Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 21 April 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:

It’s been back to business this week as MPs and the world of education returned to the fray after the Easter break..

A hectic term of exams and assessments await many, and Ofqual, the exams regulator, has been busy over the week issuing guidance and checklists for students and centres alike. Amongst the guidance was how to deal with the growing issue of mobile phones. One school described its approach this way. “We put trays inside the hall entrance, outside the exam room and pupils hand them in. They stay in the trays in the hall as we don’t want the responsibility of the value of the phones being stolen. They collect on way out. They do this in school internal exams too from Year 7 onwards”.

In other news this week, the PM made a further brief foray into maths. Not everyone’s convinced yet, leaving one tweeter to suggest that “The single biggest step we could take to improve everyone's arithmetical ability would be to abolish decimal coinage and re-introduce pounds, shillings, and pence”. A lot now rests on what the newly appointed expert group come up with.

In other news this week, primary school places for September were confirmed; the number of HE student complaints reached record highs; industrial action in schools and universities loomed; worries about cyber-attacks were raised; and the latest economic/labour market data was described by most commentators as ‘stubborn’. 

And finally ‘there’s no I in team,’ ‘give 110 per cent,’ and ‘touch base’ were voted among the most cringe-worthy corporate expressions in a survey of the use of English in the workplace by the British Council. Time perhaps to move the needle from such low-hanging fruit.

Details on these and other stories below, but first a run through the top education-related headlines of the week.

  • Education Questions. MPs returned this week with Education Questions first up. It was the usual mix. The safety of school buildings; the disadvantage gap; support for mental health; SEND and teacher recruitment; and future developments for Ofsted; all featured prominently. On the current issue of pay, the education secretary said she was "really disappointed that they [the unions] had rejected our offer", but added little by way of new developments. Other topics included the operation of the lifelong learning entitlement – “we are engaging with a wide range of stakeholders to gather the input to inform policy development, to build further awareness and to inform future budget development” – and apprenticeships, where the minister’s claim that there had been a 6% increase in starts over last year provoked some scepticism. “Is he right?” asked one MP. The minister assured him he had the evidence. 
  • Maths to 18. The government led this week with its plans for maths. In a brief keynote speech, the PM added few new details to the statement he’d made at the start of the year. More maths hubs, bursaries for FE maths teachers and a qualification for maths leads in primary school were all touted, but the creation of an expert group to look at post-16 non-A level maths options suggests, as the PM hinted, that there’s still some way to go before we have the sort of ‘transformational’ maths programme up to age 18 that the education secretary told MPs they were aiming for. Last summer the maths grade 5-pass rate was 56.6 per cent, down from 59.1 per cent in 2021, but up on the last pre-pandemic year. A bigger problem, as FE regularly points out, is the maths GCSE resit problem. There was an 18.5% fall in that pass rate last year. If the expert group can come up with some attractive options in that area, let alone recruiting more maths teachers, then we may be on the way to overcoming what the PM called our damaging "anti-maths mindset". 
  • Economic Outlook. More economic/labour market data this week. Broadly, it’s a continuing story, but three concerning headlines stand out. First, the impact of high inflation on wages and the cost-of-living – an important factor in the current industrial disputes. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) point to ‘a substantial fall in headline inflation next month’, due to a fall in energy price inflation. It can’t come soon enough. Second, worryingly high levels of economic inactivity due to poor health among older people – up 90k in the last quarter to a record high of 2.53m according to the Institute for Employment Studies (IES.) And third, as the Learning and Work Institute noted, ‘the unemployment rate for young people aged 18-24 has begun to rise’. According to the IES, 'Nearly 15% of all young people are neither in employment nor full-time learning (14.8%), the highest rate since autumn 2020'. Expect to hear more policy developments in all three areas in the coming months.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Richi Sunak sets up review to tackle anti-maths mindset’ (Monday). 
  • ‘Exam marking boycott by UK university staff could hit graduations this summer’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Cyber-attacks target UK universities ‘weekly,’ survey reveals’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘University complaints hit record high for fourth successive year’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Ofsted promise changes after head teacher Ruth Perry’s death’ (Friday).


