Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 19 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:

A big week in many ways. 

A big week for exams with GCSEs and A levels getting under way. "I'm just at the stage now where I want to get it over and done with", one student told the BBC as she headed off for her first GCSE exam.

A big week too for primary reading proficiency, with England coming fourth in the latest international reading literacy study. Up from eighth previously (2016), although comparisons may be difficult because of the intervening pandemic, and, actually, we were higher in 2001. Either way, as ASCL’s Geoff Barton put it, it’s all “a badly needed piece of good news for an education system that feels beleaguered”.

A big week also for mental health, with the latest Mental Health Awareness Week taking place. The theme this year was anxiety and how to tackle it, with the Mental Health Foundation launching an important report on the matter. As the report highlights, anxiety can strike anyone at any time but 18-34-year-olds, single parents, carers, and those from minority groups are often the most vulnerable. Worries about being able to pay bills, pressure at work, health worries and loneliness are among the more immediate causes. 

In other education-related news this week, the charity National Numeracy hosted its annual National Numeracy Day, with even the skills minister admitting to finding some aspects of maths challenging. “I struggle to read spreadsheets and graphs to this day”. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest facts and figures on the UK labour market, where the record numbers of people (2.55m) out of work because of ill-health was the big talking point.  

Elsewhere, NCFE published survey evidence on the lot of a Teaching Assistant – the job’s much harder than people realise. The government launched a new push on pupil absentees, including a call for evidence on CMEs (children missing education).

The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, outlined plans for a new technical Bacc for 16-year-olds in the region, and the Office for Students reported on the finances of universities in England. 'Overall we are not currently concerned about the short-term viability of most providers', it concluded.

Finally, in a new interview this week, Elon Musk lashed out at the concept of working from home. He said it was "morally wrong" for some to be able to do it, but not others. Who’s going to make the stuff that everyone else needs and consumes? In his words: “The laptop class is living in la-la land”. 

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

  • Reading success. Some welcome education headlines this week. According to the latest international study on the reading performance of 9/10 year olds, England came out fourth. The highest in the Western world, as one headline put it, and with only Singapore, Hong Kong and Russia, respectively ahead. The study, formally known as 'The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)' takes place every five years, and this latest one, delayed a little by the pandemic, is based on evidence collected in 2021. The tests, which focus on reading, comprehension, and attitudes to reading, were taken by 43 countries, with 162 primary schools in England participating. The phonics screening check, which has had its critics, but been consistently championed by Nick Gibb, was seen as an important factor in the success. 'The strongest predictor of PIRLS performance was the year 1 phonics check mark'. There were plenty of headline positives including notably ‘a narrowing of the attainment gap’ between higher and lower-performing pupils, and a recognition of the efforts by teachers to create positive learning environments. On the downside, girls' average scores were down slightly, boys still lag behind girls when it comes to enjoying reading, and children with plenty of books at home generally have a head start. But a report which concludes that 'More than half of pupils in England (57%) reached the High International Benchmark in PIRLS 2021, compared to an International Median of 36% reaching this Benchmark', suggests credit is deserved all round.
  • A load of ballots. No sign of any easing of tensions this week between government and teaching unions. The education secretary wrote a blunt letter to the NEU, arguing that in the eyes of the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR), the pay offer was fully funded – an existing bone of contention between the two sides. She added that the union might want to correct its website accordingly. For its part, the NEU launched a further round of balloting for action once the current mandate ends in July. The current offer was ‘simply not good enough’ they said. The NAHT also began balloting members this week – ‘we’ve been left with no other choice.’ Its ballot closes at the end of July. And the NASUWT began balloting eligible sixth-form college members this week, and is planning to ballot school teachers from June 5. As things stand, it looks like a difficult autumn term ahead.
  • International students. Government ministers pondering whether to tighten visa restrictions for international students would do well to look at a new report out this week from London Economics. It’s an update on the net impact to the UK economy of international students. Summarising the impact of the 2021/22 starters it concludes: 'The estimated total benefit to the UK economy from 2021/22 first-year international students over the duration of their studies was approximately £41.9bn, while the estimated total costs were £4.4bn. This implies a benefit-to-cost ratio of 9.4'. Not only that, as the numbers of such students has increased in recent years, so has the net economic impact, 33% in real terms. And far from the benefits being concentrated in London or the big cities, it can be seen spread across the UK as its breakdown of returns at a parliamentary constituency level shows. What is perhaps most surprising, as the report notes, is that this has all taken place at a time of policy volatility. As the commissioners of the report, HEPI, UUK and Kaplan, point out, ministers would do well to read and take note. 
  • Labour education plans. What would a Labour government bring for education? The Party’s latest comprehensive policy handbook offers a fair clue. There are still a number of consultative stages to complete, with key meetings in the coming months, but these are some of the current proposals. For schools, they include an expert review of the current curriculum; the rollout of ‘an ambitious’ school improvement plan; reform of inspections and consultation on a report card system; more teachers; and more SEND training. The listing for FE and skills includes the creation of a new expert body for skills, a new industrial strategy, support for a ‘thriving college and training sector’ with stronger links to employment, and further devolution of adult education and skills budgets. And for HE, reform of the ‘broken’ tuition fee system, world class research, and high-tech developments. This is just a snapshot. Other related proposals include reforms to childcare; reform to mental health services; and a New Deal for working people. For anyone wanting a fuller picture of what a Starmer government might look like, the communications company Portland has a useful set of insights here                

