Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 08 September 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 lot to take in this week.

The big story of the week has of course been school buildings, the so-called concrete crisis. Its led to widespread frustration, some industrial language, lots of finger pointing and a host of unanswered questions. The House of Commons Library Service, Education Policy Institute and Institute for Fiscal Studies, are among those with excellent briefings on the subject, but a brief summary of the story so far can be found below. 

Away from aerated concrete, MPs returned to Westminster and began picking up the pieces on a number of other education matters. 

One of the most important perhaps was the Education Committee’s questioning of Sir Martyn Oliver, the likely next Ofsted Chief Inspector. His appointment – he’s currently the government’s preferred candidate to take over from Aamanda Spielman – comes at a key moment, with a big momentum for reform already built up. His claim to undertake ‘a big listen’ will be important. Schools Week has a very useful summary of the session, see listings below.

Elsewhere, MPs debated the Education and Employment of Young People and the Turing scheme – “it (the Turing scheme) will be funded properly and well, and we are determined that it will be a great success”, according to the minister. 

In addition, the Chancellor confirmed that the Autumn Budget will take place on 22 November. The Online Safety Bill headed into the final lap with its Third Reading in the Lords; and Keir Starmer reshuffled his Shadow Cabinet, turning it into ‘a Blairite tribute band’ according to one commentator. It included a change at education, with Catherine McKinnell replacing Stephen Morgan as the new shadow schools minister, and Seema Mulhotra replacing Toby Perkins as shadow skills minister.

In other news around education, the big push on pupil attendance in schools continued, with the Chief Medical Officer urging pupils and parents to ensure kids don’t miss school with a sniff or a snuffle. ‘Children with sore throats and runny noses are better off at school than at home warns Chris Whitty’ according to the story in the Daily Mail. And the National Literacy Trust pointed to concerns about children’s enjoyment of reading. “Today we have published new research which shows that over half (56%) of children and young people aged 8 – 18 don’t enjoy reading in their free time”.

In FE, the University and College Union (UCU) launched its ballot on potential strike action with a survey showing many of those working in colleges in England struggling on low wages.

In HE, the big news came late in the week with the announcement of the UK ‘finally’ joining the EU Horizon research programme. ‘Tremendous news’ according to the Russell Group and ‘a huge relief’ to the science and innovation community generally. 

Elsewhere, ahead of its annual conference, Universities UK published a series of papers on funding and a couple of major reports – one on regulation and one highlighting the major impact of the sector on the UK economy.

Alongside that, as students prepare for the new term, the cost-of-living has been a big theme this week. “The main thing is the bills. I've just noticed that they've skyrocketed, and they've exceeded what I've budgeted for”, one student told the ONS in their survey of its impact on students. In a briefing this week, the House of Commons Library Service had a helpful summary of the various grants, bursaries, and forms of support available.

Finally, a word of warning. It might not just be the end of week school run, it could also be the Friday afternoon dash away, but according to the insurance company Aviva, ‘more collisions between cars happen on a Friday between 3.00 pm and 3.15 pm’ than on any other day. The suggestion was that the school run had something to do with this.

Links to most of these stories below, but first a bit more detail on two of the notable ones this week.  

