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

Back to reality this week.

Or as one BBC reporter put it, ‘the lifting of the pause button has seen the roar of politics return’ this week. 

Most of that roar has been around the three stated priorities of the Liz Truss government, namely the two Es of the Economy and Energy, along with the NHS.

Less has been made, so far at least, about a third E, that of Education. This has led to an interesting comment piece this week from James Kirkup, director of the Social Market Foundation, questioning how high a priority the new PM is likely to put on education. “But I do worry that schools – and education more widely – are falling down the national priority list and will continue to decline in importance,” he wrote, “that can only be bad news for Britain and its prospects.”  

For the moment however, these are the main education-related headlines of the week.

  • Energy bills. The government announced further details of its energy discount relief scheme for schools/colleges and businesses. It was welcomed by many but as Geoff Barton for ASCL explained, “the glaring problem is the fact that the scheme is time-limited to six months.”
  • Grammar schools. It’s been reported that the new Education Secretary has been asked to look at the feasibility of extending grammar school places. 
  • Child poverty. The North East Child Poverty Commission reported alarming levels of child poverty in the North East of the country. It pointed to “a growing chasm” between policy rhetoric on levelling up and the reality of life for many. 
  • University entry. UCAS provided its regular update on university entry acceptances one month on from this summer’s results day. But concerns were raised about the number of young people still without a place.

Elsewhere this week, the build-up to this week’s mini budget, or major-mini budget as many have been calling it, has been continuing.

At the time of writing, full details have yet to be announced although the thrust about trying to stimulate economic growth through tax cuts has been widely reported. And the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) has provided its usual excellent pre-budget analysis setting much of it in context.

Leading bodies have also been pitching in with their thoughts.

The university sector, for instance, has been calling for relief for students concerned about the cost of living. They risk becoming ‘the forgotten group’ according to Universities UK. A return of maintenance grants is a favoured option. Schools have been highlighting that energy hikes are just one of the cost pressures they’re facing this year. In the words of the National Association of Head Teachers “Energy bills are only one of the massive cost pressures facing schools this term. The government’s decision not to fund teachers’ pay this year is an enormous hit to school finances, and many other costs are rising due to inflation too.” While for FE, this week’s Guardian Editorial highlights the scale of financial challenges there. 

Employer and other bodies have also been adding their views.

The TUC published new evidence about the drop in wages being experienced by many in the public sector, calling for ‘inflation proof increases in the minimum wage, universal credit and pensions’ to be brought forward. In his blog, Tony Wilson, director at the Institute for Employment Studies called for four things: wider employment support; local partnerships; a clearer approach to workforce planning; and more help to get people back in work. And as the British Chambers of Commerce put it "To truly revitalise our economy for the difficult months ahead then there must be a clear long-term plan that gives business the confidence to grow.”

As ever, when it comes to education and skills, there’s no shortage of needs, many of them pretty urgent. The issue here though is that this is being presented as a ‘mini-budget,’ enabling the government to hit the ground running now. It’s not Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) prepared, as is traditionally required. The government has signalled further fiscal events are likely, possibly another mini-budget, let alone a spending update later this year, and education may have to wait for these before it sees the full extent of the balance sheets.

A few details on three of the top stories of the week to round things off. 

First, as indicated, questions have been raised about university applicants who still haven’t secured a place one month on from exams results day. The traditional one month-on figures from UCAS, while pointing to ‘record numbers of disadvantaged 18 year-olds’ about to start university, also show over 40,000 still to be placed through Clearing a week ago, one of the highest totals for some time. Geoff Barton at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) is one of those who has raised concerns. “Too many young people appear to have been let down by a higher education system which should have done better for them.” Part of the issue is the high numbers of 18-year-olds currently going through the system, a demographic bulge likely to last three more years and adding pressure on places. But there are also worries that a generation that has had to endure lockdown could have been better served.

Second, the apprenticeship levy and the funding of skills training remains a hot topic, particularly with the current intense demand for skilled workers. This week the EDSK think tank called in a new report for ‘a more employer-responsive system.’  “For too long, some employers have just waited for the next government scheme or programme to come along offering various subsidies and freebies, yet this rarely results in sustainable and tangible improvements to workforce development.” The apprenticeship levy provides an interesting case study and the authors call, among other things, for it to be part of a wider skills levy system with local planning and a right to paid training leave as part of the package.

And third, this week saw Youth Mental Health Day. As part of this, Ofqual commissioned a blog around this year’s theme of ‘connecting meaningfully.’ The theme was that students respond to messaging and support differently and this needed to be reflected in approaches.

The top headlines of the week

  • ‘Funding crunch to restrict prime UK universities locations’ (Monday).
  • ‘Children’s learning rockets by 59%when they study in the morning, research claims’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Government confirms 6-month energy bills support’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘More school leavers without university places after exams return’ (Thursday).
  • ‘They don’t work.’ Experts criticise Liz Truss’s grammar school plans’ (Friday).


