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

End of term for many, leading to the familiar ‘taking out the trash’ time as the Americans call it. In effect, an activity rush of announcements, reports, and other developments intended to clear the decks ahead of the summer break.  

Heading the announcements this week has been the government’s latest reforms for higher education, which came with a sharp prod at so called low-value courses. Both the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary talked about cracking down on these in their speeches, but the precise details remain uncertain. A summary below.

In terms of reports, we’ve had a bevy, if that’s the right word, of annual reports and accounts. The DfE, Ofsted, Ofqual and the Education and Skills Funding Agency all released their variants during the week – with pages on performance outcomes, financial statements and corporate governance. The DfE’s Consolidated Annual Report and Accounts for 2022/23 topped the list at 373 pages, potentially a useful quarry for many. 

But perhaps the most significant report this week has been Ofsted’s overview on how T levels and the T Level Transition Programme have been going. The summary verdict of a ‘range of shortcomings’ has prompted questions. Again details below.

As for other developments of note this week, education ministers tackled MPs’ questions on childcare; pupil absentees; teacher recruitment and retention; apprenticeship funding; and student visas as part of education questions this week. 

An important education debate took place at the start of the week in response to a petition about pay for teaching assistants. “The role has become even more varied, intense and emotionally demanding”, one MP explained. The minister in response pointed to an ongoing research project to find out more about how schools were deploying TAs, which would report before year end, while urging schools in the interim to use flexibilities over pay scales”. The full debate can be found here

More specifically, for schools this week, the government pushed back expectations on the minimum working week for another year, Ofqual reported on qualification prices, and the Education Secretary pledged to reduce teacher workloads by five hours a week as she convened a workload reduction taskforce. And advice for schools on policies for transgender pupils now looks like being delayed. Some of the guidance appears to be unlawful apparently. 

In FE, that thematic report from Ofsted on T levels has raised concerns about the defunding of alternative qualifications such as BTECs. As James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association put it, ‘T levels are not yet the gold standard replacement for BTECs the government believes them to be’.

In HE, away from the latest reform announcements, the Office for Students reported on degree attainment trends, indicating that the number of top awards had remained high, with many unexplained. And it seems that the government is delaying on making a decision to join the EU Horizon programme. “There are no plans to say anything this week. I’d be surprised if there was anything over the summer”, according to one source.

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

  • HE reform. According to a poll from YouGov, taken on the day the government announced its latest HE reforms, 38% of respondents reckon the main purpose of university is to get a good job afterwards, 26% think it’s to gain subject knowledge, down to 1% who think it’s for something else. It isn’t clear what that something else is, but either way, these figures would seem to support the government’s announcement this week, targeting what it called ‘low-value’ courses. ‘Cracking down on rip-off courses,’ as the PM put it, had a strong whiff of media headlines about it, but it made the point. The trouble is it’s easier to say than do. As explained in its report this week, the government sees low-value courses as those with poor continuation, completion and progression rates. And it intends to ask the Office for Students to use its regulatory powers to set recruitment limits on such courses. Plenty of critics have pointed out the flaws in this approach. For instance, is it really possible to apply employment outcomes 15 months on? EDSK’s Tom Richmond illustrated how complicated this can be for different jobs, different sectors and different regions in a report recently. And what about those creative courses, where job opportunities and returns are very different? Either way, as HEPI director Nick Hillman put it in a useful summary, it could all have been a lot worse, “if we must have limits of some sort, then doing it on a case-by-case basis using a mix of metrics and contextual information is better than other ways”. Arguably, it puts to bed the last great review of higher and further education – the landmark Augar Review of 2019 – but leaves us all with a new range of challenges.
  • Exam results 2023. The build- up to this year’s exam results day continued this week. Ofqual and UCAS issued a joint open letter to exam students, reminding them of the grading arrangements for this year and of other options that might be available – either through Clearing or through routes such as an apprenticeship – if things don’t end up going to plan. 'If you don’t get your predicted grades', they wrote, 'don’t worry, this happens very often'. It’s a message Ofqual in particular has been relaying this year as part of the planned return to pre-pandemic normal. In a useful comment piece this week, the TES’s Gráinne Hallahan set out eight things to look out for from this year’s results. These included: a drop in top grades; a likely widening of the disadvantage gap at GCSE; and potential trends around EBacc subjects, notably languages. Ultimately, much depends on school cohorts and how far these differ from those pre-pandemic, but many pupils let alone schools will be looking out anxiously.  It’s a useful article and can be found here
  • Time for T? It used to be said that it takes at least a generation for a new qualification to become established. Is that the case for T levels or are there deeper design problems? This week’s report from Ofsted on how T levels and the T Level Transition Programme were all going, came under the label ‘work in progress’, but as the Chief Inspector put it “we saw a range of shortcomings, which providers and the Department for Education will want to address”. These may well be natural teething problems, as she went on to say, but arguably point to four issues. First, it raises again the question of whether the government should have been so swift to condemn other alternative qualifications such as BTECs. Second, qualification brand recognition is vital in the wider market place – and with take-up already low, this makes that even harder to achieve. Third, many of the issues that the Ofsted report highlights –‘high volume of content, assessment requirements and length of industry placements’ – may take time to rectify. And fourth, this all comes at a critical juncture: a demographic bulge of young people needing respected qualifications; a labour market desperate for skilled young people; and a looming general election. Older hands will sigh and point to Diplomas et al, but once again it raises the questions about government reforms of qualifications.  

