Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 23 February 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:

Mobile phones, pre- and post-16 education, and childhood concerns have been making the education news this week as MPs and some schools returned after the half-term break.

Mobile phones first, where the education secretary issued her promised, non-statutory guidance on prohibiting mobile phone use in schools. It’s something the government has been toying with since at least 2010.

The digital news commentator Politico set out the various reactions under the catchy headline ‘Phoney wars.’ With many schools already operating such policies ASCL’s Geoff Barton described it as ‘a non-policy for a non-problem.’

But not everyone saw it that way. “We banned phones – bullying is down and the children love it,” claimed the head of Gordonstoun school for instance.

For many, the bigger issue is the ease of access to harmful content on social media, whether in school or not, for so many young people, as the mother of the murdered schoolgirl Brianna Ghey recently highlighted. In the words of The Independent headline, ‘Teens need online protection.’

The education secretary argued that the Online Safety Act would help tighten things up but a report from the Public Accounts Committee out this week suggested this could take time. “It may be years until people notice a difference to their, and their children’s, online experience,” it concluded. It remains a difficult issue for families and policy makers alike and it seems likely debate will continue about it, Online Safety Act or not.

On to pre- and post-16 education where two reports have stood out this week.

One was from the government and came in the form of a response to a House of Lords Committee report into education for 11 – 16-year-olds in England published at the end of last year.

The report had made a number of interesting recommendations on features such as the EBacc, Progress 8, GCSEs and the National Curriculum itself. ‘Overloaded and in need of a review,’ its general verdict on the latter for instance while assessment generally was ‘burdensome and should consider the transition to online.’

In its formal response, the government politely batted back most (11) of the 18 recommendations, partially accepting four and wholly accepting three, on promoting language learning, reinforcing careers guidance and looking at performance data respectively. The tone was rather ‘we’re doing a lot of this already.’

Yet here too debate is likely to continue with, for example, the exam board OCR just this week announcing its own formal review of 11 – 16 provision in England under the stewardship of former education secretary Charles Clarke. It’s a terrain already littered with signposts for reform and Labour has already signalled it intends to look into it as well. The issues are beginning to stack up.

The other report came from the rather lengthily titled Centre for Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance, SKOPE for short, along with the Education Policy Institution, looking as part of a major collaborative project into post-16 provision across the various UK nations.

One of their major conclusions along with concerns about poor data and ‘gaping’ inequality, is what they termed “a high level of policy churn.” “Education and training policy is in a constant state of flux across all four nations, particularly when compared with more stable E&T systems worldwide.”

With a final report due out this autumn, the authors made a number of interim recommendations, starting unsurprisingly with building a more stable vision and settlement for posit-16 provision across the four nations.

As for childcare and children, both continuing policy priorities, again a couple of reports this week have drawn attention to key issues.

On childcare, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services issued ‘an urgent call to arms’ as its latest progress report on children and family life showed things worsening for many. “Millions of children live in poverty, with research clearly demonstrating that welfare policies are driving family distress.”  The Guardian described it as ‘a withering assessment of the government’s record in this area over the past years.’

The report called for a long-term strategic plan for childhood ‘accompanied by ‘a long term, sustainable funding settlement.’

And for children, older as well as younger, the children’s commissioner for England reported on the worrying issue of children “falling through the cracks after leaving state education.” According to her report, a growing number are being home educated but equally a large number, including notably some of the most vulnerable, are simply missing, off the radar. She called for much better data sharing and protection.

The report came incidentally as MPs debated the case for a register for not-in-school children with wide support for the drafted Bill on this. As one MP explained, “there is broad cross-party support for legislating for a register.”

In other school news this week, the House of Commons Library Service published a useful briefing on the PM’s plans for an Advanced British Standard (ABS) with consultation closing on this in just under a month. And the Sutton Trust called on the government to continue the funding for the National Tutoring Programme as it highlighted concerns about a growing attainment gap in schools. “Since 2020, the attainment gap has widened notably, with 10 years of progress in closing the gap wiped out in just a few years.”

In FE, work has continued for next week’s big ‘Colleges Week’ with a useful briefing on current issues from the Association of Colleges (AoC.) And talking of policy matters, the body that speaks for providers of specialist provision for students with learning difficulties published its pre-election manifesto this week. It called for better access and opportunities all round.

