Image of An Expert Overview of Ofsted’s ‘Education inspection framework’ and handbooks

An Expert Overview of Ofsted’s ‘Education inspection framework’ and handbooks

In this blog, Matt Bromley, an education writer and adviser with over 20 years’ experience in teaching and leadership, explores the changes that Ofsted has made to its ‘Education inspection framework’ and handbooks for the new academic year.

Ofsted updated its ‘Education inspection framework’ (EIF) and related inspection handbooks in July for use from September 2023. New paragraphs were added to the EIF to outline expectations of inspectors’ and providers’ conduct during inspections, and a new section was added on evaluating safeguarding culture.

Updates to the ‘Early years inspection handbook’ include:

  • how Ofsted judges safeguarding, including a definition of an open and positive culture of safeguarding
  • what inspectors should consider when deciding if a provider has the capacity to improve
  • whom the inspection outcome may be shared with
  • the link between the provider’s curriculum and the behaviours and attitudes of the children in the setting
  • who can be present during meetings that take place on inspection
  • an amendment in the quality of education judgement to refer to how practitioners and leaders use assessment to plan suitable activities
Updates to the ‘School inspection handbook’, meanwhile, include:

  • a new ‘conduct during inspection’ section
  • confirmation of the likely date of the next inspection for schools
  • how inspectors will protect anonymity of individuals when drawing on evidence
  • confirmation that evidence from pupils, parents, and staff will always be considered in a proportionate way, alongside other evidence
  • updates to ‘behaviour’ and ‘attendance’ sections
  • clarity about what we mean by ‘capacity to improve’
  • clarity about what we mean by ‘culture of safeguarding’
  • clarification on schools’ obligations in relation to ‘separation by sex’ and the steps inspectors should take in relation to this
The following updates have been made for schools with sixth forms:

  • confirmation that, for secondary schools, the requirement to teach relationships and sex education includes pupils in the sixth form
  • the definition of ‘off-rolling’ has been broadened to include sixth-form pupils and situations where pupils are not formally removed from the roll but are not permitted to attend school
Later in the blog, we’ll examine some of the EIF changes in more detail. But first, let’s go back to basics.

The framework explained

The ‘Education inspection framework’ sets out how Ofsted inspects maintained schools, academies, non-association independent schools, further education and skills provision, and registered early years settings in England. The framework was devised by His Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, for use from September 2019.

The purpose of the EIF, and why it replaced the ‘Common inspection framework’, was to discourage schools from narrowing their curriculum offer – perhaps in the form of running a three-year GCSE or closing down certain subjects.

The EIF was also intended to end practices such as teaching to the test – being blinkered by what Spielman called the ‘stickers and badges’ of qualification outcomes at the expense of a more rounded education that better prepares pupils for the next stages of their education, employment and lives.

Finally, the EIF aimed to tackle social justice issues, ending educational disadvantage, and affording every child, no matter their starting point and background, an equal opportunity to access an ambitious curriculum and to succeed in school and college.

There are four key judgment areas in the EIF:

  1. Quality of education
  2. Behaviour and attitudes
  3. Personal development
  4. Leadership and management
In addition, settings receive an ‘overall effectiveness’ grade.

The old judgment pertaining to ‘outcomes for pupils’ was scrapped in 2019, making clear that test and/or exam results were no longer paramount, and that schools in difficult circumstances. which might not achieve good headline outcomes, could nevertheless provide a good quality of education and serve their pupils well.

The ‘teaching, learning and assessment’ judgment was also scrapped. This implied that the focus would be on a whole school’s provision – its curriculum – and how that curriculum was delivered and assessed, not so much on an individual teacher’s classroom practice.

Both ‘outcomes for pupils’ and ‘teaching, learning and assessment’ were, in effect, subsumed within a new judgement called ‘quality of education’, which placed the quality of the school curriculum centre stage. 

The ‘quality of education’ was defined according to the intent, implementation, and impact of the curriculum, whereby:

  • intent is “a framework for setting out the aims of a programme of education, including the knowledge and understanding to be gained at each stage”
  • implementation is a means of “translating that framework over time into a structure and narrative within an institutional context”
  • impact is the means of “evaluating what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations”
It’s worth noting that ’quality of education’ is considered a leading judgement – in other words, it forms the bulk of inspection activity and provides the majority of the evidence used to grade a school. As such, put simply, if the quality of education is not judged to be ‘good’ then other judgments, particularly ‘leadership and management ‘ and ‘overall effectiveness’, are unlikely to be, though, of course, it’s not impossible.

