Ofsted’s new schools inspection handbook explained

The Ofsted schools inspection handbook explained 

Earlier this week, I summarised the draft new Education Inspection Framework.  Although it is no longer called the ‘Common Inspection Framework’ or CIF, its guidance remains common to all the phases and types of education in Ofsted’s remit.  However, that ‘common’ framework is then translated into practice for each phase by a set of inspection handbooks.

There is a handbook for early years provision, one for primary and secondary schools, and one for the further education and skills sector.  I’m no expert in early years but I have substantial experience of inspection – and, more importantly, I have taught and led – in primary, secondary and FE contexts so I will do my best to analyse those handbooks for you.

I’ll start with schools…

The schools inspection handbook outlines in detail the process of inspection – the mechanics, if you like, of who is inspected, when and how – and what types of inspection different schools in different circumstances (including as a result of their previous inspection grade) will likely face.

But in this post I would like to focus on those aspects of the handbook which I think could significantly impact school teachers and leaders in their daily lives as they prepare for and manage their next inspection.

According to the handbook, Ofsted will take a range of evidence, including that held in electronic form, into account when making their judgments. This, they say, will include official national data, discussions with leaders, staff and pupils, questionnaire responses and work in pupils’ books and folders.

Gathering evidence

What Ofsted doesn’t want 

Ofsted make clear that they will not grade individual lessons, create unnecessary workload for teachers through its recommendations, routinely check personnel files (although inspectors may look at a small sample), or advocate a particular method of planning, teaching or assessment.

Likewise, Ofsted will not require schools to provide any written record of teachers’ verbal feedback to pupils, individual lesson plans, predictions of attainment and progress scores, assessment or self-evaluation (other than that which is already part the school’s business processes).

Ofsted will not require performance and pupil-tracking information, monitoring of teaching and learning and its link to teachers’ professional development and the teachers’ standards (other than that which is already part of the school’s normal activity), specific details of the pay grade of individual teachers who are observed during inspection, or processes for the performance management arrangements for school leaders and staff.

What’s more, Ofsted does not expect schools to carry out a specified amount of lesson observations, use the Ofsted evaluation schedule to grade teaching or individual lessons, ensure a particular frequency or quantity of work in pupils’ books or folders, take any specific steps with regard to site security (in particular, inspectors do not have a view about the need for perimeter fences), or carry out assessments or record pupils’ achievements in any subject, including foundation subjects in primary schools, in a specific way, format or time.

Ofsted does not expect schools to be at similar stages of EBacc implementation as any other schools, to provide additional information outside of their normal curriculum planning, or to produce a self-evaluation document or summary in any particular format.

Ofsted does not specify that tutor groups/form time must include literacy, numeracy or other learning sessions, nor does it dictate the frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback, or the content of, or approach to, headteacher and staff performance management.

So far so pragmatic.  It is, I think, helpful that Ofsted has set out – and so explicitly – what it does not want or expect to see in order to dispel myths and prevent unhelpful leadership practices from emerging.

But what does Ofsted expect to see..?

What Ofsted does want 

As well as any publicly available information about the school, inspectors will look at a summary of any school self-evaluations and the current school improvement plan (including any planning that sets out the longer-term vision for the school, such as the school or the trust’s strategy).

They will expect schools to have to hand at the start of an inspection the single central record, a list of staff and whether any relevant staff are absent, whether any teachers cannot be observed for any reason (for example, where they are subject to capability procedures), whether there is anyone working on site who is normally employed elsewhere in the MAT (where relevant), and maps and other practical information.

They’ll also want copies of the school’s timetable, a current staff list and times for the school day, the pupil premium strategy, any information about previously planned interruptions to normal school routines during the period of inspection, records and analysis of exclusions, pupils taken off roll, incidents of poor behaviour and any use of internal isolation, records and analysis of bullying, discriminatory and prejudiced behaviour, either directly or indirectly, including racist, sexist, disability and homophobic/biphobic/transphobic bullying, use of derogatory language and racist incidents.

Ofsted also want a list of referrals made to the designated person for safeguarding in the school and those who were subsequently referred to the local authority, along with brief details of the resolution, a list of all pupils who have open cases with children’s services/social care and for whom there is a multi-agency plan, up-to-date attendance analysis for all groups of pupils, documented evidence of the work of those responsible for governance and their priorities, including any written scheme of delegation for an academy in a MAT, and any reports from external evaluation of the school.

What Ofsted will do  

During an inspection, inspectors will gather further evidence by observing lessons, scrutinising pupils’ work, talking to pupils about their work, gauging both their understanding and their engagement in learning, and obtaining pupils’ perceptions of the typical quality of education in a range of subjects.

Discussions with pupils and staff will also be used as evidence (as will – in primary schools – listening to pupils read), and inspectors will look at examples of pupils’ work for evidence of progress in knowledge, understanding and skills towards defined endpoints.

The lead inspector will invite the headteacher, curriculum leaders and other leaders to take part in joint observations of lessons.  Inspectors will not take a random sample of lesson observations. Instead, they will connect lesson observation to other evidence. Lesson observation will be used for gathering evidence about ‘implementation’ and how lessons contribute to the quality of education.  And observations will provide direct evidence about how behaviour is managed within individual classrooms.

