Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 08 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:

Budget stuff mostly this week of course but there have been others stories too

Let’s start with the Budget, billed as a crucial set piece moment for this government.

The reaction from education has generally been underwhelming.

‘A missed opportunity to invest in skills,’ according to the Association of Colleges (AoC,) ‘children and schools largely ignored,’ the verdict from the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT,) ‘downplayed the importance of research, innovation and skills for delivering growth,” the view from the Russell Group of universities, ‘a woefully inadequate Budget,’ in the words of the Sutton Trust and ‘‘the Chancellor spent more time name-checking film stars than he did on education,’ the rather more pointed response from the ASCL.

Wider reactions weren’t much better.

“What we saw today was a pre-election Budget from a Chancellor with quite limited room for manoeuvre," the view from the IfS’s Paul Johnson, “no major announcements to help shift the dial on conditions for business,” the verdict from the British Chambers of Commerce, and “at a time when our schools, hospitals and councils are on their knees, we needed a serious plan to rebuild Britain. All we got was wishful thinking on productivity and pre-election gimmicks,” the conclusion from the TUC. ‘All but blind to struggling families and the services they rely on,’ the take from the Child Poverty Action Group

This Budget had come with a big build-up, perhaps bigger than normal given its setting within an election year but apart from an overall sense of disappointment, was there anything for education to take on board?

Arguably four things.

First, confirmation of the 1% increase in public spending. There had been fears this might be cut to 0.75% but as the Chancellor explained “I am keeping the planned growth in day-to-day spending at 1% in real terms.” Policy commentator Jonathan Simons tweeted that this was the most important announcement of the day although it might not feel like it to non-protected sectors including FE.

That brings us on the second point because having announced the 1% increase for public spending, the Chancellor went on to say “but, we are going to spend it better.”

The money in other words has to come in future with an efficiency drive. The Chancellor explained how this would work. “So today I am announcing a landmark Public Sector Productivity Plan that restarts public service reform and changes the Treasury’s traditional approach to public spending.”

We’ve had lots of efficiency drives before but the attraction, according to the OBR, is that raising public sector productivity by just 5% would deliver £20bn of benefits a year. Also, efficiency always sounds good.

The NHS will ‘benefit’ first as the Chancellor explained, with extra funding for digital and technological transformation “to unlock greater productivity.” Other sectors will follow, with the Spending Review, when it comes, dishing out funding on the basis of improved public sector productivity.

Point number three, therefore, to take away from the Budget is the importance of the next Spending Review when it comes after the election. This will now be set within the context of what the Chancellor called “a robust and comprehensive strategy for improving public sector productivity.” Education take note.

And fourth, what about the few education announcements that were made? There some, generally set out in the accompanying hefty Treasury document.

These included an initial £105m investment for 15 special free schools, locations to be announced in May, an increase in the hourly rate for eligible childcare providers, the extension for a further year of the Additional Jobcentre Support pilot, further devolution powers including over adult ed to three county councils with a Level 4 trailblazer devolution deal with the NE, and some further funding for science and innovation. Hence the lack of excitement from across the education world.

As ever, the Resolution Foundation, Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) and many others have provided their customary excellent analysis of the Budget as a whole.

The Resolution Foundation, for instance, pointed to this “being the greatest tax-raising Parliament since the Second World War, with tax relative to GDP rising from 33.1 per cent in 2019/20 to 36.5 percent in 2024/25.” While for the IfS, Paul Johnson indicated that “day-to-day spending on a range of public services outside of health, defence and education, will fall by something like £20 billion.”

This is the financial context for the foreseeable future. As one MP put it: ‘it’s not very sexy.’

Away from the Budget and a quick run through other education-related news this week, starting with two interesting reports on aspects of post-Covid recovery for many learners.

In the first, the UPP Foundation, whose Student Futures Commission had set out a ‘recovery’ blueprint for higher ed students in 2022, looked at how students were faring two years on.

Survey evidence suggested a mixed picture. For many, the student experience had ‘bounced back,’ students were happy with their teaching and learning and over 70% of those surveyed welcomed the support they were receiving.