Under the EIF, inspection activity takes three forms:

  1. Top-level view: inspectors and leaders start with a top-level view of the school’s curriculum, exploring what is on offer, to whom and when, leaders’ understanding of curriculum intent and sequencing, and why these choices were made.
  2. Deep dive: next, they conduct a ‘deep dive’, which involves gathering evidence on the curriculum intent, implementation, and impact over a sample of subjects, topics or aspects. This, Ofsted says, is carried out in collaboration with leaders, teachers and pupils. The intent of the deep dive is to seek to interrogate and establish a coherent evidence base on the quality of education.
  3. Bringing it together: finally, inspectors bring the evidence together to widen coverage and to test whether any issues identified during the deep dives are systemic. This usually leads to school leaders bringing forward further evidence and inspectors gathering additional evidence.
Overall, then, the EIF sets out the principles that apply to inspection, and the main judgements that inspectors make when carrying out inspections of maintained schools, academies, non-association independent schools, further education and skills providers, and registered early years settings in England.

The EIF applies to the inspection of different education, skills, and early years settings to ensure comparability when learners move from one setting to another. In other words, it supports consistency across the inspection of different remits. The EIF also reflects relevant legislation for each type of setting.

The inspection handbooks, meanwhile, describe the main activities carried out during graded, ungraded, and urgent inspections of education settings in England. Finally, the handbooks set out the grade descriptors that inspectors use to make their judgements and on which they report.

Graded inspections are carried out under Section 5 of the Education Act 2005. They were previously known as Section 5 inspections. In graded inspections, inspectors use Ofsted’s full framework and grade the setting for each of the four key judgements. Inspectors also grade the setting for any relevant provision (early years and/or sixth form provision) and for its overall effectiveness against the grade descriptors.

Ungraded inspections, meanwhile, are carried out under Section 8 of the Education Act 2005. They were previously known as Section 8 inspections of good and outstanding schools. By definition, an ungraded inspection differs from a graded inspection because it does not result in individual graded judgements. Instead, it focuses on determining whether the school remains the same grade as it was at its previous graded inspection.

Urgent inspections are also carried out under Section 8 of the Education Act 2005. They were previously known as inspections with no fixed designation and unannounced behaviour inspections.

Ofsted may also carry out inspections under Section 8 of the Education Act 2005 in order to comply with a request from the Secretary of State under section 118(2) of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 for information or advice about maintained schools and academies. Ofsted may also carry out research during inspections.

The handbooks explained

The inspection handbooks are primarily guides for inspectors on how to carry out inspections of specific settings, such as early years provision and schools. However, Ofsted makes it available to settings and other organisations to ensure that they are informed about the processes and procedures of inspection. We’ll focus on the ‘School inspection handbook’ by way of example.

Ofsted says that the handbook seeks to balance the need for consistency in inspections with the flexibility required to respond to the individual circumstances of each school. Accordingly, the handbook should be regarded not as a set of inflexible rules, but as an account of the procedures of inspection. Inspectors will use their professional judgement when they apply the guidance in this handbook.

The handbook has four parts:

Part 1: How schools will be inspected. This contains information about the processes before, during, and after the inspection.

Part 2: Explanation of Ofsted’s judgements. This sets out the kinds of evidence that inspectors gather and the activities they carry out to make their judgements.

Part 3: Grade descriptors. This contains the evaluation criteria that inspectors use to make the graded judgements about schools.

Part 4: Urgent inspections. This contains the procedures and evaluation criteria for these inspections.

Latest changes to the EIF

As promised, let’s return to the changes to the EIF that apply from September 2023. Firstly, there’s a new ‘conduct during inspection’ section. Ofsted’s code of conduct outlines its expectations for the conduct of its inspectors and its expectations of providers during inspection. Ofsted says that inspectors will uphold the highest professional standards in their work. They will treat everyone they meet during inspections fairly and with respect and sensitivity.

Providers should approach their inspection with integrity, openness, transparency, and honesty. This includes providing evidence, or access to evidence, that will enable the inspectors to report honestly, fairly, and reliably. It means not withholding or concealing evidence or providing false, misleading, inaccurate, or incomplete information.

The Ofsted code of conduct says that Ofsted exists to be a force for improvement through intelligent, responsible, and focused use of inspection, regulation, and insights. This is their guiding principle and is also reflected in their strategy.

The primary purpose of inspection or regulation under all of Ofsted’s frameworks is to bring about improvement in education provision for learners of all ages and in the care of children and young people. When inspectors are carrying out inspections or visits, the lead inspector will explain the expectations set out in this guidance and will ask providers to read it. They will make providers aware that they should raise any concerns that the inspection team has not acted on, in accordance with the code as soon as possible. This is in order to resolve issues before the inspection or visit is completed, where possible. At appropriate points, inspectors will confirm with providers that they have provided or given access to all relevant evidence.

