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Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 04 February 2022

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:

Time for some levelling up?

It's been another one of those jam-packed weeks, but the release of the government’s long-awaited Levelling Up white paper, with education and skills positioned as a major driver, heads the education news this week.

At 330+ pages, a never-ending display of charts and a smattering of history lessons thrown in, the report is a hefty read. A bit too much cut and paste for some, it has three clear messages. Levelling up is to be mission-led, long-term, and within current funding limits. 

The government claims that the paper 'sets out a complete ‘system change’ of how government works' to help level up the UK. To that end it lists 'twelve bold levelling up missions' variously measurable and legally enforceable, ranging from broadband to life expectancy, education to health, and with a target date of 2030. It also establishes 'five mutually reinforcing pillars.' These include a new Levelling Up Council required to report annually, the promise of reorienting central decision making and of empowering local decision makers, and a data driven approach to implementing and monitoring. 

It all sounds right as the IfS put it, but not everyone is convinced. Many are disappointed at the lack of new money, others see it as a ‘patchwork of old ideas.’ “Is this it?” asked the Shadow Minister, calling the 12 missions, ’12 missions of failure.’ Labour’s metro mayor, Steve Rotheram, saw it as ‘mission impossible’ while the Social Mobility Commission said it was ‘hugely ambitious’ and that the real test would be 'how well it creates opportunities in places they did not exist before.' All on a day when the National Audit Office published a report criticising the government’s handling of local economic growth.

There’s a lot at stake therefore. But as the Sutton Trust put it in its response to the white paper, 'education is the building block of everything,' so here are three thoughts on the education and skills bits. 

First, although it feels that they’ve just had new life breathed into them, there are some hopeful messages for education. They include a new National Youth Guarantee by 2025 to ensure availability of out of school activities for young people in England; local support for special needs; a big heave around core outcomes in primary and skill training among adults; and an increase and greater devolution of funding for R/D and cultural activities. There’s also a new development. This is the UK National Academy, a free ‘new digital education service that will support pupils from all backgrounds and areas of the UK to succeed at the very highest levels.’

Second, when it comes to skills, it’s a familiar story. Lots of energetic ambitions but little sense of coherent strategy or overarching vision. This may come from the PM’s new Business Council and the Education Secretary’s new Future Skills Unit, let alone the promised new county deals and ‘trailblazer devolution deals.’ But with global, let alone UK economies, poised for a bumpy ride over the coming months – and with employers highlighting significant skills and technical gaps, the lack of overall planned direction is disappointing. There’s the familiar push around Institutes of Technology and Skills Bootcamps and targets for skills training and the promise of Innovation Accelerators, but a lot seems to rest on the ubiquitous local skills planning systems. And did anyone mention universities? 

And third, the proposal that has got many people jumping up, however, is for the ‘creation of specialist sixth form free schools.’ This comes in the section on schools which also parades the idea of Education Investment Areas. These are parts of the country, largely outside London, where the attainment gap is often at its sharpest. The paper is promising additional support for such areas including retention payments to help retain ‘best’ teachers, but also an expectation that weaker schools will join multi-academy trusts and specialist sixth forms will help extend access to ‘talented but disadvantaged pupils.’ As the former college principal Alison Birkinshaw tweeted: “Sorry but ‘elite new sixth forms’ as a strategy just doesn’t cut it. This will not ’level up’, nor will it address any skills gaps. It’s just a repeat of an old idea, under a new name, which didn’t work then and won’t work now.”

Moving on to other education headlines this week, the DfE has been in consultation ticking-off mode with proposals on the school buildings programme, pupil behaviour and exclusion guidelines, teacher misconduct and registration plans for home-educated children. The latter came as a think tank report highlighted the issue of ghost children, children who haven’t returned to school post lockdown. “Nearly 800 schools have an entire class-worth of ghost children,” as the Chair of the Education Committee explained in his introduction to the report. 

Elsewhere the Independent Commission on Assessment published its final report setting out a range of principles for the future and calling for when ready assessment rather than full exams at age 16. And Wales announced a small-scale pilot to test out extending the school week. There was even talk of looking at reducing the summer break.

In FE, City and Guilds, the Learning and Work Institute, Edge and the DfE itself all had reports out on various aspects of skills provision. While in HE, the UPP Foundation reported on the experience of international students as part of its Student Futures Commission for which the final report is expected shortly.