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Poor quality university courses face limits on student numbers’. | Monday
  • ‘Price of exams rises 6.5% in a year’. | Tuesday
  • ‘Transgender guidance for schools to be delayed’. | Wednesday
  • ‘Vocational T levels offers England’s students poor value, Ofsted says’. | Thursday
  • ‘Top degrees fall for the first time in a decade’. | Friday


  • PM’s Business Council. The Prime Minister hosted the first meeting of the new Business Council set up to provide guidance and direction to the government on skills and innovation that can help drive the UK’s economy. 
  • National Business Council. The British Chambers of Commerce announced the ‘top business leaders’ that will each head up one of its five ‘Future of the Economy’ challenges from The Future of the High Street to Global Britain under the aegis of its new National Business Council.
  • Annual Report. The DfE published its Annual Report and Accounts for 2022/23 outlining performance against its Priority Outcomes, a timeline of major announcements from over the year, a breakdown of money spent and sectors served, plus lists of key partners, risks, ministerial changes, and much, much more.
  • Public sector pay. The IPPR think tank argued in a new report that contrary to government claims, wage rises of around 10% for public sector employees were unlikely to fuel inflation and arguably could help end the current industrial unrest and help with employee retention.
  • Election priorities. The Education Policy Institute set out a series of proposals for political parties to consider at the next general election when it comes to looking at education, focusing on five areas in particular including early years, schools, post-16, funding and the workforce and suggesting priorities for each.
  • Preparing for AI. The HR body CIPD launched a new guide to help organisations prepare for the use of AI, calling among other things for organisations to set principled guidelines for its use, support staff, and think strategically.
  • Green growth. The CBI called in a new report for a targeted Green Growth Strategy to include the development of a green taxonomy, a net zero investment plan and the incorporation in training programmes of green skills, arguing that a combination of green ‘prizes’ over coming years could contribute £37-57bn to annual UK GDP.
  • Larger families.  The Nuffield Foundation published its sponsored report into families and welfare and in particular two policies introduced in the last decade namely the two-child limit and the benefit cap, finding ‘no evidence that either policy met its behavioural aims and in some cases had an opposite effect,’ calling as a result for them to be scrapped.
  • Summer Childcare costs. The charity Coram Family and Childcare published its latest annual report into childcare costs and availability for families over the summer holidays showing that only 24 councils in England have spaces for parents working fulltime over the summer and the average price, although variable by region, amounts to £157 a week.
  • Extending Childcare. The Campaign for Learning called for a Delivery Plan for the 30-hour entitlement to parents and further consultation around flexi working as it published a collection of think pieces from leading figures on the new childcare arrangements.
  • Early Years. The charity TheirWorld launched its Global Tantrum campaign in which leading celebrities around the world protest by throwing ‘a tantrum’ over the lack of action by world leaders over early years care and education, with Matt Lucas ‘kicking it’ off in the UK.

More specifically ...


