Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 18 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:

A levels, T levels, BTECs and associated qualifications results this week, GCSEs and other L2 qualifications next week.

As ever, the results have been accompanied by a deluge of headlines, commentary, analysis, and guidance, much of it very helpful – even though, as many noted, Jeremy Clarkson popped up to pitch in with his annual sideswipe at exams. "It’s not the end of the world if your A-level results aren’t what you’d hoped for. I got a C and 2 Us and here I am today with my own brewery", he posted on Twitter or X as it’s now known. Former footballer Gary Neville seemed to go one step further on Breakfast TV, going in studs first to label exams ‘prehistoric’. That hasn’t gone down well either.

But for many students, families, teachers, let alone universities and colleges, it’s been a critical time, and one that can’t be summarily dismissed. 

Full data on the various qualification results can be found on the Joint Council for Qualifications, Ofqual, and respective exam board websites, but what so far have been the key messages coming out of this set of results? Here are six.

  • First, a general but important contextual point. This year’s students have been labelled ‘the unluckiest generation.’ As many have pointed out, they’ve had to grow up through austerity, Covid, political upheaval, a cost-of-living crisis, and more recently teacher strikes. In other words, they’ve been through a lot, but labouring under the label of unlucky may not provide the positive vibes they need in the long run. Both the education secretary and the chief regulator praised their ‘resilience’. Seeing them as resilient rather than unlucky may hopefully give them the confidence needed for the future. 
  • Second, and the big question looming over this year’s results, the suggested big fall in top grades compared to the previous two years. Some headlines haven’t helped here. ‘Number of As and A*s plunge by 9%’ as one put it. The problem is it depends with which years you’re comparing – because in the last two years there weren’t traditional exams. So yes, top grades have fallen compared to last year. In England at least, down from 35.9% last year to 26.5% this year. But when compared with pre-pandemic A level results in 2019, a different picture emerges, albeit variable by subject. 26.5% grade A’s and above for instance in 2023, compared to 25.2% in 2019. In other words, the much talked about two-year managed return to normal means genuine comparisons about performance can only be made when referring back to 2019, not the years in between. 
  • Third, has there been any notable change in subject entry trends? Not really, according to analysis from FFT Education Datalab. The most popular subjects at A level remain, in order, maths, psychology and biology. They’re followed by chemistry, sociology and history. The only change in the top ten has been economics, which has moved into ninth place, supplanting geography, which drops to eleventh position. Computing continues to grow, but the trend among modern foreign languages continues to look bleak, especially for German, with entries down by nearly 16%. The government may look to put in more support measures for languages.
  • Fourth, the government has talked up T levels in recent months, so how have they fared? 90.5% of students gained a Pass this year, the first year of formal assessments, and nearly a quarter achieved a top grade, but as Schools Week highlighted, the number completing has fallen, with potentially a third dropping out. It raises the question again about removing funding for established qualifications like BTECs before T levels have become established. Also, whether a new government would review things, as happened for instance in 2010. As former adviser, Iain Mansfield, put it ‘this is an existential problem for the qualification’.
  • Fifth, what about university entry, given headline concerns that these might be squeezed this year? According to the latest figures from UCAS, the number of overall applicants gaining a place at university or college this year is up (1.5%) on 2019, albeit slightly down (2.6%) on last year – with the number of international applicants accepted also slightly down. The number of UK 18-year-olds securing their first choice is also up on 2019, although as Nick Hillman pointed out, the concept of first choice needs some explanation. Clearing, which runs until mid-October currently, has nearly 29,000 courses and 8,000 apprenticeships available, although this will change as enquiries and places are worked through. 
  • Sixth, what have been some of the reactions to this year’s results? The education secretary praised this year’s students, but faced criticism when she tried to reassure anyone disappointed by suggesting actually it disn’t matter that much in the long run. “They won’t ask you anything about your a level grades in ten years’ time.”Clare Marchant, chief executive of UCAS, highlighted the increase in the number of 18-year-old state school pupils in England on free school meals gaining a place at university, but added “today’s data shows that challenges in widening participation to the most disadvantaged students still persist”. in similar vein, Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust pointed to “a growing disparity between the most and least well-off young people”. Others pointed to continuing regional, gender-based, and attainment gaps. ASCL’s Geoff Barton said this year’s return to normal (grading) would "feel like a bruising experience" for many; Labour said the government should have provided more support for students coming out of the pandemic; while the Lib-Dems reckoned ‘Rishi Sunak must apologise for the 28 million days of lost learning during the pandemic and for his refusal to invest in Covid catchup programmes”.

