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Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 15 September 2023

Welcome to Education Eye, a regular update detailing the policies and stories happening in UK education, compiled by Steve Besley.

What's happened this week?

Important stories across the board:

A mass of data out this week.

It ranges from KS2 provisional performance, global education systems and UK social mobility to the UK labour market and economy and EU economic outlook. All have been released in various forms during the week. Collectively they tend to underline the challenging context for education rather than ease it.

Summary details on these below but first some of the other education-related stories of the week.

In Westminster, the Education Committee heard from experts on how to tackle teacher recruitment and retention. Better data, CPD and support were among the recommendations. In another room, the Public Accounts Committee took evidence from DfE officials on RAAC as part of its ongoing inquiry into school buildings. The Education Committee questions ministers on the matter next week.

In other Westminster news, MPs debated how best to support at-risk academics, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analytics hosted a roundtable on the impacts of AI on the HE sector and LLE Bill had its 3rd Reading as it completed its passage through parliament. It now awaits the royal assent.

Over in schools as the Today programme found out, strong views emerged this week about exams at age 16. This followed announcements by two private schools that they were planning to switch to their own alternative courses for some subjects. ‘Past their sell by date’ was their view on the annual GCSE jamboree.

In other schools news, Ofsted told schools on the government’s RAAC list that they wouldn’t face inspections this term and the Education Committee announced a new Inquiry into the effects of screen time on education and wellbeing. “From this inquiry we hope to form positive recommendations for both government and the education sector on how to harness the benefits that online resources can offer for children’s education and development,” the Committee chair said.

FE saw two interesting reports this week, one from the Federation of Awarding Bodies on skills and the other from Policy Exchange on apprenticeships but arguably the big news of the week was the release of a stinging briefing on the L3 reforms. This came from the ‘Protect Student Choice’ campaign which as the name implies is concerned about alternative qualification routes such as BTECs being lost to students. Their briefing headed ‘Desperate Measures’ suggested that, well, data was being selectively used to justify the defunding of such qualifications ahead of T levels. The minister was having none of it. “We’ve worked hand in glove with hundreds of employers to rebuild the entire skills system.”

HE also saw a stinging report this week. It came from a Lords Committee which had been looking at the work of the Office for Students (OfS) and the finances of the HE sector generally. The title of the report ‘Must do Better’ said it all. HE expert Aaron Porter called the report ‘damning’ while the Times Higher said its verdict on the OfS was ‘brutal.’

Elsewhere, the QAA, which has been in Conference looking at quality this week, published its definition of quality in UKHE. In a word, or rather a few: ” Quality in higher education refers to how well providers support students consistently to achieve positive outcomes in learning, personal development and career advancement, while meeting the reasonable expectations of those students, employers, government and society in general.”

Links to most of these stories below but first a quick run through headlines from those various data releases this week. 

  • On KS2, provisional figures from this summer’s assessment showed a similar picture to last year with 59% of pupils reaching the expected standard in reading, writing and maths. The expected standard in writing is a teacher assessment and in reading and maths it is a scaled score of 100 or more. Reading saw a 2% drop on last year in the number of pupils reaching the expected standard as it reverted to 2019 levels but numbers were up in the other two. Further revisions may follow in December when the data is finalised with particular interest in any changes to the disadvantage gap. The Education Policy Institute suggest it is stagnating.

  • The picture on global education systems came courtesy of the annual OECD tome on the performance of different education systems known as Education at a Glance. The theme this year was vocational education where the UK has a patchy performance compared to other OECD countries. “Only 39% of students are enrolled in vocational upper secondary programmes that offer work-based learning components” and only 16% of 25–34-year-olds had a vocational qualification at the highest level compared to 23% across the OECD. On a more positive note, the UK invests 4.2% of its GDP in education which is above the OECD average of 3.6% and remains a popular destination for international students. But vast amounts of private income go into early childhood education and while headteachers are paid well, classroom teachers aren’t.

  • Turning to social mobility, the Social Mobility Commission published its latest comprehensive report this week. New data this year relates to regional differences and importantly differences within them, as well as those between different groups and genders and those with disabilities. The report shows for example that “better educational outcomes (among different ethnic groups) don’t always yield better occupational outcomes.” Also that regional differences can be ‘striking.’ For example “People of a working-class background who grew up in Outer London (West and North) had a 46% chance of becoming professionals, while those growing up in Northern Ireland had only a 28% chance.” Yet, as the report notes, the reverse is true of housing mobility. The Commission will be providing further thinking on some of these issues but the nuances highlight the challenges facing those in education.  

