Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 19 June 2020

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 this week:

Four leading surveys, three economically significant reports, two big announcements, one resounding issue. It’s been that sort of week.

Nor does it end there. In another packed week, the Education Committee has continued its important inquiry into the impact of the pandemic on education, and education analysists have examined draft school submissions on exam grades for this summer, suggesting that in the words of one commentator, ‘they err towards the optimistic.’ Elsewhere, a major employer has confirmed it’s hoping to take on a record number of apprentices this year; the Association of Colleges has outlined a skills recovery ‘blueprint’ for the next 12 months; a think tank has called for ‘fundamental reform’ of the admissions system; a former Universities Minister has published ideas for ‘putting the bounce back’ into UK higher education; and of course, a young England footballer has helped change a key aspect of government policy.

These and other stories are all listed below as usual but here’s a flavour of what’s in those various surveys, reports and announcements making the news this week.   

Those four surveys first. Two of them, from the Institute for Education (IoE) and from NFER respectively concern home schooling, a third, from Save the Children and the Rowntree Foundation, speaks to the challenges facing families in deprived areas, where 60% were having to borrow to stay afloat, and the fourth provides some interesting data on what’s happened to those who left higher education 15 months ago. Rachel Hewitt has a helpful summary of this data on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) website which will be useful to many given the current interest in HE.  

But back to those first two surveys, which came as debate continued to sharpen this week about the opening of schools. This week it has been the turn of groups of secondary exam pupils to be brought back, in what the general secretary of the ASCL described as ‘something between a military operation and an exercise in maths.’ Logistics apart, the impact on ‘no-school kids’ is fast becoming a highly charged subject with the IoE and NFER surveys both highlighting different levels of pupil engagement – linked in many cases to levels of disadvantage, with concerns about long-term attainment gaps emerging. The IoE survey, for instance, indicated that over 2m children did less than an hour of schoolwork a day, while children in more advantaged schools and areas had some four hours of live online lessons a day. The NFER survey found a similar picture; for instance, 30% of pupils in deprived areas returned their work compared to 49% in better-off areas. Both surveys had a wealth of data in a similar vein.

The full academic and emotional impact of long periods away from school and friends may not be clear for some time but is unlikely to go away. Lucy Kellaway’s article in The Spectator captures it well, especially the impact on disadvantaged children. This week, strong letters have been written, questions asked in Parliament and more surveys promised. Virtually all are questioning why more children are not back in school and pointing to long-term damage. The Oxford University research this week, for instance, is particularly revealing about the effects on young children: ‘an increase in behaviours such as temper tantrums, arguments, and children not doing what they are asked.’  The issue also provoked strong feelings at this week’s Education Committee hearing and many people are now calling for a clear plan for getting children back to school. How far the government’s latest announcement has helped remains to be seen.  

Next, those three economically significant reports which have come from the Office for National Statistics, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation respectively. Collectively they provide growing context on the challenges facing the economy post-pandemic – already the subject of considerable debate with both the Treasury and the Bank of England, talking stimulus this week.

The last two reports added interesting regional perspectives with the IfS, for example applying three metrics (health, jobs, and families) to assess the impact of the pandemic on different parts of the country. It found some nine regions, typically coastal, but also some urban, were particularly vulnerable on all counts. 

The other report, the latest labour market update from the ONS, attracted a lot of headlines this week with its data pointing to falling employment opportunities, wages, and employee numbers. It came as the Labour Party was calling for an emergency Budget when the Chancellor makes his much-anticipated economic statement in a few weeks’ time.  Some of the figures are estimates and some based on new ‘experimental’ modelling and while the employment rate remained relatively stable, its factors, such as a 60% drop in vacancies over the last two months, have stoked fears. The Learning and Work Institute has a useful analysis of it all here

On to those two big announcements. The first from the PM on the creation of an Inequality Commission awaits further definition, but appears to include educational inequality within its remit. The second big announcement has seen the Education Secretary meet his homework deadline of delivering by the end of this week at least some of the government’s ‘schools plan’ for England. It came in the form of funding for a national tutoring service, some to be managed by schools, some to be directed at a dedicated service for disadvantaged pupils. It builds on the work currently being spearheaded by the Education Endowment Foundation and other organisations, but as many have pointed out still lacks some detail and leaves out key phases of education like early years and 16-19. The government has said more is to follow.

