Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 01 March 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:

Young people, Budget build-up, apprenticeship vibes, school attendance, and international students. Another full-on week.

This week’s most eye-catching headline concerned young people. It came from the Resolution Foundation which reported that “people in their early 20s are now more likely to be economically inactive due to ill health than those in their 40s, a complete reversal to two decades ago.”  

In a word, numbers reporting issues have risen 10% over the last two decades, particularly among the poorly qualified and more vulnerable 18–24-year-olds, leaving many unable to work and facing economic insecurity.  With concerns about creating ‘a lost generation,’ the report, which has been researching the issue over the last three years, called for much more support for young people in colleges and through career transition.

Next, Budget build-up where Russell Group Universities and the Local Government Association have been among the bodies posting last-minute reminders about their needs to the Chancellor this week. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) offered its customary scene setter arguing that ”the economic case for tax cuts before the next Spending Review is completed is weak.”  It led the FT to suggest that the Chancellor was ‘trapped in a fiscal headlock.’

On to apprenticeships vibes where this week’s big Annual Apprenticeship Conference heard from an array of top speakers lending their support to the apprenticeship cause. They included, of course, the skills minister, remotely in his case, and as ever championing his now famous ‘Ladder of Opportunity’ along with his ‘Ronseal Levy,’ doing what it says on the tin. His speech underlined his three essential priorities for apprenticeships around quality, opportunity and development.

But the Conference also heard concerns about the government’s post-16 qualification reforms with the Commission on post-16 education and training presenting the results of its year-long inquiry into the developments. This included calls for the government to ‘pause’ the defunding of established L2 and 3 qualifications until suitable alternatives were in place and longer-term, to create a more coherent Young Person’s Entitlement.

As for school attendance, more precisely persistent absence, this re-emerged in the news this week with an announcement by the education secretary of a sharing of data and increase in fines for unauthorised absence. It came as latest figures revealed a 25% rise in the number of pupils missing education at some point last year.

The announcement provoked mixed responses. This was the view from the NAHT. “Good attendance is obviously critically important, but fines have long proven to be too blunt a tool and largely ineffective at improving persistent absence.”

Finally in this roundup of headlines for the week, has been the issue of international students. Early data on recruitment figures suggest that uncertainty over the post-work visa let alone wider policy rhetoric may be having a damaging effect.   Universities UK reported this week that “most universities are bracing for further drops in international student numbers this autumn as the government’s reforms take effect.” It’s not just an issue that affects universities, it can damage local economies as well as The Guardian highlighted.  

In sector specific news this week, Labour outlined plans to tackle sexual harassment in schools. “Misogyny is a growing scourge in our classrooms and if we fail to tackle it now, we store up huge problems for society in years to come,” shadow education minister Bridget Phillipson explained. Unions appeared supportive. “Schools cannot fight this battle alone and we are pleased to see Labour devote attention to this important issue,” the verdict from the ASCL.

The Confederation of School Trusts called in a new briefing for a more intelligent and compassionate system of accountability for schools in England that would see card style inspection reports and a new independent regulator for schools. “We must be sure this is a system that works for all children,” it argued.

Talking of children, Internet Matters published its third annual survey showing that over the past year “the growth of ChatGPT and other generative AI tools have propelled AI into children’s lives, raising both new opportunities and challenges to the education system.” It worried that some schools and families were getting left behind and called for new guidance.

The Education Policy Institute examined the benefits or otherwise of extending the school day, finding the evidence pretty mixed. Extra-curricular activities often helped ‘improve a range of socio-economic outcomes’ but “effects on attainment are, however, heterogeneous.” And, of course, it all comes at a cost.

And finally, the government submitted its evidence on teachers’ pay to the Pay Review Body, with debate to follow no doubt.

In FE this week, colleges across the country have been celebrating Colleges Week, using the occasion to highlight the vital work done by so many colleges in different ways. As one MP solemnly put it, tweeting about her local college, “If you are thinking of taking the next step in your life, visit your local college to find out about the fantastic opportunities they can offer.”