  • This week’s economic and labour market data has not made for easy reading either. Three figures have grabbed the headlines. First the 0.5% drop in UK GDP last month, a bigger contraction than had been expected leaving fingers being pointed variously at the weather, strikes and so on. It’s expected to improve over the next quarter. Second, the 7.8% increase in pay over the quarter, welcome by many but not by the Treasury. And third, 1.06m, the increase in economic inactivity reported over the last quarter among young people. The Institute for Employment Studies called it ‘stark.’ Meanwhile, the EU revised down its prediction for growth in the EU economy region from 1% to 0.8% for the year. The Chancellor appeared more bullish about the UK economy than the TUC which described it as ‘in the danger zone.’

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Private school to move further away from ‘outdated’ GCSEs, headteacher says. (Monday).
  • ‘Only half of required number of trainee secondary teachers in England recruited.’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Universities reliant on overseas students - report.’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Many students will have no suitable course of study under ‘reckless’ BTEC plans.’ (Thursday).
  • ‘RAAC: Schools need ‘urgent clarity’ over funding as costs mount.’ (Friday).


  • AI safety. Secretary of State Michelle Donelan addressed the CogX Festival where she focused on the importance of AI safety and the work the UK was doing in this area through the Frontier AI Taskforce and others as it prepared to host a global summit on the matter in November.
  • Lack of digital professionals. The Public Accounts Committee highlighted in a new report a lack of digital, data and tech professionals across the civil service and of low levels of digital skills across Whitehall generally, making the digital transformation of services even more challenging.
  • Business Council. The British Chambers of Commerce new Business Council held its inaugural meeting with special guests Michael Gove MP and Rachel Reeves MP, setting out its initial thoughts on its five key policy challenges with the aim of putting forward a Business Manifesto and associated recommendations early next year n time for any general election.
  • Economic growth. The ONS reported that the UK economy contracted by 0.5% in July with many sectors hit by strike action and/or poor weather, leaving overall growth for the last quarter at 0.2%.
  • Labour market overview. The ONS reported the latest picture on the UK labour market showing an increase in both unemployment and economic inactivity, including notably among 16-24 yr olds, over the period May-July this year, but with regular pay continuing to rise.  
  • Labour market analysis. The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) suggested a likely cooling of the economy as it pointed to a triple dose of worries in its analysis of the latest labour market figures with unemployment up, economic inactivity up and employment down overshadowing positive data on pay.
  • Universal support. The government launched the roll-out of its Universal Support scheme, first announced in the Spring Budget, with the aim of helping 25,000 people with conditions that make it difficult for them to work, to move back into employment
  • Remote working. The Consultancy Public First reported new evidence showing that the growth of remote and flexi working, promoted by many companies during and since the pandemic, had encouraged more women to consider f/t employment.
  • Social mobility. The Social Mobility Commission published its State of the Nation report for 2023 pointing to continuing ‘clear inequalities’ within regions and among different groups along with concerns about child poverty, low levels of social trust and poor outcomes for those with disabilities.
  • EU State of the Nation. European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, outlined EU achievements over the past year in her State of the Union address and set out six priorities for the coming year, including a European Green Deal, an economy that works for people and a Europe fit for the digital age.
  • Education at a Glance. The OECD published the 2023 version of its hefty compilation of data on the performance of different education systems across member countries, focusing this year on vocational education and showing how these, along with the funding, vary across countries but which in the best systems provide important work-based learning and progression opportunities.
  • Economic Outlook. The EU published its latest economic outlook pointing to ‘a reduced growth momentum’ with growth revised down for 2023 to 0.8% and inflation stabilising at around 5.6%.
  • Perspectives from the North. The Child of the North All-Party Parliamentary Group highlighted gaps in funding faced by families and schools in the North of England resulting in poor health and educational outcomes, calling for a major boost to funding and support to address the social, educational and health inequalities faced by many in the region.
  • Nutrition support. The Early Years Alliance launched its programme of nutrition support for early years providers with a range of free resources, training and menu tips.
  • What do we want? The Children’s Commissioner for England followed up her ‘Big Ask’ of a couple of years ago by launching ‘The Big Ambition,’ a survey of young people’s (aged 6-18) thoughts and views about school, families, life and hopes, intended to encourage policy makers ahead of a general election to think of young people and their needs.
  • Tech Adviser. The government announced Dave Smith as the new National Technology Adviser following in the footsteps of Sir Patrick Vallance in helping advise the secretary of state on tech matters and championing the role of the UK in the tech sector.

More specifically ...


