Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 26 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:

Results week part two with GCSE and other results published this week. 

As with the advanced level results last week, the build-up majored on many of the challenges faced by this Class of 2022. 

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) warned that 'Schools and pupils have been affected to varying extents by the pandemic and the consequent disruption to learning, and it is likely that results will reflect these turbulent circumstances and will be uneven'. While headteachers reported in The Guardian, that they’d never seen a year group face so much uncertainty over grades and progression.

Details in a minute, but first three other headlines from the week. 

  • Two new reports assessed the exam system in England. One argued for ‘bold reform,’ the other for ‘incremental change.’ Details below.
  • Destinations Gap. Teach First analysed DfE data and pointed to ‘a stark destinations gap’ after finding “young people from disadvantaged backgrounds more than twice as likely as their wealthier peers to not be in sustained work or education five years after completing their GCSE exams.” 
  • The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published its latest annual ‘Soft-Power Index’ showing the US as the top preferred country for serving world leaders to complete their higher education. The UK remained second, slightly down on previous years, with 55 such leaders to the US’s 67. 

Links to these and other stories below as usual, but back to the top two stories of the week: the GCSE exam results, and those two big exam system reports  

As with A level, GCSE results his year have been part of a managed return to a midway point between 2019 and 2021. This means, as the government carefully explained, that 'overall grades today are higher than in 2019 – recognising the unprecedented disruption students have faced – but lower than in 2021 when exceptional steps were taken to ensure progression.” 

In summary, this saw the pass rate dropping from just over 79% last year to 75.3% this year as against 69.9% in 2019. And the number gaining top grades dropping to 26.3%, down from 28.9% last year, but up from 20.8% in 2019. A number of caveats apply here. These figures refer to 16 year-olds in England; top grades refers to those gaining a 7 or above; while pass rate refers to those gaining a grade 4, seen as a ‘standard’ pass, though some other charts refer to a grade 5, seen as a ‘strong’ pass.

As ever, there’s been lots more illuminating analysis and reporting, but as things stand, five talking points have emerged.

First, there’s still a long way to go for English and maths. The pass rate has improved on 2019, but still leaves nearly 25% of 16-year-olds in maths and 22% in English without standard GCSE passes in the two core subjects valued for progression. It makes things difficult for many young people, particularly as resits can prove challenging, as this year’s results have shown. Not only that, government thinking is moving towards including English and maths in any future Bacc model, let alone as a possible criteria for some student loans. It leaves the pressure, in many cases, on colleges to salvage.

Second, regional inequalities became a big talking point in the advanced level results and seem to have been underlined in the GCSEs. There was a 10% gap in top grades between London and the North East for example. Details can be seen in Ofqual’s infographic. There’s been lots of discussion around the fact that the pandemic exacerbated an already disadvantaged area and the debate has now become political. Leading local bodies such as the Northern Powerhouse have called on the incoming PM to help amid claims that levelling up isn’t working.

Third, ahead of results day, ASCL raised concerns about a drop in entries for creative subjects at GCSE. Performing arts, D/T and PE did see a fall in entries, but many other subjects have remained stable. According to the Joint Council for Qualifications, maths, English, double award science and history continue to have the largest entries, while business studies, geography, food prep and biology have seen notable rises. Despite another drop, French remains the most popular modern foreign language. One interesting aside concerns computer science. According to the boss of Code First Girls, not enough girls are taking the subject. As she told The Guardian: “at this rate there will only be one qualified woman for every 115 roles in the tech job market by 2025”.

Fourth, debate about attainment gaps within the independent sector has continued. Private schools saw a big drop this year in the number of top grades awarded, down over 8% on last year according to the DfE. Questions have remained about the number of top grades awarded in the sector last year and whether there was any impropriety. FFT Education Database examined the evidence recently and concluded that such charges ‘seem a bit harsh’ and that much depends on the data used. 

Fifth, and finally, many students have of course taken vocational qualifications for which, in some cases, completed results are still awaited. Hence the lack of detail.

Next, the exam system, and those two big reports out this week. 

First up was former DfE special adviser Sam Freedman who examined the case for assessment reform in a paper for the Institute for Government. 

As one of the architects in arguably the most recent major reform of the exam system – the Govean reforms of the Coalition government – he went for ‘incremental change’ rather than wholesale reform. 'Rather than massive, disruptive change, the English education system would benefit more from a model of incremental improvement around assessment'. In his view, the starting point should be a detailed look at what assessment issues need addressing, what the purpose(s) of assessment should be, and how current developments in technology could be adopted. He saw this as part of a long-term plan for improvement. 'A 10-year plan for testing alternative approaches and incorporating them without heavy disruption for schools'.

He did concur that it was possible to do other things, such as widening the scope of A levels to include a cross disciplinary subject, but the case for assessment reform was, as he implied, ‘the real exam question’ for the moment.

Next came a paper from the Tony Blair Institute which went full hog, calling among other things for the scrapping of GCSEs and A levels altogether as it set out a range of reforms for ‘future proofing education in England’.  Its charge was that the current system is failing to deliver the skills needed for the future. 'The education system in England continues to rely heavily on passive forms of learning focused on direct instruction and memorisation'. 

