Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 26 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:

We may be coming out of hibernation, as the Prime Minister put it, but important questions remain.

For education, these include how best to support young people into work. An interesting ‘feel the pulse’ survey of young people this week has offered real context, and a report from an ex-Chancellor has added to the growing list of recommendations. Then there’s the continuing question of when and how to get all pupils back in school. The government promise remains September, but with caveats and where. And when it comes to next year’s exams, the Education Secretary is floating the idea of a month’s delay. Then of course, there’s how to ensure a globally competitive higher education system. This week the government confirmed the ending of home fee status for EU students from 2021, but there was positive news from UCAS about this year’s undergraduate entry, with deferrals down and acceptances up on last year.

Plenty to take in and perhaps more to come with the PM’s big ‘rebuilding Britain’ speech being lined up for delivery in the next ten days.

As for other education news this week, there were some interesting responses on catch-up funding, school opening, 2021 exams and graduate outcomes, when Education Ministers faced departmental questions this week. The Culture Secretary announced in a speech to the UK Tech Cluster Group that another new Digital Strategy is on the cards for later this year, ‘one that reflects the new post-COVID reality,’ as he put it. 

Elsewhere, the Education Committee continued its detailed enquiry into the effect of the pandemic on education, this week questioning leading skills training figures, who had some interesting perspectives on the key role such training will play in supporting economic recovery. News also came that the Early Career Framework – the support package for teachers in the early stages of their career – is now set to get underway in the autumn with a full rollout next year. And if you’re wondering what’s happened to the review of L3 and below qualifications, the Minister confirmed in response to questions this week that work is continuing and a second stage consultation will follow this autumn.

So where are we with those three big questions?

Supporting young people into work first, which continues to attract comment and concern in equal measures. Three points stand out from this week’s developments. First, many people – including of course the PM – see apprenticeships as the answer, but it may not be that simple. This week’s data shows the latest start numbers down. That’s only to be expected during the current crisis, but more worrying – as the latest report from the Social Mobility Commission highlighted this week – is that those from poorer backgrounds often miss out on apprenticeships. On top of this, given the numbers who may seek them, employers are likely to struggle to offer them in the numbers needed. Second, and in a similar vein, other alternatives such as T levels may also find the employer support they need for the core aspect of work placements, difficult to secure. It was a point raised at this week’s Education Committee hearing and yet according to this week’s Youth Employment UK survey, it’s the work experience aspect that many young people, let alone employers, value. And third, what about all those young people who may need to stay on to improve their English and maths and perhaps other skills? The Education Policy Institute reckons there could be anything between 60,000 to 100,000+ additional young people seeking to beef up their English and maths levels this autumn, yet the recently announced tutoring top-up system ignores this group.   

Next, the question of schools being open to all in September. As the journalist Tim Harford wrote: “The problem of reopening schools has become central to the pandemic response.” Some people would like the PM to include this as a central part of his forthcoming ‘rebuilding Britain’ speech – given the concerns about the impact of no schooling on disadvantaged children, the worries about mental health and the importance of working families being able to get back to work. As former Education Minister David Laws put it recently, what schools, and no doubt parents, really need is a clear plan, but so far this hasn’t been forthcoming. The language still appears restrained.  “We are working towards bringing all children and young people back to school in September,” the Minister said when questioned in Parliament this week. The government is expected to announce a relaxing of social distancing for schools next week, but time is getting short for schools to plan and meanwhile, other important issues, like the timing of next summer’s exams, are being left in limbo.

For higher education, there have been three interesting developments this week. First, the latest figures on this year’s university entry have provided a welcome relief from all those who have been fearing – let alone reporting – the worst over recent months. With the demographic for UK 18-year-olds on an upward trend, the latest graduate outcomes data offering positive field data, and university research proving itself during the pandemic, these are straws for universities to build on. Second, and flipping the coin, many universities have been disappointed by the government’s Brexit inspired announcement about the ending of home fee support for EU students from next year. But consumer reactions to fee hikes in the past have not always been negative and as HEPI’s Nick Hillman argued, assuming there are sensible future migration policies and universities work hard on recruitment, EU students may still want to come here. And third, UK universities aren’t the only ones coping with the post-Covid challenges. The Times Higher has been conducting a major survey among university leaders across 53 countries. All are grappling with similar issues. 

