Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 12 May 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 exam and testing season is hotting up.

SATs this week, GCSEs, AS and A levels from next week. 

It has meant exams and qualifications have featured prominently in many news stories this week. Ofqual, for instance, issued a final update for schools, colleges, parents, and pupils alike. It rounded off with a rallying cry to all those taking exams: 'This is an opportunity for you to really show what you can do'.

In a busy week for Ofqual, it also published the results from its latest (2022) survey of views on exams and qualifications. Two interesting points stood out. First, that the under fire applied general qualifications remain pretty popular, ‘well understood’ as the report put it. And second, when it comes to the use of onscreen exams for GCSE and A levels, views remain split – with teachers slightly more warm.

Before leaving exams and tests, it’s worth noting the latest blog from FFT Education Datalab this week. This looked at how Year 6 teachers cope with the pressure of SATs. A bit of an anxiety rush during the actual week of the tests, but calm the rest of the time, was the verdict. Hopefully a good omen for everyone else. 

In other news for schools this week: the Education Policy Institute reported on primary maths and reading catch-up, with outcomes in maths still below pre-pandemic levels; Ofsted reported on teacher professional development, ‘work in progress,’ apparently; the Education Support organisation pointed to ‘job creep’ as demands on teachers grow; and the Child Poverty Action Group highlighted the costs of sending a child to school – £39 a week for a secondary age student when you factor in sports, trips, uniform and so on.

Elsewhere in education this week, the manufacturer’s organisation called for a new industrial strategy with skills at its heart. And tuition fees and AI, two familiar themes, remained talking points for HE. 

And, more immediately, a university professor at Winchester cracked the code for winning the Eurovision Song Contest. “Of the last 20 winning songs, 17 have been sung in English, 17 are about relationships, 13 have used the word 'love', 18 have at least one direct address ('I' to 'you') and all 20 have repeated choruses”. Certain outfits may help also.

Links to most of these stories below, but first a look at three of the top stories of the education week.

  • Exam time. This summer’s exam season kicks off in earnest next week. Assessments in technical and vocational subjects have been running for some time, but as Ofqual’s ‘eve of kick-off’ letter reminds, things move up a gear from next week. 'More than a million students will take exams at thousands of schools, colleges and other centres across the country. Over 70,000 examiners will be involved in marking and moderating students’ work, so that around 5.7 million GCSE and A level results can be issued in August'. Formal exams, as the think tank EDSK reported recently, remain ‘pivotal’ to the education system and look like remaining so – albeit with developments to reflect changing skill needs and technologies. AI systems continue to hover in the background, but for this year much of the attention may be on how grading plays out as it returns to pre-pandemic standards. As Ofqual explained, 'school or colleges' headline results will be lower than they were in 2022. That said, an allowance is being made so that overall results should be similar to those seen nationally in 2019'. We should know on the 17 and 24 of August when results for A levels and GCSEs respectively are published.
  • On the front line. Are state schools the front line of social services? Should they be? Or should teachers be left to focus solely on learning? These are some of the questions posed in a challenging new report this week from Education Support, the body that supports the welfare of teachers. Using a mass of survey and focus group evidence, largely carried out last year, the report highlights just how widely the responsibilities of many of those working in schools have now spread. In the words of ASCL’s Geoff Barton, “the role of school and college staff now extends far beyond the classroom. They have become a de facto and unofficial branch of social and healthcare services without the training, capacity or resources to discharge such responsibilities”. Is this the new reality for teachers, the report wonders, and what effect is this having on them and their day job? Many feel that they have neither the time nor the expertise, and feel stressed themselves as a result. The report calls for more recognition, help and support. Caring brings its own stresses. These shouldn’t include exploitation. 
  • Tuition fees. It may have prompted a few grisly headlines for Keir Starmer, but many people reckon that another review is the only way out of the current impasse over tuition fees. In its editorial at the start of the week, the Guardian considered the case for a new funding agency that could tax students and pay back universities, but ultimately called for ‘a broader rethink of the whole system’. Sector leaders who spoke to the Times Higher were of a similar opinion – give or take a further nuance here and there – about the need for a review. There are suggestions too that Scotland is moving in that direction. What has been missing so far has been the view of ‘Jo voter’ so it’s interesting that this week the consultancy Public First announced a major exercise with a group of universities, to find out what voters do think about it all. As Public First director Ed Dorrell explained “we plan to really find out what normal people think about how universities should be funded and the trade-offs that it necessitates”. It could be quite an exercise.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘AI needs superintelligent regulation’(Monday).
  • ‘Gillian Keegan: AI could help teachers by marking homework’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Exams: Some schools unnecessarily doing too many ‘plan B’ tests’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘SATs: Children ‘distraught’ after reading paper (Thursday).
  • ‘1 in 10 established apprenticeships fail to recruit’ (Friday).


