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Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 04 March 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:

Most minds have of course been concentrating on events abroad this week with education keen to help where it can. 

Back home the government has been continued its drive on transforming vocational provision, with a detailed consultation on post-16 qualifications at L2 and below, while analysis and debate about the government’s higher ed reforms, outlined last week, have been rumbling on. 

In Westminster, the Education Committee heard from the Children and Families Minister, rounding off the Inquiry into Children’s Homes. The Public Accounts Committee expressed concerns about school finances and the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee took evidence from witnesses, including universities, on delivering a UK science and technology strategy. 

In other education news, families heard about secondary school places in England for this September under the traditional annual National Offer Day. FFT Education Datalab had some interesting figures on the stretch needed to ensure that 90% of KS2 pupils reach required standards in reading, writing and maths by 2030 – as pledged in the recent Levelling Up White Paper. The figure was 65% in 2019, the last year when SATs were held.

Further afield, the Children’s Commissioner for England reported on her first year in office, while the Commission on Young Lives highlighted many of the dangers facing teenagers today in a second major thematic report. It drew some stark conclusions. And of course, many schools hosted the annual World Book Day. ‘Performative hell of compulsory costumes’ according to one parent writing in The Independent; ‘a vital reminder to read with your kids,’ according to another. Twitter, see below, has been full of it this week.

And rounding off the education headlines, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published an initial literature review on the skills needed by the workforce of the future, as part of a major Nuffield funded project. Ten pages of references suggests the importance of this field. Its next report will get into more granular detail on future skill demand. Colleges reported concerns about growing numbers of staff vacancies and the Office for Students (OfS) reported on its recent consultation on quality and standards. “We do need to take a stand against those that do not offer the high-quality education that students are entitled to expect.” Wonkhe has a useful summary of what it all means here.  

Here are a few details behind three of those headlines: the L2 and below consultation; National Offer Day; and that continuing debate about the government’s higher ed reforms.  

L2 and below qualifications are often taken by less advantaged learners – some 30+% of 16-19-year-olds according to the consultation – and by those seeking to build career paths outside of GCSEs. This government, like many previous ones, has expressed concerns about the large number of these qualifications and the extent to which they provide the quality route needed. 

As the minister put it in his Statement to MPs about the consultation: “The current landscape at Level 2 and below is complex, with over 8,000 qualifications approved for funding for students aged 16 and above. Whilst many of these qualifications are likely to be excellent, it is not a consistent picture.” 

In that sense the consultation mirrors much of the government’s recent review of L3 qualifications and is open to similar criticisms about potentially denying groups of learners with the opportunities they need and failing to understand market need. It’s also not necessarily a picture that everyone in education would recognise. The Association of College, Employment and Training Providers (ACET), and ASCL have been among the bodies this week highlighting the importance of these qualifications – describing them respectively as ‘the bedrock of all other forms of learning,’ the first rung on the ladder’ and ‘a vital stepping stone.’ There’s a theme here. 

Broadly, as with L3, the government is proposing dividing these qualifications into groups 'according to their primary purpose' – those that support progression to employment, to L3 and so on.  Eight groups at L2; six for 16-19-year-olds and adults; and two for adults alone – with five groups at L1 and four at Entry Level. The process will be phased in from 2024-2027, starting with the Construction route at L2, and could see some ‘72% of in-scope l2 qualifications for 16-19-year-olds’ having to be ditched. Alongside the L3 reforms and the proposals for higher tech qualifications, this is a sweeping set of changes.

On to National Offer Day for secondary schools in England, the day when families find out which secondary school their offspring will be attending in September. Last year, 81.1% were offered their first-choice school and 93.4% one of their top three choices. ‘An anxious time for families’ as the National Association of Head Teachers acknowledged. Early figures suggested a mixed picture across the country on the first preference rate this year, largely offset by the anticipated demand failing to materialise in some of the big cities. There is an appeals system which is currently looking at further flexibilities, as the DfE explained, and final figures will be confirmed after that. Primary school places will be confirmed on April 19.

Finally, the continuing debate about the government’s latest reforms for higher ed outlined this week. The Times Higher, Wonkhe, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS,) and the Sutton Trust among others have been adding further thoughts. 

To Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySaving Expert, "The plans will see most university leavers pay far more for their degrees over their lifetime than they do now. It effectively completes the transformation of student 'loans', for most, into a working-life-long graduate tax.” The increased costs along with wider concerns about capping student numbers and limiting opportunities have been the core themes running through most of the emerging comments. As John Morgan argued in the Times Higher, ‘The Treasury wins hands down,' a view reflected in the detailed analysis by Wonkhe and carefully explained by Paul Johnson at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS). 

His view was that in seeking to determine a balance between the interests of taxpayers, students and universities, the government had ended up with a set of funding proposals that were 'highly regressive' and from some angles, 'plain delusional.'  Regressive, because, over a lifetime, higher earners could end up £25,000 better off and low-middle earners £20,000 worse off. And delusional, because making assumptions today about what graduates would pay back in the mid-2060s is, as Sir Humphrey used to say, ‘brave.’ 

On top of that, as the IfS has subsequently indicated, the change in indexing of the repayment threshold could hit middle earners who took out loans after 2012 particularly hard. The Times Higher explains all here.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘4 in 10 primary teachers buy books for their class’ (Monday).
  • ‘No Yr 7 surge as school first choices rise in parts of England’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Student loan charges hit lower earners harder than first thought -IfS’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Walker: Sats needed to assess Covid impact’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Schools suffering budget-driven cuts in staffing and curriculum’ (Friday).


  • Spring Statement. The CBI called on the Chancellor to boost productivity growth in his forthcoming Spring Statement prioritising in particular business investment, energy efficiency and skills, the latter through a new Skills Challenge Fund and an Independent Skills Challenge Fund.
  • Worker surveillance. The TUC reported on what it called ‘the creeping role of surveillance,’ involving the use of webcams and the monitoring of employee movements, many adopted for remote working arrangements during the pandemic, calling for digital rights to be enshrined in legislation and employers required to consult before adopting such equipment.
  • Digital Skills Partnership. The government launched a new Digital Skills Partnership for East Yorkshire and the Humber region with match funding from the DCMS, intended to boost digital skills in schools and digital jobs in the region.
  • Teenage support. The Commission on Young Lives highlighted some of the issues around teenagers in a new report calling for better support, new investment and partnerships with families ‘to help keep teenagers safe from gangs, exploitation and abuse.’
  • One Year On. The Children’s Commissioner for England reported on the work of the Office one year on, pointing to the pivotal role that the Big Ask survey had provided in setting the context for their work, prompting greater support for families, youth work and tackling online harm and listing special needs and children’s social care as ongoing priorities.

More specifically ...


  • Schools’ Costs. The government outlined schools’ funding and costs for the years 2021-2024 in a new technical note, pointing to the front-loading of extra funding (9.8%) from the current funding settlement, and suggesting as a result that schools reserve some of this for pay and other priorities in 2023/24. 
  • Schools’ finances. The Public Accounts Committee published its report into school finances expressing “concern about the financial sustainability of the school system and about how more deprived schools are faring” and the impact on some children’s education, calling on the government to look into Academy reserves, geographical variations and spending on SEND.
  • Hitting the target. FFT Education Datalab examined the prospects of 90% of pupils reaching the expected standard in reading, writing and maths at the end of KS2 by 2030 as proclaimed in the recent Levelling Up White Paper, suggesting that although success rates in one or two of these subject areas were reasonably high, hitting all three by 2030 would require considerable support and investment. 
  • Ofsted inspections. Ofsted published details of its inspection frameworks for lead providers of the early career framework (ECF) and the revised national professional qualifications (NPQs) which will start with monitoring visits this summer and full inspections from next spring.
  • Careers education. The chief executive of the Careers and Enterprise Company blogged about his thoughts, presented to the Times Education Commission on developing careers education, which included working with Careers Leaders and strengthening the models of work experience.
  • Teaching grammar. Researchers from UCL and the University of York reported on their Nuffield funded research into the teaching of grammar in primary schools, suggesting that the formal demands of the national curriculum were often too constraining and that a more lively and responsive approach, known as Englicious could be more effective.
  • Mental health. STEER Education published its latest major survey into the mental health of young people indicating that girls were suffering from mental health concerns post-pandemic much more than boys with many hiding their issues leading to what the report called ‘a ticking timebomb.’ 


