Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 17 March 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:

The Budget of course has dominated news this week with extensive commentary and analysis throughout.

Education issues have featured in various forms. Some summary details below.

In other education-related news this week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest labour market data, ‘a mixed bag’ according to some. FE Week and Wonkhe hosted important conferences on Apprenticeships, and current issues around students respectively. Still on students, Russell Group Student Unions reported on how the cost-of-living was affecting their members; just over half reckoned it was having a negative effect on their performance. And many teachers participated in the latest bout of industrial action.   

Details on these and other stories below, starting with a run through of some of the top education related headlines. 

  • Budget summary (1). The Spring Budget duly landed this week with the usual mass of projections, hopes, disappointments and commentary. The Chancellor pitched it as a plan for growth, and in an hour-long speech outlined a number of proposals under the four pillars of his growth strategy. The biggest spending package and the most heavily trailed was around childcare, described by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) as ‘a big extension of the welfare state’. The biggest disappointment for many was the failure to tackle public sector pay, although the government may be relying on the forecast fall in inflation to help them win that battle. For education, the feeling generally was one of disappointment. This was the reaction of Geoff Barton at ASCL “Today we heard the Chancellor announce £11 billion for defence and not a penny to address the teacher recruitment and retention crisis affecting our schools and colleges, or resolve the associated industrial action that is taking place as the Chancellor was speaking”. And this from David Hughes for the college sector: “Once again, college leaders will be rightly dismayed that the sector has been overlooked by the Chancellor”. The University Alliance group said “For a budget that has been billed as ‘a budget for growth’, today’s statement was rather light on research and innovation”. While the NUS concluded “The Government has done the bare minimum and needs to do far more if more students aren’t to be condemned to poverty”.
  • Budget summary (2.) There’s been lots of excellent coverage of the Spring Budget, but what are some of the stand-outs for education? For schools, it’s the wraparound scheme providing care for school-based children at the start and end of the day. The government is providing some startup funding (£289m), but it could leave schools under further funding pressures to deliver. That said, it’s left to a new government to implement in 2026. For FE/skills, it’s pretty much no change, although perhaps three things stand out. First, the new return to work skills programmes for the over 50’s, returnerships as they’re awkwardly described. Second, the demise of LEPs with a consultation to follow for the summer. And third, the continued extension of devolution deals, new in some regions, deeper in others. And for HE, again there was the reminder of familiar developments around the Lifelong Loan Entitlement and higher technical qualifications, but arguably the additional funding and opportunities around Investment Zones was the standout.
  • Latest labour market picture. The latest data on the UK labour market arrived just 24 hours before the Budget. It helped lay the ground for the Chancellor, particularly in three areas. First, the importance of trying to help more people back into the workforce. Economic inactivity was down a little over the last quarter, but facing, as the Institute for Employment Studies explained, three worrying trends. “A further rise in economic inactivity due to long-term ill health; a weak employment recover for older people; and increasing numbers of young people neither in education nor employment”. The Chancellor tackled many of these. Second, the continuing effect of inflation on wages, a key factor in the context of the current industrial disputes. Regular pay, for instance, fell by 2.4% in the year to December, part of a damaging downward trend. Could the Chancellor help here as the IFS had suggested? Answer, not really. And third, as ever regional differences matter with the labour market ‘cooling’, as the CIPD put it, more in some regions than others. An issue of levelling up which the Chancellor addressed to some extent. 
  • Industrial action. Unable to attend the ASCL Conference last weekend, the Education Secretary busied herself this week by holding separate meetings with union leaders. She also fired off a letter to parents and carers stressing her wish ‘to end the disruption to families as quickly as possible’ and urging the NEU to call off its action this week ’so that discussions could take place without disruption’. In the event the issue of preconditions remained a stumbling block and the NEU action went ahead “with enormous regret”. But talks with other leaders may have helped. The NASUWT leader came out of his declaring “There is nothing that should now stand in the way of detailed negotiations and getting a deal onto the table”. The hope now is that with no further action currently planned beyond this week, all sides have space to sit down, ‘collectively’ as ASCL put it, and get that deal on the table, despite the lack of any headline carrots from the Chancellor in his Spring Budget.
  • More concerns this week about delays in re-joining the EU’s €95.5bn Horizon Europe research programme. Both the FT and Times Higher carried stories about businesses and higher education, worried that if things dragged on for too long, they could lose billions in research and innovation. The door had been left ajar following the recent Windsor Framework where the European Commission president had said she was ready to start work on an association agreement ‘immediately’. But the Chancellor made no reference in Budget presentation and it’s thought that Rishi Sunak is concerned about the cost, whether the UK needs to join all aspects of the scheme, and potentially the case for a UK alternative. The government has guaranteed grant funding for eligible projects until the end of June, and there is a Plan B in the wings drawn up four years ago, but as science experts put it in the Times Higher, ‘incomprehensible dithering is costing British science millions of pounds a day’.
  • More on ChatGPT. The latest development this week has seen Cambridge University Press set out its first AI ethics policy. It comes as debate continues about the use of bots in education and their authenticity in textbooks, journals and research papers. “We want our policy to help the thousands of researchers we publish each year, and their many readers”, the publisher said. The policy prevents AI from being treated as ‘an author of academic papers and books we publish’ and comes with a set of principles that would for instance mean any use of AI would have to be declared in publications, just as with other sources. It also makes authors accountable for ‘the accuracy, integrity and originality of their research papers including the use of AI’. The policy can be viewed here

