Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 07 October 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:

Another week of ‘distracting’ political and economic headlines.

Most of the noise this week has come from the Conservative Party Conference –  reflecting some sharp policy positioning. When it came to education and skills, there was little excitement on the conference floor, but plenty of discussion at various fringe events. 

A summary of the key Conference messages to follow, but first, here are a few of the main education-related headlines of the week.

  • Conference policies. Despite talk over the summer of more grammar schools and changes to university admissions, no new education policy direction was announced at this week’s Conservative Party Conference. Rather the Education Secretary managed to upset school leaders with awkward references to school performance.
  • Class of Covid. The first stage of the Covid-19 public inquiry got underway this week, just as two interesting reports came out about the effects of the pandemic on education. First, the Prince’s Trust launched a campaign to help young people, aged 16-25, to cope with the challenges thrown up by the pandemic. And second, the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) carried a guest blog outlining the impact of the pandemic on HE staff.
  • GCSEs have been in the news this week. Qualifications Wales launched a big consultation on their future content and assessment. And the exam board AQA reported on how the public viewed on-screen assessment of GCSEs. It concluded that there was ‘an appetite’ for on-screen assessment for GCSEs – albeit largely from those with school-age children.
  • The worldwide picture on teacher shortages was laid bare this week in a report from UNESCO to mark World Teachers’ Day. It indicated that ‘an additional 24.4m primary teachers and 44.4m secondary teachers were needed globally to be able to achieve universal basic education targets by 2030’.
  • Students at risk. Universities UK and partners issued pioneering guidance this week about protecting students at risk from self-harm. It came as The Student Room published survey evidence showing that a third of Freshers were finding it ‘tough settling into their university accommodation.’ 

Links to these and the other education stories of the week all below as usual.

Now back to the Conservative Party Conference, and a round-up of some of the key education themes that emerged.

In her Leader’s Speech, Liz Truss made little mention of education and skills, apart from the obligatory reference to being a comprehensive school product. “I stand here today as the first Prime Minister of our country to have gone to a comprehensive school”. As others have pointed out, Theresa May and Gordon Brown could equally have claimed the same, but at least the reference was more positive than had appeared during the leadership contest. 

The theme of the speech was ‘growth, growth, growth’ with an attack on the so-called ‘anti-growth’ brigade. It came laced with plenty of rhetoric about building a better future, needing to do things differently, and promising to deliver. As one commentator summarised it: ‘no especially memorable lines, no hostages to fortune.’ We now wait to see if education features in any of the promised announcements over the coming weeks.

In his speech, the Chancellor (whose heavy walk to the podium perhaps displayed the pressure he was under), re-iterated much of the rhetoric on growth: “Over the coming days and weeks, we will forge ahead and break down the barriers that have held our country back for too long”. 

He went on to highlight the importance of the much-vaunted Investment Zones, “we will empower local areas to do things differently”; listed the string of announcements being lined up by the government, “on childcare, agriculture, immigration, planning, energy, broadband, business, financial services”; and promised to act “in a fiscally sustainable and responsible way”.

But the big takeaway remains uncertain. That is when the government will publish the promised costed medium-term fiscal plan, intended to bring greater transparency and reassurance about how promises will be paid for. At the moment, it’s still down to “shortly” – or November 23 – nobody is quite sure which …

On to the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, who raised temperatures by promising to take what she called “a more discerning” approach to the number of student visas being issued. The comments came at a fringe meeting and were coupled with “a look at” low-quality colleges offering people a route to Britain through student visas. 

She went on to argue that “I do think we do get to a point where we have to look at some of the courses that people are doing in this country, some of the institutions –  they're not always very good quality”. It was a swipe that Universities UK described as ‘disappointing’ and running counter ‘to the government’s own target to grow education exports to £35 billion by 2030’.

In a similar vein, the F/HE minister, Andrea Jenkyns, also raised eyebrows by going for the familiar Mickey Mouse degrees, although in this case they were labelled Harry Potter degrees, even though there aren’t any. “The current system would rather our young people get a degree in Harry Potter studies than an apprenticeship in construction”. 

As a BTEC alumni, she did go on to praise much vocational provision; promoted the T level concept; and, like many before her, promised to support the infamous ‘parity of esteem’. But the caricature of Mickey Mouse, or perhaps now, Harry Potter style degrees, seemingly lives on.

