Deep dives: Will Ofsted’s plan to check up on the curriculum really work?

14 May 2019, 17:52

Ofsted has finally revealed more about how it will rate the quality of education in schools across England under its new inspection framework. Tom Richmond looks below the surface at whether it will work.

‘Top-level view’, ‘Deep dive’, ‘Bringing it together’ – no, this is not a collection of cheesy management jargon from the corporate world. It is, in fact, the new methodology that Ofsted will use to calculate the ‘quality of education’ in every school that it inspects from September 2019.

Following an initial conversation with school leaders (the ‘top-level view’), inspectors will embark on a ‘deep dive’ to “[gather] evidence on the curriculum intent, implementation and impact over a sample of subjects, topics or aspects.” Alongside more conversations with school leaders, curriculum leaders, teachers and pupils, ‘lesson visits’ and ‘work scrutiny’ will be a key source of information for inspectors. However, the numbers included in Ofsted’s methodology provide more questions than answers.

Each deep dive “will typically focus on a sample of four to six subjects, looking at a wide variety of pupils in different year groups across that sample.” There is no clarity on what a ‘wide variety of pupils’ means or how they will be identified. Leaving that to one side, Ofsted state that their inspectors “can make appropriately secure judgements on curriculum, teaching and behaviour across a particular deep dive when 4 to 6 lessons are visited”.

So, in short, 4-6 subjects multiplied by 4-6 ‘lesson visits’ equals a total of 16-36 lesson observations during every single inspection. Can you imagine teachers being subject to 36 ‘visits’ in the space of two days?

And what about the length of these ‘visits’? Surprisingly, Ofsted has not said how long they will last. How can we judge the suitability of their approach (especially after the consultation has closed) if we don’t know how it will operate?

A quick calculation shows that if Ofsted only spend 15 minutes in each lesson, this would be 15 minutes multiplied by 36 lesson visits to give a total of 540 minutes – that’s nine hours – of observations in a single inspection. Even if there are only 16 lesson visits, that is still a total of four hours of observations.

Seeing as Ofsted has said their focus is more on a “deliberately and explicitly connected sample of lessons”, is 15 minutes really enough to gather first-hand evidence in each classroom? How will inspectors make such significant judgements on the ‘connectedness’ and sequencing of lesson material across an entire curriculum within a matter of minutes?

On book scrutiny, there is even less cause for optimism: “Inspectors should review a minimum of six workbooks (or pieces of work) per subject per year group, and scrutinise work from at least two year groups.” So that’s 4-6 subjects multiplied by six workbooks across two year groups to give a total of 48-72 books being looked at by inspectors. How many minutes can each book expect to receive in this context? Can inspectors make genuinely fine-tuned assessments of the ‘quality of education’ based on scanning a handful of books from a handful of subjects?

I find it hard to believe that picking six exercise books from a year group of 100-200 pupils will produce a fair and reliable judgement on “whether pupils know more, remember more and can do more”. I wouldn’t even trust a quick browse through six exercise books from the same class, let alone an entire year group.

I know how hard Ofsted inspectors will work as they try to make a success of this new inspection framework. Nevertheless, how confident can we be in a framework that aims to provide an accurate judgement on the ‘quality of education’ in a school based on a very brief scan of what is happening in a school, classroom, subject or year group?

In principle, Ofsted’s ‘deep dives’ could be a useful way to understand how school leaders and subject leaders plan and deliver their curricula, but Ofsted still has not published any research to show that they will lead to consistent judgements across thousands of schools – and that should worry us all.

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  1. Who will be first to offer headteachers £1,000 courses on how to get their staff “diving deep”. Probably the headteacher associations, whilst condemning the practice. Chartered College will send members links on research about “evidence based diving”.
    Cue job adverts for “Deputy Head – Deep Diving “.
    The deeper you go, the less the light, and the more the pressure.

    Roll on OFSTED handbook 2022.
    “Coming Up for Air”

  2. Whilst people make this rubbish up there are hard working teachers expected to prepare for this tosh. Give a two years and they will scrap it again.

  3. Could we just get rid of OFSTED and redistribute the money to schools for more admin staff (maybe a personal assistant purely for admin hired 7am to 4pm for every year group)? Then bring in stringent psychological assessments for aspiring management? Then increase the entry standards for all teachers and leave them to get on with the job they’re supremely qualified to do?