The new Ofsted Inspection Framework: putting the subject at the centre of the inspection process

First impressions from Geography teachers of the new Education Inspection Framework (EIF) published by Ofsted in May 2019 are overwhelmingly positive. Let’s start with the fact that the new framework puts the focus of inspection on the school curriculum and specifically what is being taught in the classroom i.e. subjects – and in our case, Geography. This is good news because we, as Geography teachers, have been arguing for some time that Ofsted should focus on what is being taught in our classrooms rather than just measuring outcomes for schools. Indeed, the Geographical Association’s research into the curriculum and curriculum design in 2018[1] highlighted the central place of subjects in education stating ‘‘subject disciplines play a critical role in taking young people beyond what they already know and preparing them intellectually”. It also went further to highlight the importance of subject specific knowledge – in the case of geography the facts and information about the world that students need to be able to conceptualise in order to challenge falsehoods or inadequacies that they may read or hear. The new quality of education judgement focuses on just that – the knowledge and skills that pupils need in their subject disciplines as well as “the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens”[2]. The EIF also highlights the importance of cultural capital – something that we as Geographers have robustly supported! Much of the central premise of our subject equips pupils with knowledge that they will need to succeed in life, whether that be knowing how to use maps (or Satnavs) to help them get from A to B, or understanding why the weather is like it is on a particular day. But, Geography also offers something unique in the opportunities for fieldwork and outdoor learning that it provides across all age groups.

Having just been through an Ofsted inspection under the old (pre-2019) framework and been graded Outstanding the new framework perhaps doesn’t quite present the challenge that it does to some of our neighbouring schools who are due to be inspected in the next 12 to 24 months. However, no school should rest on its laurels and be complacent and one of the key challenges we face is moving beyond Outstanding and starting to put systems in place that will make us a truly great school. In that context the new EIF presents both opportunities and challenges. It is a chance for us to review and take stock of the systems that we have in place, but also a chance to put Subject Leaders in the driving seats for school improvement. Much of the new EIF is centred around the importance of the curriculum and aspects that will delight Geographers such as the insistence that the curriculum remains ‘as broad as possible for as long as possible’ – something that the geography community has regularly endorsed (through the Royal Geographical Society) – or the fact that inspectors will focus on how the curriculum is taught at both subject and classroom level. Teachers should embrace the opportunity that this gives them – the opportunity to show off what they are: skilled professionals working day-in, day-out teaching great lessons to educate children in subjects that they love.

Perhaps the main challenge is going to be for Subject Leaders in schools to evaluate the curriculum that they provide for their pupils. This may lead to some deeply reflective questions that need to be answered, such as ‘What does it mean to get better in Geography?’ or ‘What do we want our pupils to know before they leave/finish their studies in Geography?’[3] Further, Subject Leaders will need to consider ‘how effective their curriculum is’ which then leads back to the fact that the new EIF doesn’t do away with outcomes altogether; page 46 of the School Inspection Handbook makes quite clear that a “well-taught curriculum will lead to good results ”.

What the new EIF does do, however, is put subjects clearly central in the new inspection process. Colleagues who have taken part in some of the pilot inspections have said that Inspectors will be working very closely with several subject areas throughout an inspection – some subjects will be under close scrutiny, whilst others may find that they have little or no interaction with the inspection team. Good, thorough planning by Subject Leaders will be essential for success with future inspections, both in developing detailed subject level self-evaluation documents, but also in developing clarity about progression in the subject curriculum.

It also appears that Senior Leaders will be expected to work closely with the Inspector throughout the inspection process in evaluating a subject area. Senior Leaders will be required to have detailed, perhaps even forensic knowledge of the subject areas that they line manage. One headteacher has recently suggested to me that Senior Leaders should perhaps line manage subjects that they have experience of teaching to ensure that they have the knowledge required for a future inspection, and that Senior Leaders are confident to evaluate the quality of subject specific education.

For pupils studying geography the changes in the EIF mean that we are going to need to start thinking about what it means for them to ‘get better’ in Geography and how we articulate this. Teachers will need to reflect on what it is that they want pupils to know and understand in Geography at each stage of their school career and how we build upon the foundations that are taught in the subject to maintain interest and show development in the subject. One of the key things to think about will therefore be the planning that we put into developing our pupils’ geographical understanding over their time in school – from Key Stage 1 all the way through to Key Stage 5.

Finally, with Ofsted adopting a much tighter focus on the curriculum and the nature of subject knowledge and understanding there has never, since the National Curriculum was introduced, been a more apt time for teachers to look to subject associations and publishers to provide high quality curriculum resources to support subject specific pedagogy and pupils in the classroom.

Dan Cowling is Deputy Headteacher at Vyners School in Uxbridge, West London where he has responsibility for the curriculum. A passionate Geography teacher for over 20 years Dan is also a Chartered Geographer and examiner as well as an author and contributor to a number of Geography textbooks and journals.


[1] https://www.geography.org.uk/write/MediaUploads/Advocacy%20Files/Ofsted_curriculum_research_exercise_-_GA_summary_for_Ofsted_2017_proofed.pdf

[2] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/806942/School_inspection_handbook_section_5_060619.pdf P43

[3] Iain Freeland HMI Geography speaking at the Geographical Association Conference on Wednesday 10  April 2019