  • Energy Relief Scheme. The government announced further details of its much-vaunted Energy Bill Relief Scheme for businesses, charities and public sector bodies like schools, which will see a discount applied on current wholesale gas and electricity prices, ’running for an initial six-month period to 31 March 2023.’
  • Insulation challenge. The IPPR think tank called on the government to adopt a major (£7bn pa) retrofitting programme for the country’s cold and leaky houses, arguing this would generate jobs and ultimately save money but equally would require a major programme of skills training to meet the skills needs required.
  • Real Living Wage. The Living Wage Foundation which promotes wages based on ‘real’ living costs, announced an increase to £10.90 an hour, £11.95 in London, with employers urged to adopt the move.
  • Child Poverty. The North East Child Poverty Commission highlighted distressing levels of child poverty in the North East of the country in a new report, pointing to a growing gap in living standards with the rest of the UK and calling for immediate benefit support and longer-term action to address in-work poverty.
  • Global education. The UN Secretary-Geneal highlighted the critical role that education plays in developing young people and nations as he addressed the UN Summit on Education, listing five priorities for the future including: access for all, quality teachers, schools as places of safety, digital provision, and investment.
  • 4-day workweek. Bloomberg UK reported on progress in the 4-day workweek without loss of pay pilots being trialled in 180 companies around the world including 70 in the UK, with the majority reporting they’re likely to continue the practice once the trial is over although with smaller and less structured companies appearing less sure.
  • Media market. Ofcom announced two new major pieces of work looking first of all at the UK’s cloud services market and the roles of Amazon, Microsoft and Google within that market, and secondly at the role and use of personal communication apps and devices such as What’sApp and Zoom and their impact on communication and news coverage.

More specifically ...


  • Energy Survey. The government published the results of its survey, conducted in May among schools and trusts, to help build up a picture of energy use and contract types in place across the schools sector with a mixed picture emerging. 
  • Teacher recruitment and retention.The House of Commons Library Service published a useful briefing on teacher recruitment and retention running though recent initiatives to improve things in both cases, but pointing to the continuing demands of the job and the likelihood that things will remain challenging.
  • National Reference Test. The government and Ofqual published guidance for schools involved in the 2023 National Reference Test (NRT) which is being administered by the NFER with selected students taking the test in February/March next year.
  • People Strategy. Ofqual published its People Strategy for the next three years, outlining four principles: leadership/culture, its people offer, learning at all levels, and equality/diversity/inclusion, and mapping out how these will shape its workforce over the period.
  • Education recovery. The Education Policy Institute reported on its roundtable held with the Publishers Association a couple of months ago looking into how best to aid education recovery, highlighting the importance of educational technology in helping catch-up but recognising that this could be hampered by a continuing digital divide.
  • Agency workers. The NASUWT announced legal action against the government for allowing agency workers to cover for workers on strike, arguing that the move ‘violated fundamental trade union rights.’
  • Teacher attrition. The NFER compared leaving rates among teachers in England with those in Wales to see how far different national policies or other factors played a part, concluding that while generally lower in Wales, different economic and contextual factors made direct comparisons difficult. 
  • KS2 attainment. FFT Education Datalab examined the data around KS2 attainment and how far school absence contributed to attainment rates suggesting that there was a correlation but that it was not directly causal with factors such as disadvantage, school resources and so on at play here as well. 
  • Early years.The Chartered College announced that it was extending membership of the College of Teaching to Montessori educators, following the partnership developed earlier this year.


  • Levy reforms. The EDSK think tank examined the impact of the apprenticeship levy on skills training so far, outlining some of the current issues such as the way its been used to rebadge existing training rather than invest in specific skills, calling for a more coherent approach to skills training including a wider Apprenticeships and Skills Levy, devolved local skills funding, and a new entitlement to paid training leave.
  • College strikes. The Guardian argued in an Editorial that while strikes are not always desirable, colleges and college staff in particular have had a raw deal when it comes to funding and if the government was serious about economic growth they should invest in the skills sector. 
  • L/D and Social Mobility. The TrainingZone in conjunction with the OU published a new report looking at ways in which learning and development (L/D,) either through reskilling or personalised learning, could help support social mobility and organisational efficiency. 
  • Strategic conversation. The Education and Training Foundation announced it was looking at how best to meet needs and deliver service in the future, building on its earlier ‘listening exercise’ to conduct a further strategic conversation with sector partners.