Yet focus groups also revealed what the report summarised as ‘alarming levels of loneliness, apathy and disengagement driven by a ‘cost of learning’ crisis and an increasingly transactional relationship between students and their university.’ As Commission Chair Mary Curnock Cook put it “too many students want to simply ‘get in to get out.”

Institutions had clearly worked hard to get things back on track with new forms of teaching and support but clearly some challenges remain.

This was also the case for some younger learners as a new report this week from the Education Policy Institute highlighted.

Using evidence from assessment provider Renaissance’s Star English and maths assessments to compare pupil performance before, during and after Covid, it showed a drop in maths performance post-pandemic at both primary and secondary levels, particularly among disadvantaged pupils. A widening of the disadvantage gap in primary, for instance, from 6.9 months to 8.7.

As report author Jon Andrews explained, “This latest analysis shines further light on the disproportionate impact that the Covid-19 pandemic had on the outcomes of disadvantaged pupils, worsening already stark inequalities.”

In late news, Ofsted’s Chief inspector, Sir Martyn Oliver, used his speech to the ASCL Conference to launch the inspection body’s vaunted ‘Big Listen’ review. “Every voice will be heard, and nothing is off the table.”

In other school news this week, pay has been back in the headlines following the government’s recent submission to the Pay Body for a ‘sustainable’ award this year. Both the NAHT and NEU raised concerns this week. The former calling for ‘a double-digit award’ and the latter launching consultation on potential action.

FFT Education Datalab suggested some 20% of pupils could fall foul of the government’s new rules for fines for unauthorised absences with “Disadvantaged pupils and those with special educational needs are at greater risk than other pupils.” Ofsted reported on the teaching of English pointing to many positives but intriguingly calling on schools to ‘ensure that statutory tests and exams do not disproportionately influence decisions about curriculum and pedagogy.”  

The Careers and Enterprise Company reported on progress in careers provision in schools in England in 2022/23 using data from the DfE along with survey evidence from students and employers to suggest ‘Young people are becoming more career ready.’

The tutoring company, GoStudent, reckoned that “half of children across Europe are calling for more AI tools to support their leaning.” And the TES highlighted the growing issue of vexatious complaints, calling for a complete overhaul of what it saw as ‘the Wild West’ complaints system.

In FE this week, sector leaders expressed their disappointment with the latest Budget while the Youth Select Committee and Youth Employment UK continued to bang the drum for skills and support for young people. And the Institute for Apprenticeships heralded International Women’s Day by calling for a better balance between the genders in some sectors.

Over in HE, the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) added its thoughts on the hot topic of foundation courses in a new report, arguing that “it's time for everyone to wake up. Universities shouldn’t be running these courses unless they can be confident they can properly support every single student.” In essence they can be an important enabler of access but they need to be better managed and overseen.

And Universities UK issued its response to the Office for Students (OfS) consultation on regulating student unions on free speech, pointing to the fine line that needs to be observed in any regulations. For instance, “it is important that guidance does not inadvertently have a chilling effect on free speech by causing undue nervousness of students’ unions about breaching their duties.”

Finally, back to Westminster where the Education Committee questioned moneysavingexpert Martin Lewis among others about financial education in schools highlighting among other things, children not understanding the difference between real money and in-app money. 

Elsewhere MPs discussed the educational attainment of boys and World Book Day in Westminster Hall debates. ‘We need as a society to take better care of our boys,’ one MP argued in the debate about boys’ attainment.

And, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Liz Kendall used a speech to the Demos thinktank to set out Labour plans to help get more people back into work starting with a 5-point plan to help young people.

This included reform of the apprenticeship levy, more careers advisers in schools and employment advisers in Young Futures Hubs, support for disabled people and specialist mental health support in every schools with ‘walk in access in every community.’ But, and this was the warning ‘we’ll invest in you …but in return you’ll have a responsibility to take up the work or training that’s on offer.’

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

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Disadvantaged pupils further behind in maths since Covid, English study finds.’ (Monday).
  • ‘Introduction of financial education to national curriculum counterproductive.’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Budget 2024: £105m for 15 special free schools, and nothing else.’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘World Book Day finds children are put off reading for pleasure.’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Ofsted launches Big Listen on future of inspection. (Friday).