In HE this week, the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published a paper on franchised provision. “‘We propose a new and robust sector-owned code of conduct combined with a limited extension of regulation – light-touch, rapid and low-cost, enabling all franchisees to be registered.” This came as the Office for Students launched a review of franchised provision at Leeds Trinity University.

And former universities minister Jo Johnson set out some ideas for best managing international provision. While Universities UK launched its election manifesto wish list making support for the graduate route visa one of its key asks.

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

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Schools in England given new guidance on stopping phone use.’ (Monday).
  • ‘UK universities targeted by cyberattack.’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘DfE to miss teacher pay deadline.’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘GCSE grades a good predictor of life chances and wellbeing, research shows.’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Severe hardship as thousands of schools get 0.5% funding rise.’ (Friday).


  • Budget build up. The Resolution Foundation offered its assessment ahead of the forthcoming Budget suggesting that while there was room for tax cuts spelling out various options, further tax rises are already scheduled in and some unprotected government depts may well face further spending cuts.
  • Online safety. The Public Accounts Committee reported on its inquiry into the preparation for the new online safety regulation scenario, suggesting that while Ofcom had made a good start in preparing for its new regulatory role, it could be ‘years’ before people notice a difference to their online experience, calling as a result for interim deadlines on priority areas to be urgently adhered to.
  • Childhood matters. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services published an update on its 2017 report into childhood and family life, arguing that things had worsened rather than improved for many families in the interim, and urging a future government to prioritise children and families and deliver on the seven priorities it had originally listed around funding, support and partnership working.
  • Transforming early childhood. The innovation agency Nesta reported on early childhood providing what it called ‘a blueprint for narrowing the gap for children from lower and higher-income families’ with better pay and conditions for the early years workforce, improved parental leave and children’s campuses among the recommendations.
  • Lost in transition. The children’s commissioner reported on the large numbers of children and young people seemingly lost or to have ‘fallen through the cracks’ as they leave the state school system, calling for tighter protection, controls and data as a result.
  • Child abuse. The government set out new requirements to help protect children from sexual abuse including making it a legal requirement for those working with children in England, such as teachers, to report cases of concern. 
  • Local Planning. The British Chambers of Commerce announced that it was working with Aviva and in time hopefully other major companies and government, to develop ‘a five-year, industry-led programme to increase skills and capacity in Local Planning Authorities.’
  • Governance for Net Zero. The British Academy published a second report in its series on sustainable futures looking here at the importance of local leadership and local collaboration as two key aspects of governance in the transition to net zero.

More specifically ...


  • Mobile phones. The government issued its guidance for schools on prohibiting mobile phone use during the school day, pointing to some of the ways in which schools can, and in many cases already have done this, but calling for ‘a clear and consistent approach’ with staff, parents, pupils and sanctions all having a role to play. 
  • 11 – 16 response. The government published its response to the House of Lords Committee report into provision for 11 – 16 yr olds published at the end of last year, pushing back on most of the recommendations and pointing instead to many of its current reforms although acknowledging some issues around careers guidance, GCSE resits and the burden of assessment generally.
  • Secondary Review. Exam board OCR announced that former education secretary Charles Clarke would lead a review of secondary education looking in particular at issues like the burden of assessment around GCSEs, digital assessment and English and maths provision, and reporting back in the summer.
  • National Tutoring. The government confirmed that funding for the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) would finish this year although it would look at ways of ‘targeting such support’ for those who needed it most in the future, as it issued updated guidance on the Programme.
  • Closing the attainment gap. The Sutton Trust highlighted the importance of tutoring programmes in helping close a widening attainment gap in schools, calling on the government to renew funding for the National Tutoring Programme as a way of helping overcome this.
  • Pupil premium. The government updated its information on the pupil premium with information on the funding criteria and conditions for 2024/5 and a run through of effective delivery of the premium and reporting arrangements for this year.
  • ABS. The House of Commons Library Service published a briefing on the Advanced British Standard (ABS) first announced by the PM last October and for which consultation closes next month, running through how it’s intended to work, how A levels and T levels will fold in along with the current costs and reactions to the whole thing.
  • Teacher R and R. The Education Endowment Foundation and the National Institute of Teaching reported on their work looking into recruitment and retention strategies that might encourage teachers to work in more deprived regions, pointing to supportive working environments and flexible working arrangements along with competitive pay as all being important factors.
  • School Business Leaders. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) highlighted concerns about the low levels of pay for school business leaders suggesting it might prompt many to leave as it published the results of survey of members.
  • Financial education. The Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) called for learning about household finances to be given a much greater prominence in schools from an earlier age as it published a survey showing that many young people were leaving school unprepared to cope with money matters.
  • Children’s reading. The reading charity BookTrust published a report highlighting the benefits of its 2023/24 Letterbox Club programme as it invited registrations for this year’s programme which will again see children aged 3 – 13 receive packages and support to encourage them with reading and numeracy.