  • Maths to 18. The Prime Minister set out his latest thoughts on maths up to the age of 18 in a keynote speech acknowledging that it could take time to fully implement any changes but stressing that it was important both to individuals and the country to change mindsets about maths.
  • Adult numeracy. The charity National Numeracy announced the names of the ‘magnificent seven’ celebrities, including Bobby Seagull and Rachel Riley, who will help support and promote next month’s annual National Numeracy Day.
  • Labour market. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published labour market data for the period December 2022 – Feb 2023, showing employment up and economic inactivity down as more young people moved into work but with concerns remaining about the impact of inflation on pay growth and about economic inactivity among older workers.
  • Labour market analysis. The Institute for Employment Studies provided its regular analysis of the latest labour market figures pointing to a generally improving picture around employment but with some worrying signs about weak employment growth among older people, rising numbers of young people outside education and employment, and continuing uncertainty over pay and inflation.
  • Low Pay Britain. The Resolution Foundation published the latest report in its Economy 2030 series looking on this occasion at issues around low pay where although levels of pay may have risen, minimum standards have not, leaving many workers vulnerable, calling as a result for proper sick pay and greater job certainty.’
  • Cyber security. The government published latest data on cyber security breaches which have seen 32% of businesses and 24% of charities facing a breach over the past year amid signs of heightened activity and concerns that a drop in reporting among smaller businesses meant they weren’t prioritising the issue as much as they should. 
  • Healthy families. Barnardo’s announced the launch of Health Equity Collaborative which will bring together regional data and intelligence to help families overcome the physical and mental health challenges associated with the cost-of-living today.
  • Childcare. The parents’ organisation Parentkind published the results of its poll undertaken in the wake of the Budget showing that a majority of parents of young children supported the government’s proposals on extending free childcare.
  • Early Years. UNICEF UK and PEDAL, Cambridge University’s Centre for Research on (Play in Education, Development and Learning,) launched a new toolkit of resources and support to help with local action in the UK on mental health in infancy and the early years.
  • A Year in Publishing. The Publishers Association published its annual report for 2022 pointing to ‘a record year,’ with total sales up 4%, largely due to export growth, and education publishing income up 16% to £634m.
  • Strategic Plan. The British Academy published its Strategic Plan for 2023 – 2027 focusing on ‘championing the humanities and social sciences and shaping a brighter future’ and supporting research and knowledge exchange generally.

More specifically ...


  • Ofsted reforms. Amanda Spielman, he chief inspector, outlined some initial reforms Ofsted was considering in light of the recent tragic death of Ruth Perry, which would see inspectors returning more quickly following safeguarding concerns, clearer briefing and peer support during inspections and a more responsive complaints system but no change to the single-word grading system to the disappointment of critics.
  • Maths to 18 proposals. The government outlined its latest thinking on developing maths skills for young people, pledging to open more Maths Hubs, extend the Mastering Number programme, introduce a new NPQ for primary maths leads, create a new advisory panel to advise on non-A level maths content and look at maths content in some technical programmes.
  • Handling strikes. The government published further guidance for school leaders on how best to manage industrial action in schools, with updated information on the prioritisation of vulnerable children and of those taking exams as well as the current law on industrial action.
  • Industrial action. The ASCL announced that for the first time in its history and ‘with a heavy heart,’ it would hold a ballot for industrial action in England over pay, conditions and staff shortages with any action likely to take place in the autumn term.
  • Dispensation arrangements. The NEU confirmed that it would support procedures that would enable Yr 11 and Yr1 3 exam groups to attend school for supervised study or revision on strike days through locally agreed dispensation arrangements. 
  • Exams 2023. Ofqual outlined regulation and exam/assessment arrangements for this year listing a number of modifications such as the spacing of exams in the same subject and the need for the name of a senior contact responsible for exam delivery in case of issues in VTQ assessments, along with other details on errors, awarding and appeals as necessary.
  • Exams Officers. Ofqual provided a checklist and a range of resources to help exams officers deliver a successful season and beyond of exams.
  • Coping with exam pressure. Ofqual published its latest and updated guide for students on coping with exam pressure as the exam season beckoned.
  • Examining Exams. The think tank EDSK looked, in a new report, at the current status of written exams which despite the preponderance of alternative forms of assessment, most notably recently ChatGPT, continue to dominate the assessment system in schools and colleges, arguing that on balance they should remain as suchbut that 16-19 students should be required to undertake project work as well to develop a wider set of skills beyond knowledge recall. 
  • Pupil absences. School Dash examined the issue of pupil absences which ‘shot up’ in 2022 including cases of ‘persistent’ and ‘severe’ absenteeism albeit with differences between regions and school types, suggesting that this was all exacerbating historic gaps in attainment and for which policy intervention was needed.
  • Modern Shakespeare. Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation (CSSF) with support from Cambridge University Press (CUP) launched a new creative competition for 8 – 25 yr olds to craft a speech (which could be spoken, visual, musical) that could be used by a character in a Shakespeare play.