The lead inspector will also invite curriculum leaders and teachers to take part in joint scrutiny of pupils’ work.  Inspectors will not evaluate individual workbooks or teachers.  Inspectors will connect work scrutiny to lesson observation and, where possible, conversations with pupils and staff.  Work scrutiny will be used for gathering evidence about the ‘impact’ of the quality of education. Inspectors may also use work scrutiny to evaluate pupils’ progression through the curriculum.

That’s what evidence inspectors will gather but what will they do with it all..?

Making judgments 

Inspectors will use the evidence they gather in order to grade schools under four main headings and then give an ‘overall effectiveness’ grade.  The four judgment areas are as follows:

1. Quality of education
2. Behaviour and attitudes
3. Personal development
4. Leadership and management

Overall effectiveness 

In addition to the four main judgment areas, schools will – as now – receive an ‘overall effectiveness’ grade.  As well as taking into account the other four grades, before making their final judgement on overall effectiveness, inspectors will consider the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils, and evaluate the extent to which the school’s education provision meets different pupils’ needs, including pupils with SEND.

Quality of education  

This judgment area replaces ‘teaching, learning and assessment’ and ‘outcomes for pupils’ and is much more focused on the provision of a broad and balanced curriculum for all.  As I mentioned in my review of the EIF, curriculum is subdivided into intent, implementation and impact.  Each of these aspects will not be graded separately but evidence for each will be aggregated into an overall grade for the ‘quality of education’.


When inspecting ‘intent’, inspectors will look to see whether or not the curriculum builds towards clear ‘end points’.  In other words, they will want to see clear evidence of what pupils will be expected to know and do by each of these end points, be they the end of a year, key stage or school.


I’ve written before about the importance of identifying these endpoints – what I called the foundational knowledge on which our curriculum is built.  I have modelled one approach to this task using assessment objectives and learning outcomes to pinpoint the specific knowledge and skills on which pupils’ success in any subject is contingent.  For more, click here.

Inspectors will also want to see evidence that the school’s curriculum is planned and sequenced so that new knowledge and skills build on what has been taught before, and towards those defined end points.

I have also talked before about the importance of building a joined-up, progressive curriculum which builds on what has gone before and prepares pupils for what comes next.  In particular, I have argued that secondary schools need to know more about the primary curriculum so that Year 7 consolidates and extends what was taught in Year 6 and does not needlessly repeat prior learning in a confusing, contradictory manner.  Here, we need to ensure there is consistency – not just in what is taught – but in the language of learning and the language for learning.  For more, click here.

As well as being clearly sequenced and building towards a clear end-point, Ofsted say that the curriculum should also reflect the school’s local context by addressing typical gaps in pupils’ knowledge and skills.  The curriculum should remain as broad as possible for as long as possible, too, and pupils should be afforded the opportunity to study a strong academic core of subjects, such as those offered by the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).

Again, I have tackled this issue before, arguing that key stage 3 in particular should not be reduced to two years’ study and that we should not be narrowing the subjects that pupils are taught too soon.  For more, click here.

Inspectors will want to see evidence that there are high ambitions for all pupils, whether they be academic, vocational or technical in nature.   And Ofsted will want to see that the school does not offer disadvantaged pupils or pupils with SEND a reduced curriculum.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve written about this, too.  I have argued that we should “teach to the top” for all pupils, have the same high expectations of all pupils and not dumb down.  For more, click here.

Curriculum narrowing  

Talking of a reduced curriculum, inspectors will be particularly alert to signs of narrowing in the key stage 2 and 3 curriculums.  In other words, if a school has shortened key stage 3, inspectors will look to see that the school has made provision to ensure that pupils still have the opportunity to study a broad range of subjects in Years 7 to 9.  Take a look at my book, Making Key Stage 3 Count, for more on this.

At the heart of an effective key stage 4 curriculum, Ofsted say, is a strong academic core: the EBacc.  On this point, the handbook may invite contention.  It restates the government’s response to its EBacc consultation, published in July 2017, which was a commitment that a large majority of pupils should be expected to study the EBacc.  Indeed, it is therefore the government’s ambition that 75% of Year 10 pupils in state-funded mainstream schools should be starting to study EBacc GCSE courses nationally by 2022, rising to 90% by 2025.  Including this information in the handbook implies – at least to me – that Ofsted will expect schools to be working towards these goals and will have some explaining to do if they fall short.

Cultural capital

I’m pleased to see explicit mention of cultural capital in the handbook – not least because I’ve been talking about it at conferences for many years now and will be doing so again at the National Pupil Premium Conference in Birmingham in March.

Ofsted say that they will judge the extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.  Ofsted say that their definition of this knowledge and cultural capital matches that found in the aims of the national curriculum: namely, that it is “the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement”.

I’ve written about cultural capital and the vocabulary gap here.


