Last reviewed 12 August 2015

From 1 September 2015 the Common Inspection Framework (CIF) comes into effect for early years providers and schools in England. Martin Hodgson, early years consultant, takes us through the detail of what the new framework is and what early years providers can expect when it is implemented in the autumn.

What is the CIF?

How Ofsted inspectors carry out their inspections of schools and early years services in England is changing. A new inspection framework, The Common Inspection Framework: Education, Skills and Early Years, was published in June 2015 by Ofsted.

The common inspection framework, or CIF, sets out how Ofsted intends to inspect registered early years provision, maintained schools and academies, non-association independent schools, and further education and skills provision. The framework applies to inspections carried out under section 5 of the Education Act 2005 (as amended), section 109 of the Education and Skills Act 2008, the Education and Inspections Act 2006, and the Childcare Act 2006.

What is the idea behind the CIF?

As with its previous sets of inspection standards, Ofsted restates its core principles in its new framework, stating that inspection provides independent, external evaluation which drives up standards and provides assurance to the public and to government that minimum standards of childcare, education, and skills are being met.

Ofsted states that the CIF has been designed to bring the inspection of early years provision, education and skills together under a single framework, giving greater coherence across providers and more comparability between services when children and learners move from one provision to another.

Ofsted says that having the CIF in place will introduce a common set of judgments across a range of types of provision, underpinned by consistent criteria for reaching those judgments.


While the framework states that inspection is predominantly about improving outcomes and services for individual children, it also requires inspectors to pay particular attention to certain groups. These include disabled children and those who have special educational needs, children from minority ethnic groups, children for whom English is an additional language, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, young carers, teenage mothers, and other vulnerable groups.

To further support equality and diversity, the CIF states that inspectors will assess the extent to which a provider or school complies with relevant legal duties as set out in the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998, promotes equality of opportunity and takes “positive steps to prevent any form of discrimination.”


The framework places considerable emphasis on keeping children safe, the “safeguarding” agenda. In this context the framework refers to other updated guidance published by Ofsted this summer setting out the approach inspectors should take to inspecting safeguarding in childcare, education and skills.

Ofsted states that this guidance, Inspecting Safeguarding in Education, Skills and Early Years Settings, should be read alongside the framework. It also suggests that providers should be familiar with the statutory guidance in relation to safeguarding, Keeping Children Safe in Education: Statutory Guidance for Schools and Colleges, and Working Together to Safeguard Children, both published in March 2015.

Gradings and judgments

The CIF features a common four-point grading scale to be used in all inspections to make the principal judgments, which are:

  • grade 1: outstanding

  • grade 2: good

  • grade 3: requires improvement

  • grade 4: inadequate

In making the judgments about a provider’s overall effectiveness, the CIF requires inspectors to consider whether the standard of education, training or care is good or outstanding. If it is not at least good, inspectors will consider whether it requires improvement or is inadequate.

Inspectors are required to make graded judgments on the following areas using the four-point scale.

  • Effectiveness of leadership and management.

  • Quality of teaching, learning and assessment.

  • Personal development, behaviour and welfare.

  • Outcomes for children and learners.

A set of criteria to make each of the graded judgments is included in the CIF. These criteria are common for all the types of provision covered by the framework but individual inspection handbooks for each type of provision have also been published to explain how these criteria will be applied in each context.

For instance, in relation to early years leadership and management, managers and governors must demonstrate an “ambitious vision” and have “high expectations” for what all children can achieve.

In addition to the above judgments, inspectors are also asked within the framework to make a variety of other judgments and undertake regulatory activity in different types of provision.

For instance, Ofsted is also responsible for the registration and regulation of providers on the Early Years Register. Thus inspectors are referred to The Framework for the Regulation and Inspection of Provision on the Early Years Register, published in October 2014, and the Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage.

The CIF states that maintained schools and academies and non-association independent schools that have Early Years Foundation Stage provision will be given a separate grade for that provision as part of school inspections conducted under section 5 of the Education Act 2005 (as amended by the Education Act 2011).

Conduct of inspections

The CIF requires inspectors to uphold “the highest professional standards” in their work and treat everyone they encounter during inspections “fairly and with respect and sensitivity”. The framework states that they will:

  • evaluate objectively, be impartial and “inspect without fear or favour”

  • base all evaluations on “clear and robust evidence”

  • carry out their work with integrity.

The Ofsted framework states that it expects providers to also be courteous and professional, treating inspectors with respect and enabling inspectors to conduct their visit in an open and honest way.

Inspection handbooks

The framework is accompanied by an inspection handbook for each remit. That which applies to early years services is: Early Years Inspection Handbook – Handbook for Inspecting Early Years in England under Sections 49 and 50 of the Childcare Act 2006.

The handbook goes into more detail about individual inspection schedules and processes. It covers the following.

  • Before the inspection – Inspectors’ planning and preparation.

  • Notification of inspection and inspection without prior notification.

  • Conducting inspections.

  • Reaching final judgments.

  • Providing feedback.

  • Quality assurance and complaints.

The handbook also contains detailed descriptions of each grading.

Further information

All documents relating to the new Common Inspection Framework and Ofsted inspection can be downloaded from

Ofsted states that the draft version of the CIF published in June may alter slightly when it is implemented in September. However, it should be accepted as a final document by providers for planning purposes.