  • L2 and below qualifications. The government launched further consultation on L2 and below qualifications, proposing to divide them into distinct groups defined by purpose and implying that many of the current qualifications will not be funded in future. 
  • Staffing matters. The Association of Colleges (AoC) pointed to a staffing crisis in many colleges as it published the results of a new survey, showing average vacancies per college running at 30, leading to delivery pressures and calling on the government to flex funding rules.
  • Future skills. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published an initial literature review of ‘essential workforce skills for tomorrow’ as part of a major research programme funded by Nuffield, highlighting the importance of transferable skills like critical thinking as automation and digitalisation transform jobs in the future.
  • WorldSkills. The WorldSkills organisation, in a move supported by WorldSkills UK, announced the cancellation of participation by Russia and Belarus in this year’s WorldSkills competition along with suspension of their membership and the shifting of next year’s EuroSkills competition away from St Petersburg.
  • Leading on HTQs. Ian Pretty, chief executive of the Collab Group, called for colleges to be given a lead role in delivering the ‘new’ higher technical qualifications (HTQs,) arguing that they (colleges) have small classes, tap effectively into community and adult learners and have close links with employers.


  • Quality and standards. The Office for Students published the responses and outcomes from its recent consultation on its quality and standards conditions, with proposals around the various B conditions due to be implemented from May 2022, duly giving the Office for Students (OfS) greater muscle in dealing with standards, expectations and outcomes.
  • On reflection. Former universities minister, David Willetts, reflected on the government’s proposed HE reforms announced last week, supporting the case for more young people going to university and against any numbers cap and arguing that along with the Chancellor’s Mais Lecture on the same day, the package “adds up to a coherent strategy for the public finances and also boosting productivity.” 
  • Freshers Week. UCAS published its latest annual Student Freshers Report showing average spend rising to over £400, with Tesco, Aldi and Lidl remaining the top supermarket choices and Amazon, Netflix and Instagram the top brands.
    Sexual misconduct. Universities UK published a new report, with input from the NUS and Rape Crisis among others, on sexual misconduct by staff, recommending that institutions have clear policies and reporting procedures as well as a culture that promotes inclusion and positivity. 
  • Drugs debate. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published a new discussion paper on the illicit use of drugs in higher education, arguing that seeing it as a health issue with a focus on harm reduction might well encourage more users to seek help.
  • Workforce matters. The FT’s Sarah O’Connor reported on the nature of the HE workforce in a comment piece in the FT, pointing to the dual model it operates where” secure insiders work alongside a periphery of insecure outsiders who are jostling desperately to get in,” arguing that it was time to tackle such job insecurity.
  • Turing scheme. Managing agent Capita announced that the Turing scheme was open for a second year of registrations ahead of the window for funding applications due to start at the end of the month.

Stand-out tweets

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “I was lucky enough to become a father two months ago, so now the most important lobbying campaign of my life must begin: abolishing World Book Day before it becomes a thing that I have to deal with” | Sean_Kemp
  • “My boy is supposed to dress up as a word for world book day” | @ShakinthatChalk
  • “Love spending World Book Day helping 3 year olds get in and out of their superhero costumes every time they need to pee” | @joeb_EY
  • “World ‘get dressed up as someone from a film that you hope once was a book’ day has come around again?” | @hrogerson
  • “I am currently walking the dog dressed as Mary Poppins” | @lmeducational
  • “Margaret's Year 1 class had 'Golden Time' this afternoon, including a half hour slot in the library. The children loved it but Margaret wonders if the class teacher is off due to the stress of changing 30 children's books in 30 minutes. "It was like Challenge Anneka, Geoff!" @Retirement Tales
  • “I asked a child what they would give up for lent, they replied "trying" and I couldn't agree more” | @GeorgePointon
  • “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but leaving your mug in the staffroom sink ‘to soak’ is not the same as washing up after yourself” | @UnofficialOA
  • “My generation is caught, between Gen X-ers who insist on using the telephone, and Gen Z-ers who send voice notes” | @stephenkb