  • School buildings. The education secretary set out her stall in a Statement to MPs at the start of the week. “The vast majority of schools will be unaffected and children should attend school as normal unless parents are contacted by their school”, she said in a largely defiant week. The much-requested list of schools affected, which followed a couple of days later, identified 147 schools where RAAC had so far been confirmed. Of those, nearly 40 had adopted alternative learning arrangements, with just four having to resort to remote provision. But questions have been asked all week about what the government knew and why nothing had been done about things for so long. It was a point Labour pressed in its Opposition motion during the week as it called for documents to be released. It’s all left a very sour taste. Unions remain angry about some of the responses from government and accuse it of ‘calculated neglect’. The Education Committee has announced a special investigation session to take place on 19 September; the TUC has called for a national risk register for all public buildings; and generally there’s a sense of frustration about the whole thing. As former TES editor Ed Dorrell has pointed out, it’s beginning to look like education might just become an electoral issue come the general election. “I have argued for a while that education was likely to bubble up as a tier one electoral issue in time for the general election next year, and so it is coming to pass”.
  • Digital learning. Are UK university students learning to love online learning? Possibly, but it rather depends from which end of the glass you’re looking. For example, in its latest digital experience student survey published this week, Jisc reported a big (14 pp) increase in the number who agree it can be ‘engaging and motivating’, yet found that still just over half (51%) remained unconvinced. The survey – conducted among 27,000+ students across 43 UK universities between October 2022 and April 2023 – found a mixed picture. On the positive side, students liked the flexibility, convenience and access to resources that come with online learning, but on the downside they felt it limited engagement and interaction. A number also pointed to technical issues. When it came to teaching, most (53%) preferred an on-campus model, although when it came to learning, there was a slight shift (41%) to a more blended approach. As for what might improve things: better support, resources and interaction were the main calls from students, but ultimately as the report recognises “student preferences for learning using technology are variable”. Meeting that variability remains the big challenge for institutions.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Hundreds not thousands of English schools at risk of concrete, says No 10’ (Monday).
  • ‘DfE gives schools 4-day deadline to return RAAC survey’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Students cut back on food as cost-of-living soars’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘UK university staff poised to strike for five days in freshers’ week’ (Thursday).
  • ‘RAAC surveys delayed due to lack of specialists’ (Friday).


  • Autumn Budget. The Chancellor confirmed that the Autumn Budget would be on 22 November this year.
  • Economic forecast. The British Chambers of Commerce argued that the UK economy was ‘teetering on the edge of recession’ as it published its latest economic forecast showing economic growth remaining feeble at 0.4%, inflation high at 5% and unemployment generally remaining high.
  • AI Summit. The government set out its ambitions for the global AI Safety Summit being hosted in November, listing five priorities including improved understanding of AI safety issues and international collaboration and research around AI use and safety, coupled with a road map to for future action.
  • AI taskforce. The TUC said without proper regulation of AI, the UK labour market was ‘in danger of becoming the wild west’, as it partnered with leading employment lawyers, employment bodies, technologists and others to set up an AI taskforce that will begin work straightaway on employment law.
  • Life sciences. The government confirmed the creation of a Medicines Manufacturing Skills Centre of Excellence with a grant competition to follow in a couple of weeks as part of the Chancellor’s £650m fund announced in May.
  • Help to Work. The government launched consultation on changes to the Work Capability Assessment with the aim, by 2025, of getting more people currently unable to work into some form of employment and reducing at the same time the number claiming disability and incapacity benefits.
  • Good Work Agreements. The Resolution Foundation published the latest report from its Economy 2030 Inquiry calling on this occasion for bringing worker and employers reps together to improve the quality of work through Good Work Agreements that set minimum standards of work, suggesting that the social care sector which often suffers from poor conditions and low pay, should be the first to benefit.
  • Living Standards. The Resolution Foundation also published its latest Outlook on Living Standards suggesting that although the UK’s economic outlook appears to be slowly improving, it doesn’t feel that way for many households with mortgage costs high, prices high and disposable income falling. 

More specifically ...