  • School funding. The government confirmed an increase (2.7%) in per pupil funding rates through the NFF (National Funding Formula) for schools in England for 2024/25 amounting to £4,655 per primary school pupil and £6,050 per secondary pupil along with a 4.3% increase for pupils with high needs.
  • Working week. The government published non-statutory guidance along with case studies and practical tips to ensure state schools in England were offering a 32.5-hour week by September 2024, a year later than originally proposed. 
  • Teacher pay. The Education Secretary confirmed in a letter to the Chair of the Education Committee that the recently announced pay award is ‘fully funded’ and that she is convening a taskforce to look at reducing teacher workloads.
  • Maths to 18. The Education Secretary responded in an open letter to a number of queries raised by the Education Committee about the PM’s policy of encouraging more young people to study some maths to age 18, indicating that ministers were working on recruiting more maths teachers and that further details would be published once the advisory group had reported.
  • Exams 2023. Ofqual and UCAS wrote a joint open letter to exam students ahead of this year’s results days reminding them of grading and Clearing arrangements for this year and what to do if grades weren’t quite as had been expected.
  • Qualification prices 2023. Ofqual published its latest report on the pricing of regulated qualifications in England between January 2021 and February 2023 indicating that on average these were below consumer price inflation with general qualification prices such as those for GCSEs rising by 6.5% over the past year and those for vocational/technical qualifications by 4.7%. 
  • Ofqual Annual Report. Ofqual published its Annual Report and Accounts for 2022/23 covering its performance against its four organisational priorities in the context of a return to exams and assessments post-pandemic, along with work on objectives in its corporate plan including that on the future role of technology, as well as statements on its governance, remuneration and financial position.
  • Ofsted Annual Report. Ofsted published its Annual Report and Accounts for 2022/23 outlining the progress being made towards the requirement of inspecting every school at least once between April 2021 and July 2025 as well as some of the plans for future reform, its work in other areas including safeguarding, digital development and thematic reviews, along with its governance, budget and current financial position.
  • Deep Dives. Ofsted provided detail on the numbers of ‘Deep Dives’ conducted into curriculum areas over the last year with maths, history, geography and science the most common subjects for the deep dive treatment in primary schools and English, maths, science, history and languages in secondary schools.
  • Next Chief Inspector. The Education Secretary confirmed that Sir Martyn Oliver, currently the chief executive of an academy chain, was the preferred candidate to take over from Amanda Spielman as Ofsted chief inspector at the end of the year.
  • Teach First. Teach First welcomed its 20thbirthday by releasing two commissioned evaluations undertaken by NFER pointing to the impact of its teachers on the attainment and wider success in many schools and the success of their recruits in moving up through the ranks of the profession.
  • Teacher autonomy. FFT Education Datalab reported on some recent research about teacher autonomy and how far this improved pupil outcomes, suggesting that it made little difference on pupil attainment apart from some specific programmes such as reading schemes, although it often helped enhance job satisfaction.
  • Save our Subjects. The Save our Subjects campaign which counts leading figures in education, the arts and musicians among its members, handed in a letter to the DfE calling for the promised Arts Premium to be delivered and accountability measures which currently downplay arts provision in schools to be reviewed.
  • PE. The government set out details on the PE and sport premium funding for the coming year and announced the introduction of a digital reporting tool that will be trialled over the year.
  • Free school meals. The Child Poverty Action Group called for free school meals to be extended to all school-age children after reporting that a third of those living in poverty currently miss out, arguing the £2bn cost was manageable.


  • T levels. Ofsted published its commissioned report into how T levels were going, based on evidence collected across construction, digital, education and health and science over 2021/22 and pointing to a number of concerns with students’ experiences ‘variable,’ initial assessment often ‘weak,’ the quality of placements ‘variable’ and the progression potential limited by poor brand recognition.
  • Annual Report. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) published its Annual Report and Accounts providing a full breakdown of performance and financial accountability for 2022/23 following its earlier review, showing a fall in staff numbers but the successful allocation of funding ‘to 25,000+ providers with 100% accuracy and timeliness’ and with a forward strategy built around the three ‘outcomes’ of certainty, support and assurance.
  • The use of RI. Ofqual published findings from its research into Remote Invigilation (RI) as used in a small-scale way during the pandemic for some vocational and technical qualifications, suggesting that the ‘record and review’ model (recording and playing back later) was found to be the cheapest approach and could help mitigate malpractice but the creation of clear minimum standards for the use of RI was favoured by many.
  • Skills Excellence. WorldSkills UK in partnership with the AoC examined in a new report what make for excellence in higher skills provision, pointing to the importance of staff training, employer engagement, appropriate qualifications and a whole organisational approach.
  • Apprenticeship Update. The Association of Colleges (AoC) offered their thoughts on the ‘improvements’ to the apprenticeship system announced by the government last weekend, suggesting that some such as the help with admin still needed further work but that the new ‘single digital starting point’ to the skills system was welcome.
  • Apprenticeships. The FT offered its thoughts on apprenticeships arguing that if the government was keen on HE reform, it should look at apprenticeships as well and in particular issues over the levy, the quality of some provision and completion rates, calling among other things for a greater focus on provision for young people and linking courses to occupational shortages.
  • Higher tech courses. The OU confirmed that it would work with a further seven FE colleges over the next couple of years as they develop high-tech courses to meet local skill needs.