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘A levels and GCSEs: Covid support in place as exams begin (Monday).
  • ‘Reading ability of children in England scores well in global survey’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘SATs: Schools minister says tests shouldn’t be too hard’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘English universities warned not to over-rely on fees of students from China’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Teachers will strike in July if dispute is not solved by mid-June, union says’ (Friday).


  • Climate action. The DfE followed up its 2022 ‘sustainability and climate change strategy for education’ by reinforcing the importance of the programme and promising the rollout of further support including a network of local experts and ‘a sustainability leadership digital hub’ from the end of this year.
  • Culture plans. Lucy Frazer, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, pledged in a major conference speech to grow the creative industries by an extra £50bn and create an extra million jobs by 2030 as part of her long-term plans.
  • Levelling up. PoliticsHome reported that government plans to create a group of 12 Levelling Up Directors that would oversee levelling up across the UK had been shelved with the focus now on devolving responsibility to mayoral combined and local authorities.
  • Labour market overview. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest set of figures for the UK labour market showing a slight drop in the economic inactivity rate January – March 2023 as more, especially young, people moved into work but a record high for the number of people economically inactive because of long-term sickness.
  • Labour market analysis. The Institute for Employment Studies published its regular analysis of the latest labour market figures pointing to employment continuing to strengthen despite the record number out because of long-term sickness, a mixed picture on vacancies with those in public services such as education remaining high, and regular pay up but weakened by inflation.
  • Chambers of Commerce. The British Chambers of Commerce hosted its Global Annual Conference where Shevaun Haviland, the organisation’s director-general, launched a new membership campaign and outlined five big challenges/opportunities facing businesses today, namely the digital revolution; people and work; green innovation; global Britain; and the future of the high street.
  • Anxiety in the UK. The Mental Health Foundation called for ‘a ten-year cross-government mental health strategy across the UK’ as it hosted this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, kicking things off with a new report on the pervasive effects of anxiety as one of the many challenges facing people today.
  • Cost-of-living. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) reported an 11% increase in the number of adults falling behind on paying bills or credit agreements in the six months to January 2023 along with more people cancelling insurance or warranty arrangements, as it provided further details from its Financial Lives 2022 survey.
  • Higher rate tax. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) highlighted in a new briefing the rise in the number of people now paying higher-rate tax as the government continued its ‘freeze’ of income tax thresholds, suggesting that by 2027/8, ‘one in four teachers and one in eight nurses’ are likely to fall into the higher tax bracket.
  • Early Years. Global charity TheirWorld called on world leaders to invest in the early years as it published a new report showing that international aid to pre-primary fell by almost 10% at the height of the pandemic and many countries failed to keep up with their pledge to spend 10% of their education budgets on the early years.

