Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 3 July 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:

‘This is the moment to be ambitious … swig the spirit of captain Tom.’ 

It wasn’t only the spirit of Captain Tom that the Prime Minister was keen to bottle this week, it was also that of Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal programme helped trigger American recovery in the ‘30’s. Historians still argue over the full impact, but it offers an enticing analogy for politicians seeking authenticity today. Whoever said studying the humanities wasn’t important?

The PM’s ‘New Deal’ speech this week was the first of two planned speeches by the government intended, in the PM’s words, to put the bounce back and forward into Britain. The second will follow next week when the Chancellor sets out more details about the government’s plans for the economy and the labour market. Crucial stuff, and now with two further defining contexts: a commitment by the PM not to return to austerity and another bleak set of quarterly economic indicators, this time from the British Chambers of Commerce. 

There have been mixed views about the potency of the PM’s speech, but what it does leave us with is an extensive agenda of major government projects for the coming months. Ten stand out. They include: a major Spending Review; a National Infrastructure Strategy; a capital building programme for schools and colleges; a Youth Opportunity Guarantee; a Digital Strategy; a new science funding agency; a Local Recovery White Paper; a Social Care Plan; a reform of the planning system; and a study of transport links, including greener options.  

How far these will all materialise remains to be seen. Either way, this is clearly a key moment for the country as the rebuilding process, both physically and mentally, gets underway – with education and skills as prominent features. These features now include school rebuilding plans, school opening arrangements, youth training, and opportunities including apprenticeships, university access and admissions, and future research. All of these – along with exam plans for autumn 2020 and summer 2021 – have been breathlessly reported this week. This is what we’ve learned so far.

On school rebuilding: some details were provided in the PM’s speech as well as in the Education Secretary’s statement to MPs. More will follow in the autumn when the first of the promised 50 building projects will be announced as part of the Spending Review. Over a £1bn has been promised and the intention is clearly to give a fillip to schools, especially as funds have also been brought forward to help schools and colleges with urgent repairs this year. The government has said there is more money in the pot, indeed some is being set aside to develop further Institutes of Technology in the FE sector, but as many have sharply pointed out, this still falls well short of what’s needed and is not all ‘new’ money. 

Next, back to school and college and the plans set out this week. They cover all sectors, including special schools and early years, and feel a bit like a major military exercise. There are pages of guidance, much of it building on what’s been pouring out of government over recent months, and it’ll certainly keep everyone busy over the coming weeks. The government makes it clear that it‘s looking for a full return from September, ‘you should plan on the basis that from September 2020 all learners will return’, and yes, the threat of sanction for non-attendance is in there. 

Other stand-outs include content prioritising within subjects rather than dropping any up to KS3, with the potential to drop subjects at KS4 (but only ‘in exceptional circumstances’). An autumn series of exams will go ahead as previously indicated, and Ofqual has started consulting on arrangements for next year’s exams – pushing GCSEs back to after half term for instance. The full range of SATs are being planned for next summer and Ofsted inspections will start in January 2021, though Ofsted will conduct some visits next term to check all is well and gather evidence. For both schools and colleges, some of the most challenging aspects remain around systems control, including procedures for teaching and learning, learner movement, crowd control and so on. Pity the music teacher trying to get pupils to stand back to back when they blow into instruments.

Moving on to opportunities for young people, and university access and admissions. Both are areas where plans are being laid and announcements yet to come. The PM referred to an Opportunity Guarantee in his New Deal speech this week, but without substance, while apprenticeship options including some form of guarantee have been further pursued by the Chair of the Education Committee among others at events this week. For the moment it’s watch this space to see what the Chancellor announces next week on youth employment. 

As for university access and admissions, The Guardian suggested last week that the government was considering a number of options, largely around PQA post-qualification applications. We’ve been here before of course, some would say too often, and there are still some important reviews out on this, but it seems that the government is minded to have another go. It comes as the University Minister confirmed in a challengingspeech this week, that the government appears to want to couple admissions reform with a review of certain types of courses. No prizes for guessing which. The post-Augar FE White Paper, due out this autumn, is expected to bring together government proposals on these and other matters.

