Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 11 August 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:

Mid-August and exam results time.

Students in Scotland taking Nationals, Highers, Advanced Highers and many vocational qualifications got theirs this week.

In summary, there was a slight drop in top grades and in the overall pass rate, although it remained higher than that for 2019. "Much to celebrate", according to the MSP Education Secretary. “Another significant and positive step on the path back to normal awarding”, in the words of SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson. It’s a pattern many expect to see repeated when advanced and L3 results are released for the rest of the UK next week.

Ahead of these results, Professor Smithers published his annual predictions for A level results in England this year. He suggested a likely fall in top grades that could lead to “widespread disappointment”. Summary details below.

An important perspective on young people and their options came this week with the latest report from the influential COSMO (COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities) study. 

This has been looking into the impact of Covid on the life chances of young people. This latest study looked at this year’s crop of A level students and how they saw their university and other options panning out. In a word, pretty realistic. Continuing to harbour aspirations for university, but worried about costs – and in many cases considering living at home during term time. The study called for the reintroduction of maintenance grants, particularly to help poorer families where chances are more restrictive.

Elsewhere for schools the debate about smartphones rumbled on this week with William Hague calling for them to be banned in schools in an article in The Times. 

And two think tanks published interesting reports. The IPPR looked into what it called ‘three of the most challenging questions’ facing schools and others at present, namely assessment, the curriculum, and pupil wellbeing. It put forward proposals for a better balance in each case. And the Centre for Social Justice pointed to ‘an estimated 20,000 children and young people’ in unregistered alternative provision, arguing as a result for a new statutory registration framework for such provision.  

In higher education, Universities UK published a scoping report on future UK graduate jobs and skills; the Student Room listed some of the questions applicants were chewing over ahead of results day; The Times reported renewed hopes about signing the EU Horizon research agreement; while The Guardian offered its verdict on English universities currently. ’A summer of campus discontent’ in their view.

In other news this week, NIESR (the National Institute of Economic and Social Research) reported a fairly bleak prognosis for the UK economy for the next few years. ‘UK heading towards five years of lost economic growth’ the headline from its latest Economic Outlook. While the newish Department for Science, Innovation and Technology reached its sixth month anniversary by inviting UK innovation and research organisations, such as university research institutes, to the Department’s HQ next year to showcase their work.

Finally, many may have seen that survey, picked up by the Daily Telegraph this week, about what other things people have been indulging in while working from home. Some people were clearly very busy! 

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

  • The unluckiest generation? Will there be a big fall in top grades this year? That seems to be the big question as we approach exam results days. It’s a story that’s been running for some time and was featured again in headlines this week. As Professor Alan Smithers who released his annual ‘Prospects for A levels’ this week explained, “nearly 60,000 fewer A* grades would be awarded in 2023 than in 2022”. He suggested this could lead to “a huge increase in the number of appeals”. The government, UCAS, Ofqual, and exam boards have been quick to reassure students as Ofqual’s 18 July open letter indicates. If you don’t get your predicted grades, don’t worry, this happens very often,’ they wrote. The context is the widely reported return to ‘normal’ grading, the approach to grading standards used before the disruption of the pandemic. This process has been carefully managed over last year as the Chief Executive of Ofqual explained to Radio 4 this week. The problem, as Professor Smithers argued, is that the teacher assessment used over the pandemic years “has dramatically changed expectations”. For A level, T level and VTQ (vocational and technical qualification) students who receive their results next Thursday, the hope is that a return to an acknowledged system boosts confidence, opportunity, and progression all round.
  • Graduate jobs. A timely report from Universities UK this week as A level students prepare to receive their results. It looks at graduate UK jobs and skills of the future and points to an increase in graduate employment opportunities over the next decade or more. 'The findings in this report', it asserts 'show that the UK needs graduates more than ever before', 11m by 2035 to be precise. Bold claims about future skills and employment can be a hostage to fortune, but the report backs up its claims with a mass of data on graduate demand by region, occupation, and skills. In summary, the five sectors likely to see the greatest demand for graduates over the next decade include technology, health, education, digital and creative skills. The latter is perhaps the most interesting, given the importance attached to a set of skills (creative) not always currently valued.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Nearly 100,000 fewer top A levels this year in grading plan, research suggests’. | Monday
  • ‘Pass rate falls as Scottish pupils get exam results’. | Tuesday
  • ‘Fre meals funding another real-terms cut to bear’. | Wednesday
  • ‘One in three of England’s university starters ‘may live at home’ this year’. | (Thursday
  • ‘More to be done to bring down school absences, says education secretary'. | Friday


  • Six-month anniversary. The Dept for Science and Innovation marked its six-month anniversary by outlining the progress it has made so far including the launch of the new Science and Technology Framework, and by inviting research institutes, businesses and others to showcase their work at the Dept’s HQ early next year.
  • Economic Outlook. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) published its latest Economic Outlook pointing to ‘low economic growth and stagnant productivity’ coupled with high core inflation and low real wages, all making for a difficult number of years ahead. 
  • Labour market. KPMG and the Recruitment and Employment Confederation published their latest survey report into the UK jobs market pointing to a continuing slowdown in permanent hiring and an increase in candidate availability as business confidence among firms remained fragile. 