Finally, that resounding issue – which sits across, underneath and throughout all the surveys, reports and announcements – can be captured in one word: inequality. Covid-19 has heightened it, can the government resolve it?

The top headlines from the week:

  • ‘Secondary pupils back but most only part-time’ (Monday).
  • ‘Coronavirus: a third of pupils not engaging with work’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘MPs accuse unions of blocking school reopening’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘AoC calls on Treasury to invest £3.6bn in skills’ (Thursday).
  • Coronavirus: £1bn catch-up tutoring fund for England’s pupils.’ (Friday)


  • Inequality Commission: Boris Johnson announced he was setting up a new Commission to look at ‘all aspects of inequality’ including race, health and education which would report back to him by the end of the year. 
  • Brexit momentum: The PM discussed with the three EU Presidents the lack of progress in the current transition talks where differences remain over trade principles, fishing rights and security issues, pledging to inject more ‘oomph’ so that a deal could be reached before the end of the year.
  • Budget time: The Labour Party urged the Chancellor to turn his anticipated Economic Statement in a few weeks’ time into an emergency Budget focused on jobs, skills training, and stimulus measures to help get the economy moving.
  • Labour market latest: The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest data on the labour market showing a worrying fall in hours worked, wage rates and employment opportunities over the last month.
  • UK Economic Forecasts: The Treasury published the latest set of independent predictions on the UK economy indicating average growth down by 9.2% for this year but up by 6.5% for 2021.
  • Economic contractions: Economists at the EY Item Club issued their latest predictions for the UK economy suggesting a deeper fall this year but starting to recover next year with the economy returning to its 2019 size in 2023.
  • Missing out: The Treasury Committee published a new report on the economic impact of the pandemic acknowledging the support that the government had provided so far but urging it to consider the needs of the 1m+ other workers such as freelancers and groups of the self-employed many of whom had ‘fallen through the cracks’ of the furlough system.
  • Summer Food Fund: The government confirmed that it would after all provide free school meal vouchers over the summer for some of the poorest families, following a high-profile campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford. 
  • Lifeline needed: Save the Children and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published the results of a survey showing that 70% of families on Universal Credit have been struggling financially during the pandemic calling for a £20 weekly increase in child benefits. 
  • Co-Space: Oxford University reported on its survey looking into the effects of the lockdown on families noting that while teenagers appeared to be coping reasonably, younger children (aged 4-10) were displaying increased emotional and behavioural problems.
  • Let’s talk loneliness: The government listed the organisations receiving funding to help combat loneliness as it called on people to write letters and reach out to people as part of this week’s National Loneliness Week.
  • Heads Up: The Duke of Cambridge, the Culture Secretary and leading sports stars joined a virtual roundtable to discuss mental health issues across sport which will see the ‘Heads Up’ campaign promoted at this year’s FA Cup Final.
  • Council costs: The County Councils Network published a commissioned report into its future finances suggesting that the pandemic and other legacy costs could leave the 39 shire councils facing a debt burden of up to £2.6bn. 
  • The geography of Covid-19: The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined the different impact the pandemic was having across the country, looking particularly at health, jobs and families and pointing to at least 9 LAs vulnerable in each case.
  • Local challenges: The Resolution Foundation examined the effects of the pandemic on local economies finding coastal areas like Blackpool and tourist hotspots like the West Country facing major economic challenges.
  • Sector losses: The New Economics Foundation looked at which groups of workers had lost most in terms of work and income during the pandemic so far with those in the hospitality, retail, education and manufacturing sectors most likely to have lost income or hours but those in finance and insurance, particularly male, the least likely.
  • AI Partnership: The UK and other founding members including the US and EU announced the creation of a Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (GPAI) that will see leading experts working together on the ‘responsible development’ of AI on the lines of OECD recommendations.
  • Covid-19 conspiracy theories: King’s College Policy Institute and Ipsos Mori published the results of new surveys suggesting that those who relied on social media, such as Facebook, for their information were more likely to believe conspiracy theories about Covid-19 including 7% who believed it didn’t even exist. 