Finally, future research, where last weekend the government announced a support package for research along with a helpful loan scheme, and followed it up this week with an R/D Roadmap designed to ensure the UK secures a leading global position ‘as a science superpower.’  It includes further investment to beef up facilities, a new Innovation Expert Group, and the creation of the strangely named new Office for Talent. The latter will sit in Number 10 and is designed – along with the extension of the new graduate scheme and promise of a fellowship route – to attract the best research brains to come to the UK, but comes rather awkwardly as the Immigration Bill with its new defined points system heads to the statute books.

The top headlines from the week:

  • ‘PM promising to £1bn to rebuild crumbling schools.’ (Monday)
  • ‘GCSE and A’ level autumn exams offered in all subjects.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Dumbed down courses take advantage of students.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘School safety plans will keep groups apart.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Conditional unconditional university offers to be banned in England.’ (Friday)


  • The PM’s rebuilding Britain speech. The Prime Minister outlined a New Deal for the country with plans for school rebuilding, housing, local growth, planning and infrastructure along with an Opportunity Guarantee for young people as the government looked to rebuild Britain after the pandemic.
  • Statement on school building programme. The Education Secretary confirmed government plans for a rebuilding programme for schools and colleges in a speech to MPs. 
  • Statement on research support. The Business Secretary outlined new research support arrangements including a restructuring regime for HE providers at risk of closure in a speech to Parliament.
  • Education Shadow. The Labour Party published a brief bio of Kate Green as she took over as Shadow Education Secretary.
  • Fake news. The Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee expressed concern about what they called ‘a pandemic of misinformation’ as they published a new report calling among other things for more work to be done in schools on increasing digital media literacy and for tech giants to be held accountable for spreading misinformation.
  • Latest economic survey. The British Chambers of Commerce published its latest Quarterly Economic Survey highlighting a bleak picture for the height of the pandemic with many firms reporting sharp drops in sales, cashflows, investment and confidence.
  • Back part time. The first changes to the furlough scheme came in from 1 July enabling furloughed employees to return to work part time as employers prepare to pay pension and national insurance contributions from next month.
  • Rethinking Local.The Local Government Association called for urgent investment from the government as it set out a new post pandemic vision for local services in areas like children’s services, social care, and local growth.
  • Nursery services. The Sutton Trust called for transition funding for nurseries and early years providers many of whom are facing financial shortfalls as it published a new report showing that progress on closing the school readiness gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children had stalled.
  • Poverty 2020. The Social Metrics Commission published its 2020 report on poverty showing that although the overall rate of poverty across the UK hadn’t changed over the last 20 years, the number living below the poverty line. particularly those with children or where an adult was working less than full time and among disadvantaged and ethnic families, had significantly increased. 
  • Pay gaps. The High Pay Centre published a funded report looking into the now required pay ratio disclosures between CEOs and different employee groups finding the picture varying across sectors but suggesting redistribution could benefit the lowest-earning quartile of employees in some companies.
  • Going the full Monty. The Resolution Foundation called for the Job Retention Scheme to be flipped to a Job Protection Scheme, going ‘The Full Monty’ as it called it, particularly for hard pressed sectors like hospitality, leisure and tourism where many of the lowest-paid tend to be employed.
  • Mental health matters. The charity Mind published new survey data showing the extent of mental health problems exacerbated by the pandemic, setting out five key ‘tests for government,’ including supporting young people and investing in community services.
  • Library services.  Library authorities published a new ‘Services Recovery Toolkit’ to guide providers and users as the lockdown eases.

More specifically ...