It’s not a new charge of course. As the assessment expert Daisy Christodoulou tweeted, “the problem with today's report on education from the Tony Blair Institute is it reads like it could have been written in 1985”. At its heart is the debate about knowledge v skills and how best to secure the appropriate balance for young people, let alone employers, for the future. It’s a debate that has divided for some time.

For supporters, the report sets out an energetic reform programme around pupil assessment, school assessment and the curriculum, to be undertaken in three phases. Scrapping GCSEs and A levels and replacing them with a form of International Bacc for 18-year-olds appears, for instance, under phase 3, although no specific timescale is given. The concept of a Bacc-style qualification at age 18 is very much in vogue currently and has been so since Tony Blair himself rejected the proposal 20 years ago. Phase three would also see a data-driven model of school accountability with Ofsted as a ‘critical friend’ and a new expert commission in place overseeing a slimmed down and more creative national curriculum.

The report aligns closely with proposals from the recent Times Education Commission and Sir Anthony Seldon, one of the movers behind the Commission, has praised much of it. “We need a revolution in what’s taught.” Among those less excited has been Nick Gibb. “Tony Blair” he said, “is on the wrong side of the education debate”. Further evidence of the different sides remaining.

The top headlines of the week

  • ‘Fail grades predicted to rise as GCSEs return to pre-pandemic levels’ (Monday).
  • ‘Scrap GCSEs and A levels, says Tony Blair Institute in call for ‘radical reform’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Schools must stay open 5 days a week despite energy struggles, says minister’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Fall in England’s GCSE grades signals a return to pre-pandemic normality’ (Thursday). 
  • ‘Gap in GCSE results brings fresh warnings over Covid’ (Friday).


  • Plan for Wage Growth. The TUC called for a return to ‘normal wage growth,’ a £15 minimum wage and a lifelong learning and skills strategy, in a new report on delivering a high wage economy.
  • Business support. The British Chambers of Commerce called on the government to provide support for business, saying time was running out and listing a 5-point plan that could help businesses that included a temporary VAT cut to reduce energy costs and a review of the Shortage Occupation List.
  • CEO pay. The High Pay Centre and TUC reported on chief executive pay last year showing that on average it had increased from £2.46m to £3.41m and was now over 109 times that of the median UK f/t worker.
  • Childcare services. The charity Action for Children called on the government to invest more in parenting support as it published a new survey showing many parents (66%,) notably in disadvantaged areas, calling for better access to high-quality support.
  • Early years. The government confirmed that it intended to extend its eligibility for free early education for 2-year-olds to include all 2-year-olds from families without recourse to public funds, following recent consultation.

More specifically ...


  • GCSE results 2022. The government congratulated students and staff on this summer’s GCSE results which showed grades generally higher than the last time exams were formally sat in 2019, albeit down on the assessed grade system used in 2021.
  • GCSE results data. Ofqual reported on this summer’s GCSE results, complete with a results summary, infographic and charts of results by centre type.
  • GCSE results trends. FFT Education Datalab summarised this summer’s GCSE results pointing to five trends including the North-South divide, the gender gap, and the fall in top grades at independent schools.
  • GCSE results analysis.The Education Policy Institute published a helpful summary analysis of this summer’s GCSE results, looking in particular at how the grades were determined this year, what impact this had on grade distribution, and where the changes occurred this year.
  • National Reference Test. Ofqual published the results from this year’s National Reference Test (NRT) used to provide benchmarking information for setting grade boundaries in GCSE English and maths, showing no great change in results in English but a downward trend in maths when compared to 2020.
  • Exam/curriculum reform. The Tony Blair Institute published a report on reforming the exam/curriculum system in England, arguing that currently it was failing to deliver the skills needed for the future and setting out a three-phase programme of ‘radical’ reform that would see GCSEs and A levels replaced by a Bacc at age 18, an expert commission on the curriculum set up, and a data-driven model of inspection. 
  • Assessment reform. Former DfE adviser Sam Freedman examined the case for reform of the exam/assessment system in England, running through many of the current concerns and the potential for reform but calling for ‘incremental change’ rather than major reform, with a major assessment review seen as the first step.
  • Destinations Gap. Teach First highlighted ‘a stark destinations gap’ as growing numbers of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds drop out in the years after GCSE while their better off peers go on to secure sustained work or education, calling as a result for a 16-19 pupil premium to help.
  • Oak National Academy. The Institute for Government reported on the Oak National Academy, which grew in prominence as a major provider of learning resources during the lockdown and which subsequently has become a non-departmental public body (NDPB,) highlighting how it has developed and calling for greater clarity on its relationship with government as one of the recommendations for its future.


  • T Levels.Gatsby announced a new publicity campaign around the benefits of T levels, using a dedicated ‘T-team’ of ambassadors headed up by Apprentice star Tim Campbell. 
  • Higher Technical Qualifications.The Institution for Apprenticeships announced a fourth round of approval next year for a further batch of Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) ranging from Care Services to Transport and Logistics.