Elsewhere, the IfATE announced a major new project on skills classification, working with the government’s Unit for Future Skills to develop ‘a new way of describing and measuring skills used in the labour market.’ The work’s beginning straightaway with a prototype due for this autumn.

The ESFA produced a new financial handbook for independent training providers. The AELP said it was delighted. And the Education and Training Foundation confirmed a contract extension for its government funded T Level Professional Development Programme.

Over in HE, Westminster’s Public Accounts Committee questioned DfE officials among others about franchised provision in higher ed following last month’s critical report from the National Audit Office (NAO.)

The financial wellbeing platform Blackbullion published the results of its recent survey into student money and wellbeing with cost-of-living worries looming large. “On average, students report needing £621 extra a month to feel confident they will be able to complete their degree.” Growing numbers it seems - 46% of those surveyed – are becoming commuter students.

The QAA outlined the terms of its project, commissioned by Universities UK, looking into International Foundation and domestic entry programmes following recent media attention. It aims to report in high summer.

And the Times Higher reported on major reform proposals put forward in Australia, and including ‘needs-based’ funding for teaching, increased funding for research and an overhaul of the student loan system, wondering how far these might act as a blueprint for elsewhere.  “I think the ambition is something that we can all be up for,” said one vice-chancellor.”

And finally, the Guardian reported that for pedants, the end of the world was nigh with the American dictionary Merriam-Webster proposing ‘relaxing the rules’ on finishing sentences with a preposition. The barricades are being manned for split infinitives next.

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

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘UCAS aims for September 2024 rollout of apprenticeship tariff points.’ (Monday).
  • ‘Providers must take franchise responsibilities more seriously.’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘More guidance needed on AI in schools, report says. (Wednesday).
  • ‘Fines for unauthorised absence from school in England to rise by 33%.’ (Thursday).
  • ‘DfE urges lower teacher pay rise next year.’ (Friday).


  • Budget build up. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) set out its regular traditional scene setter for the forthcoming Budget, acknowledging some improvement to the UK economy since the Autumn Statement but suggesting that existing spending plans remain ‘challenging’ and the case for tax cuts is ‘weak.’
  • UK economy. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) reflected on the state of the UK economy one week away from the Budget pointing to such positives as inflation being on a downward trend and wages starting to rise but equally concerns such as the high sickness levels in the UK workforce and the need for investment in public services.
  • ‘Growth’ committees. The CBI announced it was setting up two major committees, UK and globally focused respectively, to help provide perspective and intelligence to support UK growth through the general election and beyond.
  • Regional growth. Harvard-Kings published the third in its research papers into regional growth and productivity in England, co-authored by Ed Balls, and proposing among other things the creation of a national Growth and Productivity Strategy with devolved powers and funding overseen by a Regional Growth Delivery Unit.
  • Council funding. The Local Government Association warned ahead of next week’s Budget that local councils would struggle to deliver essential services this year unless the government provided more money with cost savings likely to be needed across the board.
  • Pay gaps. The CIPD and ADP raised concerns about a lack of transparency over pay decisions in a new survey report, pointing for example to the large number of employers who fail to report gender pay gaps as currently required, calling for greater clarity around pay decisions generally.
  • Lost generation. The Resolution Foundation called for a major programme of mental health support for young people as it published a disturbing report highlighting the incidence of mental health issues particularly among the poorly qualified, which has doubled over the last two decades leaving many struggling to work and facing long term economic hardship.
  • Loneliness. The government launched a new digital campaign to help combat loneliness among young people aged 16-24, with TV and media personalities backing a campaign that will run across a variety of social media platforms.
  • Healthy workplaces. The Policy Exchange think tank published a comprehensive new report calling for government support through tax reliefs, extended health checks and access to medical professionals among other things, to enable workplaces to prioritise employee health and thereby help reduce the numbers unable to work and improve the nation’s health generally.
  • Literacy costs. The National Literacy Trust published new research from Pro Bono Economics showing the impact and costs of poor literacy levels among many children, particularly in disadvantaged areas, as it launched a new five-year campaign under the title ‘Early Words Matter,’ aimed at tackling the problem.