  • Latest reform position. The government issued its formal response to the consultation that followed the Augar Review and related proposals confirming ‘recruitment limits’ would be introduced for certain ‘low quality’ courses and lower fee and loan limits for foundation year courses but would not presently introduce minimum eligibility requirements or change the current fee and loan maxima.
  • Willetts on the reform proposals. Former universities minister David Willetts reflected on the government’s latest reform proposals for higher education, highlighting the challenges involved in trying to measure low-value courses and concluding that if the government wanted to protect quality provision then it should equally protect the funding needed to deliver it.
  • HEPI on the reform proposals. Nick Hillman, director of the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) welcomed the dropping of the proposal to introduce minimum eligibility requirements but reckoned that the use of earnings as a measure of university course outcomes could still prove tricky as he offered his thoughts on the government’s latest announcement on HE reform, concluding that it smacked of political positioning ahead of a general election. 
  • Top degrees. The Office for Students (OfS) examined graduate attainment over the past decade and in particular changes in the numbers gaining top class degrees, acknowledging that while this has now fallen, at least half of first-class degrees remained unexplained.
  • Student fees and loans. The Institute for Fiscal (IfS) published a useful primer on the student financing system in England running through the latest changes such as that to the repayment threshold, some of the current issues facing students such as the fall in the value of maintenance loans, government support and possible reform models.
  • Pensions. The University and College Union (UCU) heralded the launch of the latest consultation by the USS into a potential restoration of guaranteed pension benefits and reduction in member contributions as vindication of its current industrial action.
  • Best Student Cities. London emerged as top of the QS ranking for Best Student Cities for 2024, followed by Tokyo, Seoul, Melbourne and Munich, based on six criteria that include university rankings, student mix, desirability and affordability.

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Boris Johnson came to my Uni in 2006 & asked who thought there were too many mickey mouse degrees. Loads of hands went up. He then asked who there thought they were doing a mickey mouse degree. No hands went up; "See its always someone else's child who shouldn't get to go to uni" | @willcooling
  • “A faction within the @NEUnion has launched its own ‘Educators Say No!’ campaign for members to vote against accepting the latest pay award and against ending industrial action” | @tes
  • “Repeated a stationery order I sent in September for exactly the same products, EVERYTHING had increased in price. Lowest increase £1.92 Highest £2.45” | @ScottPughsley
  • “Not being glued to a small screen has given me so many hours back that I’m considering a PhD” |  @Telegraph
  • “The tension waiting to see where I am placed in the queue for Taylor tickets is roughly equivalent to how I felt waiting for my degree result” | @Samfr
  • “Do a job you love, and you will never be able to fully relax in your free time ever again” | @CMPrendergast