  • NSS consultation. The QAA published its response to the recent consultation from the Office for Students (OfS) on proposed changes to the National Student Survey (NSS,) raising concerns about the proposal to remove the question from the Survey in England about student satisfaction with the quality of a course, arguing this would hinder future student choice.
  • International students. The Office for Students (OfS) announced it had commissioned the consulting arm, LSE Enterprise, to review ways in which international students could be better supported in English higher education, particularly post-pandemic.
  • Soft-Power Index. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published the latest edition of its Soft-Power Index showing in which other countries serving world leaders had completed their tertiary education with the US still topping the charts as the most popular country, followed by the UK, ahead of France and Russia respectively.
  • Pay and pensions. The University and College Union (UCU) called for an end to university ‘vanity projects’ and pay and pension cuts as the latest Universities Superannuation Scheme monitoring report revealed it had moved from deficit to surplus.

Stand-out tweets

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Prepare yourself for the new term by squeezing lunch into 10 minutes and completing various household tasks while you eat it” | @secretHT1
  • “I've come into school to get some work done. So far I've eaten a packet of biscuits and had a chat. Looks like I'm back into my normal routine ready for September” | @MrB_abc
  • “I went into school today. Deleted a load of emails, sorted safeguarding policy, showed a new starter round. Had eaten my lunch by 11.45 and then sat and thought about the school development plan! Kudos to all who are cracking through lists. I’m just not ready yet! That’s ok” | @teacherstaples
  • “How many teachers vowed they were going to sort the kitchen cupboards/clear out the loft/paint the shed this summer holidays and have done nothing of the sort?” | @MrsGormanEYFS
  • “I'd have taken about a million more FE and Uni courses over the years, if they'd just said on the webpage what time & day of the week the lessons were happening” | @miss_mcinerney
  • “When I was doing GCSEs my teacher said that if I got 7 Cs, I should join the navy...” | @DadJokeMan
  • “The main problem with writing about the political and economic outlook at the moment is finding enough synonyms for bad” | @Samfr

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “He will be socialising, gossipping, talking, thinking aloud, writing, speechifying and media-ising with added freedoms” – conshome ponders the future for Michael Gove.
  • “It’s time to get serious about the damage being done by this increasingly vacuous brand” – Mary Curnock Cook on the Russell Group.
  • “You can get 20 students cramming into a lift – how safe is that?”“Well, they’re young – they can go up the stairs, surely” – the THES reports concerns in HE in Australia about another Covid spread.
  • “It is clearly important that we review what has happened to make sure that students in future years receive results when they expect them” – Ofqual responds to delays in students receiving their BTEC and Cambridge Technical results.
  • “To flourish in increasingly digital workplaces, they (pupils) also need more space to develop attributes such as critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaborative problem-solving (which experts dub the “4Cs”) – the Tony Blair Institute offers its thoughts on curriculum reform. 
  • “There is an option for everyone” – the current Education Secretary reassures this summer’s GCSE candidates.
  • “I wouldn’t have been surprised if I failed because I could not see it very well, but with a magnifying glass it worked out well” – a 92-year-old reacts to passing GCSE foundation maths this year.
  • “The current GCSE system is not succeeding in doing that” – the NAHT adds its voice to those seeking to reform GCSEs.
  • “I tried to steal spaghetti from the shop, but the female guard saw me and I couldn't get pasta" – the funniest joke at the Edinburgh Fringe this year as voted by the public.

Important numbers

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

  • £31,285. The median earnings of a UK f/t worker last year, according to the latest report from the High Pay Centre and TUC.
  • $10,000. The amount of debt relief announced by President Biden for US students earning less than $125,000 a year and on a student loan, according to thei newspaper.
  • 57%. The number of teachers in a survey who reckoned the way A level qualifications were decided this was fair, according to a poll from Teacher Tapp.
  • 75.3%. The number of GCSE grades at grade 4 or above for 16 yr olds in England this summer, up from 69.9% in 2019 according to the government.
  • 57%. The number of children (0-14) using some form of child care from childminders to after-school clubs in typical school week last year, down on previous figures although this could be due to the pandemic according to latest government data.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Parliament on its summer break (Friday 22 July – Monday 5 September).

Other stories

  • What’s worrying the world? Unsurprisingly it’s inflation according to Ipsos Mori’s latest monthly survey conducted among 28 countries at the start of this month. The next three issues worrying nations include poverty and social inequality, unemployment, and crime and violence. Climate change by the way comes in at number seven. But it’s inflation that tops the worries in eleven nations including Great Britain, France, Germany and the US. Covid remains a concern in many countries but it’s worries about the economy that continues to haunt most nations. A link to the poll can be found here
  • Parenting tools. An interesting report a few weeks back from NESTA, the ‘innovation agency’ looking at the emerging industry of tech tools for parents. It’s not quite good-bye bubble blowers and cuddly toys, hello interactive word searches but it feels a bit like it. According to NESTA, a new range of apps and tech tools is emerging to help parents with anything from rocking children to sleep to boosting their language skills. These can be grouped into four ‘clusters: speechtech for language development, toys that teach specialist skills, continuous monitoring tools, and on-demand parental expertise. A link to it all 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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