More specifically ...


  • School attendance. The government announced a new package of measures to help improve school attendance with fines for unauthorised absence in term time of five days increased to £80, a new attendance ambassador announced and the sharing of data from daily registers in state schools
  • Tackling sexual harassment. Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson outlined plans to tackle the growing threat of online misogyny and sexual harassment in schools, promising coaching, mentoring and monitoring among a package of measures.
  • School finances. The IfS assessed school funding ahead of the Budget arguing that while school spending per pupil could be viewed as at an ‘historical’ high, set against inflation, increased costs and reductions in capital budgets, it would leave many schools facing a 5% drop in per-pupil spending compared to 2009/10.
  • Pay award. The government set out the context for this year’s pay award for teachers as it submitted its evidence to the Review Body, noting ‘the exceptional award of the last two years’ and the current picture of recruitment and retention, calling for the Body to consider a ‘sustainable level of award’ and to look at ‘targeted renumeration by subject’ in future.
  • AI survey. The Internet Matters group called for more guidance and support for parents as well as schools and young people as it published the results of its latest annual survey showing increasing numbers of young people, notably 13/14-year-olds using such tools for schoolwork, raising concerns that schools and parents could be left unprepared for the AI revolution.
  • Compassionate accountability. The Confederation of School Trusts outlined a series of proposals for creating a more ‘intelligent and compassionate system of accountability’ for schools in England, calling among other things for an independent schools regulator, card style inspection reports for schools and a review of performance measures.
  • Longer or shorter school day. The Education Policy Institute examined evidence around the benefits or otherwise of an extended school day, suggesting that the effects on attainment were mixed but that extended time for extra-curricular activities, while costly, could bring wider benefits.
  • High achievers. Eton Star, the partnership between Eton and the Star Academy Trust which has now convened as a new ‘think and do tank,’ published a new report highlighting the number of pupils who achieved high GCSE English and maths grades a few years back but who did not subsequently go on to university, acknowledging that while not all might have wanted to, a better system of coherent pathways to enable all to achieve their potential was needed which they will help develop.
  • Suspensions and exclusions. FFT Education Datalab looked into suspensions and exclusions in schools for last term, using provisional data ahead of formal government figures due later this year and showing a likely increase in numbers particularly for Yr 10’s
  • KS2 2024. The Standards and Testing Agency published updated information for parents on this summer’s KS2 ‘SAT’ assessments which take place w/commencing 13 May, with results due on 9 July.


  • Skills classification. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) announced it was working with the government’s Future Skills Unit to develop a new standard skills classification that could help employers, careers advisers, providers and learners alike with a clearer understanding of the skills needs of the UK labour market.
  • Level 2/3 reform. The Commission on post-16 education that has been looking into the impact of the government’s qualification reform at L2 and 3 published its report urging the government to pause its current plans to defund qualifications until an alternative was in place and to review the requirements for English and maths resits, while in the longer term developing a coherent qualification framework as part of a Young Person’s Entitlement.
  • Apprenticeship Conference. Rob Halfon, the skills minister, addressed this week’s Annual Apprenticeship Conference where he outlined three ‘apprenticeship goals’ that he was aiming to achieve, including building a strong apprenticeship system, prioritising quality over quantity, and ensuring opportunities for those that need them.
  • Conference presentation. Catherine Large, Ofqual Director for Technical and Vocational Qualifications, also addressed the Apprenticeship Conference where she discussed some of the issues around completion rates and the impact of end-point assessment, assessor support, and functional skills assessment.
  • LSIPs. The British Chambers of Commerce reported on the progress of its Chamber-led Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) finding aspects such as the complexity of the skills system, bureaucracy and funding limits, challenging at times but concluding that they have ‘huge potential’ and could be ‘phenomenal.’
  • TLPD. The Education and Training Foundation announced that the government had extended its contract to deliver T Level Professional Development (TLPD) for a further two years, with support for smaller providers including schools and support for the T Level Foundation Year to be included among its extended offer.
  • Financial Handbook. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) published a new Financial Handbook for Independent Training Providers covering a mix of financial management and governance, best practice, and assurance, and due to become operative from this August.
  • Advanced manufacturing. Make UK reported on developments around advanced manufacturing and how these could help drive UK productivity, calling in the longer term for greater support for skills and apprenticeships including employer incentives for green and digital apprenticeships, a manufacturing mentorship scheme, and tax credits to help employers with digital transition.


