Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 26 January 2024

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:

No simple headlines this week.

Instead some important big picture reports, some lively debate in Westminster and some interesting sector news

The big picture stuff first, where two reports stand out this week, both suggesting a difficult context for education.

First, the latest report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on ‘understanding poverty in the UK.’ It painted a worrying picture. “Poverty in the UK is deepening. The deeper we look, the faster it is rising,” was how the Group Chief Executive summed it up in his opening comments.

Figures for 2021/22, the year on which data for the report is based, show that six million people were in deep poverty, ’one and a half million more than two decades ago.’ Figures vary by region and social group with children, families and some minority ethnic groups suffering in particular.

Remedies are not simple but the Foundation hope that the report encourages politicians to prioritise tackling poverty in the forthcoming general election. “Any party serious about governing must be both practical and ambitious if we are to turn the tide of deepening poverty of the past 25 years.”

The trouble is that there won’t be much money to tackle poverty or anything else according to a second big report this week. This came from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) and examined what it called ‘the thorny financial inheritance for whoever is in office after this year’s general election.’

In their headline words, the IfS indicated that “the next government is likely to face some of the most difficult economic and fiscal choices the UK has faced outside of pandemics and major crises.”

Matters like tax cuts, funding for public services including of course education, the transition to net zero and the impact of a changing and ageing society will all come under fierce scrutiny and the report warns politicians not to indulge in populist give-aways and trade-offs but rather to face realities. “As tempting as it may be to engage in ‘cakeism’ – to seek to have the government’s fiscal cake and eat it – any party serious about governing after the election should resist the urge.”

Away from the wider picture and back in Westminster, politicians have been focusing this week on more immediate things: the rollout of the free childcare programme, described by the i newspaper this week ‘as a shambles’ and the continuing issue of persistent absentees from school.

Debate in both cases was triggered by Opposition motions.

The rollout of the childcare programme is due to commence in April but has been beset by headlines over whether there’s enough places, staff, funding and capacity generally.

In an Urgent Question this week, Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, challenged the government over the viability of the scheme. The market is telling them that the plan is simply not deliverable.” The minister responsible sought to reassure, ‘no-one will miss out,’ and went on to promise ‘temporary registration codes’ for parents where necessary “but this story, which came as the Sutton Trust published a critical report on how early years provision is failing many disadvantaged families, is unlikely to go away.

As for persistent school absentees, Bridget Phillipson again took up the charge in an Opposition Day Debate on the next day. The main issue was about the need for a council led register on children not in school, which Labour was promising and which the government had equally promised to legislate for but so far had failed to deliver on.

This too is an issue unlikely to go away with two Private Members Bills picking up the challenge, one of which has its Second Reading next week.

And before we leave Westminster and still on the theme of school attendance, the education and health secretaries are being urged by their respective committee chairs to support a public information campaign to help families decide when a child with minor illness should stay away from school or go to the doctor’s. “The national campaign would advise parents on when it is appropriate for children to attend school despite a minor illness, when it is best to administer self-care, and when to seek NHS services,” according to the proposal.

Moving on to schools this week, the education secretary addressed the Bett conference where she pointed to the recent survey report among professionals about the use of GenAI in education and highlighted the work the government was doing in this area.

Interestingly, as many have suspected, one of the findings from the report was that students were often ahead of their teachers when it came to tech use. As one teacher put it, “Students are more familiar with GenAI than staff. Staff know that ChatGPT exists, but almost all of our year 10s have explored how ChatGPT and other GenAI can be used.

There were many references in both the report and the speech about AI’s potential ‘transformative impact on education’ but equally a recognition of some of the risks. A major long-term strategy for its future development was the main recommendation coming out of the report. 

In other news, Ofsted inspections resumed under the new ‘permitted pause’ guidelines. ASCL like many will wait for feedback to see how things are going before finally endorsing the new approach. “We will be asking our members to give us feedback about how inspections are going in their settings and whether they are seeing a more supportive approach.”

Teacher Tapp published a survey report into how teachers view continuous professional development (CPD.) Labour is keen to see some form of entitlement to training but as the report highlights the issue is how to secure a balance between competing needs and wants.

And ASCL submitted its wish list to the Treasury ahead of the forthcoming Budget calling among other things for a fully funded pay award this year and money to eradicate RAAC. “It is essential that the government commits to providing sufficient funding to totally eradicate RAAC in the school and college estate.”

In FE, the build up to the March Budget has continued this week with both the AELP and ASCL following up the AoC with their respective wish list for the Treasury.

Top priorities across all three include investing in adult skills, apprenticeship system funding, closing the gap on pay, and VAT reform. The AoC’s Colleges Week takes place in the week before the Budget and should put skills training in the public eye but as the IfS report has reminded us, these are not the best of times for seeking more money.