More specifically ...


  • A level 2023. Professor Alan Smithers published his regular annual projections ahead of this year’s A level exam results pointing among other things to a likely fall in top grades, girls continuing to outperform boys, and familiar subject trends, such as a decline in languages, continuing.
  • Exams 2023. English teacher and journalist Kristina Murkett reflected in an article in The Spectator on some of the challenges involved in ‘returning to normal’ for this year’s exam results, acknowledging that there are no quick fixes but that depoliticising exam results would help.
  • Exams 2022. Ofqual reported on its technical study of the comparability of grading standards at GCSE and A level last summer as well as inter-subject comparability over the pervious four years, indicating that subjects were graded less leniently last year than in 2021 or 2020 but more leniently than in 2019 but with some differences over the period at a subject level.
  • Alternative provision. The Centre for Social Justice reported on young people in unregistered alternative provision calling in a new report for ‘a new statutory registration framework’ for unregistered alternative providers, overseen by local authorities, inspected by Ofsted and subject to minimum standards.
  • Balancing the tensions. The IPPR think tank with the Centre for Education and Youth examined some of the current tensions facing schools, looking at three in particular including assessment, with a call for a mix of approaches, the curriculum, with a call for a balance between core and enrichment, and wellbeing, with a call for a more collaborative approach.
  • William Hague argued in a comment piece in The Times that smartphones were stealing children’s childhoods and affecting their health, development and wellbeing, calling as a result for a national ban on their use in schools.


  • Project qualifications. Senior policy manager at the AoC Eddie Playfair, blogged about the importance of project qualifications for many young people listing ten reasons, such as helping to develop critical skills and personal development, as to why they can add value. 
  • Skills Profile. FE News reported on Mindstone’s new Skills Profile for learning, which charts an individual’s interaction with online content and maps it on to a Skills Profile.
  • Free meals. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) updated the guidance for free meals for eligible 16–19-year-olds incorporating a slight increase to the funding rate.


  • University places. UCAS reported initial figures on university acceptance following the release of exam results in Scotland showing that 72% of young Scottish applicants have gained a place at their first-choice university, up from 69% last year.
  • Class of 2023. The significant COSMO study reporting on the short, medium and long-term effects of Covid on young people’s opportunities and wellbeing, published its findings on how this year’s A level students saw their university and other options, pointing to continuing university aspirations albeit varied by socioeconomic background, with many recognising the value of university degree but also worried about the costs and considering living at home where possible.
  • Student Survey. The Office for Studies (OfS) published the results from its latest National Student Survey pointing to a number of positive responses on teaching (84% said the course was stimulating,) learning (82% agreed their course had helped develop their knowledge and skills,) and wellbeing (75% felt support services were well communicated.)
  • OU pitch. The Open University published commissioned research showing that nearly half of young people surveyed have re-considered going to university in the last year because of the cost-of-living, with many considering distance learning as a viable alternative.
  • Jobs and skills Universities UK highlighted that over 11m extra graduates will be needed by 2035 to fill jobs in the UK, many with creative and technical skills to help businesses make the most out of AI developments, as it published a new report on ‘Jobs of the Future.’
  • Student views. The Student Room published its latest survey of student views showing that many students surveyed were taking on paid work over the summer to help manage the cost-of-living while over 40% of Yr 13s were worried that they had not done well enough in their exams to meet their university offer.
  • Entry rates. The Times Higher reflected on potential entry rates to UKHE by UK 18-year-olds ahead of next week’s results day, suggesting concerns by some sector leaders about the impact on the stability of the sector and on social mobility from any further fall in numbers.
  • Campus discontent. The Guardian offered its thoughts in an editorial on the current discontent in England’s universities, pointing to ongoing challenges such as industrial action over pay, casualisation of the workforce and an overreliance on international students, concluding that “a decade after the marketising experiment began, a reimagining of the role of central government in a strategically crucial sector is long overdue.”
  • Valuing degrees. Professor Mary Vincent, V.P. at Sheffield University acknowledged the importance of a university education offering value for money but argued in a comment piece in The Times that the government’s rhetoric about ‘rip-off degrees’ was devaluing the sector to staff, students and society generally.

