Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 19 August 2022

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:

Exam results week of course for A/AS levels, BTECs and T levels, with added piquancy this year as traditional exams returned for the first time since 2019. "I’ve been a wreck" one student told The Guardian at the start of the week as he highlighted some of the challenges that the Class of 2022 have had to endure.

Details to follow, but first, three other top headlines from the week

  • The IfS/CEP published a damning report on education inequality.” Despite decades of policy attention, there has been virtually no change in the ‘disadvantage gap’ in GCSE attainment over the past 20 years.” The response from ASCL’s Geoff Barton was particularly scathing. “We remain a deeply-divided, class-ridden society with a depressingly close alignment between family income and educational attainment
  • Consultancy company PwC attracted attention by announcing it was scrapping its 2:1-degree criteria for undergraduate and graduate roles. Rival company EY made a similar move seven years ago.
  • The Office for National Statistics reported a fall real average weekly earnings in its latest quarterly estimates on the labour market. The 3% fall was described by the Resolution Foundation as ‘the biggest pay squeeze in Britain since 1997.’

Links to these and other stories as usual all below.

But back to the big story of the week – those advanced level results.

The overall impression is that the plan of a managed return to pre-pandemic days ‘by setting grades this year at the midpoint between summer 2019 and 2021’ has worked. ‘Pretty bang on’ as policy expert Jonathan Simons tweeted.

That plan as the current Education Secretary put it “was to ensure that students could sit their exams for the first time since 2019, be graded fairly and move on to the next stage of their lives as we return to normality after the pandemic.” There are plenty of issues still to be confronted and plenty of questions too about the future of exams and assessment but for the moment, the turmoil and unease of the previous summer results has thankfully been avoided and a welcome sense of normality returned.

There’s been excellent analysis and widespread coverage of the various results and what they mean. At the time of writing, six main talking points stand out.

First, given the overall point about the positioning of grading this year, how did the A level grades pan out in reality? 83% of entries gained a C or above, “up from 76% in 2019, and down from 89% in 2021, reflecting the target set out last autumn” as the government put it. The media which was urged not to make comparisons with last year but promptly did, headlined it in one case as the ’biggest fall in top grades.’ Overall A*-E outcomes were 0.8 pp up on 2019, according to the Joint Council. And actually there was a high number of A*s at 14.6%.

Second, what about independent schools where fingers have been pointed about the volume of top grades awarded last year? According to The Guardian “the gap between private and state schools’ top grades in England closed compared to last year” but remains at 27 pp. In all 58% of grades private schools were at A/A*, down on last year but up on 2019. It remains an issue for many.

Third, what about university entry and those dire warnings about the pressure on places this year? Many students of course are still going through Clearing which will continue to operate until mid-October so the picture is not complete but as it stands, acceptances for higher education are running at their second highest level yet. This includes the first T level students and increased numbers of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds. Nor is there any evidence of any ‘snaffling of places’ as Nick Hillman put it, by international students.

Fourth, the first students from the government’s much-vaunted T levels gained their results this year. The grading system is based on individual components and overall pass, merit or distinction with adjustments applied this year. Three sectors reported results this summer, construction, digital, and education and childcare, comprising just over a thousand students with a 92% pass rate. It’s worth noting also that over 30,000 top grades were awarded for BTECs and other established vocational qualifications which continue to provide an important route for many people.

Fifth, what about trends in subject choices? Maths has remained the most popular A level followed by psychology, biology, sociology and history. Geography and political studies also proved popular. On the downside, English, either as Language, Literature or Combined, has seen a big drop; a 9.4% decrease in entries for Literature according to the Joint Council. ASCL called for the GCSE English specification to be urgently reviewed to stop what it called ‘this spiral of decline.’ Spanish remained the most popular in terms of modern foreign languages.

And sixth, Ofqual presented these results ‘as a staging post on the return to normality.’ While that will be welcomed by many, questions will continue to be asked about the future nature of the exam system. The Times Education Commission was particularly critical and called for a Bacc model in its report in June, Ofqual called for further work on adaptive testing and innovative practices in its corporate plan this year, while the HEPI website has recently run a series of articles about the accuracy or otherwise of grading.  The debates are not new but are gathering in momentum.

Away from exams but also important this week has been a major new report on education inequality.

It came from researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) and the Centre for Economic Performance as part of a significant review, funded by the Nuffield Foundation and led by the IfS, into inequality in society generally.

Its blunt conclusion is that despite years of huffing and puffing and no shortage of political gyrations, little has changed. “Differences in educational attainment emerge early in childhood and develop throughout an individual’s lifetime.”

Of course the pandemic has exacerbated the problems, but as the report highlights in depressing detail 'Those who perform better at GCSE and achieve degrees go on to gain better jobs and higher income'. Yet non free school meal pupils are three times more likely than their disadvantaged peers to do well at KS2 and at GCSE. Family background is important but so is school funding, teacher quality and resources, yet 'the gap between private and state schools in per-pupil resources has doubled since 2010'. 'There is overwhelming evidence that the education system in England leaves too many young people behind', it concludes.