  • Budget speech. The Chancellor outlined the details for what he claimed was ‘a Budget for long-term growth’ in the traditional Chancellor’s speech, arguing that the economy had turned a corner and announcing among other things a further 2p reduction in NICs, a Productivity Plan to improve public sector delivery, and new funding for digital transformation in the NHS.
  • Budget report. The Treasury published the full accompanying report to the Chancellor’s Spring Budget statement setting out in more detail the economic and fiscal outlook, the reforms to public spending and the listed and costed policy decisions.
  • Economic Outlook. The Chair of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) outlined the latest economic and fiscal outlook in a presentation made to accompany the organisation’s major report to the Chancellor, suggesting that forecasts have changed little since the Autumn Statement although the expectation is of ‘a stronger recovery’ this year but with no growth in public services spending likely over the next five years.
  • Pre-Budget promise. The Chancellor announced a package of funding for UK life sciences and manufacturing with two start-up pharmaceutical companies, advanced manufacturing and automobile R/D projects among the recipients of a £360m pre-Budget giveaway.
  • Budget analysis (1.) The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) provided its regular analysis of the Budget the day after, pointing among other things to last year being the worst year for household incomes for 50 years, to the big increases in taxes over this parliament, to the array of challenges facing the next Chancellor and concluding that ‘this was not a Budget which addressed the real challenges we are facing.’
  • Budget analysis (2.) The Resolution Foundation outlined its assessment of the Budget in a new Briefing suggesting that it left workers on middle and slightly higher earnings as net winners but pointing also to the overall rising tax burden and the potential spending cuts to come for unprotected departments.
  • Back to work. Liz Kendall, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions outlined Labour plans to help more people back into work in a speech to the think tank Demos, putting forward on this occasion a 5-point plan that included specialist mental health support and more careers and employment advisers, to help more young people back into work.
  • Cost-of-living. The Youth Select Committee published its report into the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on young people based on evidence collected last autumn, highlighting a range of challenges that young people face and calling among other things for better access to mental health support, an extension of free school meals and an Essentials Guarantee to cover the basics ibn life.
  • Children in need. The children’s commissioner reported on provision for children on child in need plans finding significant variation between what happens to different groups and in different authorities, calling as a result for greater consistency on the thresholds for support and clarity of guidance for all.

More specifically ...


  • Ofsted inspections. Sir Martyn Oliver, Ofsted Chief Inspector, announced the launch of a major review of Ofsted inspections in the form of a 3-month ‘Big Listen,’ focusing on four core themes including how it carries out inspections and reports its findings and pledging to put the interests of young people, especially disadvantaged children, at its heart.
  • Pay award. The NAHT published its evidence to the Pay Body looking into this year’s pay award, arguing that teacher vacancies are currently ‘at their highest for over a decade,’ and calling accordingly for ‘a double digit’ pay rise.
  • Complaints. The TES reported on the rising problem of vexatious complaints facing many schools, where increasing numbers of social media channels have made complaining more accessible and stretched public services and cost-of-living concerns have left people feeling more anxious, putting school leaders under pressure and calling for a system review.
  • VAT on school fees. The EDSK think tank highlighted in a new briefing many of the challenges in trying to set VAT on independent school fees, indicating that apart from complex legislation, issues of exemptions among other things could prove tricky.
  • Ofsted report. Ofsted published the latest in its series of subject reports, in this case covering English, noting significant improvements around the teaching of reading but less so for written and spoken language, calling among other things for greater support for pupils at key transition stages, practice with reading and teacher professional development.
  • Education report. The online tutoring group GoStudent published its survey of children and parents views from cross six European countries including the UK, on how education was changing and its future, highlighting the increasing importance being attached to technology and to the provision of skills for the future.
  • Catch-up. The Education Policy Institute and the assessment provider Renaissance published the latest in their series of reports looking at learning recovery post-Covid, focusing here on disadvantaged pupils and showing maths results notably down at both primary and secondary compared to pre-pandemic levels, with the attainment gap remaining ‘substantially larger than before the pandemic.’
  • Careers Education. The Careers and Enterprise Company reported on its major survey of careers education in schools in England for 2022/23 showing that most schools were now using the Gatsby Benchmarks of good practice, young people were having more ‘touchpoints’ with employers than before and employers and young people generally were more career ready, setting out a number of steps to help maintain momentum such as further outreach work, employer engagement and impact assessment.
  • Pupil absentees. FFT Education Datalab examined how many pupils in England might fall foul of the government’s new threshold for triggering fines for absence suggesting that on the basis of 2022/23 data, one in five pupils could fall below the threshold, with Year 10 and disadvantaged pupils most at risk.
  • Creative subjects. FFT Education Datalab also investigated trends in creative subjects pointing to a drop in the numbers of schools offering some of these subjects in recent years as well as in the numbers of pupils achieving qualifications in them, but with regional variations, and with schools with the highest numbers of disadvantaged pupils least likely to offer such subjects.
  • Personalised maths. Exam board AQA announced the launch of a personalised maths test, ‘powered by adaptive technology’ and taken during the first years of secondary, with the aim of helping a teacher pinpoint weak points in a pupil’s understanding.
  • Breakfast clubs. The government confirmed its funding subsidy for schools participating in breakfast club provision would run until the end of July 2025.