A quick round up of other news this week.

The UCU (University and College Union) voted to continue its boycott of marking and for a new ballot on strike action that could continue through the autumn and into next year – despite a call from the minister to end the action. In the words of the UCU general secretary “we will not be bullied into accepting gig economy universities, nor will we accept employers imposing punitive pay deductions”.

The latest inflation figures showed a second monthly fall for UK inflation – largely due to a drop in energy bills – leading the PM to suggest ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. The TUC preferred another metaphor: ‘our economy is far from out of the woods yet’. Many economic commentators agreed with the latter.

As for the latest labour market figures, also published this week, the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) described them as ‘a mx of good and bad news’. The good being what it called ‘strong pay growth’, particularly in the context of the recent public sector pay awards. The bad being a rise in economic inactivity. In the words of the CIPD 'the labour market may be cooling gradually, but pay growth continues to heat up’.

Finally, and on a lighter note, The Guardian reported that this was one of the top gags from the Edinburgh Fringe this year: “Last year, I had a great joke about inflation. But it’s hardly worth it now”. Whether it’s better than last year’s top gag which ran: ‘I tried to steal spaghetti from the shop, but the female guard saw me and I couldn’t get pasta” is a matter of opinion. 

Either way, at the end of a tough week, a bit of humour might help. 

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Activist teenagers make sociology a hot topic at A level’ | Monday
  • ‘More university strike days planned for September’ | Tuesday
  • ‘AI increasingly used by students to do their school work and many teachers can’t tell’ | Wednesday
  • ‘Top A levels fall with steepest drop in England’ | Thursday 
  • ‘Regional inequalities widen as England reverses grade inflation’ | Friday


  • Cyber Strategy. The government published a progress report on its National Cyber Strategy a year and a half on, outlining key achievements against its five priority areas, including working with 2,000+ schools on developing Cyber Explorers.
  • Labour market latest. The ONS (Office for National Statistics) published its latest labour market overview signalling among other things notable highs in the numbers economically inactive because of long-term sickness and in annual wages but a slight fall in vacancies and in the employment rate.
  • Labour market analysis. The Institute for Employment Studies published its regular analysis of the latest labour market data for the UK from the ONS calling it a mixed bag with pay growth up but with continuing uncertainty around the labour market with unemployment, redundancies and those out of work due to long-term health conditions, all up.
  • Labour Market Outlook. The Resolution Foundation examined the issues around the current waves of industrial action in its latest Labour Market Outlook arguing that pay and conditions had worsened over the last decade for many public sector employees and that this was an area the government needed to address.
  • Counteroffers. The CIPD published its latest Labour Market Outlook showing that many employers (40%) were resorting to counteroffers, such as increasing pay to encourage an employee to stay, to help manage staff recruitment and retention issues.
  • Digital exclusion. The Centre for Social Justice highlighted issues around digital exclusion in a new report, suggesting it wasn’t just the elderly who were missing out when it came to digital capacity but many poorer households as well, calling among other things for a ‘rebooted’ digital inclusion strategy and a long-term digital skills programme to help improve things.

More specifically ...