More specifically ...


  • Catch-up Fund: The government announced the creation of a national tutoring scheme in England to support the work of schools in helping pupils catch up from lost schooling with a dedicated scheme for the most disadvantaged pupils.
  • Dear Education Secretary: Leading child psychologists wrote to the Education Secretary to express concerns that the delay in opening up schools was ‘crushing children’ and building up mental health problems.
  • In school: The government published latest (June 11) attendance figures for schools and early years settings showing an attendance rate of around 26% for Year 6, 20% for Year 1 and 22% for Reception, up in each case on the previous week.
  • Room for more? The government updated its guidance for primary schools, giving them the flexibility to invite in more pupils if they had capacity but only if protective measures could still be observed. 
  • You have a delivery: The government published figures on the number of laptops, tablets and routers dispatched by last weekend for use by disadvantaged families showing that just under a half of the promised total had now been sent out with more on their way.
  • Schoolwork in lockdown: The Institute for Education published new research into home schooling suggesting that on average children spent just over a couple of hours a day on schoolwork but that this varied enormously between households.
  • Remote learning survey: The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published the 2ndin its Nuffield funded series looking at how schools and pupils were responding to remote learning, reinforcing fears about the link between deprivation and attainment and curriculum gaps.
  • 2020 Exams: FFT Education Datalab offered some early analysis of potential grade distribution for this summer’s GCSE exams based on preliminary evidence submitted by schools to FFT for initial scrutiny suggesting an increase in grades proposed, variable by subject when compared with 2019 exam grades.
  • Autumn series: The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) issued its response to Ofqual’s consultation on the case for holding a full series of exams, this autumn arguing that it would be better to set up local exam centre hubs for students that needed them than attempt to run a full autumn series. 
  • Teacher recruitment: The Education Policy Institute suggested that a likely recession would encourage teacher recruitment and retention but warning that this could be temporary if not properly funded and supported.
  • Summer hols activities: The National Education Union (NEU) called on the government to fund Local Authorities to plan and co-ordinate a series of Summer 2020 holiday activities in their communities in the form of a Local Offer.


  • Labour market analysis: The Learning and Work Institute provided a helpful commentary on the latest labour market figures, highlighting the sharp rise in unemployment and claimant count and pointing to the recommendations in its recent Plan for Jobs report as a way of getting the economy moving again.
  • Recovery Plan: The Association of Colleges (AoC) launched an initial £3.6bn skills-led recovery plan built around ‘5 asks’ including a national catch-up programme around English and maths, a national tutoring scheme, apprenticeship and trainee provision, a range of re-skilling programmes and capital investment. 
  • Skills training for the disadvantaged: The Centre for Social Justice published a new report on skills provision for disadvantaged adults calling for subsidised courses, community centres, wider access to part-time HE and tax rebates for employers who invest in training.
  • Level 8 Apprenticeships: The government announced that it was stopping the funding of L8 apprenticeships as part of a move to ensure future funding was available for all.
  • Apprenticeship intake: BAE systems announced that it intended to recruit just over 800 apprentices working in one or more of their 25 apprenticeship training programmes and due to start in stages from this September. 
  • Digital Skill development: Ofqual updated the progress in digital skill qualification development where entitlement to essential digital skills is due to be available from this August, but where further consultation on the content for digital functional skills has been postponed.
  • Financial returns: The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) issued new templates, along with completed examples, to enable colleges to provide a streamlined set of financial returns for during the pandemic by the end of July.
  • #Digiprom: The TES reported that students leaving university and college this week would be treated to a virtual prom, organised by former NUS President Shakira Martina and supported by the AoC, UCAS, JISC along with leading individuals. 