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Jisc will, as always, support members with technical advice where required, but it’s up to individual organisations to determine and fix their security weaknesses” – JISC issues a warning to colleges and universities to be alert about cyber security during the current crisis in Ukraine.
  • “Trying to square too many circles” – IfS director, Paul Johnson on the government’s latest funding reforms for HE.
  • “My guess is that soon after the next general election, this (or another) secretary of state will be undertaking a fundamental review of higher education financing” – Sheffield Hallam V.C. on the government’s latest HE funding reforms.
  • “They set out clearly what we believe students should expect in terms of the quality of their courses” – the OfS reports on its latest quality standards.
  • “It is hard to tell which ones are high quality and will lead to good outcomes” – the minister launches consultation on L2 and below qualifications.
  • “We will be extremely disappointed if the outcome of this consultation follows the path of the recent level 3 review. In that review the education sector came out overwhelmingly in favour of maintaining BTECs, but this has been totally ignored by the government” – ASCL reacts to the announcement of a L2 and below consultation. 
  • “At a precipice” – the mental health condition of many girls according to a new survey from STEER Education.
  • “Updated to correct a mistake found in the grammatical content section for Spanish AS level. The grammatical structure ‘ir a + gerund’ has been replaced with ‘ir a + infinitive’ – the DfE issues a correction for modern foreign languages.
  • “Middle-class and working families shouldn’t have to pay more than 7% of their income for care of young children” – President Biden pledges to tackle childcare costs in his State of the Union Address.
  • “My favourite book as a child was Noggin the Nog, by Oliver Postgate” – the skills minister joins in for World Book Day.

Important numbers

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

  • 7%. The forecast inflation figure for the UK this year, upgraded from 5.3% previously because of current global uncertainties according to the NIESR.
  • 25%. The number of companies planning to pay rises of 1%-2% this year with 23% planning pay rises of 2%-3%, according to a survey from Lloyds Bank.
  • 3,700. The number of qualifications at L2 and below which have had low or no enrolments in each of the last 3 years and are having funding removed, according to the government.
  • 10.5%. The NEET (not in education, employment or training) figures for 16-24 yr olds in England last year, significantly down according to the government in its latest figures.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • National Careers Week (Monday 7 to Saturday 12 March).
  • Ten Minute Rule Motion on Institutes of Technology, Royal Charter (Tuesday 8 March).
  • Wonkhe event on the post-Augar settlement for universities (Tuesday 8 March).
  • Estimates Day debate on DfE spending on the National Tutoring Programme and on Adult Education (Wednesday 9 March).
  • HEPI and Advance HE webinar on Equality and Diversity (Thursday 10 March). 
  • ASCL Annual Conference (Friday 11 March to Saturday 12 March).

Other stories

  • World Book Day. World Book Day, which occurred on Thursday this week, brings out a range of emotions. Some children, maybe some schools, love it, others find it hard work, in some cases divisive. For parents it can be a big challenge. ‘Oh God, when is World Book Day?’ tweeted one frazzled parent this week. No wonder perhaps when Amazon was selling Mr Fox customs for £11 while other families were desperately rooting through clothes boxes. Mumsnet had some useful advice for future such days. They listed a range of book characters that needed little dressing up beyond a few items. Nine characters they pointed out, such as Sophie in the BFG, just wore pyjamas. That could make life simpler. A link to the Mumsnet article is here.  
  • Top of the Pops. Those who know their music will know that last year was a big year for Adele but how many would have guessed that the Beatles, ABBA and Pink Floyd also featured in various global music charts for 2021? Details can be found in the various charts released this week by IFPI, the body that represents recorded music worldwide. ABBA for example appeared at no 8 in the Global Album Chart for 2021 where Adele was No 1 while the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac appeared at 7th, 9thand 3rdrespectively in a new chart, namely the first ever Global Vinyl Album Chart. The Beatles was for a re-working of Abbey Road. The full listings, including for the top Global Single for 2021 which was headed by the Weeknd with ‘Save Your Tears,’ can be seen on the IFPI website 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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