Ofsted Deep Dives

Paul Main

What exactly are Ofsted inspectors looking for in primary and secondary English subject deep dives?

What are Ofsted deep dives?

This week (3rd October 2022), the inspection guidance materials from OFSTED were leaked. Originally designed as training materials, the inspection criteria for each subject is quite detailed and this has been summarised into crib sheets for the inspectors. Many school leaders are wondering why they are not given access to a version of this to help them better understand the process in the first place. The documents make interesting reading but shouldn't become the 'way' to run a school. These 'secret sheets' starting with English are summarised below and are intended to be used as a tool to help us think about our curriculum more effectively.

The points below will help your curriculum team think about the quality of education you deliver. If nothing else, it will provide an interesting framework for internal decisions about developing an ambitious curriculum that meets the needs of your current pupils. Explanations of both the primary and secondary education inspection framework are outlined below. It's refreshing to see an inspection methodology from a different perspective; whether you are due a 'visit' or not, these extracts will provide your leadership team with some food for thought.

Primary English Curriculum Content

A high-quality primary education provides younger-aged pupils with the knowledge and skills they need for later success. The curriculum enables older KS2 pupils to start to gain expertise in aspects of English language and literature

Contents and implications for primary school inspectors

  • This document has been created to support inspectors undertaking a deep dive in English.
  • It provides a high-level summary of stage two training and wider guidance.
  • The six focus areas provide a structure to explain subject-level outcomes as identified by inspection activities.
  • School leaders may not be able and should not be expected to articulate their intent as it is outlined in this aide-memoire or to provide documents, which neatly provide the evidence for the focus areas.

English Curriculum subject


  • Does the English curriculum enable novice learners to embed skills & knowledge in reading, writing and spoken language so that they can transition to experts?
  • Does the curriculum priorities fluency in reading, writing and spoken language practices so
  • Pupils’ working are freed for more complex application?
  • Do pupils in the early stages of learning gain the foundational knowledge they need for future success?


  • Is fluency in reading understood and prioritised?
  • Does the curriculum provide the knowledge pupils need to access rich texts (background/ content knowledge/ carefully chosen literary knowledge/ knowledge of meta-cognitive approaches)?
  • Is enough emphasis placed on gaining strong vocabulary knowledge?
  • Do pupils read a wide enough range of texts (novels, plays, poetry)?


  • Does the curriculum enable pupils to become fluent in key transcriptional components and grammar so they become increasingly accurate writers?
  • Do older pupils compose writing in different forms/genres/ styles and for a range of purposes/audiences? Is there enough emphasis on narrative?
  • Are meaningful connections made between reading and writing? Are models for writing rich and varied?

Spoken language

  • Is sufficient focus placed on the underpinning spoken language knowledge required for later expertise in reading, writing and spoken language?
  • Do plans break down the Y1 to 6 spoken language goals into smaller building blocks?
  • Does the spoken language curriculum planning focus enough on vocabulary and grammatical component knowledge?

Components & sequencing

  • Are decisions about what knowledge is best sequenced cumulatively and what is best sequenced hierarchically carefully considered?
  • Does the curriculum build readiness for ambitious content, including complex texts, compositions and concepts?
  • How effective are links between reading, writing and spoken language? Are such links planned coherently?


  • What content is identified for memorisation and why?
  • How does curriculum structure support memorisation, e.g. through revisiting topics/chunking/ retrieval?
  • How do pupils who struggle with processing memorise the components necessary for complex actions, like writing and reading? Is extra practice prioritised?

Disciplinary rigour

  • Do pupils achieve high levels of automaticity in aspects of reading, writing and spoken language so their working memory is sufficient to: answer disciplinary questions, undertake key practices, make connections independently?
  • Do teachers of younger pupils use their disciplinary knowledge behind the scenes, e.g. in their questioning?

Early years

  • Is communication and language given sufficient priority as the bedrock of future success in reading and writing and the means to acquire knowledge in a range of subjects?
  • Are there high-quality interactions between adults and children with explicit teaching of vocabulary/ language structures as well as extension of language through discussion?
  • Is story-time an important part of the curriculum? Are children immersed in a range of stories, poems, rhymes and nonfiction which develops their vocabulary & language comprehension and love of reading?

Primary English Ofsted Deep Dive
Primary English Ofsted Deep Dive

Pedagogy within the curriculum subject

  • Does teaching ensure pupils learn subject-specific components, e.g. through explicit explanations, guided practice and worked examples?
  • What use is made of models and modelling? Do pupils have enough underpinning knowledge to learn from them?
  • Is phonics taught daily and directly from the start of Reception? Do approaches include the reversible principle of the phonics code (decoding to read and encoding to spell?)

Assessment of curriculum intent

  • Does curriculum drive assessment or is it the other way round?
  • Are gaps and misconceptions, including in phonics, identified? Are end-of-key stage assessment frameworks used appropriately? How are assessments moderated?