  • A level results. Ofqual published a guide to this year’s AS and A level results confirming broad grade alignment with 2019 as planned along with a range of links to centre specific data. 
  • A level details. Schools Week listed among its various commentaries on the A level results in England, seven ‘key trends’ including the drop in top grades, the widening of the attainment gap at a regional level, and some changes among subject choices.
  • More A level summaries. The TES also pointed to regional attainment gaps, along with grade gaps between state and private schools and between males and females in its summary of this year’s A level results in England.
  • A level results analysis. The Education Policy Institute provided its analysis of this year’s A level results suggesting that the move to align grading distribution this year with that of the pre-pandemic year had largely been achieved albeit with differences by region and gender with competition for places at more selective universities remaining high. 
  • Grading reliability. Former assessment and UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook tackled two common issues around grading reliability in a blog on the HEPI site ahead of the release of A level results, arguing that while reliability could always be improved, ‘our current system has been shown to be reliable consistently over time.’ 
  • Mental health provision. The House of Commons Library Service published a useful summary of the provision, development and current government policy for children and young people’s mental health services in England since 2011.


  • Vocational qualifications. Ofqual published a guide to this summer’s L3 qualification results indicating an increase in the proportion of learners taking such qualifications with Business administration and law, and health public services and care as the subject areas with the most certificates issued.
  • T level facts and figures. The government published the results for this year’s T levels showing a Pass rate of 90.5% but with a reduced final cohort compared to last year.
  • T level results. The Education Policy Institute pointed to ‘a sharp decrease’ in the number of students completing their T level course pointing to possible future challenges with much depending on how quickly the qualifications become established.
  • 2023 results. FE Week also highlighted the drop in T level student completions along with the fall in top grades at A level among its commentaries on this year’s L3 results.
  • Apprenticeships. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) issued a call, ahead of L3 results day, for more employers to take on an apprentice this year, pointing to demand from school leavers currently heavily outstripping supply.
  • Inclusive apprenticeships. The 5% Club and the Multicultural Apprenticeship Alliance announced a new partnership to encourage a more inclusive approach to apprenticeship schemes.
  • Communication skills. The National Literacy Trust published the findings from its survey earlier this year into the communication skills of young people aged 16-30, finding young men more confident about getting their views across on core political issues such as climate change with young women worried about saying the wrong thing or being too harshly judged.
  • Careers support. The Gatsby Foundation announced a new programme of funding and support, working with the Career Development institute, to help raise awareness and expertise of technical education among careers advisers working in schools and colleges in England.
  • Skills Hubs. The Local Government Association (LGA,) with support from government, announced a programme of skills hubs and support to help local councils deal with occupational shortages in such areas as civil engineering, ICT and environmental health.
  • Training Awards. City and Guilds announced the winners of their Princess Royal Training Awards, named after the Princess Royal and given to organisations for their commitment to training and development with skills for recovery and management and leadership among the top categories recognised this year.


  • University entry. UCAS outlined the current position on university admissions following this year’s exam and assessment results confirming an increase on acceptances on the last pre-pandemic year of 2019 although a decrease on last year but with increased numbers of Clearing courses and apprenticeships available meaning numbers may yet change. 
  • Employer response. UCEA (the Universities and Colleges Employers Association) responded to the minister’s letter calling for talks to resume on the current industrial dispute by proposing an independent review of sector finances and a joint approach, with the UCU, to ACAS to help with the talks. 
  • Youth report. Barnardo’s and the Co-op reported on their recent survey of young people (10-25 yr olds this March) showing many (22%) focused on getting ‘a job that will make them quick and easy money’ rather than considering longer-term prospects such as going to university as they struggle to cope with the cost-of-living.
  • Higher fees. Director of the Social Market Foundation, James Kirkup, called in an article for The Times for an increase in tuition fees using perhaps a system of stepped loan repayments that increase with income, arguing that otherwise universities will be forced to look for cost saving measures such as running cheaper or remote courses or looking to increase recruitment from high paying international students.
  • HE funding.The consultancy firm, London Economics, announced that it had been awarded Nuffield Foundation funding to examine the UK’s HE fees and funding system and potential alternative approaches, with a view to extending levels of understanding of this key issue ahead of a general election. 