  • Budget reaction. The AoC issued its reaction to this week’s Budget deriding it as ‘a missed opportunity’ to tackle such issues as the ‘unfair’ VAT rules let alone investing in future skills.
  • Youth skills. Youth Employment UK and the National Citizen Service (NCS) announced plans to work together and help prepare young people for the world of work by collaborating on learning resources, Skills Booster programmes and through the upcoming Youth Census.
  • LSIPs. City and Guilds outlined in a comment piece on their website how Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) were changing the adult skills landscape by helping to align employer needs with local provision, arguing at the same time for further regional approaches.


  • Student experience 2024. The UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission reported on its survey of students three years on from its initial post-Covid manifesto, finding on the plus side a positive return to academic learning for many, but on the negative side ‘mounting challenges around the cost of learning crisis, feelings of apathy, and the expectation gap.’
  • Foundation courses. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) examined foundation courses in a new report, noting that these have risen significantly in recent years, leading to mounting concerns about their use and impact and calling for better oversight of their funding and quality.  
  • Free speech. Universities UK issued its response to the OfS consultation on regulating students’ unions on free speech noting that while guidance can be helpful, the OfS should recognise that most unions have charitable status and limited funds, both of which need to be recognised.
  • International students. The International HE Commission sought to tackle some of the many assertions about international students and how they are recruited in a new briefing, looking at what it called ‘the evidence rather than the emotion,’ what improvements could be made and what lessons learned from, for example, the recent approach in Australia.
  • University finances. Sir Chris Husbands spelt out the dilemmas over university financing in a blog on the King’s College Policy Institute website concluding that ultimately some hard thinking about how universities operate in future was needed.
  • Imperial strategy. Imperial College announced the launch of a new strategy intended to help cement the institution’s global position in science, research and innovation and involving creating four new cross-cutting schools of interdisciplinary science, an Extended Learning Institute, a Future Leaders Campaign and a network of global hubs.

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Cutting national insurance is only going to benefit the average employee by £5.86 per week” - @IPPR.
  • “My daughter's school did a dress down day and asked them to wear what they felt comfortable in when they sat down to read books at home” - @fmnorel.
  • “It's infuriating. Why are headlines about higher education and universities so relentlessly negative? Why is UK R&D subject to government / ministerial criticism rather than celebration. The UK is absolutely brilliant at higher education and research. It really is” - @ChrisJParr.
  • “In Canada, a post-pandemic surge of international students is causing prices for rental housing to soar, placing a spotlight on the uncontrolled growth of colleges that are taking advantage of vulnerable young people with inferior courses, according to their immigration minister” - @EDSKthinktank.
  • “Signs I am old: I have fewer than 20 photos from 4 years at university. I once went to Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant and I don’t have a picture of what I ate” - @HeyMissSmith.
  • “My best advice to anyone entering their 30s is to always – always! – book the Monday after a stag or hen do off work” - @LouisStaples.