More specifically ...


  • International reading performance. The government published the results from the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) showing an impressive fourth placed international ranking for England’s 9/10 yr olds.
  • Pupil absentees The government launched a new drive on pupil absentees with the creation of nine new Attendance Hubs, an expansion of the Attendance Monitors scheme, and a call for evidence to collect data on children missing education.
  • Children not in school. Conservative MP Flick Drummond introduced a Bill to tackle the issue of school absentees by placing a duty on local authorities to maintain a register so that such absentees could be monitored, and where necessary, supported or protected.
  • School attendance. The government highlighted the importance of school attendance for pupils in a new update pointing out for instance that the majority of KS 2 pupils who had 100% attendance achieved much higher test results than those who didn’t, and outlining what the government was doing to improve attendance and what support was available for those families that needed it.
  • SATs reading paper. The Standards and Testing Agency published the SATs reading paper that left some pupils in tears last week and which the minister has since said he will review. 
  • SATs matters. The Guardian reported on this year’s SATs in light of concerns about last week’s reading paper, outlining the purpose of SATs, the issues around them and whether there were any possible alternatives.
  • Hubs programme. The government published early research on its English Hubs Programme (EHP,) which provide support for teaching in phonics and early reading, pointing to evidence of raised performance in schools in the Programme. 
  • Ballot action. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) launched its ballot for members to vote on potential strike action with four issues at stake (pay and funding; recruitment and retention; workload and wellbeing; inspections,) remaining open until the end of July.
  • Second ballot. The National Education Union (NEU) opened a further round of balloting for strike action over pay and conditions with the ballot remaining open for members until 28 July.
  • The first 18 months. Teacher Tapp presented findings from its latest survey of early career teachers and their mentors suggesting there were mixed views about its benefits and pointing to three areas for improvement including the suitability of the resources provided and the timetabling allocation available, and the relevance of some of the training. 
  • Teaching Assistants. NCFE published details from its recent brief survey of Teaching Assistants showing that their role is not always valued and understood and many were considering their futures as demands continued to pile up on them.
  • Local governance. The National Governance Association (NGA) reported on the results of its survey work into the local governance of MATs, highlighting a number of core themes and pointing to a list of ‘13 features of good local governance’ ranging from effective communication, to clarity on roles, to a whole trust governance development plan.
  • Maths to 18. Charlie Stripp, Director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Maths (NCETM) hailed the PM’s recent commitment to maths for young people to age 18, acknowledging some of the challenges but calling for a big push in the uptake of Core Maths as a good starting point.
  • Numeracy. The children’s commissioner launched as part of National Numeracy Day a new interactive tool to help children and families appreciate the importance of numeracy and map local performance data.
  • Young poets. The Poetry Society in partnership with the Foyle Foundation announced the launch of its latest Young Poet of the Year Award with young writers aged 11-17 invited to submit entries by the end of July 2023, and winners and those commended, invited to a special awards ceremony later in the year.
  • Missing breakfast. The British Nutrition Foundation and Magic Breakfast organisation launched a joint review to investigate the impact on children’s health and wellbeing from missing breakfast with some 3m children last year said to be starting school without having had any breakfast. 