  • Here in person: Universities UK reported on the results from its latest survey showing that most of the universities who responded plan to offer both some ‘in-person’ teaching and ‘in-person’ social activities in line with official guidance from the start of next term.
  • Graduate outcomes: The HE Statistics Agency (HESA) published new, ‘experimental’ stats on those who left higher education 15 months ago showing most in employment including many in high skilled employment, particularly those from science based subjects, although much depended on gender and ethnicity.
  • Decision Day: Charlotte Gill, Deputy Editor at ConservativeHome looked at the challenges facing both students and universities as decision day on university choices through UCAS loomed and concerns about deferrals lingered.
  • Putting back the bounce: Former Universities Minister Jo Johnson called for the government to put the bounce back into UKHE by being more ambitious about its global role, including doubling student numbers from India and increasing the duration of post-study work visas. 
  • Ministerial thoughts: The Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, recognised how challenging things were currently for both staff and students in a Conference call to the HE Policy Institute (HEPI,)outlining the steps taken by government to ensure the safety and stability of the sector for students and going on to announce support for a new mental health project (see below).
  • Student Space: The organisation Student Minds announced the launch next month, with funding from the OfS and the HE Funding Council for Wales, of a new online platform designed to offer targeted mental health support for students during the pandemic.
  • International recruitment: The Times Higher provided an interesting analysis of how five of the top countries for recruiting international students (US,UK, Australia, Canada, Germany) were coping, noting many were adopting specific measures around benefits and visas to attract students but where all had worries about the future in some form. 
  • Admissions reform: The EDSK think tank published a new report into university admissions, calling for a new model of admissions in which university autonomy would be reduced in favour of a standard qualification requirement, a national contextual offer, and maximum course numbers. 
  • Tier 4: The Home Office issued updated guidance for Tier 4 students and sponsors confirming among other things that students would be able to transfer to the new Graduate Route next year if they have undertaken some studies by distance learning and if they enter the UK before 6 April 2021.
  • Tackling cheating: The Quality Assurance Agency published new guidance to help UK universities tackle essay mills referencing case study evidence on using technology, identifying a senior staff member to ensure training and leadership, and working closely with students to prevent them being drawn in. 
  • Credit Framework: The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) confirmed it was working on reviewing the HE credit framework in England, aiming for consultation with the sector later this year and publication next spring.
  • Student types: Mike Boxall, HE expert at PA Consulting, reflected on the current diversity of students suggesting six different student types ranging from school leavers, to second chance ‘re-skillers,’ to those with particular passions, and the need for the sector to be responsive to the needs of each where possible.
  • Getting into employment: The Office for Students published the latest of its briefings intended to help the sector during the pandemic looking here at how various colleges and universities were helping graduates find jobs.
  • Fee changes: The Times Higher reported on the latest moves in Australia to fund an additional 39,000 university places by 2023 by changing the fee structure with many employment courses costing less but the fees for some humanities courses being increased.
  • Admissions reform: The Times Higher reported on the system of Parcoursup, the system of selection introduced to French universities by President Macron that better matches applicants to courses and so cuts attrition rates.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Telling schools they’re allowed to bring all pupils back in classes of 15 is a bit like telling me I’m allowed to win the lottery” | @Samfr
  • “Am home schooling two kids and yet it sometimes feels like we have staff pupil ratio of about one to 17” | @JohnGRoberts
  • “’Good schools’ will ask teachers to work over half terms, weekends and the evenings to help disadvantaged pupils catch up former Ofsted chief inspector SirM_Wilshaw has said” | @tes
  • “Joe Wicks is scaling back his ‘PE lessons’ to 3 a week as he ‘needs a little break’. He’s been doing FIVE LESSONS A WEEK. Is this not every argument ever which proves the essential value of teachers needing their holidays?! Thanks Joe” | @ej_bw
  • “Right, Rashford. Can you please start a campaign to stop HS2 and liberalise the housing and planning system? Thanks, mate” | @MayhourTousi
  • “Every school has one person who can fix any ICT problem by doing exactly what you’ve just done” | @secretHT1