Over in HE, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator published its Operating Plan for the year ahead and revealed some of the complaints it had dealt with last year about student accommodation.

Elsewhere, the QAA published some ‘exciting new resource charts on AI for HE,’ the Times Higher looked at what effect elections around the world this year might have on universities and found lots of ifs and buts and moneysavingexpert Martin Lewis included the uprating of maintenance loans among his five big asks ahead of the Budget.

Links to most of these stories below starting with the headlines.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Crumbling schools plagued by leaks and cold, BBC finds.’ (Monday.)
  • ‘Labour pushes Bill to tackle persistent school absenteeism.’ (Tuesday.)
  • ‘Every year spent in school or university improves life expectancy, study says.’ (Wednesday.)
  • ‘Council primary schools in deficit rocket 62%.’ (Thursday.)
  • ‘Families sending children to school without food amid cost-of-living squeeze.’ (Friday).


  • WhatsApp. The government announced it was setting up a new stream on the WhatsApp Channel, presenting it as an opt in service for members of the public preferring key information on public services direct to their phone.
  • Keynote speech. Sir Keir Starmer outlined a new form of social contract in his latest keynote speech, widely seen as an attack on culture wars, promising that a future Labour government would work across society in what he called ‘a society of service’ that would help deliver Labour missions and ‘achieve a decade of national renewal.’
  • Cyber security. The government issued a draft Code of Practice for business leaders on cyber security governance, asking at the same time for views on its practical application as part of its current major National Cyber Strategy.
  • DfE research. The Dept for Education listed its current areas of research interest with a list of key questions in each case for researchers and analysists wishing to engage, with the list covering growth through skills, driving up standards and closing the gap in schools, early years support, vulnerable children support and AI development.
  • EU AI. The European Commission announced a new package to support European AI start-ups with the promise of privileged access to supercomputers, a new AI office, and two Digital Infrastructure Consortiums. 
  • Public spending. The Institute for Fiscal Studies laid bare some of the many challenges facing an incoming government after the next general election with tax reform, public service provision, transition to net zero and changing demography among the issues that need to be tackled at a time of ‘dire’ financial constraint, calling on all parties to be cautious when it comes to trade-offs and give-aways.
  • Council funding. MPs across the board wrote an open letter to the PM ahead of the government’s Local Government Finance Settlement due next month, expressing concern about the dire state of local council finances and calling on the government to provide emergency funding to avoid further cuts to services or councils going bust.
  • Council support. The government announced a £600m support package for local councils following concerns about councils being under pressure, with most of the money (£500m) going to social care and the rest to help with rural delivery of services, with further details to be announced in next month’s Settlement.
  • State of the state. The think tank Reform with the consultancy Deloitte published their latest major review into the performance of the public sector, showing NHS waiting lists, immigration and infrastructure as the three top public priorities, with views split over higher spending or lower taxes and with trust generally ‘continuing to drift down.’
  • Levelling down. The Centre for Cities think tank published its latest annual health check for cities in Britain showing that while jobs have grown in the last few years, housing affordability, productivity and disposable income have all been squeezed with in-work poverty spreading.
  • Poverty in the UK. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published its latest comprehensive analysis of poverty in the UK based on 2021/22 data and painting a troubling picture of increasing and deepening poverty, variable by region and age but with a number of social groups hugely struggling and with the report calling for a long-term vision and range of immediate protections to salvage the situation.
  • Early years. The Sutton Trust examined the early years sector as part of its review of key policy areas ahead of the general election, pointing to a sector struggling to cope and shifting towards childcare rather than education provision, leaving gaps for many, often more disadvantaged, families.
  • Labour market strategies. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation set out four key themes for political parties to consider in their election manifestos around the labour market and productivity, including developing a better understanding of the labour market, supporting the transition to new skills, tackling inactivity, and refining regulation.

More specifically ...