  • Ballot action. The NASUWT opened its balloting of sixth form colleges members for potential strike action over pay, workload and working time, with the ballot remaining open until 12 June.
  • Numeracy. The charity National Numeracy welcomed leading supporters and ambassadors to this year’s National Numeracy Day, acknowledging in a new report that while many people remain fearful of maths, they recognise its importance as they get older and have to manage household bills especially when things get tight.
  • Technical option.Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, put forward proposals for a technical route for school leavers in Manchester, an MBacc, that would provide work placements and technical qualifications in such vital sectors to the local economy as engineering, digital skills and creative subjects, and which, following consultation, would hopefully be available from 2024.
  • Barriers to apprenticeships.The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) called for much more work to be done to provide young people with information and support as it reported on its recent roundtable with apprenticeship providers examining the barriers and information gaps that many young people face trying to access an apprenticeship.
  • Apprenticeship intermediaries.The IPPR think tank called in a new report for the creation of a network of apprenticeship intermediaries who could work particularly with SMEs to help aggregate demand, navigate systems and generally improve options for employers and apprentices alike.
  • Prevent. The Education and Training Foundation was awarded the contract by government to provide Prevent training for a further year.


  • International students. Leading HE bodies Universities UK, HEPI and Kaplan reported on their commissioned research undertaken by London Economics into the economic benefits to the UK of international students, showing an impressive 34% increase in economic returns over the last three years.
  • University finances. The Office for Students (OfS) reported on the finances of universities in England concluding that many were ‘in good shape’ and the sector was expected to grow income over the next three years but equally highlighting a number of potential risk factors including the continuing impact of inflation, the costs of facilities investment, and an over-reliance on fees from foreign – largely Chinese – students.
  • Uni Connect. The Office for Students published a series of independent reports highlighting the importance of Uni Connect partnerships in working with schools and colleges to support learners less likely to attend higher education, launching a new Uni Connect website at the same time to help further the work in this area.
  • Access and participation plans. The Office for Students published regulatory advice for HE institutions on drawing up access and participation plans complete with sections on the overall strategic aim, the objectives, risks, investment consultation process and overall summary of such plans.
  • AI impact. The Times Higher reported on how AI was changing the world of higher education, pointing to five developments currently including helping with teaching and student support, taking pressure off admissions tutors, sourcing papers and citations, quality scanning papers, and reworking business models.
  • Pandemic experience. The QAA published a new collaborative report on how students in ten HE Business Schools had coped during the pandemic, finding that it had opened up new ways of learning and different senses of belonging for many students but equally that it had left some feeling left out and isolated with future engagement a key issue as things move on.
  • Rent reform. The NUS welcomed the new Renters Reform Bill saying that while there’s still a lot more to be done to improve student housing, the removal of no-fault evictions was to be welcomed.

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Sats tests shouldn't be too hard, schools minister says” | @BBCNews
  • “It is completely inaccurate for @Independent to suggest in its reporting that the rise in degree-level apprenticeships takes opportunities away from younger workers. In fact, under 25s make up more than 50% of apprenticeship starts” | @halfon4harlowMP
  • “Teachers' strikes could have been averted if Government explained pay offer better, minister admits” | @ed_ontap
  • “I swear that politicians still imagine that universities are places where 'young people' still 'go away' to some pretty city and discuss stuff in tiny groups with distracted tweedy dons” | @gsoh31
  • “In the 13 years since 2010 there have been: 5 Prime Ministers 6 Home Secretaries 6 Defence Secs 6 Health Secs 7 Chancellors 7 Foreign Secretaries 7 Transport Secretaries 9 Work+Pensions Secs 10 Justice Secs 10 Business Secs 10 Education Secs No wonder the government is a mess” | @jphndunford
  • “Next year, 2024, the world goes to the polls. * UK general election at some point * US election Nov 5 * EU parliamentary election 6-9 June + new commission * Indian general election April/May” | @SamCoatesSky