  • Education Secretary’s Statement. The Education Secretary gave a Statement to MPs at the start of the week about the RAAC situation acknowledging the challenges and frustration felt by many but arguing that the Department had raised the risk five years ago, that it was taking a ‘cautious approach’ following recent incidents, that only a minority of schools were likely to be affected and that a list would be published shortly.
  • RAAC risk list. The government duly published its list of schools and colleges where RAAC had been confirmed as of 30 August stressing that only a small number have had to alter learning arrangements and that a further list will follow in two weeks.
  • Capital funding. The IfS looked into the wider picture of capital funding for schools in light of the current issues noting that while it’s difficult to compare one year with another and such funding has been increased for 2023/24, it has dropped over recent years by about 26% compared to 2008/9 and currently faces other heavy maintenance demands including over asbestos, electrical and heating and ventilation services.
  • School buildings funding. The House of Commons Library Service provided a briefing on school building funding and capital costs in England, running through the various rebuilding programmes and capital funding streams since 2010 all updated to include the latest context around RAAC.
  • Governance survey. The National Governance Association (NGA) published its Annual Governance Survey for 2023 pointing to a rise in safeguarding concerns, along with worries about attendance, funding and challenging behaviour among the issues they are currently facing.
  • Ofsted inspections. Ofsted outlined some of the changes to its inspection system for the new school year which include clarifying things around safeguarding, underlining the focus on attendance and behaviour, clarifying approaches for determining the quality of education, and broadening off-rolling to include sixth-formers.
  • New Chief Inspector. Schools Week reported on the Education Committee pre-appointment session with Sir Martyn Oliver, the government’s preferred candidate as the new Chief Inspector, highlighting ten things that came out of the session including a promise to look at single-phrase judgements, a focus on attendance and off-rolling issues and doing as much listening as possible.
  • Consultation response. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) issued its response to the recent Ofsted consultation on changes to post-inspection arrangements and complaints handling, supporting the proposals but calling for changes to go further and include the removal of the overall effectiveness judgement and other single judgements in favour of a wider profile of school performance. 
  • Cost-of-living. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) called for better support and an extension of free school meal eligibility as it published findings from its Nuffield funded research into the impact of the cost-of-living on pupils and families showing over three-quarters of schools having to provide food, clothing and other support in many cases.
  • Talent pipeline. The Confederation of School Trusts announced a new partnership with Talent Architects to help strengthen support for school trusts in attracting talented staff through ‘people strategy and organisational culture.’
  • Children’s reading. The National Literacy Trust called for a concerted effort to encourage more children to read as it published new research showing that the number of children aged 8-18 who don’t enjoy reading in their free time were at ‘an all- time low.’
  • The importance of sport. The Centre for Social Justice highlighted the transformative power of sport for young people in a new report, calling for a PM-led taskforce to oversee a new ‘Right to Sport’ for all secondary pupils. 
  • Start of term. The Children’s Commissioner for England set out a number of resources to help staff and students alike with the start of a new school year, ranging from support for anxious young people to attendance guides for officers.
  • School exclusions. FFT Education Datalab examined school exclusions using the most recent data for 2020/21 for 11–15-year-olds to highlight key groups most at risk and to come up with a scoresheet of risk factors that starts with SEN boys eligible for free school meals.
  • Helpful resources. The Education Endowment Foundation outlined in a new blog four ‘key resources,’ covering reading, maths, early years and metacognition, that could be helpful for teachers this term.
  • Sick notes. Medical officers outlined guidance for parents and schools on when children should and shouldn’t be kept off school with coughs and colds in the coming months, suggesting that unless a child had a temperature of 38°C or above, they should be encouraged to attend.


  • Strike ballot. The University and College Union (UCU) launched its ballot for college strike action as it published survey findings showing nearly half (46%) of the workforce indicating that their income failed to cover the cost-of-living. 
  • AI developments. Jisc published an updated version of its AI in tertiary education report, noting that the emergence of ChatGPT last autumn had triggered a further wave of developments in many colleges but equally a rise in concerns about AI’s application in student support, assessment and workforce skills but concluding that foundations were now in place ‘to face future challenges and opportunities.’ 
  • Green skills. City and Guilds announced a new partnership with Green Edge to produce a series of regular podcasts over the next 18 months around trining solutions for green skills.