  • Back to school.The government issued its back to school plans for September 2020 confirming that it expected all year groups to return albeit within bubbles and with managed movement, contingency planning, detailed hygiene arrangements and a full curriculum offer. 
  • Some big questions.The Times Ed listed a series of initial questions on anything from managing bubbles, to transport arrangements, to costs and compromises that arise out of the government’s latest ‘Back to School’ plans.
  • Fit for the future. The PM promised a £1bn 10-year building programme to make schools in England ‘fit for the future’ with the first 50 ‘projects’ due to be announced under the Spending Review later this year and likely to be targeted at ‘crumbling’ buildings in the North and Midlands where building work would begin next year.
  • School repairs. The PM also promised a further £560m for ‘repairs and upgrades’ to schools for this year.
  • Check in, catchup and prepare. Pupils in Wales headed back to school in groups at the start of the week, in a programme designed to provide all pupils at least three opportunities over the next 3 weeks to check in and prepare for a September restart.
  • School Admissions. The government launched consultation (due to close 16 0ctober 2020) on some limited changes to the Schools Admissions Code intended to clarify in-year admissions and protocols particularly for vulnerable children.
  • Exam 2021 consultation. Ofqual launched consultation on arrangements for GCSE, AS and A’ level exams next year including starting GCSE exams after half term, reducing the number and length of exams, and adapting some of the requirements, for example introducing more choice and sampling of GCSE humanities subjects to free up teaching time.
  • Autumn 2020 exam series.Ofqual reported that following consultation, a full set of GCSE, AS and A’ level exams would be available this autumn with AS and A’ level exams potentially to be held in October and GCSEs in November, with candidates able to request replacement certificates where needed.
  • Coursework effect. Ofqual published the results of its commissioned work into how far some students might benefit from coursework concluding that from the subjects analysed, while females often perform better than males when it comes to GCSE coursework, there are no differences for those from different socio-economic backgrounds or ethnicities.
  • Qualification perceptions. Ofqual published the results of its latest annual survey on perceptions of qualifications showing a continuing increase in trust for traditional qualifications, some improvement in awareness of the (new) GCSE grading system along with recognition of the value of vocational qualifications and apprenticeships.
  • Schooling disrupted. The OECD reported on its survey of nearly 60 countries into how the pandemic had affected schools and schooling, finding for example that about 50% of pupils have been able to access the curriculum while on lockdown but that for the others, learning loss is likely to take its toll in future earnings.
  • Online learning. Bramble, one of the companies leading on online learning, reported on its recent global survey of users, suggesting as might be expected, considerable support for online learning with online tutoring likely to remain a regular feature.
  • MFL teachers. The OECD published a summary report on modern foreign language (MFL) teachers and teaching based on its Teaching and Learning Survey of 2018, indicating that over 60% teach another subject as well and ICT usage among MFL teachers is high.
  • Laptop delivery. The government published the latest figures for the delivery of laptops and routers up to the end of last month showing the number of laptops and tablets now dispatched as 202,212 but still below target.
  • Local lockdown. The government published guidance for education and childcare provision in Leicester under the current local lockdown, allowing for possible application elsewhere if other local flare-ups emerge.
  • Out of school activities. The government published guidance for parents and carers on holiday clubs and out of school activities as the summer break looms.


  • Reopening FE. The government issued guidance and plans for the full opening of the FE sector from this September calling for an appropriate mix of face-to-face and online provision and confirming a full set of system controls covering workshop settings, learner movement, group gatherings and extensive hygiene and welfare arrangements.
  • College estate. The PM brought forward an initial £200m (from the £1-5bn promised in the last Budget) for upgrading FE buildings this year ahead of plans later this year to extend the Institute for Technology network. 
  • Call for Evidence. MPs’ All Party Parliamentary Group on Apprenticeships launched a quickfire (by next Tuesday) call for evidence from businesses, training providers and others working with apprenticeships on what sorts of problems and challenges they had faced under lockdown.
  • Guaranteeing apprenticeships. The Edge Foundation hosted an online event on apprenticeships where Education Committee Chair Rob Halfon spoke with customary passion about the importance of apprenticeships especially for young people, setting out six proposals to help make this happen.
  • Career disruption. The Institute for Fiscal Studies highlighted the impact of the pandemic on the career prospects of young people pointing to the fact that many start in low paid jobs which have been hard hit by the pandemic limiting their job prospects as a result.
  • Funding training. City and Guilds highlighted the issue of those who had lost jobs and may not be able to afford training, urging the government to bring skills funding together to create a National Skills Fund to support future training hubs.
  • Right to Retrain. The Chartered Management Institute called for a massive online National Retraining Scheme bringing together a range of schemes in a new social contract with a Right to Retrain at the heart of this.
  • Let’s work together. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) outlined a commitment to work closely with colleges and providers on apprenticeship developments, applying 3 principles (collaboration, commitment, clarity) as a starting point.
  • Subcontracting plans. The ESFA followed up its earlier consultation on subcontracting by confirming that it would work towards a reduced volume and new standard as it prepares to make changes for the future.
  • T level placements. The government promised some support for employers offering T level placements but hard pressed as a result of the pandemic as it published further research and analysis on T level industry placements with part-time work options emerging as the most popular with variants by sector. 
  • T level prep. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) hosted a webinar as part of its series on the build-up to this autumn’s T level launch with a report to follow in a few weeks’ time.