Over in Westminster this week, Education Questions in the House of Commons was somewhat overshadowed by the release of the Gray Report just before but even so, did manage to cover questions on catch-up, school funding, staff absences, BTECs and T levels, skills campaigns, and identifying the value of university courses. 

A couple of days later, MPs debated the government’s catch-up and mental health recovery programme and Labour hosted an Opposition Day debate on fraud and government waste. The Education Committee took evidence on Children’s Homes and the Science and Technology Committee held a witness session with the Science and Research Minister. And the Prime Minister announced details of the government’s new Business Council set up to build on the work of the Build Back Better Council and help 'turbocharge the UK economy.'

And a former teacher in London won this year’s Costa book of the year. The book, entitled ‘The Kids’ is actually a collection of sonnets and is based on the author’s experience of teaching in an inner-city sixth form. She described it as "a love song to young people." Many will recognise some of the emotions, climbing the stone-walled stairs to confront an expectant class for instance.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Graduates in England facing tax rises by stealth, says IfS’ (Monday).
  • ‘Areas with weak education targeted for levelling up’ (Tuesday). 
  • ‘Swap cliff-edge GCSEs for test when ready, say exams review’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Parents in England who fail to register home schooling could face sanctions’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Councils oppose ‘elite’ sixth form plans’ (Friday).


  • Levelling up. The government published its Levelling Up White Paper, promising a big shift of power and resources from Whitehall to the regions through county deals and mayoral authorities, all driven by 12 missions ranging from housing and transport to education and skills, with a target date of 2030.
  • Youth Support. The government outlined as part of its levelling up plans, a new Youth Guarantee, based partly on feedback from its 2020 youth services review with funding for a reformed National Citizenship Service, an expansion to every state secondary school of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, and a new Youth Investment Fund to support a spread of new youth facilities. 
  • How to really level up. The New Economics Foundation argued in a new publication that there is ‘no silver bullet’ to levelling up but pointed to five steps that could help, including identifying regional need, shifting from a focus on growth to one on living standards, supporting local economies, backing small businesses, and backing green developments.
  • Revamped Business Council. The PM announced the creation of a new Business Council, a group of 28 leading business, science and technology figures who will meet with the government at least quarterly and help drive economic growth, productivity and skills across the UK over the next 12 months.
  • Creative Industries. The government announced a new funding package for the creative industries with £21m for the Global Screen Fund for UK screen companies over the next 3 years, £18m to scale up creative industries outside London, and £8m to develop further the UK Games Fund.
  • Going for Growth.The CBI called on the government to be more ambitious in its plans for growth, going for rates of 2.-2.5% rather than 1.35-1.7%, with a new independent Council for Future Skills and a new Skills Challenge Fund to help drive this.
  • Leaving Lockdown. The Resolution Foundation reported on young people’s employment experiences during and after lockdown as part of a Health Foundation project, finding that while many have returned to work, this was often to temporary contracts with many young men especially now economically inactive and struggling to find more secure employment. 
  • Lifting out of poverty. The New Economics Foundation called for a system of auto-enrolment for universal credit along with a weekly national allowance instead of personal tax allowance, in a new report setting out proposals for a strengthened social security system for all. 
  • 4-day working week. The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) reflected on the concept of a 4-day working work, acknowledging that it wouldn’t work in every sector and a lot would depend on available labour supply but for sectors where it’s suitable, it could see productivity increase, costs dimmish and workers happier and healthier.
  • Good work monitoring. The Institute for the Future of Work along with Imperial College reported on their monitoring of Good Work across different authorities in England, Scotland and Wales, identifying five types of performers from stragglers to winners, highlighting the importance of ‘good jobs’ rather than just jobs and helping to create a framework as part of future levelling up.
  • Understanding nature. The Natural History Museum, Prince’s Trust and others launched a free online toolkit to help those working with young people bring nature to life with a range of free activities and resources, designed particularly for those living in urban areas.

More specifically ...