Culture within the intended curriculum

  • How much enthusiasm and interest does the school generate in literary/dramatic arts, including pupils’ own creative writing?
  • How much emphasis does the school place on teachers’/adults’ language? Are expectations high enough in relation to vocabulary choices/standard English?
  • Do pupils who have gained the habit of reading have free choice or are they nudged into making better choices?

Systems and curriculum leadership

  • If there are mixed-age classes, is consideration given to ensuring that younger pupils in the class do not repeat learning and/or can access learning?
  • Do teachers access subject-specific training and guidance, including about subject-specific pedagogies? Do all teaching staff know about the teaching of phonics and do staff that teach phonics have enough expertise in it?
  • Do links with secondary partner schools focus on English?
  • How do they support effective transition?

Curriculum leaders Policy

  • How is the English curriculum overseen/ influenced and conceived of by teachers/leaders/governors?
  • What is driving curriculum development?
  • Do leaders of different aspects of English work with each other/phase leaders/other subject leaders on curriculum review and development?

Secondary English curriculum content

A high-quality education in English combines language and literature, enabling pupils to read as writers and write as readers. No opportunity lost for celebrating the joys of reading literature and finding out about how language works.

Literary studies:

  • In KS3, are pupils studying a wide enough range of literature (genre/form/heritage/world lit etc? Or do they only read GCSE texts (current and past)?
  • Do pupils have the background knowledge they need to comprehend literary texts?
  • Does the curriculum ensure pupils deepen their knowledge of literary concepts and how grammar shapes meaning?


  • Is the importance of standard English explained and understood. Including its origins?
  • Do pupils learn about etymology and the history of the language?
  • How are connections made between linguistic knowledge and other domains?
  • Do pupils learn about the differences between written and spoken language?


  • What thought is given to texts used as models for pupils’ own compositions? Are they rich?
  • Is writing seen purely in terms of composites or are components embedded, e.g. handwriting, spelling & grammar?
  • Do pupils develop the knowledge needed to evaluate and edit their own writing/their peers’?
  • Do pupils acquire syntactical knowledge, so their sentences clearly transmit complex meanings?


  • Are plans clear about the components of effective written and spoken rhetoric and how pupils will embed them?
  • Do pupils deepen and apply knowledge of rhetoric confidently in oral and written compositions?
  • Do they get to read great speeches and learn how language can be utilised?


  • Is expertise within the department used to develop reading for pleasure across the school?
  • Do practices ensure that pupils’ reading habits evolve? Is enough focus placed on quality as well as quantity?
  • Are barriers to reading properly understood and effectively tackled, including gaps in phonics?

Components & sequencing:

  • Is hierarchical sequencing employed appropriately? Can the leader explain the rationale for it?
  • How has the need to move pupils from being novices to experts influenced the way content is organised & sequenced?
  • Are threshold concepts sequenced so that pupils are made ready for more complex ideas? How effectively are large, complex topics broken down?

Sixth Form:

  • Do teachers have wide ranging and deep subject knowledge which they use to guide students in reading around the topic (inc. other literary texts and seminal works of criticism)?
  • Are exploratory approaches mediated through discussion and discursive written modes? Are these in the vein of academic literary criticism?
  • Are aesthetic/experiential aspects explored alongside cultural theory/liberal humanist readings?


  • How is content for memorisation decided?
  • Is memorisation tokenistic/ overly focused on facts that have no relation to disciplinary traditions/concepts?
  • What approaches are used to ensure key grammatical/ transcription components are memorised as well as tier 2 and 3 vocabulary?
  • Is thought given to which disciplinary processes need to be automaticised and how to achieve this?

Disciplinary rigour:

  • Does the curriculum enable pupils to acquire critical practices, e.g. debate different readings? Is scholastic thinking and writing modelled and practised?
  • Can pupils apply their knowledge to make interesting connections between domains?
  • How are over-arching disciplinary ideas introduced and deepened?

Secondary English Deep Dive
Secondary English Deep Dive

Pedagogy in the secondary classroom

  • Do teachers have strong subject knowledge and pedagogical subject knowledge?
  • What is the rationale for the activities chosen in lessons (fitness for purpose)?
  • Are pedagogies generic or subject-specific? What is the warrant for subject-based pedagogies?
  • How are key disciplinary modes, such as discussion/ debate used?

Assessment decisions about curriculum content

  • Do formative assessment practices identify if pupils have learned key components, and whether the curriculum has defined them well enough?
  • It is problematic to use end-of-key stage GCSE mark schemes to track progress.

Culture and curriculum expectations

  • Does the school view access to great written and spoken texts, such as famous speeches, as a matter of social justice?
  • Does the school celebrate the aesthetic, experiential, emotional and knowledge-giving aspects of reading?
  • Does the school support teachers' own reading (and where appropriate writing)?