As for the latest Education Secretary, he too missed out on any charm offensive by claiming that schools and colleges needed constant scrutiny and intervention to help “bring all of them up to the standard of the best”. 

One phrase in particular stuck in the craw of many in the profession. It was the suggestion that “there is nothing quite as persistent as people hanging on to mediocrity”. It led to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) sending in a stiff letter calling for a meeting. “We were frankly appalled to hear you talk about people leading and working in our schools and colleges as ‘hanging on to mediocrity’, and claim that education needs ‘constant attention and constant pressure’ in order to ‘drive it forward’.

In other snippets, the Levelling Up Secretary talked up creating more mayors to help with levelling up. “I also want to strengthen and deepen the powers of our existing mayors, so that they can crack on with the work of delivery”. 

And Michelle Donelan, the Culture Secretary, talked about “rolling out good broadband and 5G has the potential to revolutionise our country’s economy, accelerating growth, jobs and improving the quality of life for millions of people”. As well as, of course, protecting children through the Online Safety Bill, following the recent tragic case of Molly Russell.

And finally, on a more positive note, UNESCO has reported that the first 10,000 of the promised 50,000 computers needed to support remote learning in Ukraine – where 40% of schools are having to rely on distance learning because of bomb damage – have started to arrive. The story is here.

The top headlines of the week

  • ‘Covid has left a third of young people feeling life is out of control’ (Monday). 
  • ‘New GCSEs in Wales to put less emphasis on exams’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Appalled’ leaders write to Malthouse over school ‘mediocrity’ claims’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Universities told to contact students’ loved ones to stop suicides’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Crisis charity reports surge in school teachers at risk’ (Friday).


  • PM’s Conference speech. Liz Truss rounded off the Conservative Party Conference with a 30+ minute speech focused on growth, ‘building for a new era’ and a commitment to deliver, acknowledging that things were tough, but promising action in three areas: lowering the tax burden; keeping ‘an iron grip’ on the nation’s finances; and delivering economic reforms.
  • The Chancellor’s speech. The Chancellor acknowledged the problems caused by the recent mini-budget as he addressed the Conservative Party Conference, but argued that the growth plan was the right thing overall; that a string of announcements was in the pipeline; and that a medium-term fiscal plan would be published “shortly”.
  • Investment Zones. The government invited local areas in England to submit expressions of interest by the end of next week for becoming an Investment Zone, which the government hopes will boost local economies and provide workforce opportunities by streamlining rules and lowering taxes. 
  • Education 2022.The OECD published its latest Education at a Glance compendium, providing a mass of data and information on the performance of education systems across the OECD countries and partners, suggesting ‘a gradual return to normality after the pandemic’ and progress in tertiary education.

More specifically ...


  • Education Secretary’s speech. The latest Education Secretary, Kit Malthouse, addressed the Conservative Party Conference, where despite not mentioning grammar schools, managed to raise hackles by claiming that education needed ‘constant attention and constant pressure in order to drive it forward’.
  • Dear Secretary of State. The ASCL expressed concerns about some of the claims made in the Education Secretary’s Conference speech, particularly about ‘hanging on to mediocrity’ and ‘needing constant attention’, calling for an early opportunity to discuss matters with him.
  • KS1 results.The government published provisional results for this years KS1 assessments and phonics screen check, showing attainment down on 2019.
  • Accountability measures.The government set out guidance on how KS4 performance measures, due to be published shortly, have been calculated for 2021/22, confirming that results from qualifications achieved between Jan 2020 and August 2021 would not be included as part of a commitment made in light of the lockdown, with Progress 8 now using scaled scores from KS2.
  • Education funding. Leading education and professional bodies wrote to the PM and Education Secretary calling on them to acknowledge what they called “a looming education funding crisis”, pointing out the risks likely to come with this.
  • Teachers. UNESCO highlighted the issue of global teacher shortages in a report to mark World Teachers’ Day, pointing to significant shortages in certain parts of the world where the pandemic, poor working conditions, and low pay generally, have added to the problems.
  • On-screen assessment. The exam board AQA reported further on its work on digital assessment, publishing the results from an independent survey into on-screen assessment, showing many students and parents of school-aged children are supportive, albeit with regional differences, but acknowledging potential challenges over any transition.
  • GCSE consultation. Qualifications Wales, the regulatory body for qualifications in Wales, launched ‘a national conversation’ on the future nature of GCSEs in the country from 2025, looking particularly at the balance of knowledge and skills and forms of assessment needed for the future.
  • Ghost pupils. Rob Halfon, Chair of the Education Committee, highlighted in a comment piece in The House magazine, the issue of ‘ghost’ pupils – the 22% of young people missing school and seemingly falling through the cracks, indicating that the figure may well be higher, and calling for this to be a priority for the new Education Secretary.
  • Anti-racism training. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) heralded Black History Month by calling on the government to introduce mandatory ant-racism training for all staff.
  • Poetry 2022. The National Literacy Trust published the results of a survey on children and young people’s engagement with poetry as part of National Poetry Day showing increasing numbers, especially girls, both reading and writing poetry, often as a way of release.