The report offers a number of ‘guiding principles’ that could help to create a more equal education system. These include early intervention with the caveat that ‘it must be followed up' recognition of the wider value of education –'education is not just about test scores' – and, of course, sustainable investment. But, ultimately, as the report concludes, 'educational inequalities cannot be solved by the education system alone'.

The top headlines of the week

  • ‘A level results day will not be pain-free, head of UCAS says’ (Monday).
  • ‘No improvement in school attainment gap in England, study says’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Students should turn to apprenticeships to ease soaring demand for degrees’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Number of top A level grades falls sharply as north-south divide grows’ (Thursday).
  • ‘North-South gap in A level results fuels social mobility fears’ (Friday).


  • Broadband costs. The government announced it was moving ahead with a system of ‘social tariffs’ for broadband users in low-income houses which would see broadband providers offer cheaper deals for those on benefits.
  • Labour market data. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its latest estimates report on the UK labour market, covering the period April-June 2022, showing little change to previous updates but pointing to a marked fall in levels of pay once inflation was taken into account.
  • Labour market analysis. The Learning and Work Institute offered its analysis of the latest quarterly labour market data pointing to four worrying features including the fall in regular pay, the continuing flat employment rate, the small pool of potential workers and the low employment rates for disabled people.
  • Labour market gaps. The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford examined post-Brexit immigration policies and their impact on the labour market suggesting these have ‘contributed to labour shortages,’ and calling among other things for greater visa mobility around low-paid jobs.
  • Labour market outlook. The HR body CIPD published its latest update on the Labour Market showing things remaining tight with employers struggling to recruit and retain notably in sectors like education and transport, but equally with some signs that recession fears may see the market slow down.
  • Education Inequalities. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) with the LSE published an important report into education inequality, finding no real improvement in the attainment gap over recent years with those who start from a poor background and achieve low levels of qualification ending up worse off in terms of job prospects and pay generally.
  • Copyright matters. Leading publishing bodies wrote to the Education Secretary to raise concerns about the government’s decision to introduce a new copyright and database exception which would undermine the UK’s ‘renowned’ intellectual property framework and introduce unfair competition into the system.
  • Emergency Alerts. The government announced it was setting up a new public emergency text alerts system which from this autumn would alert people via their phones to potential emergencies such as extreme weather conditions, flooding and fire risks.

More specifically ...


  • Exam results 2022. The government and Ofqual reported this summer’s advanced level exam results, showing overall results at A/AS level higher than when they were last formally sat in 2019 but with continuing regional and gender differences and some notable changes in exam entry trends.
  • More on Exam results 2022. FFT Education Datalab provided its customary useful analysis of what to look out for from this summer’s advanced level results, pointing in particular to the fact that grades have started to ‘be brought into line with those of 2019,’ the gap between independent and state schools has started to modify and that regional differences have increased in some areas.
  • School places. The government published figures on the number of appeals for those who failed to secure a primary or secondary school place of preference for 2021/22, showing the volume in both cases slightly down (to 1.2% in primary, 3.9% in secondary) and the number of successful appeals up in both cases.
  • Early years hubs. The government set out information for organisations seeking to apply to become ‘stronger practice hubs’ which will launch this November with support from the Education Endowment Fund and National Children’s Bureau and run for two years.
  • Tory Leadership matters. ASCL’s Geoff Barton reflected on what the two Tory leadership candidates have had to say about education so far, suggesting that neither had tackled the two core issues so far, namely ‘the funding of our education system, and teacher supply.’


  • Exam results 2022. The government and Ofqual reported this summer’s advanced level exam results showing nearly a quarter of a million results awarded for L3 vocational qualifications with sectors like Business Admin and Health and Public Services performing strongly, and students on the first three T levels also achieving their grades.
  • Support our colleges. David Hughes, CEO at the Association of Colleges, called on the two Tory leadership contenders to invest in skills and to support colleges, suggesting that current funding levels wouldn’t be enough to support government ambitions when it came to skills and pointing to VAT exemption for colleges as just one way of boosting investment.
  • Alternative routes. Ian Pretty, CEO at the Collab Group, called for colleges not to be forgotten when it came to advanced level results, pointing to the “rich educational and social experience” which colleges can offer and which can rival those of university for post-A’ level students who might be seeking education and training options.
  • Apprenticeship standards. The Institute for Apprenticeships launched a new round of recruitment for employers to join its route panels offering advice and guidance on apprenticeship standards and assessment in areas like care services, construction, engineering, and hair and beauty.