  • Horizon Europe. The government announced formal agreement on the UK joining the Horizon Europe and Copernicus programmes, claiming to have achieved ‘a bespoke deal’ that includes improved financial terms but equally allows UK scientists and researchers to apply for significant grants and funds under the current Horizon programme which runs to 2027.
  • Strike action. The UCU announced five days of strike action in UK universities, to start in the week commencing 25 September, as members seek to improve on pay and working conditions.
  • UKHE impact. Universities UK published a commissioned report, undertaken by London Economics, into the impact of UK HE on the UK economy for the year 2021/22, showing how it contributes in a variety of ways both directly and indirectly, to a total amount of £115.7bn for the year in question. 
  • Regulation. Universities UK also published a commissioned survey report into the burden of regulation faced by UUK members, highlighting the costs and time involved in operating the current system and calling for a more nuanced and efficient system as part of a future reset.
  • Regulation response. The Office for Students (OfS) responded to the UUK’s report on regulation by welcoming ‘a refreshed approach to engagement,’ pointing to recent changes and the importance attached to regulation, and underlining the need for continuous dialogue.
  • President’s address. Professor Sally Mapstone, set out her vision for the higher education sector as she gave her inaugural address to the Universities UK Annual Conference, pointing to the importance of developing a common cause for the sector backed up by sustainable funding to ensure opportunity, access, quality and value to both individuals and the country.
  • Future priorities. Universities UK outlined three policy priorities which it will aim to develop and deliver over the coming year, covering supporting students to succeed, putting universities at the heart of growth, and supporting opportunity, place and social mobility. 
  • Online learning. JISC provided its latest survey report into online learning, finding a number of improvements over the past three years and students generally happier with their experience but with limited training and digital inequality among the continuing issues.
  • Freedom of Speech. King’s College Policy Institute examined issues around freedom of speech in higher education in a new report suggesting that the latest legislation faces challenges of operating in a wider, polarised cultural context and that what was needed was a more informed, clearer theory of change to help define the context.
  • Student money. Save the Student published the results from its latest annual survey into student finances and how it affects their lives and studies, showing a big (17%) increase in living costs with the biggest chunk going on rents followed by groceries and takeaways and with many respondents relying on p/t work, parental support and/or maintenance loans for support.
  • Cost-of-living. The ONS published its latest survey into the impact of the cost-of-living on students in higher education, reporting from a small sample a familiar picture of concerns about rising costs, cutting back on essentials, and having to rely on other forms of support, all resulting in a detrimental effect on university life and studies.
  • Cost-of-living support. The House of Commons Library Service provided a useful briefing on the various forms of cost-of-living support available for students in the UK, running through the list of loans, grants and bursaries available along with special support such as the Disabled Student Allowance and support from individual universities.
  • Exit interview. Sir Chris Husbands reflected on the current state of higher education in an interview in the Times Higher ahead of his forthcoming retirement, arguing that universities had a key role to play in providing the diverse range of skills and opportunities needed for the future but that banging on about funding and sticking to one model of delivery were unlikely to generate support.

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Laughter in the Commons after @DianaJohnsonMP suggests Keegan brings in a swear jar to raise money for school buildings” | @SchoolsWeek
  • “It’s often easier for governments to cut spending [on investment and infrastructure] in the face of fiscal or other problems. But if you do [...], you run into these sorts of crises” | @TheIFS
  • “Turn up in person, get used to rejection and eat more than cornflakes: my advice to university freshers | Devi Sridhar” | @GdnUniversities
  • “A new PhD started today. She asked for general advice for the first few months. This was my advice: 1. Don’t work evenings or weekends 2. Don’t aim to prove yourself (to me), I’m already convinced of your capacities 3. Go for a walk when things dazzle you (1/3)” | @HaPhDsupervisor
  • “Nursery fees have gone up again. £949 a month for three days a week. For one child. I feel sick” | @hannahfearn

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “The Government’s priority is for every child across the UK to go to school safely” – the education secretary makes a statement to MPs about RAAC.
  • “Unless we act now and we act decisively and fast, the problem will [continue to] worsen" – the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reports on growing global concerns around child labour.
  • “We have delivered a deal that enables UK scientists to confidently take part in the world’s largest research collaboration programme” – The PM heralds the UK rejoining the Horizon Europe research programme.
  • “If you are not looking like a medieval theme park, then you are [judged as] in some way failing as an institution” – Sir Chris Husbands on the need to think about other models of higher education provision.
  • “At the start of the academic year show us how to engage with the software used on our courses. and make it so that we can rewatch these anytime” – university students offer their thoughts on digital learning in JISC’s latest survey.
  • “What do you advise is the correct response for a school leader who is uncertain about whether or not their building is safe?” – unions send in a list of questions on building safety to the education secretary.
  • “I suspect that will be all sorted out far sooner than Christmas” – Nick Gibb on the RAAC issue.
  • “Capital spending on schools is low in historical terms and lower in real terms than in the mid-2000s” – the IfS puts the current debate about the capital funding of schools in context.
  • “I’ve walked the walk” – Sir Martyn Oliver on his credentials for the job of Ofsted Chief Inspector.
  • “Pupils who missed school at the beginning of last academic year were more likely to be persistently absent than those who didn’t” – FFT Education Datalab examines the impact of missing the start of term.