  • KS2. The government published provisional data on this summer’s KS2 assessments showing a slight drop in reading standards but overall figures similar to those of last year with marginal improvement around the disadvantage gap.
  • Ofsted inspection. Ofsted announced that it would not be inspecting schools on the government’s list of those affected by RAAC this term, including schools affected indirectly, with the situation being kept under review.
  • Screen time. The Education Committee announced a new Inquiry looking into the effects of screen time through phones, apps and so on on young people’s education and wellbeing, taking in current views on this and looking at how best to support schools and families with appropriate policies and guidance.  
  • Safeguarding. The government outlined details for a new role of National Child Safeguarding Facilitator to work with the dept and partners on sharing good practice, updating strategic arrangements and generally ‘strengthening multiagency safeguarding arrangements.’
  • Outdated’ GCSEs. The private co-ed School, Bedales, announced moves for students to take GCSEs in just English Language and maths flexibly and when ready and to use the School’s own certificate courses as alternatives for other subjects, claiming that GCSEs were ‘outdated’ and not fit for purpose.  
  • AAQs. Exam board AQA announced it was working with Training Qualifications UK to develop a range of alternative academic qualifications (AAQs) for students who wanted a mixed programme of study rather than purely A or T levels.
  • Language Hubs. The government announced the first 19 schools in its programme to boost languages in schools through its Language Hubs programme.
  • Cost-of-living. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published the second in its series looking at the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on schools reporting that nearly a half of primary and two-fifths of secondary schools were facing deficit with areas of provision, notably in special needs, facing cuts.
  • Working time. The NASUWT called for a national contractual limit on teacher’s working-time to tackle stress and burnout as it prepared to launch a programme of working to rule in support of their case next week.
  • Free school meals. TUC members voted to call on Labour to commit to free school meals for primary school children in England as part of its next manifesto.


  • L3 reforms. The ‘Protect Student Choice’ campaign called on the government ‘to pause and review the implementation of its (L3) reforms’ as it published survey evidence showing that the proposed defunding of alternative qualifications such as BTECs and undue expectation of T levels could leave many students without suitable options in the future.
  • T levels. The House of Commons Library Service published a briefing paper on T levels outlining their background and development, how they operate and some of the current issues around them up to and including the recent Ofsted report.
  • Skills reform. The Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) called in a new publication for a major overhaul of the skills system arguing that the current chopping and changing of depts, agencies and policies hadn’t delivered an increase in skills or productivity and that a UK-wide strategy with long-term investment, clear accountabilities and aligned priorities was now needed.
  • Apprenticeship experts. The government invited applications from eligible apprenticeship providers to take part in an expert apprenticeship training provider pilot, due to begin at the end of next month, and aimed at making it easier for more non-levy paying providers to participate in the system.
  • Apprenticeships. The think tank Policy Exchange called for changes in support for young people taking up an apprenticeship including discretionary bursaries, funded travel, and reform of child benefit particularly to help the disadvantaged, as it published a further briefing in its series on levy reform.
  • Digital apprenticeships. The Careers and Enterprise Company announced support from Salesforce in adopting a new funded accelerator programme to help overcome barriers and ease access to digital apprenticeships in disadvantaged regions.
  • Skills Olympics. WorldSkills UK announced that Team UK had won a total of nine medals including a gold and two bronzes at the recent EuroSkills event in Poland, helping boost their preparation for the WorldSkills Finals next year.


  • Looming crisis.’ The House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee warned of ‘a looming financial crisis’ facing the HE sector in a new report, criticising the Office for Students (OfS) for failing to meet the needs of students and calling for a more trusted regulatory system and review of sector funding.
  • Tipping point? Professor Glen O’Hara argued in an article in the FT that British universities were at ‘a tipping point,’ singling out funding and marketisation as the causes of many of the current ‘crisis’ problems and suggesting that a major review would be needed in the long term.
  • Fee restrictions. The so-called ‘New Conservatives’ group set out a number of proposals for higher education in a new policy pamphlet on skills including setting basic entry requirements for access to student loans, introducing an earlier fixed graduate repayment system, and withdrawing loans for ‘poor’ quality courses.
  • Quality definition. The QAA set out to help policy makers and others by coming up with a definition of what constitutes quality in UKHE, listing a number of likely indicators such as ‘a relevant and challenging learning environment’ and ‘all students getting a fair chance.’
  • QA visits. The Office for Students outlined data on Business and Management courses and published its findings from quality assessment visits to such courses at two universities, pointing to some areas of concern in one.
  • UAL impact. The University of the Arts (UAL) published the results of a commissioned Impact Assessment report showing that it contributed an estimated £1bn to the UK economy and 12,500 f/t equivalent jobs in 2021/22 from its position as a global leader in creative arts.
  • Cost-of-living. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) called on government, universities and student unions to work together on cost-of-living support as it published survey evidence showing that over a quarter of universities were operating a food bank and three-quarters helping with food and drink generally.
  • Hamburg Statement. Russell Group and German U15 universities committed to work closely together to share expertise, collaborate on research and generally enhance partnership work on key issues where appropriate.

