Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 30 June 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:

Some important reports this week. Many concern schools.

The National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted the sorry state of many school buildings in a report described as ‘shocking’ by teacher unions. Worryingly, the report concluded that 'the DfE currently lacks comprehensive information on the extent and severity of potential safety issues across the school estate', although it did go on to say that 'it has made progress in the last year'. 

The Education Committee published its report into careers guidance in schools calling for an updated strategy, measurable targets and direct funding for schools. 

The British Council published its annual report on language trends in schools in England, with Spanish up at A level, German down at GCSE, and continuing concerns about the amount of time and resource invested in languages generally.

Elsewhere in schools, missing pupils has been a big talking point this week. 'A huge slice of the COVID generation have never got back into the habit of regularly attending school', according to researchers. 

On a more positive note, Pearson published its latest insight into schools acknowledging plenty of challenges but also plenty of hopes. 'My colleagues. They are so supportive and we always make time to laugh' one secondary teacher said when asked what they were feeling positive about for the future.

And the RSA announced the winners of its Pupil Design Awards 2022/23. Notting Hill and Ealing High’s drinks container 'that naturally biodegrades with integrated seeds related to the drink flavour', was just one of a number of impressive winning projects.

In FE, independent training providers have been in conference this week, with reform of the apprenticeship levy once again a hot topic. And WorldSkills UK announced the expansion of its Centre of Excellence for skills training. 

And in HE this week, the OU announced exciting new plans for the future, including a new location, while the government published new data on graduate employment and student loan costs. Over three years, average loans for current full-time undergraduates are expected to top £42,000.

Elsewhere this week, the Lords Digital Committee took the government to task over failing to get to grips with digital exclusion. '4m people', it said, 'are still unable to complete a single basic digital task to get online'. It said this was 'a direct consequence of political lethargy', and called for urgent action.

And with this summer’s exam season over and the desks cleared away, many families have been turning their attention to results days, like this parent on Mumsnet: “My daughter's school will publish results on the school portal – no need to go in, though of course teachers will be there in case things don't go to plan. My daughter feels a bit cheated – she imagined all of them ripping open their envelopes together (and perhaps jumping in the air as per all the newspaper front pages)! How are other schools doing it?”.

Finally, if you’ve ever lost work on your laptop, spare a thought for this research company in America, let alone the poor cleaner. 'Major research lost after cleaner turned off fridge' ran the headline. Apparently 25 years of unique and carefully cultivated research microorganisms were being stored in the fridge.

Links to most of these stories below, but first a run through four of the top stories of the week in a bit more detail.  

