementation and impact of the curriculum in schools. But is the approach proving too much for subject leaders in our primary schools?

When Ofsted announced its new focus on the curriculum being taught in schools there was speculation about how exactly it would be able to inspect, convincingly, a school’s curriculum in two days.

The answer was the “deep dive”. It was acknowledged that in-depth inspection of every curriculum area was impossible in the timeframe. Selecting a few subjects and assuming they gave insight into all was the answer.

Now that inspection under the Education Inspection Framework (EIF) is underway, concerns are being raised that the deep dive approach may be putting undue pressure on primary schools – small ones in particular. Specifically, how can a subject leader in charge of perhaps three or four subjects meet the growing expectations surrounding curriculum leadership and the deep dive agenda?

In response, Ofsted has indicated a commitment to inspecting only one subject for each curriculum leader, wherever possible. However, teaching unions remain unconvinced and question whether unrewarded subject leaders should be placed on the frontline of inspection in the first place.

Content of a deep dive

“Deep dive” is the term given to the way in which inspectors are investigating the curriculum. Around three to five subjects are chosen at the discretion of the inspection team. This must include reading, usually includes maths and one or more foundation subjects. Inspectors aim to see lessons taught in one of the foundation subjects chosen.

In Inspecting the curriculum (Ofsted, 2019a), a deep dive is described as: “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 quality of education.” It includes the following elements:

  • Evaluation of curriculum leaders’ long and medium-term thinking and planning, including the rationale for content choices and curriculum sequencing.
  • Evaluation of senior leaders’ intent for the curriculum in this subject/area and understanding of its implementation/impact.
  • Visits to an explicitly connected sample of lessons.
  • Work scrutiny of books or other kinds of work produced by pupils who are part of classes that have also been (or will also be) observed by inspectors.
  • Discussion with teachers to understand how the curriculum informs their choices about content and sequencing to support effective learning.
  • Discussions with a group of pupils from the lessons observed.

Inspectors will visit four to six lessons for each deep dive and review a minimum of six books or pieces of work in the lessons they visit. They will scrutinise work from at least two year groups in depth. However, there is room to be flexible if it proves impractical. Ofsted suggests that the core of the deep dive approach is the mantra “let’s see that in action together”. This usually means in conjunction with the curriculum leader.

The curriculum leader

In the EIF, the importance of the curriculum leader role has risen sharply. Ofsted states: “In evaluating the school’s educational intent, inspectors will primarily consider the curriculum leadership provided by senior, subject and curriculum leaders.” (Fearn, 2019)

According to Ofsted’s School Inspection Handbook (2019b), curriculum intent evidence will be taken from discussion with subject leaders. Inspectors will explore how carefully leaders have thought about:

  • The end-points the curriculum is building towards.
  • What pupils will be able to know and do at these end-points.
  • How leaders have planned the curriculum accordingly.
  • How the intended curriculum will address social disadvantage by addressing gaps in pupils’ knowledge and skills and how it will support pupils with SEND.

These meetings are followed up by classroom visits which curriculum leaders may be invited to take part in. Pupils will be asked not only what they have learnt in this lesson but also at previous times when the subject has been taught. To “triangulate” any conclusions, there will be joint scrutiny of pupils’ work with subject leaders, again with a focus on the particular subjects being investigated.

Union concern

There is concern that the deep dive is based upon a secondary model and that the EIF does not take account of the difficulties for subject leaders who are responsible for more than one subject.

The National Education Union has published guidance (NEU, 2019) advising subject leaders without the necessary non-contact time or other support not to attend meetings with inspectors unless another senior member of staff is present to contribute.

When it comes to small schools the advice is even stronger: that school leaders should write to the lead inspector in the region to state that the school cannot implement part/parts of the quality of education judgement as it does not have the resources necessary to provide staff with the time and payment. The union has extended its support to senior leaders too.

Ofsted has tried to reassure small schools that the deep dives will not be unmanageable and that inspectors are aware that they might not be able to see a subject being taught across all the year groups. Instead they will build evidence by talking to pupils and looking at books.

A blog written by Ofsted’s Mike Sheridan in October claims that inspectors will be sympathetic and will avoid two deep dives with the same curriculum leader.

Ofsted is keen to emphasise that it does not require any specific curriculum planning, including lesson planning. It will not specify how curriculum and lesson planning should be set out, the length of time it should take or the amount of detail it should contain.

In Ofsted’s November School inspection update newsletter, national director Sean Harford suggests that a deep dive does not lead to a judgement about that particular subject: “The evidence from four to six deep dives enables inspectors to form hypotheses about which factors are systemic – that is, relate to the quality of education provided by the school as a whole.”

In other words, the deep dives are an indication of the quality of the curriculum across the school. In a similar way the handbook emphasises that classroom visits are not aimed at forming a judgement on the teacher on but the implementation of that subject.

We are still in the early days of the EIF. Initial feedback would seem to be positive about many aspects. A more collegiate way of working with more emphasis on partnership is welcome. But the debate will continue about deep dives and whether they accurately provide the insights intended.

Further information


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