  • Conditional/unconditional. The Office for Students reported on its consultation on the use of conditional offers in light of current issues about the practice, effectively banning its use and associated marketing activities for at least a year for all OfS registered providers.
  • Latest guidance. The government issued updated guidance for higher education institutions covering the reopening of libraries, accommodation arrangements, staff and student wellbeing, and social gatherings.
  • Research lifeline. The government announced at the end of last week two new schemes to bolster UK research embracing an immediate £200m+ package to support research salaries and equipment, and from this autumn a low-interest loan scheme to cover large chunks of losses arising out of a drop in international students.
  • R/D Roadmap. The government set out plans to secure the country’s leading position in R/D, with ‘a roadmap’ of proposals including the creation of an Office for Talent to attract global researchers, investment to upgrade science facilities, the creation of an Innovation Expert Group, and allowing international PhD students a further year’s grace.
  • Government messaging. The Universities Minister addressed the NEON Conference where she challenged universities about access, participation and social mobility arguing that they should do more to ensure students from disadvantaged backgrounds were placed on to course that delivered ‘good outcomes’.
  • Taking the pulse. The HE Policy Institute published new survey data, taken in mid-June with Youthsight, on how undergraduates have been reacting to pandemic issues showing a mixed picture with most satisfied with how their institution has communicated with them but some unhappiness about online learning and a clear hierarchy of expectations emerging.
  • Resourcing HE. The OECD reported on the growing costs and challenges of resourcing higher education in a new, weighty analysis, noting that this was likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic but cautioning against cuts to staff and services as these tend to reduce the scale and quality of provision and thereby study outcomes.
  • Campaigning in poetry. Former Universities Minister Chris Skidmore argued in a comment piece that universities need to explain their value and strengthen their case with public and politicians so that they can be better understood, appreciated, and funded.
  • Graduating in a recession. The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) looked at the challenges facing those graduating this summer in a new blog arguing that high-level skills are likely to remain in demand and are worth pursuing. 

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “About half of British workforce travelled to work last week: ONS” | @Reuters
  • “Love this from the back-to-school guidance: Hold music lessons outside... positioning pupils back-to-back or side-to-side” | @nicolawoolcock
  • “Everyone knows that the people who care the most about children are the ones who work in education but don't want to teach children anymore, or never have done” | @JamesTheo
  • “One of the beauties of current times is being able to attend a conference in Preston at 10 and one in Bucks at 12.40!” | @samtwisleton
  • “When I was a teen losing my religion, I took to reading horoscopes to guide my life, but I always made sure that the one I picked was not my sign. I just wanted something to think about” | @CoyneoftheRealm
  • “The whole education sector is talking blended learning, better use of the tech, higher rates of engagement found in studies...and all Gav can bleat about is sit in rows and face the front. Keep up sweetheart” | @chezlabeille
  • “You know you’ve been home schooling too long when you’ve got Percy Parker’s 10x table song as an ear worm” | @LeeDonaghy