  • Colleges Week. The Association of Colleges (AoC) published a briefing covering facts and figures about the sector along with funding issues ahead of the forthcoming Budget, for MPs to use when they discuss colleges in a set debate next week..
  • Skills Bootcamps. The government banged the drum for digital Skills Bootcamps as it published new research showing that for young people working in tech areas with the requisite skills, average salaries can be double or more the UK average.
  • Post-16 provision. The Education Policy Institute and SKOPE published initial findings from their collaborative work looking into how post-16 education and training operates across the four nations, pointing to worries about growing inequality, poor data and policy ‘churn’ and calling for a more settled, joined-up policy approach for the future.
  • GCSE resits. FE Week examined the potential cost to providers of GCSE resits following last week’s government ‘condition of funding’ announcement, arguing that with clawbacks and fines, it could amount to some £45m pa.
  • Specialist FE. NATSPEC, which speaks for young people in FE with learning difficulties, issued its manifesto for the general election calling in particular for three things: fair access to FE for its learners, high-quality provision, and post-college opportunities for young people with complex needs.
  • MoU. Ofqual and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) updated their working arrangements in a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) setting out how they intend to work together to meet statutory objectives.


  • International students. Former universities minister Jo Johnson outlined a 5-point plan in the FT including raising domestic fees, aligning entry requirements and clarifying migration reporting, for tackling the current issues around international students.
  • Manifesto wish list. Universities UK published its list of asks for the forthcoming general election calling among other things for reinstating maintenance grants for those most in need, maintaining the graduate visa route, and ensuing adequate funding support.
  • Franchise provision. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) and Buckinghamshire New University published a new Debate Paper on franchising in higher ed, pointing to some of the benefits such as offering greater choice while acknowledging some of the challenges, and calling for a code of practice and proportionate regulatory system to ensure quality in such provision.
  • New taskforce. University and Health mission groups responded to last week’s disappointing figures from UCAS on student recruitment for healthcare courses by calling for a new ministerial taskforce to be set up to look at ways of bolstering student recruitment in healthcare and generally help meet targets in the NHS’s Long-Term Workforce Plan. 
  • Gen AI for HE. The QAA published the latest in its Quality Compass series examining key issues of the day, looking on this occasion at the impact of Gen AI for HE, carefully reflecting the balance between innovation and risk and highlighting both in a number of scenarios encompassing students’ learning experiences and transforming HE processes.

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “It's sooo insane that we wouldn't ban phones. Imagine if in the 90s kids were allowed to bring their Gameboy into lessons because Tetris sometimes helped with maths lessons. I confiscated a yr 11 phone that wasn't on silent and in an hour they had 40 notifications!!” - @MrARobbins.
  • “Are there now more coaches than teachers to be coached?” - @RogersHistory.
  • “Today's plan: hurry home and squeeze in a run before it got dark and the rain came. Reality: I have kids. The boy has to hand in his video evidence for A-Level PE tomorrow. He didn't have the video evidence. No run” - @beckyboopta.
  • “Had to get a file off my work laptop. Made the mistake of checking Teams” - @MBDscience.
  • “What I fear Gen Z will never understand if they don't drink is that there's a level of inner peace you can only gain after having had a long frustrating day of work followed by precisely three drinks with friends, it's a form of zen only otherwise reached though firm religion” - @young vulgarian.
  • “There is a toddler on the train sleeping in its stroller, hugging a huge leek. It dropped the leek while sleeping and its mother picked the leek up and put it back and the toddler hugged it again in its sleep. Nature is beautiful” - @egeofantolia.

