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‘Deep diving’ in small schools


Mike Sheridan, our Regional Director for London, talks about our new education inspection framework and how we’ll inspect the curriculum in the smallest schools.

Small schools are unique institutions. They offer an education, and so much more, to children and families in close-knit, often isolated communities. I’m now Ofsted’s Regional Director for London. While small schools in London are few and far between, I used to be the headteacher of 2 very small schools up in the north. So I understand the challenges that the smallest schools face, as well as the opportunities they present.

One of my schools was in a very isolated village at the top of the North Pennines. It was nestled in a beautiful and unforgiving landscape. I remember driving through drifts of snow several metres high to get to my interview. I remember snow in May and lots of rain!

More importantly, I remember the families and children who attended that tiny school. I remember the difference that brilliant teachers and support staff made to those children’s lives, particularly those with additional needs. We celebrated the uniqueness of the place we lived in, as well as providing opportunities to broaden children’s horizons and prepare them for life wherever they chose to settle as adults.

I remember long days of teaching, followed by meetings, planning and paperwork. I loved my time at that school, but it was hard work!

Curriculum and ‘deep dives’

 I know that some small schools are nervous about the new education inspection framework (EIF) and the demands that our ‘deep dives’ will place on staff. Some are worried about the workload implications for teachers who are coordinating multiple subjects and balancing other responsibilities as well. I understand these concerns but want to offer some reassurance.

First, children in small schools deserve to have access to the same broad curriculum as anyone else. I’m sure no one working in a small school would disagree. Many small schools are incredibly creative in finding ways to share burdens and make sure that their offer is rich and wonderful.

When I was a headteacher, we worked with a group of 5 other schools to develop curriculum and solve tricky issues. We’d share resources and expertise to benefit children across the partnership. Later, I entered into a federation with another small school so that we could share subject leadership across both schools, while maintaining the uniqueness of each. Small schools can be innovative and punch well above their weight.

In the ‘deep dive’, our inspectors take an in-depth look at different subject areas within a school. It helps us to understand the quality of education you’re offering, and whether the curriculum is achieving what you want it to.

Our inspectors understand the unique challenges you face as small schools. They’ll take account of the way you organise the curriculum and leadership of subject areas. Inspectors will work with you to understand what’s typical and what’s different because of inspection, for example if teachers are out of class when they would not usually be.

From an inspector’s point of view

We piloted inspecting against the EIF extensively last year, including in small schools. The following account is from one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors piloting in a school with 40 children:

Once we’d been greeted by the headteacher and introduced ourselves to staff, both inspectors met with staff responsible for the 3 subjects that were the focus for our deep dives. By 8.40am, we’d built a picture of how leaders plan the curriculum to build pupils’ knowledge in these subjects.

We visited lessons with staff: the curriculum leader or headteacher, whatever was most convenient for the school at the time. We could only see history being taught in the Year 3/4 class, but that was fine. We looked at the books of pupils in other year groups and we spoke to pupils about what they were learning in history. By mid-afternoon, we had rich evidence of the school’s history curriculum.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we brought our findings together and identified common threads between subjects. Then after school, we tested out our thoughts with staff by talking about the other subjects they teach. We also asked them about workload and safeguarding.

Throughout the day, we were conscious of not putting too much pressure on staff. We worked flexibly to make sure we got the evidence we needed without causing undue disruption to the school day or being a burden to staff.

I hope this offers some reassurance. The deep dive is not about catching you out or making things difficult. We understand that approaches vary across schools and will take each school’s circumstances into account, including the very smallest. We are keeping the implementation of the new framework under close review and are especially keen to hear from you if you are in a small school and have had an inspection.

Our new inspections rightly expect all children to have access to a broad and balanced curriculum. However, I’m confident that they provide small schools with the opportunity to demonstrate, and be recognised for, the innovative ways in which they deliver their curriculum, so that their children thrive.

Update: from our communications to inspectors on small schools and deep dives – added here for further clarification

Clarification of approach to inspection in small schools – avoiding two deep dives with the same curriculum leader

When we are inspecting smaller schools, either one inspector is on-site for two days or two inspectors are on-site for one day. Some schools have said they are concerned about subject/curriculum leads having to spend extended time out of class, when those curriculum leaders oversee multiple subject areas – as can often be the case in small schools – and are also teaching.

We are therefore asking lead inspectors to be sensitive in selecting deep dives in these schools. When inspectors choose the set of three-to-five deep dives with school leaders they will make sure that no subject/curriculum lead has to cover more than one deep dive with the inspector.

This is the approach that several lead inspectors have already taken and is proving constructive and useful.

In rare cases, there may be a pressing educational or logistical reason that means this approach is not possible, and lead inspectors will need to use their judgement. But in most cases, this is the approach inspectors will be using.

Mike Sheridan is Ofsted’s Regional Director for London. 

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