Important numbers

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

  • 15%. The number of women in England to have experienced online violence, according to a survey from the OU.
  • 1,300. The number of people joining PwC this week via its school/college leaver programme, degree apprenticeship route, graduate schemes and more, according to a company tweet.
  • 19. The number of Institutes of Technology up and running with two more set to open in September, enabling the government to reach its target of 21 according its latest figures.
  • £1,078. The amount that students at university spend on average a month, up from £924 a month last year, according to a survey from Save the Student. 
  • 53%. The percentage of UK university students surveyed who prefer to be taught ‘mainly on campus,’ with 36% preferring a mix of campus and online and 11% mainly online, according to the latest survey from Jisc.
  • 96%. The numbers of workers in colleges in England saying in a survey that they’re struggling financially because of low wages, according to the UCU. 
  • 275,630. The number of apprenticeships starts in England for the 2022/23 academic year, down 4.6% on the previous year according to latest government estimates. 
  • 147. The number of schools with confirmed RAAC as of 30 August, according to the latest listing from the government.
  • 94%. The estimated attendance rate by pupils in state schools in England for Tuesday 5 September as many schools started the new term, according to latest data from the government.
  • 287,000. The number of primary school children in London expected to benefit from an extension of free school meals across the city from this term, according to City Hall.
  • 43.4%. The number of children this year aged 8-18 who reported enjoying reading in their free time, the lowest figure since 2005 according to the National Literacy Trust.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • ResearchEd National Conference (Saturday 9 September).
  • Education Committee witness session on teacher recruitment and retention’ (Tuesday 12 September).
  • QAA Annual Conference (Wednesday 13 September – Thursday 14 September).

Other stories

  • How do you rate your education system? The polling company Ipsos has just published a new Global Education Monitor, looking at how people in different countries rate their schools. In a survey of 29 countries just over a third (33%) rate them as good, but a little more than a third (36%) rate them as poor. That said, as is often the case, parents with children currently in school tend to see them as more good than bad. Singapore, Ireland, Australia and India come out as the countries where more people are happy about their education system. Hungary and South American countries come out the lowest. The UK comes out reasonably well, 47% happy with the quality of provision. Interestingly, slightly more people (45% -43%) are likely to recommend not becoming a teacher (higher in the UK). And on the topic of AI, 35% think it will have a positive effect in the classroom against 18% who think it will be negative. A link to the full survey is 
  • Millennial lifestyles. Postcards, napkins, mayonnaise, board games, business suits, razors, bars of soap, cereals, milk bottles, even gyms – the list of things disappearing from high streets and shops as millennial lifestyles take over is enormous. The list, and it’s a long one, has been brought together recently by the US online magazine The Daily Stuff and yes, millennials do exercise, but not in the traditional way in gyms anymore. As to what millennials do spend their time and money on compared to previous generations, some of it – such as gadgets and coffees – is obvious, but also clothes, though not in a department store, sweet wine, lifestyle apps, wellness and experiences are among the priorities. There’s even a suggestion they prefer a minimalist approach to life, but that may not be everyone’s experience! The article is here.

If you find my policy updates useful, please consider donating something, however small, to help support its publication. EdCentral is a not-for-profit social enterprise and relies on donations to continue its work.

You can sign up here to receive access to Education Eye straight from your inbox on publication.

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.



EdCentral Logo