The top headlines from the week:

  • ‘GCSEs and A’ levels likely to be later next summer.’ (Monday)
  • ‘No home fee status for EU students from next year.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Apprenticeships not delivering social mobility.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Reception baseline assessment postponed in DfE U-turn.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Thousands of excluded pupils in England have no place to go in Sept.’ (Friday)


  • Easing the lockdown: The Prime Minister announced a major relaxation of many of the current lockdown restrictions in a speech to Parliament.
  • New Digital Strategy: The Culture Secretary announced that the government would publish another new Digital Strategy later this year, timed to reflect post-COVID issues and focusing on improved data, regulation, infrastructure, and skills.
  • Blueprint for Growth: Former Chancellor Sajid Javid teamed up with the Centre for Policy Studies to set out 60+ recommendations to help promote economic growth with new City Deals as part of ‘radical devolution,’ a British Infrastructure Bank, a new visa scheme for top graduates, pro-growth tax reform and a new monetary framework, among the proposals.
  • Family silver: The Resolution Foundation published the first in a new series of reports looking at wealth in Britain, in this instance household wealth and its uneven distribution which leaves poorer families with little to fall back on in times of crisis such as the current pandemic.
  • Responding to the pandemic: The Work and Pensions Committee issued a report on how the DWP had been handing welfare issues arising out of the pandemic, praising it for dealing with such a massive demand but calling on the government to introduce greater flexibilities such as helping those paid late or without recourse to support.
  • Council finances: The BBC reported on its survey of local council finances suggesting many (148) were facing financial shortfalls, 20 were looking at emergency budgets and five were close to bankruptcy.
  • AI Barometer: The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDI) published its AI Barometer of opportunities and risks in AI application across 5 sectors including Health and Social Care, and Digital and Social Media pointing to back office functions and customer service as opportunities for AI but the use of personal data in health and social care and public trust as among the risks. 
  • Green shoots: The CBI set out five broad policy proposals for an economic recovery built around green issues including reskilling low carbon technology, prioritising environmentally friendly infrastructure building and supporting energy efficient schemes.
  • Going Green: The innovation foundation NESTA looked at what was involved in transitioning to a green economy proposing among other things a new taxonomy to identify industries as ‘leaders’ or ‘laggards’ on green matters.
  • Getting into SHAPE: The British Academy and partner organisations launched SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy) to highlight the importance of such disciplines to both the economy and society in general.
  • Press for Restart: The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) called for a ‘restart’ package from government in light of a sector survey showing a third of the workforce on furlough, one in six jobs in danger of redundancy, continuing worries about a no-deal Brexit and fears of a collapse in the industry.
  • Cultural Catastrophe: A Cross-Party group of MPs called on the Culture Secretary to do more to help the arts and culture amid fears that many theatre companies could go bust before the end of the year. 

More specifically ...


  • School census data: The government published details of the census data collected about schools, pupils and their characteristics at the start of the year, showing for example an increase in secondary school pupil numbers, a slight decrease in primary school class sizes, but a slight increase for those in secondary, and a slight drop in the five-year teacher retention rate.
  • Helping the most vulnerable: The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published the latest in its Nuffield funded research looking into how schools have been responding to COVID-19, in this case providing extra support for vulnerable pupils many of whom have been less engaged
  • School workforce data: The government also published data on the school workforce as of November 2019 showing, for example, a pupil to teacher ratio (qualified and unqualified) in secondary schools of 16.6 and an increase of over 1,000 in the number of Teaching Assistants.
  • Early career support: The government announced that the Early Career Framework, a package of funded professional development for teachers in their first couple of years, will be launched in some regions this autumn ahead of a national roll-out next year.
  • Careers Hubs: The government and Careers and Enterprise Co announced an increase from this September in the number of Careers Hubs available to help young people with career decisions as they face a challenging post-pandemic jobs market. 
  • Teacher training inspections: Ofsted published its new framework for initial teacher education (ITE) inspections from this September focusing more on the quality of teaching and learning and bringing it, as a result, more into line with the general inspection framework. 
  • Holiday activities: The government listed the 10 providers who will receive government funding to help provide food and health activities for disadvantaged children over the summer.
  • Trust finances: The government published the latest Academies Financial Handbook with notable new guidance on reporting top salaries, a register of interests, whistleblowing, and training for accounting officers.
  • Summer Food Fund: The government published details of its COVID Summer Food Fund with details on eligibility, vouchers and support available.