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “There is no excuse for turning a blind eye to a child’s pain” – the government outlines new legal requirements for reporting sexual abuse of children.
  • “We think the economy is showing distinct signs of an upturn” – the governor of the Bank of England to the Treasury Committee this week.
  • “The UK is rolling out gigabit networks faster than any country in the EU, with 8 in 10 premises now able to access upgrades” – technology secretary Michelle Donelan heralds figures on the roll out of faster, more reliable broadband.
  • “International students are caught up in toxic debates about immigration” – former universities minister Jo Johnson tackles concerns about international students.
  • “I look forward to meeting the students and staff at graduation and other events” – Hugh Dennis looks forward to becoming the next Chancellor of the University of Winchester.
  • “The problem spreads beyond the classroom – kids are playing on their mobiles in the playground, when they should be socialising or kicking a ball around” – the education secretary explains why banning mobile phones in schools is a good thing.
  • “We hope you will use this final year of NTP funding to consider how you will deliver and fund tutoring in your school in the future” – the government rounds off the National Tutoring Programme.
  • “We have written to the STRB to express our disquiet in the strongest possible terms” – teacher unions write to the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) to raise concerns about the government missing the deadline for submitting its evidence on this year’s pay award.
  • “If you go to see Macbeth, you pretty much know before you’re going in that it’s going to contain uncomfortable issues” – the culture secretary dismisses the need for trigger warnings for the Bard’s plays.
  • "I'm going to text old K dog... I'd go all in. Yeah, I'd go in for the cabinet” – singer Will Young muses about becoming an MP.

Important numbers

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

  • 95%. The number of county councils planning on raising council tax this year by the maximum amount, according to the County Councils Network.
  • 524. The number of companies named for not paying the minimum wage, according to a government press release.
  • 20. The number of years it’ll take to close the gender pay gap according to the TUC.
  • 66%. The number of zero-hours contract workers that have been with their current employer for over a year, according to the TUC.
  • £2.8bn. The investment generated by businesses spun out from UCL research over the last five years, according to a UCL Business report.
  • £900m. The amount the Scottish government spends each year to educate Scottish undergraduates, according to the IfS.
  • 8.1%. The absence rate for schools in England for w/commencing 8 February, according to latest government figures.
  • 13,000. The number of children in England who appear to have left the state education system for home education, according to the children’s commissioner.
  • 76%. The number of teachers in a YouGov survey who reckon most students finish their education without the requisite financial skills for adult life, according to a report from the Money and Pensions Service.
  • 20%. The number of children who have experienced bullying online, according to latest government figures.
  • 4.2m. The number of children living in relative poverty in the UK, according to the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.
  • 45.9%. The number of parents pushed into debt or having to withdraw savings to cope with the costs of childcare, according to a survey from the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Colleges Week (Monday 26 February – Friday 1 March).
  • Annual Apprenticeship Conference (Monday 26 February – Tuesday 27 February).
  • Education Committee witness session on children’s social care (Tuesday 27 February).
  • Westminster Hall debate on FE (Thursday 29 February).
  • Social Market Foundation Forum on ‘improving jobs and productivity and unlocking social mobility’ (Thursday 29 February).

Other stories

  • Mobile phones. As the government here looks to start banning mobile phones in schools, the i-newspaper considered what other countries do in this regard. Italy and France appear to have been early runners banning phones in schools in 2007 and 2018 respectively. The Netherlands introduced a ban at the end of last year, Spain and Germany have no formal regulations but individual states and politicians are moving in that direction while Portugal and, further afield, China. already have bans in place. A link to the article can be found here.

  • Best cities for working from home. An interesting report on the FE News site this week on the best cities around the world for a UK citizen to work remotely. The report came from the High St retailer Currys. It analysed just under 300 cities around the world, ranking them on costs, broadband speed, safety and permitted length of stay. And top of the pile apparently was Lima in Peru with reasonable prices, a warm climate and nice beaches. Put that on the screenshot. Others in the top ten in order included Recife in Brazil, Belfast, Guadalajara in Mexico and Cali in Columbia. For more stay-at-home types, top English regions ticking the box for working from home included in order, Hampshire, East Sussex and Kent. As ever, a lot depends on which sector you work in – IT, financial sales and sales being the most obvious, let alone salary level. A link to the report can be 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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