  • Missing school. Pupils missing school has been a big talking point this week. The Guardian and Sky News both ran major stories on it; the Schools Minister was questioned on it by fellow MPs; Nuffield funded researchers updated their work on it; while a former government adviser recounted her concern. “The number of ‘ghost children’, defined as pupils who are absent for more than half the school calendar, doubled in the wake of the pandemic to 135,000”, she indicated. The trouble is exact numbers are difficult to ascertain. The Centre for Social Justice, which has been running its own School Absence Tracker, reckoned that 24.2% of all pupils were persistently absent last autumn term. It said such numbers ‘have soared by 108 per cent since the pandemic’. In the case of The Guardian, ‘one in ten GCSE-year pupils in England has been missing school each day this year’. Is it all down to the effects of the lockdown? Certainly that didn’t help in lots of ways, but equally there’s been a rise in home-schooling numbers. For instance, 86,200 children in England were home schooled for at least one day a week this year, according to latest government figures. Getting accurate data is an issue. A Private Member’s Bill placing a duty on local authorities to maintain a register of children not in school is currently going through Parliament. According to Sky, a further issue has been the cut back in the number of staff – such as attendance and welfare officers – down by 46% over the last decade. The Nuffield researchers who are leading a major project on the matter, are calling for improving attendance needs to be part of a longer-term recovery plan. The Education Committee is due to report before too long. It’ll be an important read.
  • School buildings. ‘Children won’t receive a first-class education in second rate buildings’. That was the verdict from the Labour Party in response to a report out this week from the NAO on the state of school buildings. In summary, the report concludes that 'Following years of underinvestment, the estate’s overall condition is declining, and around 700,000 pupils are learning in a school that the responsible body, or DfE, believes needs major rebuilding or refurbishment. Most seriously, DfE recognises significant safety concerns across the estate, and has escalated these concerns to the government risk register'. The government responded by pointing to various sources of funding made available for school buildings –£1.8bn for the current year for instance, and suggesting that 'over 95% of school building elements surveyed between 2017 and 2019 were in good or satisfactory condition'. But it’s a worrying set of conclusions. The NAHT said that the government 'urgently needed to come up with proper plans, backed by major new investment, to address these safety concerns, while also seizing the opportunity to retrofit and decarbonise the school estate'. The report puts forward a number of recommendations, but catching up on years of neglect at a time of economic crisis won’t be easy, as Labour itself recognises.
  • School report card. A mix of challenge, opportunity and hard work. That’s the picture that emerges from Pearson’s 2023 report into schools in England published this week. The second in a series and based on the views of students, teachers and senior leaders collated earlier this year, the report takes what it calls ‘an in-depth look at life in schools in 2023’. Here for instance are what teachers consider to be the top five challenges facing schools over the coming year. They include in order: budget pressures, workloads, teacher recruitment and retention, supporting SEND pupils, and staff and pupil mental health. What about the barriers to learning? These include, again in order: mental health, attendance, SEND, prior learning experience, and poverty. Elsewhere, the report looks into such issues as the environment and sustainability (9 in 10 schools are taking some action to help protect the planet); diversity and inclusion (9 out of 10 ten schools also taking action here); and digital developments (Around 4 in 7 secondary teachers expect to see an increased use of onscreen high-stakes assessment). The report concludes with some future steps. Politician would do well to take note.
  • Where should universities sit? Debate has re-emerged this week about which government department universities should be placed under. Over the years they’ve moved from Business to Education to a bit of both, arguably never fully comfortable in either. This latest round of debate has been sparked by former minister David Willetts’ recent update on future technologies, in which he argued for universities to be situated in and a driving force for the recently created Department of Science, Innovation and Technology. He argued that, while in the Department for Education they were treated ‘like poorly performing secondary schools’. In a blog on the HEPI website this week, London South Bank V.C. Dave Phoenix took up the threads, suggesting, given their work around high-level skills and knowledge, that they could usefully sit in the restructured Department for Business and Trade. The problem is as he intimated, you could make a case for universities sitting in any one of a number of departments – the Treasury in terms of economic contribution; Foreign Affairs in terms of international students and globalisation; Levelling Up in terms of social mobility and opportunity; and so on. It seems that without a coherent tertiary sector, this will always be an issue. 

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Sunak warned 6.5% pay rise for teachers is bare minimum’ (Monday).
  • ‘Marking boycott may delay degrees of more than 1,000 Durham students’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Almost 600 schools in England undergoing urgent structural checks’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Two in three state secondary schools in England teach just one foreign language’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Ofqual and DfE studying feasibility of ‘fully digital’ exams’ (Friday).