  • Levelling up. The government published its Levelling Up White Paper, highlighting the importance of education in helping close regional gaps and improve life chances, including among its mission proposals plans to raise literacy and numeracy levels in primary school and to create 55 Education Investment Areas with access to extra resources, teacher retention benefits and specialist sixth forms.
  • Levelling up follow-up. FFT Education Datalab reported on how many schools that had received successive poor Ofsted grades might actually be shifted into ‘strong’ multi-academy trusts as proposed in the levelling up white paper, concluding that it might amount to just 155.
  • Commission on assessment. The independent Commission on Assessment, sponsored by the NEU, published its final report calling for a new assessment era based around five principles including seeing qualifications and assessment as part of a wider education system, and putting forward ten recommendations for the future, including shifting the emphasis from assessment at age 16 to when ready, and using emerging technologies in assessment.
  • School rebuilding programme. The government confirmed its approach to prioritising school buildings following recent consultation, indicating it would use the proposed Approach B model of inviting collective responses and using Condition Data Collection to prioritise, with further details now set to follow. 
  • Behaviour and exclusions. The government launched consultation on revised guidance on behaviour in schools and on regulations around exclusions with, for example, proposals for behaviour on creating high standards and the use of rewards and recognition, and for exclusions, on ensuring governing boards oversee fixed periods.
  • Children not in school. The government published its response to its 2019 consultation on creating a register for children educated at home, confirming that despite some mixed responses and where resources allow, it intended to go ahead and create a register with a duty placed on local authorities to support such children.
  • Lost but not forgotten. The Centre for Social Justice published a new report with case studies of ‘ghost’ children – children who have disappeared from the school system – potentially up 100,000, many of whom are vulnerable, calling as a result for money underspent from the tutoring programme to be used to appoint school attendance practitioners to help with their return.
  • Pupil inclusion. The Education Policy Institute reported on ways of assessing the inclusiveness of school groups in England in a paper sponsored by the National Education Union, setting out a range of measures around choice, attendance and achievement for consultation, prior to a final report due this summer.
  • Vaccination take-up. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported on the vaccination take-up by school pupils aged 12-17 in state schools in England as of early January, showing just over 50% for 12-15 yr olds with at least one jab but with lower coverage among those from more deprived areas and/or with special needs.
  • Teacher misconduct. The government launched consultation on proposals intended to extend the reach of the provisions to include a wider range of settings and referrals.
  • Extended day. The Welsh Assembly announced a small project to trial extending the school day with a range of extra activities after school each week, targeted principally at disadvantaged learners.
  • School support. The Education Endowment Foundation called on schools in three areas, the North, East and West Midlands, to sign up for its support programmes, funded through the DfE’s Accelerator Fund, and covering activities in most educational settings.
  • Financial literacy. The Chair of the Education Committee, Rob Halfon, called in a comment piece in the FT for financial literacy to be given more prominence in the primary school curriculum pointing to the problems many adults have with money management later in life.
  • Mission 44. Sky promised £1m in funding as part of a 2-year partnership with Mission 44, Lewis Hamilton’s charity set up last year to support underrepresented and excluded young people by providing grants, forums and early career support.


  • Levelling up. The government published its Levelling Up White Paper signalling the importance of skills in helping close regional economic gaps, promising a big push on skills training as one its defined missions, along with further devolvement of adult education budgets to other regions, and the creation of a new Unit for Future Skills.
  • AELP reaction. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) posted its reaction to the Levelling Up White Paper acknowledging the ambition, but questioning the lack of investment around skills and calling for more clarity around the commissioning of adult education budgets.
  • ECITB priorities. The government listed its priorities for the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) for the current year pointing to four in particular around supporting government skills policies, the provision of training, promoting diversity and the skills transition needed for the transition to net zero.
  • CITB priorities. The government also set out the priorities for the current year for the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) broadly covering similar priorities but including in addition, skills development to support government moves on cladding and future house building.
  • Skills training. The government published a commissioned research report into the take-up or not of skills training by adults through the National Skills Fund Free Courses for Jobs Offer, finding over half interested particularly if it could help with jobs and career progression but others citing ‘situational barriers’ such as child care or ‘dispositional barriers’ such as not wanting to go back into learning, pointing accordingly to the importance of clear communication of the benefits.
  • Wave 2 COSMO. Leading organisations including UCL, the Sutton Trust and the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, launched consultation on the content and design for a second major COSMO (Covid Social Mobility and Opportunities) study into the impact pf Covid on young people’s education experiences, wellbeing and mental health post-pandemic, focusing this time on 17/18 year-olds, with a report set for May 2023.
  • Great Jobs. City and Guilds published a report looking at ten of the most important ‘essential’ jobs from education to healthcare and the labour market context, noting that 2.1m job postings in these sectors remain vacant and highlighting opportunities, earnings and features in each case but also the need to make them more attractive and respected.
  • Skills shortages. Edge brought together key details from its recent Skills Shortages series listing 12 messages in all including, concerns about growing skills shortages, particularly technical and transferable in many sectors, worries that these are not being prioritised in the education system and a lack of confidence from employers that these will be met in the short term.
  • Career changes. The Learning and Work Institute announced the launch of a number of projects looking into the sort of support and reskilling needed by people looking to switch jobs as survey evidence showed that concerns about retraining was factor for many people considering career changes.
  • Enrichment curriculum. The Association of Colleges (AoC) reported on its NCFE-funded research project into enrichment activities in FE using case study and literature evidence to highlight its importance and some of the challenges involved in delivering it.
  • Amazon Apprenticeships. Amazon announced it will create a further 1,500 apprenticeships across the UK and across its range of services including 200 at degree level and 500 for existing employees wishing to retrain.