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Revealed: The £1bn apprenticeship rip-off’ (Monday).
  • ‘UK employers feel the strain of missing skilled workers’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Budget 2023: Hunt wants all primaries to provide wraparound childcare’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Almost 2 in 5 poorer pupils were persistently absent last year’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Single awarding body model for T levels to stay (Friday).


  • Budget speech. The Chancellor hailed ‘a British economy that is proving the doubters wrong’ as he set out a plan for growth under the four pillars (Enterprise, Employment, Education and Everywhere) of the government’s current growth strategy with headline measures targeted at childcare, workforce participation, pension allowances, the cost-of-living and levelling up. 
  • Spring Budget 2023. The Treasury published its 120+page red book setting out all the details, including policy decisions and costings, alluded to in the Chancellor’s Spring Budget speech. 
  • Budget context. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) published its regular accompanying ‘Economic and Fiscal Outlook’ for the Budget suggesting that the economic picture had improved since its previous forecast in November with the medium outlook for UK finances more promising but acknowledging that structural weaknesses in business investment, productivity and labour market participation remain, with living standards facing the largest 2-year fall since the 1950’s.
  • Budget analysis. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) published its initial analysis of the Chancellor’s Spring Budget, acknowledging that the fiscal outlook was now more favourable but that the outlook still remained difficult, pointing to the extension of childcare and the short-term expensing of investment in corporation tax as the two big ticket items in the Budget but noting that spending plans for public services had been left unchanged in cash terms.
  • Budget assessment. The Resolution Foundation set out its assessment of the Spring Budget suggesting it was ‘a much bigger affair than many had expected’ with those announcements on childcare and encouraging more people to work, but pointing to the fact that the economy remains “stuck in a deep funk,” we’ve had a disastrous decade for living standards, and taxes are on track to hit a 70 yr high by 2027/28..
  • Economic inactivity. The Centre for Policy Studies offered its thoughts on the current issue of economic inactivity ahead of the Budget, suggesting in a new report that while much of the focus has been on older people retiring early, a deeper concern was the rise in economic inactivity among the 18-24 age group particularly among males much of it driven by concerns about mental health, calling accordingly for a commission to look in more detail at some of the issues and possible solutions.
  • Labour market update.The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest set of labour market figures showing a further slight fall in job vacancies but employment remaining high, inflation causing real pay growth to decrease and despite a drop in economic inactivity, issues remaining for some groups.
  • Labour market overview.The Institute for Employment Studies published its regular analysis of the latest labour market data pointing to a mixed picture with unemployment remaining low, economic inactivity ‘edging downwards’ and further signs of stability in the market but with inflation continuing to hit wages and economic inactivity for two groups in particular, young people and those suffering from ill health, both rising.

More specifically ...