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • "In other words, because we have turned the corner on inflation, we will soon turn the corner on growth” – the Chancellor steers a hopeful course in his Budget speech.
  • “Whoever is Chancellor at the time of the next Spending Review – which the Chancellor confirmed will not take place until after the election – might wish they’d chosen a different line of work” – the IfS’s Paul Johnson on the challenges facing the next Chancellor.
  • “While we welcome today’s announcements on supporting councils to reduce costs in children’s care placements and investment in more special school places, there is no more fat to cut and productivity gains can only get us so far” – County Councils respond to the Budget.
  • “A public sector productivity plan – whatever that actually is – will not pay the bills for schools and colleges anytime soon” – ASCL is underwhelmed by the Budget.
  • “Our new Growth and Skills levy will help young people get the skills they need, including offering a second chance at basic skills and pre-apprenticeship training if they didn’t get the right qualifications at school” - Labour’s Liz Kendall spells out the Party’s ‘reformed’ apprenticeship levy.
  • “Governments will come and go but our academic sector is truly world-leading and there is so much potential that has been missed by not supporting it properly” - former universities minister, Chris Skidmore quoted in the Times Higher talks about the lack of political support for the HE sector.
  • “There’s no realistic solution to the funding challenge without a hard look at the sector as a whole and the operating models of universities within it” – Sir Chris Husbands reflects on funding options for the HE sector.
  • “The government needs to send a clear signal to the workforce that change is coming – that starts with an urgent double digit pay uplift” – the NAHT calls for a large pay rise for teachers.
  • “A vision and model of modern careers education that is broad, structured and inclusive has taken hold. This is not yet the reality for every young person everywhere, but progress has been made and it’s a sound platform to build on” – the Careers and Enterprise Co reports on progress.
  • “The fact that they can come in pyjamas rather than going out and buying silly expensive dresses or outfits - this is good for our pockets” – a parent’s take on World Book Day.

Important numbers

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

  • 0.8%. The forecast growth for the UK economy this year, rising to 1.9% next year and 2% the year after, according to figures quoted by the Chancellor.
  • £1,250. The annual ‘gain’ from the Chancellor’s 2p cut in national insurance for a teacher earning £44,300, according to Treasury figures.
  • £60,000. The new ‘higher’ threshold for recipients of child benefit, as announced by the Chancellor in his Budget speech.
  • £105m. The initial investment to support the creation of 15 new special free schools, as announced by the Chancellor in his Budget speech.
  • £10,000. The amount that should be given to all 30-year-olds in the form of ‘a citizen’s inheritance’ to help overcome intergenerational inequality, according to former minister David Willetts.
  • 44%. The number of students surveyed reporting feeling lonely at university, according to a report from the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission.
  • 25,798. The number of participants who have ‘engaged’ in the T Level Professional Development Programme from May 2019 to Jan 2024, according to the Education and Training Foundation.
  • 83%. The number of school leaders said to have seen a rise in vexatious complaints, according to a survey by the NAHT and reported in the TES.
  • 6.8%. The pupil absence rate for schools in England for w/commencing 19 January, according to latest government figures.
  • 80%. The number of children said to be confident about living in a world surrounded by new technologies, above the European average according to a survey from the online platform GoStudent.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • MPs Education Questions. (Monday 11 March).
  • Education Committee witness session on the impact of screen time. (Tuesday 12 March).
  • Wonkhe’s ‘The Secret Life of Students’ event. (Tuesday 12 March).
  • Second Reading of Flick Drummond’s Private Member’s Bill on registers and support for Children Not in School. (Friday 15 March).

Other stories

  • Equal rights. Ahead of today’s International Women’s Day, the polling company Ipsos has been sampling views on equal rights. Apparently, when it comes to giving women equal rights with men, the numbers thinking things have gone far enough in Great Britain have been rising steadily over recent years and now stand at 47%. But wait a minute, almost an equal number (43%) disagree. And when it comes to the gender of political leaders or their boss, most Britons don’t seem to care too much either. “Overall people tended to think that male and female politicians are equally good/bad at delivering various objectives.” That said, men, it seems are more likely to prefer a male boss and women a female boss. A link to the survey can be found here.

The next issue of Education Eye will appear in a couple of weeks' time.

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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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