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Small acts of kindness can go such a long way. But as we help others, we mustn't forget to nurture ourselves, by taking the time to focus on the things that make us feel happy too” – the Duchess of Cambridge highlights the importance of kindness at this week’s Oak National Academy Assembly.
  • “Young people now need more support than ever. Their future is on the line” – Prince Charles highlights the plight of young people in a message to the Prince’s Trust.
  • “Let’s fight racism, but leave our heritage broadly in peace” – the PM offers his thoughts as he announces a new Commission on inequality.
  • “The labour market is on red alert” – the TUC reacts to the latest worrying labour market data.
  • “These findings on the geography of the crisis suggest that policymakers and politicians are in for a difficult time” – the Institute for Fiscal Studies reports on how Covid-19 is affecting communities and jobs differently.
  • “Few institutions have the longevity and deep roots of universities” – former Universities Minister Jo Johnson calls on government to put the bounce back into the university sector.
  • “There may not be packed club nights – not at first – but there will be plenty of opportunities to make new friends, join activities and meet your teachers and researchers in departments” – the V.C. at Sheffield University tries to allay any fears from prospective students about a lack of social life when the new term begins.
  • “Our plan provides the blueprint for the next year” – the Association of Colleges lays out a skills recovery plan for the coming year.
  • ‘A national disaster’ – child psychologists worry about the delay in opening schools in an open letter to the Education Secretary.
  • “This is akin to something between a military operation and an exercise in mathematics”- Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL on how secondary schools are preparing to offer face-to-face support to Year 10 and 12 students.
  • “NAHT, therefore, believes that it is unreasonable in the circumstances to require schools and colleges to run a full exam series for all qualifications in the autumn term” – the National Association of Head Teachers responds to Ofqual’s consultation on holding an autumn series of exams.
  • “If colleagues in the sector have places, let us know and we will pass on” – Teach First asks for help in placing some of its trainees as it finds vacancies in short supply.
  • “This is England in 2020, and this is an issue that needs urgent assistance” – footballer Marcus Rashford calls for free meals for families over the summer.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 8m – The number of people claiming work-related benefits last month, according to latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
  • 5% – The consumer price inflation rate for May, down a further 0.3% from the previous month, according to the latest figures form the ONS. 
  • 8% – The amount by which the UK economy is predicted to contract this year although it is forecast to grow by 5.6% next year according to the EY Item Club.
  • 51% – The number of firms indicating that they might make redundancies within 3 months of the ending of the furlough scheme, according to polling by YouGov.
  • 97% – The number of universities saying they intend to offer ‘in-person’ teaching from the start of next term, according to a new survey from Universities UK.
  • £24,000 - £26,999 – The average salary levels for those who graduated 15 months ago and are now in full time paid employment, according to the latest figures form the HE Statistics Agency.
  • 764,000 – How many young people and adults would get the skills training they need under the Colleges’ proposed skills recovery plan. 
  • 803 – How many apprentices BAE systems will be taking on during the autumn, a higher number than the year before according to the company.
  • 896,000 – The number of certificates issued for vocational and other qualifications in the first quarter of 2020, down 15% according to Ofqual. 
  • 88% – How many schools and colleges said they’d open for small exam groups from the start of the week, according to a survey from ASCL. 
  • 26% – The approximate number of Year 6 pupils in England in school at the end of last week, up from 19% the week before, according to latest government figures.
  • 114,536 – How many laptops and tablets had been sent out by last weekend for use by disadvantaged families, according to latest figures from government. 
  • 5 – The number of hours a day that children in the UK have been spending on schoolwork, a figure lower than previously thought, according to research from the Institute for Education.
  • 42% – How many pupils on average returned their last piece of set work, according to figures taken in the first half of May and reported by the NFER. 

Everything else you need to know ...

Other stories

  • Stressed out: Apparently, teachers have suffered the most from anxiety during the pandemic while heath care workers, inevitably perhaps, have been the profession to have suffered the most from stress. The results come for a survey by the polling company YouGov of how key workers have been coping with things. Most key workers have experienced stress, anxiety and sleeping problems while nearly a third have felt angry and a quarter, sadly, helpless. The full survey can be seen here
  • How’s the Joe Wicks going? One of the ways in which many people have learned to cope with the lockdown is by turning to exercise, with walking, cycling, gardening and of course those Joe Wicks sessions, all being used to relieve stress and boredom. This newfound burst of activity, which according to Bupa UK has seen 61% of adults ramp up their exercise routines, has upped the injury toll as well, with men more likely to suffer than women. The Bupa injury list shows pulled muscles (36%) as the most common injury, followed by knee, back, ankle and neck injuries. No mention of any injuries sustained by reaching for the remote. A link to the story is here

That's it for this week. Watch this space and/or check-in with my Twitter stream @stevebesley to make sure you don't miss out on the next issue of Education Eye.

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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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