  • Bett address. The education secretary addressed the 2024 Bett Conference where she pointed to the work the government was doing to support and regulate AI while learning from best practice, before going on to encourage innovation and opportunity, and support the development of digital skills.
  • The role of AI. The government reported on its survey evidence among teachers and other experts about the use of GenAI in education, finding an increase in its use and potential benefits but also some concerns about managing future risks, with a recommendation ultimately for a long-term strategy to ‘future-proof’ further development.
  • Budget 2024. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) called for the Chancellor to set aside sufficient funds to tackle RAAC, make up the shortfall in high needs, and introduce a VAT reimbursement scheme for colleges, as it published its submission to the Treasury ahead of the forthcoming Budget.
  • CPD. Teacher Tapp published a useful survey report into teacher continuous professional development (CPD) in light of the Labour Party’s commitment to a new entitlement to teacher training, finding mixed views about the value of INSET sessions but more positive views about wider professional development and about flexible forms of provision and teacher autonomy.
  • School improvement. The Confederation of School Trusts (CST) called in a new report for a new approach to school improvement and accountability, building on what it called ‘a more intelligent and proportionate system’ around partnership support and targeted intervention.
  • School buildings. The government published an update on its work to support school buildings, pointing to its project support for buildings with RAAC, its asbestos management programme, and long-term rebuilding programme.
  • STEM recruits. Teach First called for increased pay for teachers of subjects such as science and maths as it published survey evidence showing that many families and young people, especially from poorer backgrounds, suggested they were unlikely to take up such subjects despite their importance.
  • Free School Meals. The Education Policy Institute set out its initial thoughts on the role of free school meals as a measure of social disadvantage in a paper for the Nuffield Foundation, listing arguments both for and against before identifying an extensive programme of further research needed to inform further discussions and recommendations.


  • Budget (1) 2024. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) published its submission to the Treasury ahead of the Budget focusing on the theme of skills funding for growth with five key ‘asks’ around apprenticeship funding, adult education, small businesses and social mobility.
  • Budget (2) 2024. The Association for School and College Leaders (ASCL) submitted its request to the Chancellor ahead of the Budget calling for funding to remove RAAC from school and college estates, an uplift in college staff pay, and a VAT reimbursement scheme for colleges.
  • Sixth form funding. The Sixth Form Colleges Association reported on new research undertaken by London Economics showing a significant (15%) drop in funding over the last ten years, calling among other things for increased investment, retention of BTECs and plans to tackle teacher recruitment and retention, as part of a pre-election manifesto.
  • Apprenticeships. The House of Commons Library Service published an update on apprenticeship starts in England for 2022/23, noting that the majority were at advanced or higher level but that the overall total was down 3% on the previous year.
  • Skills shortages. William Hague highlighted the continuing problem of skills shortages in the country in a comment piece in The Times, calling on political parties to identify strategies such as funded apprenticeships and accessible work experience to help tackle this when they make grand promises about future infrastructure projects in the future.


  • Elections impact. The Times Higher examined how higher education might fare in light of the various general elections being held around the world this year, looking at the UK, US, India and the EU among other regions but not finding much to be certain or even positive about at this stage
  • Facts and figures. Universities UK published its profile summary of students, staff and university finances at UUK institutions for 2021/22, showing among things members’ total expenditure at £48.2bn against an income of £23.4bn, employing 409,000+ staff and working with 2.7+m students.
  • Enhancing assessment. Advance HE set out a new framework for enhancing assessment, pointing to the importance of cyclical review, planning and action and involving the three core participants of the institution, educators and students.
  • GenAI. The QAA published a web-based set of resource materials to support the use of GenAI in learning and teaching with links to a range of reports, commentaries, podcasts and external sites that might prove helpful.
  • Digital transformation. JISC announced the launch of a new service designed to help universities with digital transformation, building on its current guide by offering a toolkit and consultancy service.
  • Operating Plan. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for HE published its Operating Plan for 2024 listing four main priorities around managing and responding ‘fairly and effectively’ to complaints, with work tasks and schedules mapped in each case
  • Accommodation matters. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator published case studies of some the issues around student accommodation that it had been called on to deal with over the year, acknowledging that while these were small in number, they mattered to individuals for whom early resolution was important.
  • Maintenance loans. MoneySavingExpert Martin Lewis included a call to raise the current rate of student maintenance loans as one of the five major requests he was submitting to the Chancellor ahead of the forthcoming Budget.

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “The best time for your kid to tell you they need cooking ingredients for school tomorrow? On a Sunday, when you're in the bath, 15 minutes before the supermarket closes. In the middle of a weather warning. Top teenaging, Little Miss” - @beckyboopta.
  • “Is it just me that can actually remember who has answered in lessons without using a clipboard, or am I superwoman?” - @HeyMissSmith.
  • “Schools across one city have formed a new support network called the ‘Caversham Covenant’, named after Ruth Perry’s primary school, to help each other through @Ofstednews inspections” – @‘tes.
  • “As the BETT show begins - time to share my top tip for first-timers: Buy a sandwich meal deal *before* you get to Excel then keep it in your bag until lunchtime. Avoid the carnage.” - @dannynic.
  • “The horror: “Come on, I'll introduce you to everyone”” - @SoVeryBritish.
  • “If you’re asked in an interview if you have any faults, reply "yes, it's where I keep my faluables". At this point, offer your hand for a high five” -@GlennyRodge.