  • Workforce Plan.The government prepared to launch a major 15-year NHS workforce plan that would see a significant increase in training involving more university places and a big rise in apprenticeships including for the first time those for doctors from next year.
  • Creating a scientific superpower. The Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology addressed the Scientific Superpower Conference where she outlined government work in this area including Life Sciences, where she announced a new initiative on brain injuries, Horizon, where negotiations are ‘progressing’ and access to capital generally. 
  • Economic matters. The House of Lords Library Service published a briefing on UK economic growth, productivity and inflation ahead of a Lords debate on the matter, highlighting the poor growth in the UK economy evident since the 2007/8 crisis and what measures the government is currently taking to remedy things. 
  • Digital exclusion. The Lords Communications and Digital Committee called for urgent action as it published a new report arguing that the government had ‘no credible strategy’ to tackle digital exclusion, noting that the last strategy was nearly ten years old and that in the intervening years, the government had ‘allowed’ millions to fall behind with a direct consequence on health, economic growth and social divide.
  • The Eight Great Technologies. Former minister David Willetts reviewed how the eight great technologies such as AI, Robotics and Advanced Materials that he had identified ten years ago had fared, noting progress in AI and space technology but less so in Advanced Materials and Robotics, suggesting ‘five high level policy proposals’ to help development in the future including the creation of a leadership council to promote each technology.
  • The cost of raising a family. The charity Save the Children called for the two-child limit to be abandoned and cost-of-living payments to vary by family size as it published a new report showing how much low-income families in particular were struggling with rising costs. 
  • Hunger in the UK. The food bank charity the Trussell Trust, called for ‘a long-term strategy for local crisis support’ and an Essentials Guarantee as it published new figures showing the highest ever use of food banks among its network over the last year. 
  • Learning at Work. The HR professional body CIPD published its latest report into learning at work indicating that while tackling the skills gap remained a big priority for many, heavy work pressures, and a lack of time, resources and prioritisation made this increasingly difficult. 
  • Media market. The consultancy PwC published its latest Outlook for the Global Entertainment and Media Market indicating that the UK is well placed to retain its leading position with revenue likely to reach £85bn this year and with the Virtual Reality market likely to see the fastest growth over coming years. 
  • AI partnership. UNESCO and the EU announced a new agreement with funding to support least developed countries in establishing rules on applying ethical rules in AI development.

More specifically ...


  • School buildings. The National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted the poor state of many school buildings in a new report indicating that 38% of buildings were past their ‘initial design life,’ 700,000 pupils were being taught in buildings that needed major work and that many rebuilding works were falling behind.
  • Careers education. The Commons Education Committee published the results of its Inquiry into the quality of careers education information, advice and guidance (CEIAG) pointing to the important role it plays for young people and society but calling for the government to publish by next year an updated strategy to meet the ‘Gatsby’ benchmarks with (direct funded) support for careers advisers, further work experience and potential rollout in primary schools as part of this.
  • Languages. The British Council published its latest report into Language Trends in schools in England showing Spanish remaining the most popular subject at A level and French at GCSE as well as some positive developments with more primary schools teaching languages and international engagement ‘improving’ but continuing worries over how much time and support is actually being given to languages provision generally.
  • Subject grading at KS4. FFT Education Datalab reported on the grading severity of subjects at Key Stage 4 suggesting that modern foreign languages came out proportionately worst.
  • Lost potential at 16. The Sutton Trust published an initial report into its social mobility study of disadvantaged high attainers showing that they tended to make less progress and attain lower GCSE grades than other high attainers, calling for a clearer strategy for closing the attainment gap and better funding to support such learners through the education system.
  • School report card. Pearson published its 2023 ‘consumer’ report into the school system in England using evidence from over 6,000 teachers and senior leaders as well as students, suggesting a system facing a number of challenges including around budgets, staffing and pupil mental health but equally taking on opportunities including around flexible learning, onscreen assessment and inclusion.
  • Free school meals. The Labour leadership said it had no plans to include universal free school meals for primary children in a future election manifesto but would continue to support free breakfast clubs as currently.
  • Missing pupils. Nuffield funded researchers reported on their work on what they called ‘the rising tide of school absences in the post-pandemic era,’ suggesting that the reasons for such absence are still far from clear while proposed interventions so far are unlikely to resolve things, arguing instead for attendance to become part of a more general education recovery programme.
  • Teach First. The education charity Teach First confirmed its autumn intake of trainees would be offered one-off ‘cost-of-living’ grants of up to £2000 to help with relocating or commuting to areas of greatest need.
  • SEND research. The Nuffield Foundation outlined the current work around SEND that it was funding and invited bids for future funded research into a number of other identified key priorities particularly around system reform.
  • SEND reform. The Children’s Commissioner called for ‘a radical overview of the SEND system’ and rapid implementation of the national improvement plan as she responded to recent figures showing an increase in the number of pupils in need of support.