  • Spring Budget 2023. The Chancellor used his Spring Budget to commit to multi-agency support for vulnerable children in alternative provision and to announce a major package of support for childcare that would see schools offering ‘wraparound’ provision at the start and end of the day from 2026, but added nothing on teacher recruitment and retention or on settling the current wave of teacher strikes to the disappointment of many.
  • Early years. The Fairness Foundation called ahead of the Budget for ‘greater investment in the early years’ as it published the results of a survey showing that many people had little idea how low pay was in the sector and were generally very supportive of more money going into it.
  • RSHE review. The Schools Minister confirmed to MPs in a Westminster Hall debate that the planned review of Relations, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) would begin “as soon as possible” and would include, as a priority, any further requirements on the teaching around suicide prevention.
  • School closures. The government published provisional data on the number of schools closed because of strike action this week, with 47% of schools overall estimated to be fully open, 47% open but with restricted attendance and 6% closed, broadly the same on both days of action and in terms of the regional picture, London having the most closed and the East Midlands region the most fully open.
  • Industrial action. The NEU issued a statement about this week’s industrial action suggesting it had received wide support and calling on the government to delay no further in holding formal talks on settling issues of pay, workloads and recruitment.
  • Grammar schools. The House of Commons Library Service published a briefing on grammar schools in England, outlining the current debate notably in government circles about their position and providing useful data on pupil characteristics and attainment.
  • This year’s SATs. The Standards and Testing Agency issued guidance on this year’s Key Stage Tests with dates confirmed in light of the coronation.
  • Free school meals. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets announced it was extending free school meals to all secondary pupils up to the age of 16, making it the first authority to do so at an expected cost of £5.7m.


  • Spring Budget 2023. The Chancellor used his Spring Budget Statement to make a number of announcements for the FE sector, including a new accelerated skills returnesrhip programme to help greater workforce participation, as well as to extend devolution deals, commit to T levels and Skills Boot Camps and provide language courses under the Ukraine Scheme but disappointed many by failing to commit to additional investment.
  • Budget briefing. The AoC’s Julian Gravatt ran through some of the details in the Chancellor’s Spring Budget of potential interest to colleges covering bits like the devo deals and overall spending plans but suggesting there was little of significant interest in the Budget for the sector overall.
  • Funding support. A group of Conservative MPs added their weight to the recent ‘Mind the Skills Gap’ campaign by signing an open letter to the Chancellor ahead of the Budget, supporting the call for an additional £400m to help provide for the skills training needed. 
  • Ofsted on apprenticeships. Amanda Spielman, Ofsted chief inspector, addressed FE Week’s Annual Apprenticeship Conference where she praised the work of many apprenticeship providers and highlighted the importance of the overall educational experience for many apprentices but pointed to continuing issues in the quality of some new providers, English and maths performance, and the need to raise achievement rates. 
  • Apprenticeship achievement rates. The AELP and City and Guilds examined in a new report some of the issues around apprenticeship achievement rates which the government is keen to drive up, suggesting six broad reasons, such as English and maths requirements, as to why apprentices fail to complete a programme, and listing 15 recommendations along with some sector specific issues that could help improve things.
  • Skilled workers. The FT reported on the growing influx of skilled workers from outside the EU post-Brexit which has seen ‘care workers and nurses, chefs and butchers among the occupations where visa sponsorship has surged,’ suggesting that while this isn’t a panacea to skills shortages long-term, it has helped meet some sector needs currently.
  • VTQ results 2023. Ofqual added further details to its planned arrangements for ensuring ‘complete and correct’ L3 vocational and technical qualification (VTQ) results are issued this year following some issues last year, publishing a list of three completion dates and listing some additional measures such as being clear about who designated officers in schools and colleges were in case of emergency. 


  • Spring Budget 2023 The Chancellor positioned universities as key partners in the new Investment Zones announced in the Budget while announcing support for new technologies including a new AI Research Resource but had little to say on support for students or on the future of the Horizon programme in setting out his Spring Budget.
  • UEZs. UniversitiesUK highlighted the importance of University Enterprise Zones (UEZs) in a new briefing ahead of the Budget, pointing to case study evidence to show that when universities and local businesses work together they can help attract, develop and support new businesses, start-ups and innovation. 
  • Cost-of-living. Russell Group universities called on the government to increase student maintenance loans in line with inflation as a survey from member Student Unions revealed just over half of students surveyed were struggling financially with 18% considering dropping out.
  • Cost-of-living (2.)The Office for Students published further survey evidence showing how students were struggling with the impact of the cost-of-living and listing ways in which universities and colleges were helping out where possible, both financially through for instance hardship funds and generally through subsidised food.
  • Horizon delays. The Times Higher reported on concerns about the impact of delays and uncertainties around the UK’s potential membership of the EU’s Horizon programme, suggesting that ‘incomprehensible dithering’ could cost British science millions of pounds a day.

