Work scrutiny

We all know that Ofsted uses work scrutiny as a key part of their deep dive process for evaluating the quality of education in schools. This is because, in conjunction with lesson visits and pupil voice, it provides a huge amount of information about:

  • The quality and depth of the curriculum
  • Any variations in the delivery of the curriculum (teaching)
  • Whether the curriculum is well-sequenced and provides a depth of knowledge to enable pupils to build up a coherent and deep understanding of the subject over time.
  • Whether the curriculum is ambitious and challenging and enables pupils to make secure progress in a subject over time.

Common pitfalls

The most effective in-school quality assurance programmes also recognise the importance of work scrutiny as an incredibly powerful tool for enabling leaders at all levels to evaluate the quality of education in the curriculum – and to improve it. However, there are some common pitfalls when conducting work scrutiny which can limit its effectiveness. These include:

  • Trying to do too much at once: collecting a huge sample of books which means that there is too little time to look at any of them in depth.
  • Focusing only on compliance: checking for evidence of feedback and response, or aspects of presentation (such as recording of learning objectives or headings)
  • Doing work scrutiny in isolation and out of context, for example without reference to curriculum plans or lesson visits.
  • Work scrutiny being done solely by senior leaders so that subject specialists or curriculum leaders are not using it to adjust the curriculum or teaching; or feeding outcomes back into subject-specific professional development.

So, how do busy school leaders make the most of work scrutiny?

  • Make sure that the right people are doing it. It’s most effective when done by subject specialists, so ensure that middle leaders have been trained to do it well. Start by getting them to work alongside skilled senior leaders, an external school reviewer or a school improvement partner until they’re confident and accurate in their judgements.
  • Build it in little and often. Going through books takes time to check that work in them is aligned to the curriculum. At least some of what the pupils have written needs to be read carefully to check for real understanding and progress. Don’t rush it.
  • Be really clear about the purpose. Work scrutiny can be done for a range of reasons, such as:
    • Looking at different classes across a year group to check that they all get a consistently high-quality offer. Are there the same expectations about the precise knowledge that pupils will learn or are there variations in the levels of depth and challenge? Does what’s in books reflect what the curriculum leader thinks should be happening, or are individual teachers interpreting the curriculum in different ways?
    • Looking at the development of particular concepts or disciplinary knowledge over time across year groups. Does the curriculum build on prior learning and are knowledge and concepts explicitly revisited, possibly in different contexts, to enable pupils to develop a really deep understanding over time?
    • Checking the impact of the curriculum on different pupil groups: does work in books show that pupils from different starting points are making good progress?
    • Checking on the impact of a new curriculum unit or pedagogical approach.
    • It’s often useful to look at outcomes of assessment and to track back through books to see whether the curriculum delivery up to that point really enabled pupils to be successful.
    • As a professional development opportunity for staff. In department meetings it’s a useful way of sharing good practice and an objective and evidence-based way of getting teachers to reflect on their own practice.
  • A least some of the work scrutiny should be done in conjunction with pupil discussion. Ask pupils subject-specific, knowledge-based questions, and get them to point out in their books exactly how their work helps them to build up their knowledge and understanding. Hold on to the books once pupils have gone, to have a look at them in more detail.
  • Think about how books for work scrutiny are selected. Sometimes, if done in conjunction with lesson visits, it’s useful to identify students who were of interest in the lesson. Perhaps one appeared really knowledgeable, while another appeared to be struggling? Did one pupil seem disengaged, and would a chat while looking at their book help to find out why? Does there seem to be a gender difference? Select a sample of both and start to explore why.
  • Use the findings. Often work scrutiny doesn’t give you all the answers, but it might give you hypotheses to explore through other evidence. Are patterns that you’re seeing in Year 7 also typical in Year 8? Is work in some classes so good that it’s worth doing more lesson visits to that teacher to see what they’re doing that’s working so well so that you can share it? Is it clear that there are common areas for development that need to be addressed through whole departmental CPD? Or individual areas for development that need something more personalised?
  • Build key findings into the departmental (or whole school in some cases) action plan and follow them in departmental and line management meetings.


Ofsted’s ‘deep dive’ takes no more than three hours, and their work scrutiny is only a small part of that. You can build yours over the course of a year. Use that time well and you will have a wealth of evidence from books to show that you know your curriculum and quality of teaching in depth and are using what you know to develop them to be as good as they possibly can.

Guidance and assistance

Should you require additional external guidance and support to build your own invaluable work scrutiny, please do not hesitate to contact us.


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