  • Strike ballot. The NEU called on the Education Secretary to make funds ‘immediately’ available for an above-inflation-rate pay increase for sixth form college teachers, or face a likely ballot for strike action.
  • Class of Covid. The Prince’s Trust and partners launched a new campaign to raise awareness of the impact of Covid on young people aged 16-25, with reports of many continuing to face challenges over jobs, skills training, the cost-of-living, and confidence-building generally.
  • Prisoner apprenticeships. The government confirmed the launch of a new scheme to allow certain groups of prisoners to undertake an apprenticeship, with a number of big-name employers stepping in to offer placements. 
  • Support for young people. The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) reported on how other countries supported young people into work, offering case study evidence from seven EU countries – with many focusing on approaches that were targeted and inclusive.
  • Upskilling. Ian Pretty, CEO of the Collab Group, highlighted in a blog the important role that FE colleges play in upskilling ‘the existing and future workforce’, particularly in key areas of the economy where there are notable labour gaps.


  • Science minister. The government finally confirmed the appointment of a new science minister with Nusrat Ghani, a minister in the BEIS dept, adding it to her brief.
  • Equality of Opportunity. The Office for Students (OfS) launched a consultation on proposals to create a new Risk Register to be used by HE institutions. The Risk Register would highlight challenges and data when HEIs are setting out their future access and participation plans, to allow for a more targeted and evaluative approach.
  • Students on placement. Universities UK published a set of recommendations, with case study evidence, for supporting students on placements – with a before, during, and after checklist to help particularly vulnerable students.
  • Pandemic effect. Dr Rasha Kassem, who is leading work looking into the impact of the pandemic on staff in UK HE, highlighted some of the findings in a blog on the HEPI website, citing pressures experienced by young and female staff in particular, but acknowledging that it was a mixed picture overall. 
  • HESA de-designation. The government published responses to the brief consultation confirming the merger between the Higher Education Statistics Authority and JISC, creating a new data body for HE.
  • Student safety. Universities UK and PAPYRUS (Prevention of Young Suicide) published guidance for universities about when and how to contact family members when a student’s safety was at risk from potential self-harm, urging universities to adopt a proactive approach and share information where appropriate.
  • Settling in. The Student Room reported on how students were settling into the new university year, with 33% reporting they were finding it toug; working out how best to fit in; worried about their futures; and, as Wonkhe and Pearson have been reporting, concerned about how to develop a sense of belonging. 
  • Tuition fees and student support. The House of Commons Library Service provided a useful briefing on how the different fees and forms of support vary for students across the four regions of the UK.
  • Graduate jobs. The institute of Student Employers reported on recent research from Careerpass Network, showing how the cost of living was impinging on graduate career options, with, for example, nearly half (46%) saying the cost of living was too high for them to move to their preferred location, and similar numbers looking for higher salaries and employer support accordingly.
  • Top Ten. Mark Leach, editor in chief of Wonkhe, listed ten higher education priorities for the government to consider at its Conference this year – including appointing a science minister, supporting R/D, reviewing regulation, and universities in innovation zones.
  • Recruitment Fairs. The consultancy company PwC announced that it was returning to a system of in-person visiting of student careers fairs, having had to abandon them during the pandemic – although it would retain a virtual, and newly improved, remote experience as well.