  • Clearing update. UCAS provided an Update on acceptances to university this year one month on from the summer results day, showing a one percent increase on last year in accepted places including record numbers of 18 yr olds from disadvantaged areas but also a high number of young people still to be placed. 
  • Uni Connect. The Office for Students (OfS) reported on the second phase of its Uni Connect programme designed to bring HE providers together in local partnerships with schools to encourage more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply, showing an increasing range of activities and outreach work over the year 2020/21 with nearly 3,000 schools and colleges involved and over 180,000 ‘target learners’ participating at some point.
  • AI scholarships. The Office for Students launched a further funding competition for scholarships for students, particularly those from diverse backgrounds, to study artificial intelligence (AI) and for data science postgrad conversion courses, with employers encouraged to co-fund where possible.
  • Budget wish list. The Russell Group set out its thoughts ahead of this week’s mini-budget calling among other things for further investment in science and research and for help for students during the cost-of-living crisis.
  • A Vision for Growth. The University Alliance Group also offered its thoughts ahead of the mini-budget, outlining six actions the government should consider around lifelong learning, degree apprenticeships, R/D and NHS workforce planning as part of a vision for growth. 
  • Cost-of-living. The Student Room reported on its recent survey among undergraduates about the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, indicating it was a concern for over 90% of respondents with many thinking about changing courses, accommodation and whether parents would be able to support them. 
  • Subject Benchmarks. QAA invited comments on a further set of 12 draft Subject Benchmark Statements now ready for review and ranging from Biosciences, to Economics, Law, Maths and Politics.
  • Good Universities. The Times/Sunday Times published its latest Good University Guide ranking over 130 universities on features such as the quality of teaching and student satisfaction with familiar names in the top three places (Oxford, St Andrews, Cambridge) and the University of Bath hailed as ‘the Times University of the Year.’

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “You’re not officially a teacher until a child has called you mum or dad” | @secretHT1
  • “Do the desks in everyone's classroom slowly creep forwards during the week?” | @MathsImpact
  • “Hi all, Can you please carefully check any official Academy emails and letters for any mistakes before they are sent out to parents? Your making far to many errors and making us look quiet foolish” | @NewbieSlt

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “As we are doing for consumers, our new scheme will keep their energy bills down from October, providing certainty and peace of mind” – the PM announces the new Energy Relief Scheme for businesses and schools/colleges.
  • “In a truly desperate situation, this plan is better than nothing, but unfortunately it doesn’t get close to solving the current funding crisis in schools” – the NAHT responds to the Energy Relief Scheme.
  • “There has been some modest downside news to underlying UK GDP growth in 2022 Q3” – the Bank of England’s sober reflection of the UK’s economy.
  • “Instead of being the great enabler, education is fast becoming a great divider” – the UN Secretary-General addresses the UN Transforming Education Summit.
  • “If you can offer a four-day week, you know that anybody who’s conscientious will still pick up emails and still do a couple of hours on a Friday morning” – the boss of a pharmaceutical company considering trialling a company four-day week.
  • “We are also freezing maximum tuition fees for the 2023/24 and 2024/25 academic years. By 2024/25, maximum fees will have been frozen for seven years” – the minister for F/HE responds to questions about government help for students facing the cost-of-living crisis.
  • “We predicted Clearing would be dynamic this year and I am pleased to see record numbers of UK 18-year-old students secure a place in Clearing” – UCAS reports on university places one month on from results day.
  • “Fifty min discussion with chairs. Is this what uni is now?” – The Times Higher reports on the debate about whether university lectures still have a role to play.
  • “For years, ministers offered warm words about skills, training and levelling up – but little else” – The Guardian uses an Editorial to highlight the plight of the FE sector. 
  • “A Prime Minister who can tell us how she’ll help pubs stay in business but doesn’t say anything about schools” – the SMF’s James Kirkup worries about the government’s low prioritisation of schools.

Important numbers

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

  • £1,750. The amount an average family could save a year on commuting and childcare costs by working a 4-day week without loss of pay, according to the think tank Autonomy.
  • 8m. The number of UK workers paid less than the real living wage, according to the Real Living Wage Foundation.
  • 275,390. The number of accepted places at university this year, up 1% on last year according to latest figures from UCAS.
  • 40%. The amount that many schools could save on their energy bills under the new discount scheme, according to the government.
  • £1bn.The amount paid out in student maintenance loans since the start of September, according to provisional figures from the Student Loans Company. 
  • 290. The headcount in Ofqual as of March this year, according to the company’s latest People Strategy.
  • 38%. The number of children in the North East of the country living in poverty, according to a new report from the North East Child Poverty Commission.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Labour Party Annual Conference (Sunday 25 September – Wednesday 28 September).
  • Conservative Party Annual Conference (Sunday 2 October – Wednesday 5 October).

Other stories

  • Where the Royals went to University. In a week loaded with Royal news but also with Freshers going up for the first time, The Tab has pitched in with a rundown of where the Royals went to university and, in some cases, what they got up to. It’s well known for instance that William and Kate met early on at St Andrews, but less well known perhaps is the fact that William apparently called himself ‘Steve’ at university to avoid attention. Hmmm. Meghan went to Northwestern university, Chicago where she seemed to have been a model student. The Phillips’ went to Exeter, Princess Eugenie to Newcastle and Beatrice to Goldsmiths. Details 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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