  • Student loan repayments. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reacted to the freeze in the repayment threshold recently announced by the government, suggesting that middle earning graduates were likely to suffer the most, although with a lot depending on how long the freeze remained in place.
  • International Student Futures. The Student Futures Commission set out a range of measures to support international students better in future, particularly around careers opportunities and employability, before, during and after university.
  • International student market. The Times Higher reported on the international student market suggesting that countries such as Australia which have been slower to open up post-pandemic have struggled to recruit while the US, UK and Canada have seen a bounce back.
  • Strike action. The House of Commons Library published a briefing paper on the latest position regarding strike action across UK universities, setting out the two core issues of pension changes and pay and conditions, and explaining what rights students have if teaching is disrupted. 
  • Staffing details. The HE Statistics Agency (HESA) reported on staffing in UKHE for 2020/21 showing academic staffing numbers broadly the same as the year before at 224,530, with among f/t staff, 49% female, 17% BME, 19% over the age of 56, and with 32% on fixed-term contracts.
  • Environmental leadership. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) announced new funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to create a new team of social science and interdisciplinary experts, led by the universities of Bath, Leeds and Sussex, to support the UK’s transition to net zero.
  • Progression metrics. The Times Higher reported on some of the issues around the proposed new regulatory measures on ‘value for money’ courses, where initial analysis from the London Higher Group has suggested that most universities would have at least one course, often in social sciences, that wouldn’t meet the target. 
  • Civic universities. Experts at PA Consulting outlined in a new blog on the HE Policy Institute website some of the challenges involved in developing the model of a civic university, pointing in particular to needing to rework how universities operate and are organised as well as how best to monitor and measure collaborative activity. 
  • Waiting for Augar. Nick Hillman, director at the HE Policy Institute reflected on the current scenario around the ubiquitous Augar review four years on, suggesting that although things have moved on and the likelihood of major changes reform happening has probably passed, institutions have quietly been implementing aspects of the original review.

Stand-out tweets

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Levelling up should be acknowledged as one of the more implausible spatial metaphors of our twisted times. When you level the ground, it's not usually 'up' | @PriyamvadaGopal
  • “Multiple staff off. School dog in charge soon” | @blondebonce
  • “First time you teach is wild. You prepare 35 hours of material for a 2-hour lecture and live in terror of a follow-up question” | @NC_Renic
  • “A kid in my class held a door open for me and said "Age before beauty" and I had no comeback whatsoever. Feel like I've let myself down TBH” | @MrHtheteacher
  • “One of our followers messaged to ask what we think of SATs. I knew exactly what Margaret would say. "They're pointless, Geoff!" That was also the most popular answer to the same question when it was actually asked on Pointless. Ironically, that answer scored 100 points” | @RetirementTales
  • “A parent said that their child often comes home with little objects in their pockets. Yeah, I know, those are my resources!” | @joeb_EY
  • “I went to a conference where there was a little goodie bag for each delegate. Inside the bag, amongst other things, was a fizzy sherbert type sweet, which I duly attempted to eat. It was a bath bomb” | @fesshole
  • “My sister changed a lot when she became vegan. It's as if I’ve never seen herbivore” | @Markgsparrow