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “We've largely managed to get people to stop calling FE the Cinderella service. Could we make it our mission to now stop people saying they want parity of esteem? All it does is reflect the prejudice of the person using the phrase i.e. they think what our students do is inferior” | @ipryce
  • “The current system would rather our young people get a degree in Harry Potter studies, than in construction" says Higher Education Minister Andrea Jenkyns” | @AdamBienkov
  • “7yo just told me she's learning a Christmas song at school about the Vegan Mary” | @charduck
  • “War of the worlds writing today in class and a child wrote – "From the container came two large, grey, slimy testicles". This was my cue to use my 'spelling voice' and model the pronunciation of 'tentacles' several times” | @ChrisYoules
  • ”I don’t know who needs to hear this, but dragging all your files into a folder called ‘random stuff’ doesn’t mean you tidied your desktop” | @UnofficialOA

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “But I want you to know that day in, day out, I’m thinking about how we get this country moving” – the PM sets out to reassure in her Leader’s Speech at the Conservative Conference.
  • “But I can be frank, I know the plan put forward only ten days ago has caused a little turbulence” – the Chancellor adopts frank as he addresses the Conservative Conference.
  • “'Taking a more discerning, smart approach to the number of student visas I think is highly consistent with our agenda for growth' – the Home Secretary raises questions at a fringe meeting about the number of student visas. 
  • “I must say, I think the unions need some of my little calling cards saying “I look forward to seeing you back at work soon” – Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg on the latest union strikes.
  • “Are we still aiming to be a ’science superpower’? And if so, what does that mean in this context? This is what I’d like to hear the new minister spell out more clearly in the months ahead” – HE research leaders respond in the THES to the appointment of a new science minister with a rolling brief.
  • “Our work will continue without disruption as we bring our two organisations together” – HESA and JISC confirm their merger.
  • “On schools, we want to be much more assertive about intervention and standards” – the Education Secretary sets out his priorities to the Party Conference.
  • “We’re losing teachers all the time. They can’t afford to stay. Tesco pay better” – a headteacher tells the i newspaperabout teacher recruitment and retention issues.
  • “Local authority (LA) data leaves Swiss-cheese-like holes in our knowledge, making it near-impossible to get a handle on the situation and tackle it effectively” – the Chair of the Education Committee on children missing school. 
  • “We’ve got to be realistic and accept that even if parents set boundaries, children and teenagers will push them” – the NSPCC on the realities of social media.
  • “The government’s utterly misguided fixation on deregulation will do nothing to address the many challenges currently facing the sector” – the Early Years Alliance reacts to hints about the government creating new childminder agencies. 
  • “Based on official regulations, teachers across the OECD have to teach on average close to 1,000 hours per year at pre-primary level, almost 800 hours at primary level, and approximately 700 hours at secondary level. However, the variation in statutory teaching time across countries is large” – the OECD reports on teaching hours across member countries.

Important numbers

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

  • 29. The number of times the word ‘growth’ appeared in the PM’s 34-minute Conference speech, according to CAPX.
  • 5. The number of responses to the consultation on the de-designation of HESA under plans to merge with JISC, according to the government.
  • 43%. The number of graduates in a survey who declared a preference for hybrid arrangements in employment, according to Careerpass Network.
  • 69m. The number of teachers needed globally to reach universal basic education by 2030, according to UNESCO.
  • 36%. The number of young people who fear their job prospects will never recover from the pandemic, according to a survey from The Prince’s Trust.
  • 14,525. The number of people who have participated in ETF DfE funded T level Professional Development, according to the Education and Training Foundation.
  • 68%. The number of pupils in England who met the expected standard at KS1 in maths, down from 76% in 2019 according to the latest provisional figures.
  • 28%. The number of children and young people who say they read poetry in their free time at least once a month, according to the National Literacy Trust.
  • 20 mins or less. The length of the average school assembly, according to recent research from Teacher Tapp.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • World Mental Health Day (Monday 10 October).
  • Education Committee witness session on Exam Results 2022 (Wednesday 12 October).

Other stories

  • A window on our lives. Last week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published one of those fascinating snapshots of UK life, with a spotlight on ‘social attitudes and trends’ during the ten days of 14 – 25 September 2022. It was a particularly critical few days, with the State Funeral and the mini-budget both taking place during that period. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it noted that 42% of adults surveyed reported feeling ‘fairly’ or ‘very unsure’ about the future, although life satisfaction ratings remained fairly stable. In other data, 91% reported concerns about the cost-of-living; 19% said they were looking for a job that pays more; and 7% said they were going into work more to reduce home energy costs. A link to the data is 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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