  • Apprenticeship matters: The Social Mobility Commission raised concerns about a lack of social mobility in the apprenticeship system in a new report pointing to the fact that disadvantaged learners have been particularly hard hit since the levy was introduced with fewer starters and lower rates of return, and calling for change by December 2023.
  • Latest apprenticeship stats: The government published provisional figures on apprenticeship starts over April and May showing a drop in starts compared to the same point last year with the majority of starts that had happened being among the 25+ age group.
  • Catch-up funding: The Chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Group on sixth form education wrote a ‘Dear Gavin’ letter, calling on the Education Secretary to extend the catch-up fund to 16-19 providers.
  • Catch up petition: Leading figures and professionals in FE joined the petition to get the government to reverse its apparent late decision to leave 16 -19 -year olds out of the recent announcement on free catch-up tuition.
  • L3 review: The Skills Minister responded to a question in Parliament about the ongoing review of L3 and below qualifications by confirming that ‘the second stage consultation is due to be published later in 2020’ and that current arrangements for removing funding for low volume and some historical qualifications remain.
  • Jobs and Job Quality: The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined trends and changes in jobs between the eve of the last recession and the eve of Covid-19 highlighting two trends; strong employment growth and weak pay growth but noting that much of the growth in employment was in jobs that could be done from home which may have helped during the current lockdown.
  • Our view: Youth Employment UK published the results of its latest annual census of young people’s views about education, training and jobs showing many (87%) concerned about whether they’ll be able to find a job locally and keen to see more emphasis given to developing employability skills.
  • English and maths resits: The Education Policy Institute examined GCSE English and maths resit numbers for 16 and 17-year-olds this year suggesting that numbers could rise significantly if young people couldn’t find jobs and opted to stay on.
  • Skills Plan: The CITB set out its plans for skills for the year and on matters like protecting apprenticeships and spreading levy payments over the coming months.
  • Skilling London: The London First Skilling Group which has been working with Lloyds Banking on a skills programme for London published a new economic recovery plan calling for greater devolution, a virtual skilling platform and a big focus on transferable and digital skills.
  • Covid-19 impact: The Edge Foundation published a collection of think pieces on what effect the pandemic has been having on different aspects of education and training highlighting the challenges that lie ahead especially in supporting disadvantaged and young people.
  • What rather than where: The Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER) published new research showing that when it comes to vocational courses, what you study rather where tends to be more important in terms of earnings return especially for female and younger learners and particularly those studying subjects like engineering and business admin.
  • Building for the future: Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, called for government to build on FE sector strengths rather than attempt yet another structural reform as he set out a new era for FE built around the 3 Rs of re-focusing, renationalisation and resourcing in a comment piece for the TES.
  • BTEC Awards: The 10thAnnual Pearson BTEC Award Ceremony took place online this year in light of the current health and safety guidelines but with a number of celebrity ambassadors taking part.


  • EU student fees: The Minister confirmed that following Brexit, EU nationals wishing to study at English universities and colleges from August 2021 would no longer be eligible for fee support and loans under home fee status and would have to pay the higher overseas rate.
  • University choices: UCAS published latest figures for this year’s application round showing an increase in the number of those accepting an undergraduate place for this autumn slightly up on last year with fewer deferrals.
  • Moving Chair: Sir Michael Barber confirmed he would not be seeking a second term as Chair of the Office for Students but agreed to lead a review of online learning as a future model for HE before his departure next March.
  • THE Leaders’ Survey: The Times Higher reported on its extensive survey of university leaders around the globe looking into how they have been coping with the pandemic and how they see the future with the views varying by country but with a universal sense that this may be an era changing moment for HE.
  • Easing the lockdown: The House of Commons Library published a useful summary paper of the various documents and steps being taken to ease the lockdown in both F and HE.
  • Digging deeper: The government published further tables on 2017/18 graduate outcomes with further details on their salaries, activities, and subject providers.
  • Class of 2020: Universities UK called for a national system of one-year, paid ‘recovery internships’ to help students graduating into a difficult post-Covid market this year. 
  • PhD Life: The HE Policy Institute published a new report into the experiences of PhD students in the UK finding that many (78%) are happy with their course but study long hours, often see their supervisor infrequently and must survive on meagre funding. 
  • I have a complaint: The body that deals with student complaints issued a new briefing note highlighting the importance of communicating to students any changes to forms of provision so that they knew what to expect.
  • Nursing and Social Care courses: UCAS published an Insight briefing on Nursing and Social Care courses where there are still places for 2020. applications, pointing to the diversity of applicants for such degree courses
  • Digital evidence: The Student Loans Company launched a new Digital Evidence Submission system making it easier for people having to provide further evidence for their financial applications to do so online.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • "Napoleon reputedly told his generals to come to him with a 'situation' and three possible solutions to it, each of which with a plus and minus evaluation. When a head teacher, I told my staff that I would be adopting my compatriot's strategy.” | @olicav
  • "Pleased to have been officially appointed Co-Chair of @universityappq this afternoon.” | @CSkidmoreUK
  • “Furloughed Eurostar staff volunteer to help London schools with French lessons online.” | @seanjcoughlan
  • “Turns out the one thing I miss about office life is aircon, then.” | @gabyhinsliff
  • “If it takes a village to raise a child, sometimes it takes a pandemic to get a teenager’s nose back in a book.” | @Telegraph