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Today’s A-level results have ‘confirmed our greatest fears – education inequalities have widened in the post-pandemic era, and social mobility has taken a backward step’, says Lem_Exeter” | @tes
  • “Twitter debate abt who can walk on grass at Cambridge colleges reminds me of the apocryphal tale of the Cambridge student who demanded ale during an exam, his right by ancient law, was given it grudgingly, then later got a retaliatory fine for not having worn a sword to the exam” | @oliverburkeman
  • “It's been half a year since they got rid of the 280 character limit for verified tweeters and I think I'm yet to get to the end of anything posted that's over 400 characters or so. It's like a combined signal fire for stuff I'm not interested in and failures in concision” | @Birdyword
  • “While most puns make me feel numb. Math puns make me feel number” | @ThePunny World

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Light at the end of the tunnel” – the PM on the latest inflation figure.
  • “Whatever the rights and wrongs of the current dispute, action that damages students’ prospects is the wrong thing to do” – education minister Rob Halfon calls on both sides in the universities pay dispute to resume talks.
  • “At the moment it’s really just speculation until the courses get filled up” – the chief executive of UCAS responds to claims that some places on clearing courses will only be offered to international students.
  • “I’ve never had so many emails from excited students asking if they can take the course,” – one of the course tutors at Ghent University which is planning to run a Taylor Swift – inspired literature course.
  • “For those still to apply, my message is to get their application in as soon as you can” – the Student Loans Company urges students who haven’t applied for their loans this year to do so as soon as possible.
  • “I'd like to reassure any students who are or will be living at home, even if they may not be able to participate in traditional uni rituals, they can still flourish in their studies" – one living-at-home university students tells the i newspaper that it can work. 
  • “This has been a two-year-plan. There are no surprises here, and the changes in grading that we’re seeing are very similar to the changes that we saw last year” – Jo Saxton, chief executive at Ofqual on this year’s return to normal for exams.
  • “We can therefore count our system as amongst the best in the world for reliable assessment” – education expert Mary Curnock Cook makes the case for the reliability of our current grading system.
  • “I am delighted that Dame Christine will be succeeding me when my term comes to an end next year” – Sir Peter Lampl welcomes Dame Christine Gilbert as the incoming Chair of the Education Endowment Foundation.

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

  • 6.8%. The inflation figure for the UK for the year to July, down from 7.9% last month but with core inflation still remaining high, according to the ONS.
  • 7.8%. The figure for annual growth in regular pay between April and June this year, the highest we’ve seen since 2001 according to the ONS.
  • 3.9m. The number of days lost to industrial action over the past year, ‘more than at any point since the 1980s,’ according to the Resolution Foundation.
  • 38%. The number of employers prepared to match the salary of a new job offer to encourage an employee not to leave, according to CIPD.
  • 83%. The number of firms surveyed planning to introduce ‘urgent’ training for staff on AI, according to Euan Blair’s Multiverse company.
  • 414,940. The overall number of applicants who’ve gained a lace at university or college this year at present, down 2.6% on last year but up 1.5% on 2019, according to latest figures from UCAS.
  • 9%. The number of teachers in a survey who said they couldn’t tell the difference between work done by their pupils and AI programmes, according to a survey from Sky News. 
  • 9,628 and 30,379. The number of admissions appeals for primary and secondary school places respectively this year, slightly up for secondary, with 16.4% of appeals successful for primary and 20.9% for secondary, according to latest government figures.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • GCSE and L2 qualifications results day (Thursday 24 August).
  • Parliamentary Summer Recess continues.

Other stories

  • How to ask for a pay rise. According to the ONS this week, wages rose ‘by a record amount’ across the UK over the latest quarter. It may have left many feeling ‘well, we haven’t seen any evidence of that here.’ Of course much of the pay rise has been eaten away by inflation and high prices but for those who haven’t had a pay rise themselves how do you go about asking for one? The BBC this week sought advice from people who should know and came up with five fairly straightforward tips. Timing, evidence, not giving up, and having a clear figure in mind were among the pieces of advice offered up. A link to the article is here
  • What’s worrying us. Education has fallen slightly in the latest survey of what respondents consider to be the top issues facing the country at the moment. According to Ipsos which complied the poll, it comes in at 9thposition ahead of Brexit but just behind inequality. Inflation and the economy remain the biggest issues with the environment and immigration both moving up the list of current concerns. A link to the story and polling data and be e found 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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