  • L2 developments. The government issued further guidance for awarding organisations on the detailed approval process for four L2 technical qualifications (construction and the built environment, education and early years, engineering and manufacturing, and health and science,) for use from Sept 2025, with further approval cycles to follow.
  • Apprenticeship numbers. The Chancellor highlighted a rise in apprenticeship take-up and government commitment in encouraging greater levels of private sector investment in employee training, in a letter to the Chair of the Lords Economic Affairs Committee.
  • L/D Survey. The OU and 5% Club published the results of their survey with TrainingZone on the role of L/D (learning and development) in helping address employee wellbeing, concluding that training generally helps improve staff wellbeing and generate returns but that L/D budgets were in danger of being cut. 
  • English Language. The British Council published the results of its survey into the global use of English suggesting that it’s likely to remain ‘the world’s most widely spoken language over the next decade’ and will continue to be in demand although assessment practices will need to reflect changing work interactions as well as the role of technology as a learning tool. 
  • Numeracy skills. The charity National Numeracy published research undertaken last year showing that low maths skills and confidence is holding back UK productivity and social mobility with women particularly hard hit, calling for number confidence, work and gender to be key priorities in the future.
  • Skills competitor Fund. Worldskills UK launched a Support Fund to help competitors taking part in National Qualifiers for Worldskills with some of the costs in things like travel and equipment.


  • Journey to a Million. UCAS published a further batch of contributions from leading figures looking at options for managing the challenge of a projected major increase in applications to university by 2030 (Journey to a million,) with suggestions including creating more universities in so-called cold-spots, increased advice and guidance, enhanced partnerships both here and abroad, more degree apprenticeships and exploiting the potential of technology – based learning.
  • Industrial action. The University and College Union (UCU) announced an end to further industrial action over pensions following the restoration of retirement benefits in what it described as ‘an historic deal’ but said that action over pay and conditions would continue to secure a better deal, thereby potentially hitting marking and assessment over the summer term.
  • Horizon Europe. The minister confirmed that the government was holding ‘productive conversations’ with the EU over UK association with Horizon Europe and collaborative research arrangements generally but that it had positioned the Pioneer programme as an alternative should one be necessary as he rounded off a Westminster Hall debate with MPs on the matter.
  • Student complaints. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator published its annual report for 2022 showing a record increase in complaints received, largely about academic matters such as assessments and grades with the ending of the no detriment ‘safety net’ policy put in place during the pandemic seen as a factor. 
  • Digital experience. JISC called for the digital needs of international students to be better supported as it published a new report showing that many such students experience network and system difficulties when they come and study in the UK.
  • International students. IDP reported on its latest global survey on international students intentions showing Canada as the favoured destination with the UK 4th, and with the quality of the education and post-study employment seen as key factors.
  • Student support. The House of Commons Library Service provided a useful summary of the different levels of fees, loans and grants available to undergraduates in different parts of the UK. 
  • AI partnership. Imperial and Cornell announced a new partnership that would see them working together to explore the potential of AI in scientific discovery and future technologies as part of a transatlantic alliance.

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “An indication you have teenage children: ibuprofen comes up as a 'favourite you might have forgotten' on your online shop” | @Samfr
  • “Teens would rather turn to TikTok than tell a teacher about troubles – time for AI? | @EducatorMagUK
  • “It is perhaps still going to be a journey before we can replace researchers and librarians with AI" | @The HouseMag
  • “Before the anti-liberal police come knocking I’d like to plead that I have a Maths A level but don’t ask me to do any calculus” | @adamboultonTABB
  • “I once swallowed a book of synonyms. It’s given me thesaurus throat I’ve ever had” | @The PunnyWorld