Systems and curriculum leadership responsibilities

  • Is the school aware of subject-wide strengths and areas for development?
  • Do departmental weaknesses have whole-school solutions or are there mechanisms for a more subject-specific responses?
  • How do you go about developing curriculum plans?
  • How well are staff supported in developing their own subject knowledge and subject pedagogical knowledge?

Policy and the English curriculum

  • How is the English curriculum overseen/ influenced and perceived by senior leaders/MAT leaders/ those in governance?
  • Are the different aspects of the subject appreciated alongside its inherent value?
  • How do whole-school structures like grouping/tracking/transition arrangements etc play out in English?

Education Inspection Framework Glossary

Automaticity: Ability to recall and deploy (facts, concepts, and methods) with accuracy and speed and without using conscious memory; frees the working memory for higher-order processes that require holding a line of thought. Some transcriptional practices need to be automaticised such as handwriting, capitals and full stops.

Components: The building blocks of knowledge or sub-skills that a pupil needs to understand, store and recall from long-term memory in order to be successful in a complex task. See Automaticity.

Composites: The more complex knowledge which can be acquired or more complex tasks which can be undertaken when prior knowledge components are secure in a pupil’s memory.

Cumulative dysfluency: Educational failure caused when pupils do not have enough opportunities to recall knowledge to gain automaticity with the use of that knowledge. Over time this may cause many gaps in pupils’ knowledge which prevent or limit pupils’ acquisition of more complex knowledge.

Cumulative subjects: These are subjects where there are many possible content choices from which teachers can select e.g. English literature of history. In cumulative subjects, progression over time comes in part from the cumulative addition of more content areas being learned by pupils. The notion of cumulative sufficiency is particularly important when considering curriculum quality in cumulative subjects. Cumulative subjects are usually set in contrast to hierarchical subjects.

Cumulative sufficiency: When the sum totality of curriculum content can be considered an adequate subject education. This notion is particularly useful when considering the quality of the curriculum in subjects where there are many possible content options.

Fluency: Reading with automaticity (rapid word reading without conscious decoding), reading with accuracy (often measured as correct words per minute) and prosody (expressive, phrased reading).

Deep structure (will include subject-specific examples): The different ways a principle can be applied that transcend specific examples. When a principle is first learned, it is used inflexibly as the learner will tie that knowledge to the particulars of the context in which the principle has been learned (the ‘surface structure’). As a learner gains expertise through familiarity with the principle and its applications, their knowledge is no longer organised around surface forms, but rather around deep structure. This means that experts can see how the deep structure applies to specific examples and that is an important goal of education.

Disciplinary knowledge: Methods and conceptual frameworks used by specialists in a given subject, e.g. knowledge of history or geography as a discipline.

Expressive language: Refers to how your child uses words to express himself/herself.

Hierarchical subjects: Subjects where content has a clear hierarchical structure and there is often less debate about content choices than for cumulative subjects. This is because there are core components of knowledge that you must know in order to be able to progress within the subject. It would be hard to argue for a mathematics curriculum that didn’t include algebra or place value.

English is both hierarchical and cumulative (non-linear).

Long-term memory: Where knowledge is stored in integrated schema, ready for connecting to and for use without taking up working memory. See schema.

Phonics: The study of the relationship between the spoken and written language. Each letter or combination of letters represent a sound or sounds. The information is codified, as we must be able to recognise which symbols represent which sounds in order to read the language.

Progression model: The planned path from the pupil’s current state of competence to the school’s intended manifestation of expertise.

Schema/schemata (plural): A mental structure of preconceived ideas that organises categories of information and the connections between them.

Substantive knowledge: Subject knowledge (SK); often carries considerable weight in a given subject domain, such as significant concepts.

Understanding: We are using the cognitivist model in which understanding describes pupils’ interconnected knowledge e.g. of facts, concepts and procedures in maths. Understanding describes a certain schematic pattern of knowledge and is not qualitatively different from knowledge. Mental schemata can be viewed as network node diagrams, where nodes represent knowledge (facts, concepts, processes, features) and arcs the relationships between them.

Understanding in this model is a function of the quantity of appropriate nodes and the quantity of appropriate arcs - more knowledge, and more connections between them leads to more understanding. A knowledge schema can always be developed further and this is synonymous with deepening understanding. In this sense a curriculum plan articulates the degree of understanding intended.

In everyday life, the question ‘do you understand?’ invites a binary yes/no response. This implies that understanding is something that is finite and can be possessed absolutely. This is incorrect and leads us into many traps, such as trying to ‘teach for understanding’ as an absolute when understanding can be viewed as a continuum and the nature and degree of understanding sought should be part of a teacher’s articulated curricular intent.

Working (short-term) memory: Where conscious processing or ‘thoughts’ occur. Limited to holding four to seven items of information for up to around 30 seconds at a time.