  • Eurovision reception. The Prime Minister praised Liverpool as host city for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest at an eve of event reception at Number 10, and went on to present Points of Light Awards to two Liverpool children’s authors for their work in developing learning resources to help children read and develop creative skills.
  • EWF speech. The education secretary addressed the Education World Forum (EWF) where she highlighted the importance of international collaboration in education, citing in particular student exchanges, and called in addition for a global effort to face the challenges of AI and to exploit its benefits especially for teachers and learners. 
  • Early years. Claire Coutinho, the children’s minister, confirmed in a witness session with the Education Committee that the government would consult with the early years sector before expanding the 30-hours offer.
  • Care workers. The TUC called for a £15 minimum wage, a Fair Pay Agreement and long-term investment as it published new research showing how such proposals would boost not just social worker numbers but local economies as well.
  • Gig workers. Researchers at Bristol, Cambridge and Oxford reported on survey evidence collated last year showing that although most gig workers were using such work as their main source of income, most were earning just under £9 an hour, a rate below the UK national living wage. 
  • Bank report. The Bank of England published its latest monthly update suggesting an ‘improved’ outlook on growth in the coming months with unemployment expected to rise into next year and CPI inflation expected to fall ‘sharply’ but food price inflation falling back more slowly.
  • Economic outlook. The National Institute for Social and Economic Research (NIESR) indicated in a new briefing that the UK would avoid ‘a technical recession’ this year but that growth would remain ‘anaemic,’ inflation high, unemployment rise slowly into next year, and the cost-of-living remain an issue for many households.

More specifically ...


  • Exams 2023. Ofqual continued its build-up to this summer’s exams, many of which begin in earnest from next week, by publishing an open letter reminding schools, colleges and pupils of the arrangements for this year including the extra support available, grading procedures and results day expectations. 
  • SATs. FFT Education Datalab looked at how far Year 6 teachers experienced high-levels of anxiety around SATs, suggesting that while there were some adrenaline rushes during the actual SATs week, over the year as a whole such teachers were no more stressed than other class teachers. 
  • Resilience arrangements. The government and Ofqual launched consultation on procedures for any future major cancellation of exams and assessments, proposing that schools and colleges be issued where necessary with guidance on collecting evidence of student performance for qualifications such as GCSEs AS and A levels and that awarding bodies issue similar guidance for those taking technical and vocational qualifications.
  • Qualification perceptions. Ofqual published the results of its latest annual survey of views on qualifications and the exam system in general, with evidence from last autumn and showing views on GCSEs and applied general qualifications holding up well but a slight dip in views around A levels.
  • Education recovery. The Education Policy Institute reported on its work with Renaissance’s maths and reading assessments which showed that primary pupils had broadly caught up when it came to reading levels but remained 1.5 months behind in maths with the disadvantage gap clearly evident.
  • Professional development. Ofsted published the initial findings from the first part of its commissioned review into teacher professional development, finding general recognition of the importance of professional development but concerns about how useful some of it was, how workload and other daily pressures made such development difficult, and how some areas such as special needs required more time for training.
  • School costs. The Child Poverty Action Group and partners reported on the growing burden of costs facing families when it comes to ‘fully participating’ in school life with homework resources, sports, uniform and trips among other things all adding up to a weekly total of £18.69 for primary age children and £39 for secondary age children.
  • Expanding role. Education Support, the body that supports the health and wellbeing of teachers, highlighted in a new report the growing demands on teachers as they cope with the continuing emotional and social fall-out of the pandemic on pupils with many teachers struggling to manage their additional responsibilities alongside quality teaching. 
  • Life chances initiatives. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published a detailed mapping of major initiatives across the UK aimed at improving the life chances of children and young people in adversity, looking in particular at issues such as education, social care and health and calling for a wider remit in some cases and a greater focus on the importance of systems change.
  • Safeguarding. The children’s commissioner reported on the harmful effects of pornography on children’s sexual behaviour pointing to a direct link between the two and calling for further research to be conducted, support given to RSHE, and strong safeguards built into the Online Safety Bill.