Here, inspectors will seek evidence of how the curriculum is taught at subject and classroom level.  They will want to see how teachers enable pupils to understand key concepts, presenting information clearly and promoting appropriate discussion, how teachers check pupils’ understanding effectively, identifying and correcting misunderstandings, and how teachers ensure that pupils embed key concepts in their long-term memory and apply them fluently.

Further, they will want to see if the subject curriculum that classes follow is designed and delivered in a way that allows pupils to transfer key knowledge to long-term memory and it is sequenced so that new knowledge and skills build on what has been taught before and towards defined end points.

I’ve written and talked extensively about the learning process and about how to create a classroom culture that is conducive to the transfer of knowledge from working memory into long-term memory.  I’ve posited a 3-step process: 1. Stimulate pupils’ senses to gain the attention of working memory, 2. Make pupils think hard but efficiently about curriculum content in order to encode it into long-term memory, and 3. Plan for deliberate practice to ensure pupils can retrieve from long-term memory their prior learning and make increasingly complex connections (or schema) to aid further learning.  For more on this learning process and long-term learning, click here.

NB. Shortly, I will post an action plan that sets out the practical, tangible things teachers and leaders can do to put cognitive load theory into practice – keep an eye on this blog or on my Twitter feed for updates.

Inspectors will want to see evidence that teachers use assessment to check pupils’ understanding, and they will evaluate how assessment is used in the school to support the teaching of the curriculum, but – crucially – not in a way that substantially increases teachers’ workloads.  By including reference to the report of the Teacher Workload Advisory Group, ‘Making data work’, which recommends that school leaders should not have more than two or three data collection points a year, Ofsted rather implies – I think – that it will expect schools to follow this advice or have a solid rationale for not doing so.

It will come as no surprise by now to discover that I’ve also written about meaningful and manageable assessment practices – click here for more.


Under impact, inspectors will gather evidence to help them judge whether nor the most disadvantaged pupils in the school – as well as pupils with SEND – are given the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.

They say that national assessments and examinations are useful indicators of the outcomes pupils achieve, but that they only represent a sample of what pupils have learned. As such, inspectors will balance these with their assessment of the standard of pupils’ work from the first-hand evidence they gather on inspection.

Ofsted say that learning must build towards a goal.  As such, at each stage of pupils’ education, they will want to see evidence that pupils are being prepared for the next stage of education, training or employment, and will consider whether pupils are ready for the next stage.

In terms of the evidence of impact, inspectors will use nationally-generated performance information about pupil progress and attainment – that which is available in the IDSR – as well as first-hand evidence of how pupils are doing, drawing together evidence from the interviews, observations, work scrutinies and documentary review described above.  They will use nationally-published information about the destinations to which its pupils progress when they leave the school, and – in primary schools – they will listen to a range of pupils read.

Behaviour and attitudes 

This judgment has been stripped out of ‘personal development, behaviour and welfare’.  Now, inspectors will gather evidence of and judge the extent to which schools have clear routines and expectations for the behaviour of pupils across all aspects of school life, not just in the classroom.

They will also look to see if there is a strong focus on attendance and punctuality so that disruption is minimised, and if schools have clear and effective behaviour and attendance policies with clearly defined consequences that are applied consistently and fairly by all staff.

Inspectors will gather evidence about pupil motivation and about their positive attitudes to learning as important predictors of attainment. Overall, judgments will be made on the extent to which the school has fostered a positive, respectful culture in which staff know and care about pupils.

Personal development 

Here, inspectors will focus on the impact of the school’s provision for personal development but accept – rather refreshingly, I think – that personal development will often not be assessable during pupils’ time at school.   As such, it is the process not the outcome, the journey not the destination, that will be inspected.

Inspectors will, for example, look at how and how effectively schools help build pupils’ confidence and resilience.  They say that, although schools cannot make children active, engaged citizens, they can help pupils understand how to engage with society.  And they can develop and deepen pupils’ understanding of the fundamental British values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law and mutual respect and tolerance.

Leadership and management 

In this revised judgment area, consideration will be given to how school leaders align continuing professional development for teachers and staff with the curriculum, and the extent to which they develop teachers’ content knowledge and teaching content knowledge over time.  I’m rather pleased to see a focus on teacher CPD placed upfront and centre in L&M, and I’m also pleased to hear mention of the twofold nature of such CPD: developing subject knowledge AND developing pedagogical content knowledge – the what and the how of teaching, if you like.  [This might be a good opportunity to plug by CPD services(!)]

Also under L&M, inspectors will judge whether or not school leaders seek to engage parents and their community thoughtfully and positively in a way that supports pupils’ education, and whether leaders are thoughtful in drawing boundaries and resisting inappropriate attempts to influence what is taught and the day-to-day life of the school.

Inspectors will also gather evidence about and judge the extent to which leaders take into account the workload and well-being of their staff in order to deliver a high-quality education, while also developing and strengthening the quality of the workforce.

Finally, inspectors will judge the extent to which leaders’ and managers’ high ambitions apply to all pupils, including those who are harder to reach – this, the handbook makes clear, includes ensuring that practices such as ‘off-rolling’ do not take place and that the way the school uses the pupil premium is founded on good evidence.


FE and skills handbook 

Next I will analyse the further education and skills handbook.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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