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “I worry about the loss of creativity when people are permanently working from home and not having those watercooler moments where they bounce ideas off each other" – the Chancellor on the downsides of working from home.
  • “There is nogood reason why we can’t train up enough HGV drivers, butchers or fruit pickers” – Suella Braverman makes her pitch.
  • “I am not an advocate of increasing tuition fees” – the F/HE minister.
  • “Sometimes when I look at a spreadsheet it looks like fog” – Rob Halfon MP welcomes National Numeracy Day.
  • “We understand that prospective students have a lot on right now, with studying and exams on the horizon. However, my message to them is apply now because getting their student finance application in before the deadline gives them one less thing to think about during the important study period” – the Student Loans Co encourages prospective students to apply for their loans early. 
  • “Foolish and self-destructive” – the European Student Union condemns the UK’s withdrawal from the EU Erasmus+ scheme.
  • “Within the next year, I think, we will not have any humans doing that front-line work” – the Times Higher hears how chatbots are helping transform HE services such as dealing with basic questions around admissions.
  • “Today is the start of the journey of creating a clear and equal pathway for technical education” – Andy Burnham proposes a new MBacc for Greater Manchester.
  • “I will certainly look at this, because I know that there has been concern expressed by some schools” – Nick Gibb promises to look at the recent SATs paper that has caused so much concern.
  • “There are indications that, overall, the lessons that can be learned from PIRLS 2021 are positive” – reading proficiency in England receives a thumbs-up from the latest international survey.
  • “Pupils who reported having over 200 books at home scored approximately 56 points higher in PIRLS than those who reported having 10 or fewer books at home” – one of the findings from the recent PIRLS report.
  • “Currently, we hold no comprehensive data about how many children are not on a school roll, where they are and what quality of education they are receiving, if any” – Flick Drummond MP introduces a Bill for maintaining a register of pupils not in school.

Important numbers

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

  • 556,000. The number of working days lost in March because of labour disputes, up from 332,000 in the previous month according to the ONS.
  • 73%. The number of UK adults who reported feeling anxious at least sometimes in the previous two weeks, according to a recent survey by Opinium for the Mental Health Foundation.
  • 1m. The number of people who disconnected their broadband over the last year because they couldn’t afford it, according to Citizens Advice.
  • £41.9bn. The economic returns to the UK from international students in 2021/22, according to commissioned research from London Economics.
  • 92.8%. The attendance rate in schools in England for w/commencing 1 May 2023, according to latest headline figures from the government.
  • 558. The average score for England in PIRLS 2021, higher than the international median score of 520, according to the latest international reading study.
  • 66%. The number of respondents who agreed that they didn’t realise how important maths skills were until they were older, according to a survey from National Numeracy.
  • 73%. The number of Teaching Assistants in a survey thinking about or actively looking to changes their careers, according to research from NCFE.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Education Committee witness sessions on SEND (Tuesday 23 May).
  • Edge Symposium on Bacc options (Tuesday 23 May).
  • Parliamentary Whitsun recess (Thursday 25 May – Monday 5 June).

Other stories

  • Gen Z and Millennials. Apparently ‘three-quarters of respondents in a Gen Z/Millennial survey who are currently working remotely, or in hybrid roles, would consider looking to move if asked to go full-time’. The details come from the consultancy Deloitte, whose latest survey of Gen Z and Millennials has just been published. Survey evidence was collected from a wide-range of both groups across 44 countries last autumn with a view to finding out how the last three years may have affected their hopes and experiences when it comes to the workplace. Both groups report having high expectations of their employers and worry about financial pressures, burnout and stress, but top of their priorities is securing a good work/life balance. A link to the survey and other findings is here 
  • SATs challenge. Schools minister, Nick Gibb has promised to review last week’s SATs reading paper that reduced some children to tears. The paper has now been published and can be found in the Standards and Testing Agency website here. But just how hard are the English and maths tests that 10/11-year-olds take as part of their SATs? The i newspaper is one of many that has published a sample of such tests from recent years to let readers judge for themselves. Here’s one English and one maths question from the list to try out. For English: Identify the relative pronoun in this sentence - ‘The boy who knocked on our door was at the wrong house.’ And for maths: If the number is 3,576,219, what digit is in the 10,000 place? (Answers ‘who’ and ‘7.’) The full compilation of questions and answers 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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