  • International students. Universities UK raised concerns about a potential fall in the recruitment of international students, particularly at postgraduate level, linking it to a concern about post-study work opportunities and some recent policy rhetoric, arguing that this could have a damaging economic impact and calling on the government to offer reassurances about the Graduate Visa.
  • Foundation programmes. The QAA set out the scope of its work, commissioned by Universities UK, into examining International Foundation and Year One programmes, looking at issues such as admissions requirements and course standards which have been the subject of debate recently.
  • Student survey. The financial wellbeing platform, Blackbullion, published its 2024 survey of student money and wellbeing conducted by Censuswide at the start of this year, showing among other things the financial pressures many students are facing, the impact this is having on their studies and university experience, and what forms of university support really helps.
  • Research impact. The Russell Group highlighted the economic impact of their research and commercial activities with a report from the consultancy London Economics showing that for every £1 of public money invested, ‘£8.50 was generated for the UK economy’ through spin-offs, jobs and commercial rights, calling, ahead of the Budget, for the government to stick with its commitment to invest £20bn in R/D by 2024/5.
  • Mental health. The Office for Students (OfS) pledged £400,000 which will distributed through Student Minds to help with the growing numbers and demand for the University Mental Health Charter, as the target to have all universities part of the scheme by this September continues.
  • Uni Connect. The Office for Students (OfS) published the results of its commissioned report into the ‘outreach’ Uni Connect programme, noting its important impact in encouraging students from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve and apply to university but acknowledging that some changes to its model need to be made.
  • In Australia. The Times Higher reported on the reform package put forward for Australian universities that might offer a potential model for other systems and which includes needs-based funding for teaching, improvements to research funding and a 55% attainment target.
  • Saving humanities. Professor Glen O’Hara examined the demise of arts and humanities subjects in the sector, arguing that they have ‘fallen victim to a chaotic system’ stemming from decisions made on numbers and fees over recent years, calling for a rescue package to ensure their long-term future.

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Why do we still accept the Victorian idea of schools holding bake sales and charities rattling tins to find cash for the welfare and education of our children? Surely, a top priority for any intelligent society is for its govt to adequately invest in the futures of its children” - @SteveChalke.
  • “I just ate a piece of a child's birthday cake for breakfast. The joys of being a teacher” - @ HeyMissSmith.
  • “had a talk with my manager where i told him it’s hard to do my job when i’m left off of emails/meetings and he said “well when you’re left out just let me know” and then i stared at him until he went “but if you were left out, you wouldn’t know….” -@theashleyray.
  • “93% of Gen Z job-seekers said they haven't turned up to job interviews. With 50% saying that blanking firms on interview day was justified as companies often don't reply to job applications. Is it ever ok to not show up for a job interview?” –@GMB.