  • FE funding. The House of Commons Library Service published a useful briefing on FE funding in England, running through the different funding streams along with latest trends and developments and acknowledging that they are ‘in a particularly difficult position at present’.
  • Call for Evidence. The government announced a review of the Industry Training Boards (Construction and Engineering) with a Call for Evidence to be submitted by 25 August 2023. 
  • T level learner survey. The government published second year results of a commissioned report into learner choices and experiences in technical education finding a number of positives from initial T level learners and those on the Transition Programme but also some concerns about the Health and Science route and about employer contact generally.
  • Levy reform. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) outlined its thoughts on apprenticeship levy reform at its annual conference acknowledging the issue of flexibility but calling for a separate, guaranteed budget for employers that don’t pay the levy and a ‘cautious’ approach to reform generally.
  • Centre of Excellence. WorldSkills UK announced that following a three-year pilot, its Centre of Excellence, developed with NCFE to provide training and skills provision, would be fully open to all colleges, training providers and HE institutions offering leadership training, teacher training and sector skills innovation.
  • JISC benefits. The digital and technology agency JISC published the results of its commissioned report into the economic benefits it brings, indicating that along with its work on connectivity, cyber security and licensing deals, it generates a return of more than £3 for every £1 invested by members as well as savings generally for the UK economy.. 
  • Ex offender support. Sodexco, which currently manages a number of UK prisons, announced that it would use £100,000 of its annual apprenticeship levy to support ex-offender training this year as part of its ‘Starting Fresh’ campaign.
  • Voc Ed. The AELP and UfI Voc Tech Trust examined the impact of AI on future skills training in a new report suggesting that most training providers have ‘a positive perspective’ on new technologies but need government to work closely with them by investing in infrastructure, accessibility and ethical use.
  • Click Start. The Institute of Coding, with funding from Nominet, launched a new series of free digital skills programmes aimed at helping learners from low-income backgrounds develop the digital skills needed to secure employment.


  • Student loans. The government published its latest set of forecasts on the costs of student loans, showing that full-time undergraduates who started in 20222/23 are expected to borrow on average over the three years a total of £42,100 with 27% expected to pay it back in full over time.
  • Graduate labour market. The government published data on the graduate labour market for 2022 showing an increase on the previous year in the employment rate for working-age graduates, with 66.3% of working-age graduates in high-skilled employment against 23.6% of non-graduates and with a median nominal salary of £38,500.
  • Disabled students. The Office for Students (OfS) announced that following a report from the Commission looking into disabled students, it would be setting up a Disability in Higher Education Panel to hear and take on board the views of disable students and provide expert advice for them. 
  • NSS data. The Office for Students (OfS) confirmed that it intended to publish the results from the 2023 National Students Survey on 10 August.
  • OU plans. The Open University (OU) announced it was considering new plans for the future including ‘a multi-million-pound relocation’ of its existing campus in Milton Keynes to a site near the central railway station with facilities for teaching, accommodation and leisure. 

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “We expect most regions s to have an approved local skills improvement plan by summer 23, according to @ESFAgov’s Kirsty Evans #aelpNC23” |  @FEWeek
  • “We must continue to campaign for those qualifications so often disparaged or misunderstood by politicians — such as BTECs or Cambridge Nationals. Dismantling them will undermine the government’s so-called levelling up agenda." Absolutely. @RealGeoffBarton! #protectstudentchoice” | @SFCA_info
  • “Be curious not furious" "If a teacher comes into the staff room and throws a chair, we'd go over and put our arm around them and ask 'what's wrong?' Why do we approach a child with a chair so differently?" @WholeEducation #KindnessPrinciple” | @RaeSnape
  • “Put X [insert social issue that bothers you] on the school curriculum is probably the single laziest policy recommendation available” | @Samfr
  • “After this year's Glastonbury I'm thinking of setting up a consultancy for headliners where I walk into the meeting with a copy of their greatest hits, a stopwatch and a picture of some fireworks. There is no big secret to getting it right yet so many people get it wrong” | @DorianLynskey
  • “My mum can't stop publishing statistical assessments of high-income countries' economies. I think she's got OECD” | @SnoozeInBrief