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “More than half of private schools teach every student at least two languages in Years 7-9, but fewer than 1 in 5 state schools do the same, says @BritishCouncil CEO”| @ tes
  • “More than half of parents would buy school uniforms at charity shops | BBC News”| @FEontap
  • “The Gruffalo is likely to be a child’s first book, UK survey finds” | @guardianweekly
  • “Hi all, To save money we’re restructuring again. Heads of Department will lose their jobs. They’ll be replaced by two SLT positions, Head of Core and Head of Non Core. Current 2nds in department will become Subject Organisers and do the old HoD job for half the money. Thanks x” | @NewbieSlt
  • “People texting while walking more likely to have accidents, study finds” | @guardiannews
  • “I’ve got that frequent twitter dilemma where I want you to hear my opinion about something but I absolutely don’t want to hear yours” | @ MooseAllain

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • "We believe that a structured hybrid approach - meaning a set number of days employees that live near an office need to be on site - is most effective for Zoom," – Zoom resorts to hybrid working as working from home numbers fall.
  • “Thank you for pulling out all the stops to address the three reviews, for going the extra mile during the pandemic and for keeping going as we steered ourselves to today’s outcome” –LEP Network Chair Mark Bretton tanks LEP colleagues as the government confirms the withdrawal of funding for LEPs.
  • “The next few weeks are going to be an important period for the sector and students alike with the data pointing to outcomes being on a knife edge, with the future direction of the sector at stake” – dataHE expert Mark Corver on HE entry rates this year.
  • “So certainly, my advice to students... is to be pretty quick off the mark if that's what you're looking for" – the chief executive of UCAS on students looking to secure a place at a prestigious university this year.
  • “Bringing down top grades this year, especially to 2019 levels, will lead to widespread disappointment and probably a huge increase in the number of appeals” – Professor Alan Smithers looks ahead to next week’s A level results.
  • “A disaster is unfolding as we watch” – William Hague calls for a ban on smartphones in school. 
  • “Costa Coffee and other companies should stay out of politics instead of engaging in “societal fads” – John Glen MP wades in.

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

  • 5.2%. The projected level of UK inflation by year end but with core inflation remaining high, according to a new report from the NIESR.
  • 88%. The percentage of new jobs in the UK expected to be at graduate level by 2035, according to new research from Universities UK.
  • 49%. The number of respondents saying they don’t specifically state an interest in hearing from diverse applicants in job adverts, according to REC.
  • 610. The number of students taken on as paid interns at PwC this summer, the highest number so far according to the company.
  • 77.1%. The number of students in Scotland who received an A, B or C grade in their Higher this year, down from 78.9% last year but up from 74.8% in 2019 according to the SQA.
  • 275,630. The number of apprenticeship starts for the period August 2022 - May 2023, down 4.6% on the previous year according to latest government figures.
  • £2.53. The funding for free meals in FE for 2023/24, up from £2.41 previously according to the ESFA.
  • 92.5%. The attendance rate across schools in England for the year, according to latest government figures.
  • 8%. The number of secondary teachers yet to be given a timetable for the coming term, according to Teacher Tapp.
  • 20,000. The estimated number of children and young people in unregistered alternative provision, according to research from the Centre for Social Justice. 
  • 5,000. The number of steps a day that might be enough to benefit rather than the more accepted 10,000, according to international research reported by the BBC.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • HEPI/UCAS webinar with Clare Marchant, chief executive at UCAS. (Monday 14 August.)
  • Advanced level results day. (Thursday 17 August.)
  • Parliamentary Summer Recess continues.

Other stories

  • Top student gadgets. More useful advice this week from the ‘Save our Student’ website in the form of a survey of some of the best student gadgets for this year. The Amazon Kindle comes in as the most expensive item on the list at £160 but most of the others are in the £30 – £50 range with the £20 Tile Mate Key Finder and £30 Tribit noise cancelling headphones seemingly good value. Others of interest include the £40 WiFi range extender and the £35 Anti-theft laptop bag. A link to the full list of top recommended gadgets is here
  • Do no harm. “We examined the best available data carefully – and found they did not support the idea that Facebook membership is related to harm, quite the opposite. In fact, our analysis indicates Facebook is possibly related to positive well-being.” That’s the perhaps surprising conclusion from a major international study into the impact of Facebook. And no, Facebook did not commission or fund the study although it did provide data for it. The study, conducted by the Oxford Internet institute over a two-year period, did go on to add that “this is not to say this is evidence that Facebook is good for the well-being of users,” but either way, it is an interesting addition to the research about social media. A link to it 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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