  • Digital Skills. Ofqual reported on progress around the development of Essential Digital Skills qualifications with eight organisations so far having now completed Ofqual’s technical evaluation process for respective qualifications. 
  • Industrial Strategy. Make UK, the manufacturers’ organisation, argued that the lack of a clear industrial strategy was harming both the sector and the wider economy, calling in a new report for the creation of a Royal Commission to determine key priorities including skills, finance, and infrastructure, with an updated Industrial Strategy Council established to oversee delivery.
  • NHS apprenticeships. The Independent reported on the growing likelihood of an expansion of the NHS apprenticeship scheme as part of the forthcoming NHS workforce plan with potentially ‘one in ten doctors and a third of nurses’ qualifying through this route in time. 
  • New partnership. The 5% Club and the Brathay Trust announced a new partnership to work with and support young people as they move into work, including notably those on earn and learn schemes..
  • Committee report. The Edge organisation published its response to the Education Committee’s recent report into post-16 qualifications adding its support to the Committee’s recommendation to pause the planned defunding of some applied general qualifications such as BTECs, supporting the Committee’s stance on more apprenticeships for young people and underlining its own interest in examining the potential for a Bacc model in England.
  • National Numeracy. City and Guilds reported on the importance of maths and the challenges many face tackling maths anxiety as it signalled its support for next week’s National Numeracy Day.


  • Free speech tsar. The Telegraph led media reports that Arif Ahmed, a philosophy professor at Cambridge, had been selected to head the new role of monitoring and reporting on free speech in universities in England and Wales.
  • Housing crisis. The Times Higher examined the issues around housing an ever-growing student population as some leading institutions have struggled to find ‘beds for all with data expert Mark Corver calling for accommodation to be part of the university overall package but others pointing to wider housing issues, rent rises and the fall in value of maintenance loans 
  • Tuition fees. The consultancy, Public First, announced that it was working with four universities (Greenwich, Manchester, Warwick, York) to undertake a major public opinion survey into possible options for reforms for student finance, with a final report set for this autumn in time for the Party Conference season.
  • Generative AI. The QAA published a new briefing on managing Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) arguing the case for taking on board the benefits rather than rejecting the developments outright and putting forward a four-step process for identifying which assessments would benefit from its application.
  • Responding to Generative AI. Mary Curnock Cook and Nic Newman reflected in a blog on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) on how HE leaders were responding to the emergence of Generative AI, pointing to potential pros (in assessment) and cons (wariness about the future) bur arguing that it was important to stay engaged. 
  • The LLE. HEPI and the OU published a new briefing on the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) arguing that it had the potential of becoming an important mechanism in helping raise lifelong learning and skills but that currently it fell short by excluding groups such as distance learners and by limiting options for p/t learners, calling for a number of changes to be made before going live in 2025.

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Burnout warning as school staff become ‘de facto’ social workers” | @Schools Week
  • “The SNP should consider introducing tuition fees to stem the brain drain of young talent from Scotland, the head of one of the country’s top universities has said” | @Telegraph
  • “Students positive towards AI, but uncertain about what counts as cheating” | @FENews
  • “Fired employee returns work laptop in Gucci bag ‘so they don’t know I’m screwed without the job’ | @Independent
  • “Do you ever feel like you can't even *think* of a company these days without somehow ending up on 16 of their marketing mailing lists? Ugh” | @imrankhan
  • “I’m writing a story about hurricanes and tornadoes but it’s only a draft at the moment” | @GrahamGeog
  • “How do you brew the perfect espresso? Evenly packing the coffee grounds is key, according to a new mathematical model” | @newscientist