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Who had "returnership" on their Budget Buzzword Bingo card?” | @ChrisJParr
  • “The ad for my successor is out. I’ll be leaving this amazing job at the end of 2023, and if you think you have the experience, the energy and the commitment it needs, and want to work with our fantastic staff, apply” | @amanda_spielman
  • “We’re working with children because we both genuinely want to make a difference. So great to see a teacher and social worker supporting our young people win #LoveIsland” | @TeachFirst
  • “I suspect my social media understanding would be measurably improved if I had ever bothered to remember whether it was the red or blue pill that delivered reality” | @FondOfBeetles
  • “Life without parole for teenagers who nag you for a phone & then don't answer the phone THAT YOU ARE PAYING FOR when you ring it. This is my only policy for govt but i am confident of victory” | @gabyhinsliff

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “But today, the OBR forecast we will not enter a recession at all this year with a contraction of just 0.2%” – the Chancellor offers a silver lining in his Spring Budget speech.
  • “British ale is warm but the duty is frozen” – The Chancellor’s one main joke in his Budget speech.
  • “There is plenty to quibble with, but if you want to focus on growth there is at least some of what you might want here, attempting to deal with incentives to work and to invest” – Paul Johnson, Director of the IfS, with initial thoughts on the Spring Budget.
  • “The UK is still in the longest pay squeeze for more than 200 years. And our public services are still run-down and understaffed” – the TUC responds to the Spring Budget 2023.
  • “There is good news and bad in today’s figures” - the IES reflects on the latest labour market figures.
  • “Understanding the challenges these apps pose, what they are asking for and how they reach into our lives, is incredibly important” – the government asks cyber security experts to look into the risks posed by Tik Tok.
  • “We have just had our usual LEPhog day letter” – THE Chair of the LEP Network wonders about its future.
  • “I’ve talked about skanky teenagers and skanky back bedrooms before. It’s very hard to start feeling like an adult from a back bedroom” – Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector, tells FE Week about how important it is for apprentices to get the benefits of a full learning experience.
  • “The Department for Education's attitude towards talks is not only unusual but counterproductive” – the NEU responds to the Education Secretary ahead of this week’s action.
  • “Excellent judgement under pressure and a high degree of personal integrity, including experience of taking difficult, independent, calls in a senior position with high profile” – one of the essential criteria in the person spec for the new chief inspector.

Important numbers

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

  • 1.8%. The projected growth for the UK economy next year rising to 2.5% in 2025, according to predictions from the OBR cited by the Chancellor in his Budget Statement.
  • 2.9%. The amount that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation figure will fall to for the UK by the end of this year, according to forecasts from the OBR cited by the Chancellor in his Budget Statement.
  • £289m. The amount of start-up funding the government will provide so that schools and councils can test out options extend wraparound provision, according to the Spring Budget Statement.
  • 1.5. The new staff-child ration for childcare that will come in as an option for England from this September, according to the Spring Budget Statement. 
  • 490,000. The increase since the pandemic in the number working-age people currently economically inactive, according to the Spring Budget Statement.
  • 3.7%. The unemployment rate for the period November 2022-January 2023, continuing low and showing no quarterly change according to ONS figures.
  • £589. The average weekly salary, excluding bonuses in the UK for January, up by just £1 on the previous month according to latest ONS figures.
  • £535. The average monthly rental costs facing Russell Group students, according to a survey from Russell Group Student Unions.
  • 19%. The number of respondents who have asked friends and family to help with childcare so that they can continue to work, according to PwC’s latest cost-of-living survey.
  • 6GHz of mmWave. The amount of millimetre wave spectrum being made available across the 26 and 40 GHz bands including 5G to help with large wireless capacity, according to Ofcom.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • World Education Summit (Monday 20 March – Thursday 23 March).
  • Education Committee evidence session on support for childcare and the early years (Tuesday 21 March).
  • Westminster Hall debate on specialist workforce for children with special needs and disabilities (Wednesday 22 March).
  • Policy Exchange host a presentation by Nick Gibb MP on ‘A Vision for Education’ (Wednesday 22 March). 
  • Skills and Employability Summit (Wednesday 22 March).
  • Publication of Ofqual’s Annual Qualifications Market Report (Thursday 23 March).
  • Second Reading of the Free School Meals (Primary Schools) Private Member’s Bill (Friday 24 March).

Other stories

  • What’s in the basket? The basket of goods and services used to measure CPI (Consumer Price Inflation) offers an interesting insight into what’s in and out in contemporary Britain. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has just updated the list for this year. 17 items have been removed and 26 added to the overall total of 740+ items that are used in the calculation. Among the items in for this year are e bikes, surveillance cameras such as video doorbells, rail fares by ticket type such as off-peak, mouthwash, wraps/tortillas and frozen berries, typically used for homemade smoothies. But out for this year are digital compact cameras, upper king size cigarettes, non-chart CDs, vending machine cans and cooking apples. Much of modern life is in there somewhere. A link to it all 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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