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Cost of living crisis is far from over” – the TUC responds to the latest inflation figures.
  • “There will be winners or losers on a global basis in terms of where the jobs are as a result of AI" – the head of the government’s AI taskforce on the likely impact of AI on jobs.
  • “At our heart, we are the department for realising potential” – the DfE in its Annual Report and Accounts 2022/23.
  • “Can I also speak up for those who either got fourth-class degrees or failed to take a degree at all, including two of the three Governors of the Bank of England” – one MP speaks for a wider audience as the government’s latest HE reforms are debated. 
  • “There is a Darwinian dimension to this. It is survival of the fittest, and we need to do our best to play the game by the rules that have been set” – the V.C. tells the Times Higher (and us alumni) about UEA’s battle for survival. 
  • “We’re not out of the woods yet as half of first-class degrees cannot be explained by students’ entry qualifications or the subject of study” – The Office for Students on the latest figures for top degrees.
  • “Despite growth in productivity, the sector has seen the biggest post-financial crisis wage decline of any sector, the report finds” – the New Economics Foundation reports on the aviation industry.
  • “We are working with maths experts, educators, and employers to determine the right maths content to deliver” – the Education Secretary reports on whether it’s maths, numeracy or something else to age 18.
  • “This is petty government tinkering masquerading as meaningful policy-making” – ASCL’s Geoff Barton on the government’s latest guidance on the length of the school week.
  • “He has a wealth of experience and expertise in education and a deep sense of moral purpose which equips him to do an excellent job on behalf of our members and the children and young people they serve” – ASCL’s Geoff Barton on the appointment of Pepe Di’Iasio as his successor from next April.
  • “I do not consider that these industry-led regulatory measures sufficiently protect children” – the children’s commissioner responds to government plans for industry self-regulation of paid loot boxes in video games. 

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

  • 7.9%. The UK inflation figure for June, down from 8.7% previously and against 5.5% in the Eurozone, according to latest ONS figures.
  • £4.4bn. The amount of money saved by government through efficiencies for the year 2021/22, according to a Cabinet Office report.
  • £17.5bn. The value of the UK space sector to the UK economy, according to a new government report.
  • 32.8%. The number of university students in England gaining first class degrees in 2021/22, a drop from 37.4% in the previous year but still unexplained in many cases, according to the Office for Students.
  • 62. The number of providers where fewer than 60% of f/t first-degree graduates progressed to high-skilled employment or further study fifteen months after graduating, according to the government’s report on university reform.
  • 40,000+. The number of young people from the UK expected to benefit from the Turin international exchange scheme over the coming year, according to the Scheme organisers.
  • £67bn. The amount of funding distributed by the ESFA to providers last year, according to the ESFA’s latest annual report. 
  • 275,630. The number of apprenticeship starts for the period August 2022 – April 2023, down 4.6% on the same period for the previous year according to latest government figures.
  • 1,612,130. The adult (19+) FE and skills participation rate or 2022/23, up 6.6% on the previous year according to latest government figures. 
  • 747. The number of complaints received by Ofsted over the last year following an inspection including 247 from schools, 38 from FE and 397 from early years providers, according to the inspection body’s latest Annual Report.
  • £57.31. The average price for a general qualification such as a GCSE this year, according to figures from Ofqual.
  • 39%. The number of teachers in a survey who said they’d accept the latest pay offer with 34% not yet sure and 27% who’d reject it, according to Teacher Tapp.
  • 6,495. The number of permanent exclusions in state funded schools in England in 2021/22, up from 3,928 with ‘persistent disruptive behaviour recorded as the main reason according to latest government statistics. 
  • £14,211. The average take home pay for a teaching assistant according to a debate by MPs.
  • £943. The average cost of childcare for a school aged child over the summer holidays, according to research from Coram Family and Childcare.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Parliamentary Summer Recess (began Thursday 20 July.)

Other stories

  • Public speaking. One famous old actor said the prospect used to make him vomit, others often say the very thought turns their legs to jelly. Public speaking can be quite a daunting experience so a ‘beginner’s guide to public speaking,’ provided this week by former government adviser and columnist, Sam Freedman, may prove valuable to many people. Among the tips offered are to avoid standing there and reading direct from notes – basically you lose contact with the audience and can get lost. Remember Boris Johnson’s famous or infamous Peppa Pig presentation! If you’re using a slide deck don’t put too much stuff on it and try to stick to visuals. If you’re on a panel, don’t try and cram too much in. “My basic technique is to tell one story – with three points to make on the way.” As for jokes, they can help at the beginning to make people relax; contextual work best and the audience shouldn’t be able to see them coming. The full article can be found on Sam’s Substack here.
  • News headlines. Ofcom’s latest report into how we consume our news highlights some familiar trends. Broadly adults still tend to prefer traditional sources such as the main news channels and newspapers while younger groups, 16-24 yr olds rely on social media. That means in order Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok. Even them most look for other things first such as sports personalities, music and celebrities before scrolling through news. As for the next generation, 12-15 yr olds, TikTok appears to be the main source of any news followed by Instagram and YouTube. Details can be seen in Ofcom’s latest research into News Consumption in the UK here. 

The next Educatiion Eye will appear in a couple of weeks' time.

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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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