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Further tightening spending plans may appear to generate further ‘headroom’, but this would not be a transparent or credible strategy and the Chancellor should avoid this temptation” – the IfS whispers in the Chancellor’s ear ahead of next week’s Budget.
  • “Without concerted cross-government action, we risk creating a lost generation due to ill health” – the Resolution Foundation highlights concerns about a rise in mental health problems among young people.
  • “This will not go unnoticed by our local communities. It means less potholes filled, more streetlights dimmed or turned off, and fewer library or leisure services” – the Local Government Association warns of cost savings needed by local councils unless the government coughs up in next week’s Budget.
  • “I’m determined that it will remain the Ronseal Levy that does what it says on the tin” – the skills minister sticks to the current model of the Apprenticeship Levy.
  • “Local Skills Improvement Plans are working and beginning to make positive differences to local employers” – the British Chambers of Commerce reports on its locally led LSIPs.
  • “Fining parents is a last resort” – one primary school headteacher reacts to the increase in fines for pupil non-attendance.
  • “Each year group of children who do not meet the expected early years standard generates lifetime economic costs of around £830m” – Pro Bono Economics reports on the costs of low levels of literacy among groups of children.
  • “Our survey shows that both parents and children are unprepared for the AI revolution” – Internet Matters, issues its latest report on ‘Children’s Wellbeing in a Digital World.’
  • “If my child was nine now and not nine months, I certainly wouldn’t be giving him a phone. That’s my choice and my decision and every family is different,” – tech secretary Michelle Donelan makes her views known on mobile phones.

Important numbers

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

  • £89. The amount by which ‘the average non-salaried worker’ should be better off this year given the extra work day this year for Leap Year, according to the CEBR.
  • 49%. The number of students in a survey who wished their university had provided them with financial education, according to the financial wellbeing platform, Blackbullion.
  • 70%. The number of maintained schools in England facing cuts over the last decade, according to the renewed School Cuts website.
  • 52.4. The average weekly working hours reported by full-time teachers last year, according to latest government figures.
  • 84% and 79%. Typical teaching times in secondary and primary schools respectively, according to research from the Education Policy Institute.
  • 8.4%. The increase n the number of children being home educated last year, according latest figures from government.
  • 44%. The number of children, predominantly 13–14-year-olds, said to be ‘actively engaging’ with generative AI tools, according to a survey from Internet Matters.
  • 49%. The percentage of teachers surveyed who said they definitely wouldn’t consider becoming an Ofsted inspector, according to Teacher Tapp.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Westminster Hall debate on the educational attainment of boys (Tuesday 5 March).
  • Budget Day (Wednesday 6 March).
  • Westminster Hall debate for World Book Day (Wednesday 6 March).
  • World Book Day (Thursday 7 March).

Other stories

  • How do you get your news? A fascinating peek this week into how different groups of people engage with and receive news. It came in the form of a major survey from the comms company, Charlesbye, the company founded by Boris Johnson’s former comms director Lee Cain. Using focus group evidence, it identified nine different demographic groups types, each of whom interact with news differently. So, for example, so-called Generation TikTok, largely female and comprised of Generation Z ‘consume their news passively as a by-product of scrolling’ and generally through visual platforms such as Tik Tok. By contrast, the Six O’Clockers, largely older, non-graduates, while not avid followers of the news, tend to engage with it once a day via traditional formats. The other seven groups identified in the study, many with self-explanatory news habits, included ‘avid traditionalists,’ ‘silver surfers,’ ‘digital news addicts,’ ‘generalists,’ ‘netizens,’, ‘missing millennials,’ and ‘the disengaged and disconnected.’ It’s an interesting picture in a year when the importance of news and what to trust has become so critical.  A link to the full profiles and the report in full can be found here.

  • 4-Day week. “Moving to the four-day week is not for the faint hearted.” So said one of the bosses of a company practising the model and quoted in an FT article this week, one year on from the end of the trial in the UK. The model means doing the same, or more, in one day less a week, with no loss of pay. It’s become quite a hot topic over the last year, emerging as both a bargaining chip in pay negotiations and almost a life saver for those coping with the demands and costs of things like childcare. But as the article suggests, it’s not all plain sailing. On the upside, flexi working as a concept is popular and as some firms have reported, a 4-day week can improve staff retention and wellbeing. On the downside, managing it can be difficult, time pressures can be intensified and productivity hasn’t notably improved. Most of the firms questioned were small, so how far the idea spreads to bigger firms remains to be seen. A link to the article in the FT 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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