At the end of the inspection or visit, the lead inspector will remind providers that it’s their responsibility to have acted in accordance with Ofsted’s expectations. This includes being open, transparent, and honest, as well as providing all relevant evidence to allow for a fair and accurate outcome. The code of conduct goes on to say that it’s important that inspectors establish and maintain a positive working relationship with providers, based on courteous and professional behaviour. Inspectors will take all reasonable steps to prevent undue anxiety and to minimise stress during the inspection or regulatory activity. Ofsted expect their inspectors to uphold the highest professional standards in their work, to act with integrity, and to treat everyone they meet fairly, with respect, and with sensitivity.

In meeting this expectation, inspectors will:

  • evaluate objectively, be impartial, and inspect without fear or favour
  • uphold and demonstrate Ofsted’s values at all times
  • evaluate provision in line with the frameworks, national standards, or regulatory requirements
  • base all evaluations on clear and robust evidence
  • declare all actual and perceived conflicts of interest and have no real or perceived connection with the provider that could undermine the objectivity of the inspection or regulatory activity
  • report honestly and clearly, ensuring that judgements are fair and reliable
  • carry out their work with integrity, treating all those they meet with courtesy, respect, and sensitivity
  • act in the best interests and well-being of service users, prioritising the safeguarding of children and learners at all times
  • establish and maintain appropriate professional and physical boundaries when talking to both children and adults
  • build an appropriate rapport with children while remaining alert to the dynamics of their role as inspectors and respecting the limits of their relationship with children
  • maintain purposeful and productive communication with providers, as well as clearly and sensitively informing them of judgements
  • respect the confidentiality of information as far as possible, particularly about individuals and their work
  • respond appropriately to reasonable requests
  • take prompt and appropriate action on any safeguarding or health and safety issues
  • use their title (such as His Majesty’s Inspector, Regulatory Inspector or Ofsted Inspector) only in relation to their work for Ofsted
  • on inspections or visits carried out jointly with other inspectorates, be clear with providers as to the roles and responsibilities of the respective inspectorates
At all times, Ofsted requires inspectors to act in accordance with internal policies and procedures on expected standards of behaviour and conduct, as well as the Civil Service code.

Changes to evaluating safeguarding

The EIF now says that inspectors will always take into account how well learners are helped and protected so that they’re kept safe. Although inspectors will not provide a separate grade for this important aspect of a provider’s work, they will always make a written judgement under ‘leadership and management’ about whether the arrangements for safeguarding learners are effective.

Inspectors are also required to be familiar with the statutory guidance about safeguarding. They should take relevant statutory guidance for their remit into account when inspecting. This includes:

  • Keeping children safe in education’: statutory guidance for schools and colleges on safeguarding children and safer recruitment
  • ‘Working together to safeguard children’
As mentioned earlier, the framework is intended to be a force for improvement for all learners. The framework and remit-specific criteria are clear that the expectation is that all learners will receive a high-quality, ambitious education.

Inspectors will assess the extent to which the provider complies with the relevant legal duties as set out in the Equality Act 2010 including, where relevant, the Public Sector Equality Duty and the Human Rights Act 1998.

Under the ‘leadership and management’ judgement, the framework now says that inspectors will evaluate the extent to which leaders have created an open and positive culture around safeguarding that puts pupils’ interests first. This means that they:

  • protect pupils from serious harm, both online and offline
  • are vigilant, maintaining an attitude of ‘it could happen here’
  • are open and transparent, sharing information with others and actively seeking expert advice when required
  • ensure that all those who work with learners are trained well, so that they understand their responsibilities and the systems and processes that the provider operates and are empowered to ‘speak out’ where there may be concerns
  • actively seek and listen to the views and experiences of learners, staff, and parents, taking prompt but proportionate action to address any concerns where needed
  • have appropriate child protection arrangements, which: identify learners who may need early help, and who are at risk of harm or have been harmed. This can include, but is not limited to, neglect, abuse (including by their peers), grooming, exploitation, sexual abuse and online harm. Secure the help that learners need and, if required, refer in a timely way to those who have the expertise to help. Manage safe recruitment and allegations about adults who may be a risk to learners
  • are receptive to challenge and reflective of their own practices to ensure that safeguarding policies, systems, and processes are kept under continuous review
The National College offers a range of webinars and resources to help you understand and meet Ofsted expectations and prepare for inspections.

If you’re concerned about keeping up to date with the latest education policy, practice and research, consider a membership with The National College. Not only does it provide access to thousands of professional development resources for all staff, but also enables leaders to create training programmes precisely tailored to individual and collective needs, to help ensure compliance and drive up standards.

Supporting documents:

Ofsted, ‘Education inspection framework for September 2023’, 2023 -

Ofsted, ‘School inspection handbook for September 2023’, 2023 -

Ofsted, ‘Early years inspection handbook for Ofsted-registered provision for September 2023’, 2023 -

DfE, ‘Keeping children safe in education’ 2023 -

DfE, ‘Working together to safeguard children’, 2022 -