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “The answer to it lies not in cutting down the tall poppies, or attempting to hobble the areas that are doing well” – the PM introduces the Levelling Up White Paper.
  • “First step must now become leaps and bounds” – the British Chambers of Commerce responds to the Levelling Up White Paper.
  • “We've seen the so-called ‘Medici effect’ in Bradford where when you start creating an ecosystem it acts as a magnet” – PwC responds to the Levelling Up White Paper.
  • “Shortly.” The universities minister continues to confirm that a response to the Augar Review is on the cards.
  • “This is an excellent appointment to see the OfS through an important phase of our work” – the Office for Students announces Susan Lapworth as interim chief executive.
  • “His expert direction will lead the agency’s formation, ensuring the funding of high-risk programmes that will continue to push the boundaries of science and technology” – the Business Secretary hails the appointment of Peter Highnam as the first chief exec of the UK’s new Advanced Research and Invention Agency.
  • “After failing my GCSEs as a working-class 16-year-old, it was a BTEC in performing arts that got me back into education and ultimately into university” – Labour MP Vicky Foxcroft calls on the minister to protect BTECs.
  • “Nearly 800 schools have an entire class-worth of ghost children” – The Chair of the Education Committee introduces a new report on school absentees.
  • “In the first three months of this year the department will launch a consultation on our proposals” – the minister on the timing of the SEND review.
  • “School and college leaders will be astonished that the government thinks it knows best how to create calm, orderly, safe and supportive environments for children and young people to thrive in, as this is what they and their staff work incredibly hard every single day to achieve” – ASCL responds to the government’s latest guidance on pupil behaviour.
  • “Financial education today must recognise that the TikTok generation faces altogether different challenges to those armed with a cheque book in years gone by” – the Chair of the Education Committee called for more financial literacy in schools.
  • “The attention battle” – Facebook pinpoints the battle among social media platforms to target followers. 

Important numbers

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

  • 6. The number of capitals (physical, human, intangible, financial, social, institutional) that will drive levelling up, according to the government’s new white paper.
  • 28.The numbers of members of the government’s new, revamped Business Council advising on productivity and skills, according to Number 10.
  • £6.6bn. The amount that tech IPOs raised last year, double the previous year according to latest figures from government.
  • 70,000. Staff numbers for Amazon last year, up 15,000 according to the Financial Times.
  • £113. How much more middle earning graduates are likely to have to pay towards their student loan this year following the freeze on the repayment threshold, according to the IfS
  • 52.5% The number of 12-15 year-olds in state schools in England who’d had at least one jab by 9 January, with 69.7% among 16-17 year olds according to the ONS.
  • 30%. The number of primary school teachers suggesting they may struggle to complete the curriculum this year (84% in secondary,) according to Teacher Tapp.
  • 27%. The number of teachers in a survey who said they are working in classrooms where the windows don’t open, according to the i newspaper.
  • 75%. The number of people in a survey who were against hot-desking, according to an article in the Financial Times.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • National Apprenticeship Week (Monday 7 February to Sunday 13 February).
  • End date for publication of advance information on this summer’s exams (Monday 7 February).
  • IfG event on the DfE response to post-pandemic challenges (Monday 7 February).
  • Education Committee session on mental health and wellbeing (Tuesday 8 February).
  • Safer Internet Day (Tuesday 8 February).
  • Westminster Hall debate on special needs and children’s mental health services (Wednesday 9 February).
  • HEPI/Advance HE webinar on ‘The Future of Higher Education’ (Wednesday 9 February).

Other stories

  • Covid effect. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently released its latest survey of how Covid was continuing to affect lifestyles in Britain. The picture is based on survey evidence collected during the first two weeks of January, just as Plan B restrictions were due to be eased and the impact of the cost of living beginning to be noticed. So, for instance, households (35%) were starting to report that they were cutting energy use and spending less on non-essentials (55%.) 26% reported only working from home, 44% maintained social distancing when out and about, and 42% said they would continue to open windows when family or friends came round. A new survey is due out shortly but full details from this one can be seen here.
  • Where did Apprentice 2022 candidates go to university? Coventry, Essex, Queen Mary’s, Kings, Loughborough and possibly Bristol – the latter is not fully confirmed – these are among the universities that this year’s crop of Lord Sugar’s candidates have attended. They may not be everyone’s image of a typical university graduate but for those that watch the programme it’s perhaps interesting to see where these prospective business partners studied. Perhaps the success of the winner will help his/her university meet the proposed new regulatory target of having a certain number of graduates enter managerial or professional employment. The full list can be found in an article on The Tab ‘youth media’ site 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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