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “But the picture remains that almost all workers across Britain are seeing their pay packets shrink in real terms, which will continue for the foreseeable future” – the Resolution Foundation comments on the latest labour market figures.
  • “Instead of re-announcing a vague and poorly thought-out policy it would be more helpful if he instead focused on resolving the industrial dispute”– ASCL responds to the PM’s ‘maths to age 18’ speech.
  • “Right from the start, the NTP has been a textbook lesson in how to take a good idea and undermine it through bureaucracy and inflexibility” – ASCL responds to the latest National Tutoring Programme data. 
  • “We are not deaf to the calls for change, or insensitive to the needs of schools and their staff; we will continue to listen carefully to the experiences and views of those we inspect – Ofsted sets out some initial changes following the recent tragic death of a head teacher.
  • “Find a positive, realistic belief that can replace the negative belief” – Ofqual offers a guide for students on coping with exam pressure.
  • “Forget exams – you’ll walk into any job if you wear the right shoes” – Jeremy Clarkson issues his traditional swipe at exams early this year.

Important numbers

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

  • 10.1%. The CPI inflation rate for the year to March 2023, down from 10.4% previously but still higher than hoped for due to food inflation, according to latest ONS figures.
  • 348,000. The number of working days lost in February because of labour disputes, according to latest figures from the ONS. 
  • £127m a month. The impact on the economy of industrial action between last June and this April, lower than originally predicted according to CEBR.
  • £440m. The value of the export market for education publishing for 2022, up 26% according to the Publishers Association.
  • 2.39m. The likely number of instances of cyber crime across UK business over the past 12 months, according to estimates from the government.
  • 2,850. The number of new complaints from students to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator last year, the highest on record according to the Adjudicator’s latest annual report.
  • 92.4%. The attendance rate in schools in England for the academic year so far, according to latest government figures.
  • 1-2 hours a week. The amount of time most teachers (43%) reckoned GCSE students should have been revising over the Easter hols, according to a survey from Teacher Tapp.
  • 839,495. The number of course starts since the start of the academic year and up to January 2023 by pupils on the National Tutoring Programme, according to latest government figures. 
  • 94%. The number of parents of children aged 1-2 who said they would be likely to take up the offer of 15 hours of free childcare when it becomes available from September 2024, according to a poll for Parentkind.
  • 21. The number of weeks on average children in England have to wait for their first appointment with CAMHS (children and adolescent mental health services,) according to evidence from The House magazine.
  • 52%. The number of respondents who reckon they change the way they speak English at work to how they speak it at home, according to a survey on the Future of English from the British Council.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Westminster Hall debate on universal infant free school meals (Tuesday 25 April).
  • Westminster Hall debate on the Office for Students (Wednesday 26 April).
  • Learning and Work Institute Green Paper Launch: VocTech Challenge 2023 (Wednesday 26 April).
  • HEPI and Advance HE webinar on ‘Shifting priorities: has the teaching and learning agenda slipped off the sector’s radar?’ (Wednesday 26 April).
  • Launch of IPPR Commission Report on ‘Healthy Prosperous Lives’ (Thursday 27 April).
  • IES Annual Conference ‘Shaping a fairer world of work’ (Thursday 27 April).
  • NAHT Annual Conference (Friday 28 – Saturday 29 April).

Other stories

  • Numbers game. Former education secretary and shadow chancellor Ed Balls revealed this week that he’s studying for A level maths and finding it ‘really, really hard.’ He made the revelation in the wake of the PM’s announcement this week, on improving the nation’s maths which he said he supported. Not everyone has agreed. The teaching unions wondered where the necessary maths teachers might come from while even the Institute for Economic Affairs called it all ‘counterproductive.’ Either way, most people acknowledge the importance of maths and the media has been doing its part this week testing the nation’s maths skills in a series of quizzes. Here for example is typical SATs question for an 11-year-old. “Two decimal numbers add together to equal 1. One of the numbers is 0.007. What is the other number?”It, the answer, and a sample GCSE maths quiz can be found in The Independent here
  • WFH again. An interesting article in the FT recently by BBC columnist and economist Tim Harford on the WFH (working from home) phenomenon. He pointed to ONS statistics showing that 30% - 40% of workers now work from home and concluded, “It is hard to believe that we will return to 95 per cent attendance at the workplace in my lifetime.” He suggested that three factors lay behind this new working from home pattern. First, it works. Admittedly not everybody can do it but for those that can, it ‘works perfectly well.’ Second, many households now have the technology in place to work this way. And third, it’s been done as a group thing, making it more socially acceptable. A link to the article 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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