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “We all like cake. The temptation to engage in ‘cakeism’ is understandable… Given the scale of the challenges facing the UK, and given the difficult fiscal inheritance awaiting whoever is in office after the votes are counted, this would, in our view, be a disservice” – the Institute for Fiscal Studies warns political parties to avoid sweeteners ahead of the general election..
  • “It has been 20 years since we last saw a sustained fall in poverty in the UK” – the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports on poverty in the UK.
  • “Every part of the UK has been levelled down since 2010, leaving the average person £10,200 worse off” – the Centre for Cities reports on life in urban Britain.
  • “My vision is that every single civil servant is either actively delivering – or enabled by – digital technology in their day-to-day job” – cabinet office minister John Glen on reform of the civil service.
  • “There is an inconsistency here: the student maintenance loan is a seemingly arbitrary figure, yet the interest on student loans is pegged to inflation” – MoneySavingExpert Martin Lewis calls for an uprate to student maintenance loans.
  • “Those acquiring the right skills will have a job for life: however impressive artificial intelligence programmes become they will struggle to install the electrical wires in your bathroom, guarantee they are safe and connect the right wires to the fuse box” – William Hague gets the skills revolution.
  • “No technology can replace them” – the education secretary on AI supporting rather than replacing ‘brilliant’ teachers.
  • “No parents should worry they may lose out” – the government takes steps to allay fears about the rollout of free childcare.
  • “But the library should be the heart, the soul, the mind, the source, the spring, the gold-bearing seam, the engine room, the treasure chamber, the priceless inheritance, the joy and the pride of the school. Every school” – author Philip Pullman on the importance of school libraries.

Important numbers

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

  • £10bn. The amount of money the Chancellor may have in his kitty as a potential giveaway in the forthcoming Budget, according to media sources.
  • 22%. The number of people in the UK in 2021/22 living in poverty, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
  • 32%. The number of firms that have suffered a cyber breach or attack in the last year, according to the government’s National Cyber Security Strategy.
  • £3bn. The amount of money that Student Loans Co has paid out in maintenance loan funding so far this year, according to the Company.
  • 3,137. The number of complaints received this year by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for HE, up 10% on the year before according to the Office’s latest report.
  • 7%. The increase in apprenticeships starts for the first quarter of the 2023/24-year August to October, according to latest government figures.
  • £7,068. The average spend per pupil by local authority-maintained schools in 2022/23, 8% higher in cash terms than the year before according to latest government figures.
  • £486m. The amount of money spent by maintained schools last year on supply teachers, up 17% on the previous year according to the TES.
  • 41.8%. The number of young people from a lower socio-economic background who said that they would be unlikely to consider a STEM career, according to a survey from Teach First.
  • 42%. The number of primary and secondary teachers that had used GenAI in their role as of last November, up 17% on six months previously according to new research from the government.
  • 6.6%. The pupil absence rate across schools in England for the week commencing 8 January, according to latest government figures.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • MPs Education Questions (Monday 29 January).
  • EDSK think tank launch new report on reform of the school system (Monday 29 January).
  • Big Education and CFEY ‘Rethinking Leadership’ report event (Monday 29 January).
  • Education Committee evidence session on financial education (Tuesday 30 January).
  • Westminster Hall debate for Children’s Mental Health Week (Tuesday 30 January).
  • Second Reading of School Attendance Private Members Bill (Friday 2 February).

Other stories

  • Healthy workplaces. The FT’s latest Healthiest Workplace report, complied with Vitality, has some interesting details about employee health. The report covers last year and shows the longer-term impact of the pandemic. In summary, UK employers lost nearly 50 days of productive work per employee last year, better than the previous year but still high. It was worse among younger workers, those aged under 35 and those with a lower income, but better among hybrid employees who are “more active, less likely to be obese, and sleep better than office employees and full-time home-working employees.” In fact obesity, drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week and not getting enough sleep, as in less than seven hours a night, emerge as the biggest indicators of ill-health. Many companies now offer a range of health and wellbeing support and interventions, with the report pointing to the importance of line management responsibility for such matters. A link to the report is here.

  • Can you send the candidates in, please? The latest series of The Apprentice, series 18 apparently, begins next week and according to the i newspaper’s Emily Baker, it’s all great fun but we shouldn’t take it too seriously. To see it as a genuine business exercise, she says, would be like ‘treating Gladiators as equivalent to the Olympics.’ After all she goes on to say, everyone is an entrepreneur these days and ‘when it comes to TV, the more ridiculous the better.’ “I love it, I love doing it” said Lord Sugar, and ‘what I enjoy is finding a person and starting all over again and doing exactly what I did back in the 60’s.’ As for the candidates: “I’m going to change the world and create a legacy that reverberates through time,” reckoned one of the more shy and retiring ones. The full line-up can be seen 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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