  • University entry 2022. UCAS reported on the current state of entry for UK higher education where Clearing remains open but where the second highest number of students have been accepted for places following their advanced level results, including the first T level students and an increased (19%) number of UK 18 yr olds notably from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Exam results 2022. Nick Hillman listed nine points to note from this summer’s advanced level results in a blog on the HEPI website, including the context on university places this year, the fact that things may be tougher next year and the likelihood of continuing debate on the accuracy of grades.
  • More on Exam results 2022. David Kernohan analysed this summer’s A level results data with a number of useful charts, suggesting that in many ways results were closer to 2021 than 2019.
  • Horizon Europe. The government launched formal dispute proceedings with the EU over its failure to ratify UK access to EU scientific and research programmes such as Horizon Europe as previously agreed, suggesting it would have to resort to alternative arrangements if agreement could not be reached.
  • External Examining. The QAA, along with Universities UK and Guild HE, published a set of guiding principles for external examining, listing 12 in all covering such features as ‘how to ensure fairness and transparency,’ the provision of adequate training, and how to engage with staff and students.
  • Graduate recruitment. The consultancy firm PwC announced it was removing the 2:1 criteria for undergraduate and graduate roles and placements as it sought to open out opportunities for more talented young people.
  • Graduate salaries. The Institute of Student Employers reported on its recent survey showing graduate salaries rising on average at a record rate as part of ‘a battle for talent’ with the median starting salary for graduates last year at £30,500.
  • 5 fallacies. Former Universities Minister highlighted in a commentary on the conservativehome site, five fallacies about higher ed, including the so-called 50% target and the ‘removal’ of Polys, that are not well understood and are used by critics on the right to frame debates about university.
  • The OU and Russell Group reminded university recruits of the availability of free resources on such topics as study skills, student life and mental health, all accessible via the Jumpstart University hub set up by the OU and Russell Group last year to help students settle in.

Stand-out tweets

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “I would like to congratulate my niece on passing her mouth organ A-Level music exam. Well done our Monica” | @DadJokeMan.
  • “To every British teacher that's gone on holiday recently: How was France?”  | @ASBOTeacher.
  • Well, it's settled. From October, it's back to the office full time. WFH will be too expensive” | @JavierBlas.
  • “I have been approached by fellow @telebusiness reporters three times this week as "the person who knows how to print things" A reminder of the clear benefits of working in an office environment” | @HelCahill.

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “It’s another month where pay falls further as businesses and workers struggle with rising costs like energy prices” – the CBI responds to the latest labour market figures.
  • “Better-educated people are more likely to be in work and tend to earn more, and the influence of education does not stop there” – the IfS/LSE report on education inequality.
  • “Students in particular wanted a chance to prove themselves” – Ofqual reports on this summer’s advanced level exam results.
  • “Our universities will be working hard to give as many people the opportunity to study with them as they can, while maintaining a high-quality experience for students” – the Russell Group looks to reassure university applicants.
  • “Scratch the veneer of an apparently orderly education system and you find myriad ways to gain unfair advantage” – Lee Elliot Major on the unregulated scramble for university places.
  • “Is this for real or just media again?” – a response on Mumsnet about the possibility that the energy crisis may force schools to consider a 3-day week.

Important numbers

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

  • 10.1%. The CPI rate of inflation in the UK for July, up from 9.4% from the previous month, according to the ONS, the highest rate for 40 years driven largely by increases in the prices of food and fuel.
  • 3%. The fall in regular pay over the last quarter once inflation was taken into account, the sharpest so far this century according to latest figures from the ONS.
  • 425,830. The number of students accepted for places in UKHE currently, the second highest on record according to UCAS.
  • £43.30. The amount UK students spend on average a month on alcohol, according to a report from NatWest.
  • 8,570. The number of A level students in England who took 3 A levels and achieved 3 A* grades, compared to 2,785 in 2019 according to Ofqual.
  • 2.5%. The hit to Afghanistan’s annual GDP by keeping girls out of secondary school, according to a report from UNICEF.
  • 457,386. The number of referrals to Children and Young People’s mental health services for May 2022, a record according to the charity Young Minds.
  • 53 minutes. The amount of time 16-24 yr olds spend watching mainstream TV on a daily basis compared to 5hrs 50 mins for those aged 65+, according to Ofcom.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • GCSE results day (Thursday 25 August).
  • Parliament on its summer break (Friday 22 July – Monday 5 September).

Other stories

  • Uni costs. With many students this week planning their move into higher education, NatWest has released its latest Student Living Index. It’s a useful guide to such things as how students manage their money (35% run out by the end of term,) how much parents contribute on average (£331 a month,) where students do more part-time work (Manchester and York) and who spends the most on alcohol (Liverpool and Exeter.) A link to the Index is here.
  • WFH. More on working from home this week which as The Times reported this week is becoming a frontier for culture wars. The consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) has been gathering some interesting research both domestically and globally about hybrid working. Its initial report, recently released, using data from 79 offices across 13 countries found employees on average attending the office for 1.3 days a week. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays were the busiest days, hence the (slang) acronym with Fridays, unsurprisingly perhaps, the least busy. 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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