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “We need to respond to it just as we have to other technical innovations in the past like the calculator, or more recently Google” – the education secretary on facing up to the challenges of AI.
  • “The department regularly discusses qualification reform with stakeholders and listen to their concerns” – the minister answers a question in parliament about BTECs.
  • “The majority of the poor are in work or live in a household where someone is working” – Paul Johnson, director of the IfS on the working poor.
  • “Rather than a scenario where students are choosing a course and place of study and fitting part-time work around that, it is increasingly the other way around” – the Times Higher reports on the growth of p/t work among university students.
  • “This report, once again, makes for difficult reading” – the children’s commissioner publishes a second report on the harmful effects of pornography on children.
  • “This radical new approach could see tens of thousands of school-leavers becoming doctors and nurses, or [working in] other key healthcare roles after being trained on the job, over the next 25 years” – the chief executive of NHS England on the role of apprenticeships in the NHS workforce.
  • “Schools know that professional development is vital, so it’s disheartening to see poor-quality training and workloads getting in the way” – Ofsted reports on teacher professional development.
  • “The teachers most exposed to the pressures of the SATs are generally no more anxious about work than primary teachers with less direct exposure” – FFT Education Datalab examines the pressure on SATs teachers at this time of year.
  • “Once the exam is over, forget about it and move on to the next one” – a former GCSE examiner offers advice in The Spectator to students taking exams this year.

Important numbers

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

  • 56%. The number of firms who don’t think there has ever been a robust government vision for UK manufacturing, according to Make UK.
  • 42%. The number of respondents who said that work parties should involve non-alcoholic activities, according to a survey from the Chartered Management Institute.
  • £18,345.85. The cost to families in terms of minimum educational needs such as uniform and trips in sending a child to school for 14 years through primary and secondary, according to the Child Poverty Action Group.
  • 68.8%. The number of teachers who started teaching five years ago and who are still teaching, according to an answer in parliament.
  • 48%. The number of staff surveyed in schools and colleges reporting an increase in pastoral duties as they support pupils post-pandemic, according to Education Support. 
  • 70%. The number of primary school teachers who themed at least one of their lessons over the last week around the coronation, according to Teacher Tapp.
  • 18%. The number of Brits who attended a coronation celebration of some sort over last weekend, according to YouGov.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Education Committee witness sessions on ‘Persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils’ (Tuesday 16 May).
  • Schools and Academies Show (Wednesday 17 May).
  • National Numeracy Day (Wednesday 17 May).
  • British Chambers of Commerce Global Annual Conference (Wednesday 17 May).
  • IFs Annual Lecture: ‘Does working from home have a future?’ (Thursday 18 May).

Other stories

  • At home with Mum and Dad. 4.9m adult children in England and Wales were living with their parents in 2021, an increase of 14.7% over the previous decade. That’s according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in its latest batch of data released this week from the 2021 Census. In fact, it concluded, 'most people in their early 20s were living with their parents by the time of Census 2021' and that this was ‘a continuing trend’. So what lies behind this continuing trend? Unsurprisingly, a lack of affordable housing, but also being unemployed or acting as a carer at home. Adult children, who are defined as someone over 18 (including those 16+ and not in full-time education) without a partner or child and living with their parents, are typically aged 24 (older in London) and male, and can be seen in highest numbers in London and some cities. It explains why housing is such an issue for young people in these areas. A link to the data can be found here
  • Screen Free. Last week was ‘Screen Free Week.’ Not perhaps that many of us noticed. As a successor to TV Turnoff Week, Screen Free Week has been running for over a decade and came this year with a list of ‘101 Activities’ for young people to do instead, from starting a diary, to climbing a tree, to visiting a zoo. For adults, trying to tone down the amount of time spent on the phone is a key challenge. According to a recent YouGov survey, 41% of Brits reckon they use their mobile phone too much, with younger people and women the most concerned. The figure for 18-24-year-olds was 63% compared for instance to 17% of 65-year-olds. 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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