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Almost as eagerly awaited as a pint will be a haircut, particularly by me” – the PM announces some relaxation to the current lockdown arrangements.
  • “We did this kind of planning in the Second World War; we should be able to do it in 2020" – Lord Adonis’s latest foray into education includes a call for a new land army of retired teachers to help with possible summer schooling.
  • “That is why we will consult Ofqual on how we can move exams back, giving children extra time to learn, flourish and do incredibly well” – the Education Secretary answers questions in Parliament about plans for next year’s exams.
  • “Boldness, as well as out-of-the-box thinking, is the order of the day” – former Chancellor Sajid Javid outlines a new blueprint for economic growth.
  • “Today’s announcement will be seen as bad news inside universities…but history suggests that the education on offer in our universities is something people are willing to pay for ” – Nick Hillman, director of the HE Policy Institute. reacts to the news that EU students will have to pay the overseas rate from 2021.
  • “If you open restaurants and cinemas, but not universities, I can’t see the logic” – the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher offers his thoughts on support for universities in an interview in the THES.
  • “We welcome the fact that so many students are defying the doom-mongers and are planning to start their university courses in September as normal” – Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, responds to the latest UCAS figures.
  • “We’ll carry on fighting for what is right for the 700,000 college students who deserve more support” – the AoC’s David Hughes on the battle for catch-up funding for 16-19-year-olds. 
  • “This report should serve as a sobering analysis of a system that could be – but is not – delivering social mobility in England” – The Social Mobility Commission reports on disadvantage in the apprenticeship system.
  • “On the face it looks easy, but any change to academic timetables is a big deal to all stakeholders, including Ucas” – former UCAS chief Mary Curnock Cook on plans to push back next year’s exams by a month.
  • “If every student had access to exactly the same technology, including secure online proctoring with retina and fingerprint recognition capabilities, what’s to prevent all examinations being conducted online in future?” Tom Bewick, chief exec of FAB reflects on the future for FE in a comment piece for the TES.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • -58% – UK manufacturing order books for June, slightly better than May, but still historically low according to the latest Manufacturing survey from the CBI.
  • £3.2bn – The combined budget shortfall facing UK local councils, according to analysis by the BBC.
  • 1% – The increase on last year in the number of undergraduate applicants accepting a place to start this autumn, according to the latest figures from UCAS. 
  • 20% – How many higher education students have been unable to access any learning during the lockdown, according to estimates from the NUS.
  • £2bn – The amount of money the college sector could lose as a result of the pandemic unless action is taken, according to David Hughes, CEO of the AoC.
  • 26,090 – The number of apprenticeships starts between the start of lockdown and the end of May, down 47.9% on the same period as last year, according to the latest provisional figures.
  • 36% – The drop in apprenticeship starts by those from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to 23% for others, according to a new report from the Social Mobility Commission.
  • 13 to 15 – The age at which most people thought young people should be taught about employability skills, according to the latest survey report from Youth Employment UK. 
  • 89m – The number of pupils in schools in England this year, up 71,000 from last year, according to latest census data.
  • 945,805 – The number of full-time equivalent teachers working in state-funded schools in England, an increase of 400, according to the latest government data.
  • £100,000 – The number of people earning that figure that Academy Trusts must now include in their returns, according to the latest Academies Financial Handbook.
  • 3% – The number of Year 10 pupils back in school at the start of last week, according to figures from the government.
  • 8m – How many print books were sold over last week as bookshops re-opened, a 31% rise over the same week last year according to The Bookseller.
  • £1.5m – How much it could cost to put a show back on in the West End with running costs at an average of £220,000 weekly, according to theatre insiders.
  • 20% – How many adults use Instagram compared to 42% of 8-15-year olds, according to a new report from Ofcom.

Everything else you need to know ...

Other stories

  • Lockdown’s digital legacy. There’s some fascinating data in Ofcom’s latest report on online usage which came out last week. Two trends stand out, both driven by the lockdown. First, a big shift towards using online services to keep in touch; so more What’s App and video calls than landline and emails, double the number to be more precise. And second, and a surprise to some, more and more adults, especially those aged 65+, turning confidently to online services. TikTok, for example, had 12.9m UK adult users in April, up from 5.4m in January. At the height of the lockdown in April, adults in the UK spent on average 4 hours 2 minutes a day online compared to 3 hours 29 minutes in September 2019. A link to a report summary can be found 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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