Are your pupils ready for Ofsted’s deep dives?

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
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Deep dives are intended to give Ofsted insight into how subjects are taught and are now a key tool for inspectors. But how well can pupils contribute to the discussion? Suzanne O'Connell spoke to one school about its recent experience...

What are you learning? Most people would agree that this is a valuable question to ask pupils as part of an Ofsted inspection.

But what about asking pupils to name a river they studied last year, or to explain how knowledge previously learnt is helping during their current lessons?

The ability to articulate their learning is not easy for some pupils and anecdotal reports abound of children struggling to answer inspectors’ deep dive questions with grim consequences for the schools involved.

Deep dives involve discussions with subject leaders, work scrutiny of books, and discussions with teachers as well as a group of pupils.

In primary schools, inspectors will always carry out a deep dive in reading and deep dives in one or more foundation subjects, always including a foundation subject that is being taught in the school during the time that inspectors are on-site. In addition, inspectors will often carry out a deep dive in mathematics (Ofsted, 2019).

Most teachers support the move towards a more curriculum-focused inspection and away from the strict use of data and test results that epitomised previous frameworks. But questions still remain about whether Ofsted has got its approach right.

Schools expecting an inspection will need to make sure that clarity is given to the purpose of lessons and the place of each lesson in the curriculum.

Monega Primary School in east London had already developed a culture of reinforcing key pieces of knowledge over the six weeks that a topic is delivered and was judged outstanding after its recent inspection. Headteacher Elizabeth Harris told us: “Having a clear focus on children’s learning journeys really helped us.”

The deep dives

The language of the new framework is now entrenched. Most schools are familiar with the concept of the deep dive and subject leaders are preparing. The emphasis is very much on sequence, structure, logical progression with content taught systematically. Key concepts need to be embedded in children’s long-term memory and applied. However, there is anxiety, particularly among small schools where subject leadership is shared between a limited number of people whose specialist knowledge is spread thinly.

A recent update from Ofsted appears to recognise the pressure that small schools can feel under the deep dive system. Entitled Curriculum: Keeping it simple (Ofsted, 2021), it confirms that subject deep dives will “explore whether pupils have been taught and have learned the curriculum content they need (in order) to achieve the goals that schools have for their education”.

But how can a small school with teachers who have multiple subjects to oversee fulfil the expectations of inspectors? The blog acknowledges that it might not be possible or realistic to be an expert in all the subjects you are responsible for, but adds: “What is important is that, as a collective, staff give careful thought to the content they want pupils to be taught and to remember.”

In order to help with this they suggest that subject leaders might work with other local schools on designing their curriculum or use schemes of work developed by subject specialists elsewhere: “Ofsted does not consider it necessary for schools to design their curriculums themselves ... your curriculum just needs to be ambitious and coherent.”

Having said this, anecdotally we hear that some schools have reported inspectors being dubious about their using an “imported” or bought-in curriculum. These schools have found it necessary to show how they have adapted the curriculum to fit their own context, the preferences of their pupils, and their catchments.

Subject leaders do not have to be specialists but they must:

  • Know what they want the pupils to learn and why.
  • Show how the curriculum matches the scope and ambition of the national curriculum.
  • Demonstrate that there are clear end-points and that content is broken down into manageable chunks that lead up to them.
  • Show that the chunks are logically sequenced and prepare pupils for future learning.

The thinking behind all this is of building blocks layered one on top of another – the basic knowledge providing the basis for future learning. The Ofsted blog refers to it as a Jenga tower – “when bits of knowledge are missing, the tower can become wobbly”. This concept is what is driving the way in which inspectors are evaluating schools’ curriculum work.
Monega’s deep dives

At the time of their inspection in January 2022 Monega Primary had 615 pupils on roll with an above-average number of speakers of English as an additional language. In 2017, the school had been judged “inadequate” so the outstanding verdict is a great achievement.

The inspectors took a deep dive in early reading, maths, geography, science, art, and RE – focusing on these on day one. They completed four observations for English and maths and they talked to pupils during these observations and after the lessons.

The framework refers to components and composite goals and so did the inspectors. The school was prepared for this and subject leaders were ready to answer inspectors’ questions. Subject leaders were also prepared for talking about “cultural capital” and had already been thinking about which aspects of their subject contributed to this and to enrichment.

Inspectors were interested in the sequencing of the curriculum and wanted subject leaders to talk about the progress journey for a year 2 pupil, for example. Ms Harris said: “All our subject leaders had worked through this, considering the progress for every year group and across year groups too.”

Some inspectors referred to a narrower period of time and others across the key stage: “We’ve been very clear about what our expectations are. For example, in year 1 children focus on immediate geography, looking at local area landmarks, school maps and London.”

Subject leaders were clear on the big messages of their subject and the big celebrations: “One question that took us a little by surprise was: ‘What are your plans to improve your subject in the future?’ It wasn’t a problem to answer this, but it was one line of enquiry that we’d not been prepared for.”

Inspectors wanted subject leaders to tell the story of their subject. They were looking for connections, sequencing and enriching. Ms Harris continued: “As a staff we’d also talked about subject pedagogy. What is specific about the teaching of your subject? How important is it in your subject? Some subjects have more distinct pedagogy than others. They were able to explain this. Inspectors were also interested in our SEND students, and it helped us that subject leaders could refer to our SEND toolkit for the strategies they use.”

Inspectors listened to children read with their banded book to make sure the correct level had been allocated and they questioned them about their reading.

“Inspectors asked (pupils) about their favourite book and if they had finished every book. Older children were asked about their reading in the previous year.”

What has caused some schools to stumble during their inspection has been the questions posed to pupils about their learning. Inspectors asked the children questions such as: “Can you tell me what you learnt today?” and some were asked about what they had learnt last week and how that helped them in their current classes. Others asked about what they had learnt last year.

The school already builds-in to its day-to-day lesson plans reinforcement and reminders of the learning journey that the pupils are engaged in. At the beginning of lessons, pupils see their progress journey on screen, they can see where they have been and where they are going. This reminds them about what they have learnt over the course of a term’s learning. The learning and the intent are made explicit. “This was one of our strongest aspects,” Ms Harris added.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information & resources

Headteacher Update Summer Edition 2022

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Summer Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via

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