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “This is not Labour policy and we have no plans to implement it” – the Labour leadership on calls for universal free school meals in its election manifesto.
  • “I was first exposed to acting when I was about seven like many people across the country enjoying an after-school drama class. I played Alice in our adaptation of Alice in Wonderland” – the Culture Secretary with stories from home.
  • “During his time as Deputy and Interim Chair he has demonstrated the knowledge, skills and expertise which are necessary to lead the Social Mobility Commission” – the government puts forward Alun Francis as its preferred candidate for the role of Chair of the SMC.
  • “In cutting the arts and humanities in these universities, managers and policymakers are turning back the clock – at a time when, arguably, there has never been a greater need for courageous innovation” – a Guardian Editorial reflects on UEA’s proposed arts cuts.
  • “I haven’t had a single normal year at university”– this year’s graduates tell their stories to The Observer.
  • “We are willing to commence these negotiations immediately – the ball is in the employers’ court” – the UCU calls on the employers’ body to sit down and talk. 
  • “The further education sector has experienced a prolonged period of reduced funding” – the House of Commons Library Service reports on FE funding.
  • “We are so excited to work with Jay to shine an even brighter spotlight on the importance of skills-based education for both people and industries” – City and £52bn Guilds appoints Jay Blades as its new ambassador for skills.
  • “In recent years, funding for school buildings has not matched the amount DfE estimates it needs, contributing to the estate’s deterioration” – the NAO reports on school buildings.

Important numbers

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

  • 79,549. The number of new jobs created this year from foreign direct investment (FDI) projects, according to claims from the government.
  • 7mThe number of households without broadband or mobile internet access, according to the Lords Digital Committee.
  • 19%. The number of HR managers surveyed who said their organisation had hired at least one Ukrainian national over the last year, according to a survey from the think tank SMF.
  • 39%. The number of employees in a survey given enough time from their day-to-day work to be able to undertake CPD, according to CIPD.
  • £7.52bn. The impact of the University of Edinburgh’s activities on the UK economy in 2021/22, a considerable increase in recent years according to a report from London Economics.
  • 93.4%. The attendance rate in schools in England for w/commencing 12 June, according to latest government figures.
  • 76%. The increase in the number of children and young people being referred to mental health services over the last four years, according to recent NBS figures.
  • £422. The amount that parents spend on average a year on secondary school uniform - £287 in primary, according to the Children’s Society.
  • 24,000. The number of school buildings beyond their design life including 10,000 constructed before 1940, according to a report by the NAO.
  • 65%. The number of school nurses in a survey who said nutritional issues among children have worsened over the last year, according to a survey by the School Nurses Association.
  • Two-thirds. The number of people surveyed who still post a letter each month, according to research from Ofcom.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Youth Employment Week (Monday 03 July – Friday 07 July).
  • Education Committee witness session on child exploitation and county lines (Tuesday 04 July).
  • UCAS 2023 Clearing Scheme opens (Wednesday 05 July – 17 October).
  • 13thFestival of Education (Thursday 06 July – Friday 07 July).

Other stories

  • Thank you teacher. It’s the time of year for gifts for teachers, with chocolate, candles and no doubt plenty more all in the shops variously inscribed with ‘Thanks Teacher’ emblazoned across them. The cost-of-living crisis will no doubt make things difficult for many families but for anyone looking for inspiration, The Independent has a useful list. Its ‘best picks’ to be fair include those traditional chocolates and candles ranging from £3 to £20 but among its other items are a ‘£15 Little Botanical Miranda personalised plant’ and £16.50 ‘Spacemasks self-heating eye masks.’ The blurb on the latter talks about ‘lulling you into a sense of calm and peacefulness’ which could be a popular pitch. A link to the list 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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