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “We are not going to try to cheese-pare our way out of trouble” – the PM explains his New Deal for the country.
  • “There’s not much that’s new and it’s not much of a deal" – the Labour leader responds to the PM’s New Deal.
  • “It is early days, but my reading of the evidence is so far, so V” – Bank of England economist Andy Haldane on the shape of the UK’s economic recovery 
  • “We are committing to a 10-year, multi-wave rebuilding programme for schools” – the Education Secretary tells MPs about the rebuilding plans for schools
  • “There’s not going to be a watered down curriculum” – the Education Secretary sets out plans for schools to open fully from September 2020.
  • “DFE is continuing to work with BEIS, HMT and other Government Departments to develop a process through which higher education providers at risk of closure will be able to apply to Government to access a restructuring regime as a last resort” – the Business Secretary confirms last ditch support for HE.
  • “We would like to see an apprenticeship target for every contractor winning any of the Government’s contracts under their infrastructure fiscal stimulus” – the AoC responds to the government’s infrastructure plans.
  • “People no longer have faith that they can rely on the information they receive or believe what they are told. That is absolutely corrosive for democracy” – Chair of the Lords Digital Committee, Lord Puttnam, calls for urgent action to curb online misinformation.
  • “Ideally, adults should maintain 2 metre distance from each other, and from children” – the government sets out its ideals for schools opening in September
  • “I'm glad we have you here, but it is incredibly depressing, what we're hearing” – the Chair of the Education Committee reacts to evidence presented by special needs providers trying to manage during the lockdown. 
  • “We don’t think that it is the right approach to fine parents for the non-attendance of children as soon as schools fully reopen in September”, - Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL on the news that the government is considering fines for school non- attendance from September.
  • “An exam series which runs through October and November will be very difficult for schools and colleges to manage in a term where they will need to be focussed on their current students and mitigating the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their pastoral wellbeing and academic progress” – the NAHT reacts to the announcement about an autumn series of exams.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 213,400 – How many staff across education have been furloughed according to a question in Parliament.
  • £75 – How much the government’s New Deal amounts to per person, according to analysts. 
  • 4m – The number of people in the UK living in poverty, according to latest figures from the Social Metrics Commission. 
  • 11 – How many of the 14 key service sector indicators fell to their lowest level in recent history, according to the British Chambers of Commerce Q2 survey.
  • 2% – How much the UK economy contracted in the first quarter of this year, the joint worst since 1979 according to latest figures from the Office for National Statistics.
  • 71% – How many students expect some online learning next year with 26% expecting courses will be limited, according to the latest student survey from HEPI/Youthsight.
  • £1bn+ – How much the government is promising for upgrading school and college buildings over the next 10-years, according to the PM.
  • 3,731 – How many schools are in urgent need of repair, according to evidence from the NEU.
  • 93% – The number of schools and colleges open in England late last week according to latest government figures.
  • 81% – How many respondents supported the proposal that exam boards should offer exams in all GCSE, AS and A’ level subjects if need be this autumn, according to Ofqual.
  • 47,922 – How many laptops and tablets were distributed in the last week of June, according to the latest figures.
  • 1% – How many pupils in England have special needs support, up 0.2% on the year before according to the latest government figures.
  • 41% – The number of businesses that reckon they’ll need less physical space as more people work from home in future, according to a survey from YouGov.
  • £210m – How much is expected to be spent in Britain’s pubs this weekend as they reopen for the first time since lockdown.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • 2020 Festival of Higher Education (online Tuesday/Wednesday)
  • Planned economic Statement from the Chancellor (Wednesday)
  • Employment and Skills Convention (online Thursday)

Other stories

  • How’s your lockdown been? It’s not of course been a happy experience for everybody, but according to new research from the Nuffield Foundation, 26% reckon they would miss lockdown, 5% even saying they’d miss it a lot. It’s fair to say that the majority of such people have good incomes and family around thus making it all easier to endure. 36% said they wouldn’t miss it at all, 40% said they had gained weight and 17% reported drinking more. A link to the survey 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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