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “I know it's the time of year, but reading about a school inviting parents to email the Head of Year to check if the shoes they're buying for kids are acceptable ahead of purchasing them, seriously /someone/ needs to calm down about uniform” -@langtrygirl.
  • “Nearly half of primary and special schools had or are expecting a deficit for the 2022-23 academic year, new @TheNFER research shows” -@tes.
  • “Students are suspended for their behaviour, not their socio-economic status. The risk factors associated with poverty correlate strongly with anti-social behaviour habits. Suspensions are *necessary* when students’ safety and learning is threatened” -@tombennett71.
  • “Sandhurst for soldiers will be created to boost skills, says Army head | Telegraph” -@telegraph.
  • “I just answered a phone call and all I could hear were chattering teeth – I think it was a cold caller” - @OFalafel.

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “An outlook challenged by risks and uncertainties” – the EU presents its latest economic forecast
  • “In particular, a lack of cyber-security experts should send a chill down the Government’s spine” – the Public Accounts Committee reports on a lack of digital professionals across Whitehall.
  • “One of the things I was initially attracted to was abolishing tuition fees. Having now looked at the state of the country’s finances, I think that’s impossible and therefore we won’t make that choice” – Sir Keir Starmer explains his views on tuition fees.
  • “Too many courses, therefore, are propped up by Government funding that do not deliver value for money to the students “– the New Conservatives Group call for a rethink on tuition fee eligibility.
  • “Underperforming amid looming crisis”- the Lords Industry and Regulators Committee finds the government and OfS wanting when it comes to universities.
  • “We no longer incentivise courses like self-tanning, balloon artistry and pole fitness instructing – as the last government did” - -skills minister Rob Halfon defends the L3 reforms.
  • “The government must rip up its failed recruitment and retention strategy and replace it with a new vision which restores education as a career graduates aspire to” – the NAHT responds to concerns about teacher recruitment and retention this year.
  • “Very humbly, we offer what we do to other educators to show them and to give them confidence about moving forward to reform things,” – the head of Bedales School on switching from GCSEs to school certificated courses.

Important numbers

Not-to-be-missed numbers of the week:

  • 7.8%. The increase in regular wages for the period May-July this year, the ‘highest regular annual growth rate since comparable records began in 2001 according to the ONS.
  • 1.3%. The forecast growth figure for the euro area for 2024, down from 1.6% according to the EU.
  • 33%. The number of Russell Group universities operating a food bank, according to survey evidence from HEPI.
  • 155,000. The projected number of young people facing a lack of suitable qualification options from 2026 given the defunding of alternatives like BTECs and slow growth of T levels, according to the Protect Student Choice campaign.
  • 59%. The percentage of pupils meeting the expected standard in reading, writing and maths in their KS2 assessments this summer, according to latest government figures.
  • 37%. The number of NASUWT teachers surveyed reporting experiencing violence or physical abuse in the last 12 months, according to a poll from the NASUWT.
  • 58%. The number of primary schools seeking additional parental contributions to cope with cost-of-living issues, according to a survey from NFER and ASK
  • 9.7%. The amount of additional funding pupils in London receive on average compared to those in the North of the country, according to a new parliamentary report.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Education Committee evidence session with the DfE on RAAC and school buildings. (Tuesday 19 September).
  • Westminster Hall debate on the impact of the cost-of-living on FE/HE students. (Tuesday 19 September).
  • Strike ballot for UCU action over pay and conditions opens. (Tuesday 19 September).
  • NFER report on the impact of the cost-of-living on school workforce issues. (Thursday 21 September).

Other stories

  • What’s worrying parents? According to a new survey commissioned by UNICEF and undertaken by YouGov, it’s getting harder and harder being a parent these days. 70% of those surveyed with children under the age of four reckon they have it harder than their parent’s generation with the rising cost-of-living being the biggest factor. As one respondent put it “‘previously people could survive on one household income, now we have two and it is barely enough.” It means cutting back on activities and so-called quality time with the kids and frantically trying to make ends meet. UNICEF has been running a campaign for some time under the heading ‘Early Moments Matter’ with the aim of urging governments, like that in Britain, to commit to a guarantee of basic support for early years. This latest survey has been released as part of that campaign and can be found here.

  • Girls’ attitudes. There’s a bleak chart at the start of the latest survey from Girlguiding of Girls’ Attitudes. It shows the happiness levels of female respondents of all ages steadily falling over the years from 2009 when the survey, which covers girls and young women aged 7-21 both inside and outside of guiding, first started. There are positives. More girls take part in local activities and feel part of their community and more also are prepared to speak out on issues they care about. But when 62% report having been criticised for the way they look and 75% feel worried much of the time, it’s a sad indictment of our times. A link to the survey is here.

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Steve Besley

Disclaimer: Education Eye is intended to help colleagues keep up to date with national developments in the education sector. Information is correct at the time of writing and is offered in good faith. No liability is accepted by Steve Besley or EdCentral for decisions made on the basis of any information provided.




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