Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 10 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:

Another packed week with the Chancellor’s Plan for Jobs drawing most of the headlines and quips, ‘dishy Rishi,’ featuring in most.

We’ve also had a major rescue package announced for the arts; confirmation of the anticipated White Paper on FE, ‘world class and German-style’ naturally; an update from Ofsted on its autumn visits; the latest Annual Report and Accounts from Ofqual; conferences for both higher education and work-based learning, virtual of course; and lots of talk of bouncing back and levelling up. So, some important developments. Here are some details, starting with the Chancellor’s Plan for Jobs. 

The Chancellor presented his Plan as the second part of the government’s three-stage programme of economic recovery. “Four months on, as we carefully reopen our economy, we are entering the second phase of our economic response.” The first stage was the protect and support phase, which has seen people, jobs and businesses protected through the furlough scheme and other measures. Now we have the second stage. While the third stage, the rebuild bit, will follow later this year when the Chancellor tackles the more difficult financing issues as part of a promised Autumn Budget and Spending Review.

For the moment, most people appear happy with what the Chancellor had to say, especially about jobs and help for young people. Labour challenged the gap between rhetoric and reality, and lack of action for other key sectors – notably retail and automotive. Some wanted sight of the small print, while others wondered why there was so little for the self-employed and adult skills – but generally the Plan was well received. Paul Johnson, of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, called it ’a big package on top of enormous interventions so far’. The AoC said, ‘we asked for bold action and in many ways the Chancellor has delivered’.  While Rob Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Committee, who has campaigned for many of the measures, declared himself to be ‘so happy’.

So, what has made people – some people at least – happy? Broadly, it was the Chancellor’s ‘find, create and protect’ approach to jobs, which saw each element tackled in turn during a measured 25-minute speech, with a battery of pledges and a seemingly bottomless bag of money (£30bn in all) regularly dipped into.  

Under ‘find’ there were a number of measures of direct relevance to those in education and training. Perhaps the most eye-catching was the Kickstart Scheme, in which the government encouraged employers to create new ‘good quality’ jobs of 25 hours a week for young kickstarters, and pledged to cover the wages and costs for six months. The Scheme will get going in the autumn, when many experts have predicted there’ll be sharp rises in unemployment. The government hopes it will lead to permanent jobs, although much will depend on the health of the economy, and it is only for new jobs. Funding was also announced for Traineeships; Sector-Based Work Academies; L2 and L3 training in key sectors; careers support and work coaches; and a Job Retention Bonus Scheme. But perhaps the other interesting announcement in this section, and called for by many, was on apprenticeships. The government will pay employers to take on new apprentices, both young and over 25, albeit at different rates. Significantly, this means a return to a directly funded system and leaves questions over how the levy operates in future.

Under ‘create,’ the Chancellor announced three features, all of which had been heavily trailed. They included a massive public works programme, including those capital projects in schools and colleges covered in the PM’s New Deal speech last week, along with a Green Jobs Plan and a boost for housing and supply chains with a temporary cut to the Stamp Duty threshold. And finally, under ‘protect,’ the Chancellor had two measures up his sleeve, one anticipated one not. The anticipated one was a cut to VAT until next January to help boost the hospitality and tourism industries, which employ over 2m often low paid people, and which have been notoriously hard hit recently. And the rabbit out of the hat was the discount of £10 a head on eating out from Mondays to Wednesdays during August. A Meal Deal to add to the New Deal.

So a significant week for the government and its response to the pandemic. With a £1.57bn rescue package of loans and grants for UK arts, culture and heritage at the start of the week, the Chancellor has shifted the focus from some of the government’s other difficulties to its more targeted economic response. As the Chancellor said at the end of his Jobs speech ‘we will not be defined by this crisis but by our response to it’. 

And now on to other news this week, where Ofsted set out its plans for an autumn schedule of visits – not inspection by stealth apparently, but ‘professional conversations’ with providers and due to commence in late September after some piloting and further guidance. Schools and colleges have been busy over recent months offering various forms of provision and support, but the inspectorate – and no doubt the government – feel it will be useful to gather up a picture on the wider return to learning, and in particular what form of curriculum provision is emerging. The visits won’t lead to inspection judgements and reports, but there will be a follow-up letter with future steps identified. Many in education remain wary. 

Elsewhere this week, much of the HE sector has been absorbing 2020’s HE Festival of Education, online this year but with some terrific speakers. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) has useful summaries of both days here. It came as the Institute for Fiscal Studies published a bleak report on the state of university finances – given falls in international recruitment and income-generating activities, let alone pension demands. The headline message was of a potential £11bn hit and 13 institutions on the edge. University funding has been much debated in recent months, with sector leaders calling for greater government support, but as HEPI’s Nick Hillman reminded us, research and domestic recruitment at least point to a more positive picture. And talking of positive, the latest figures from UCAS out this week point to a record number of UK 18-year-olds – including those from disadvantaged backgrounds – applying for a university place. 

In FE, concerns have also been raised about finances this week with the FE Commissioner telling the Education Committee that some 30+ colleges may be struggling. Hopefully, the Chancellor’s £101m for 18/19 years to study Level 2/3 courses will help ameliorate problems here. But the big news this week has been Gavin Williamson’s firing of the starting gun for a new White Paper on FE. Momentum for this has been building for some time. Old hands might say it’s a regular occurrence, but the lockdown has sharpened the post-Augar argument for more higher-level skill training. A number of leading players including the AoC, the Collab Group of Colleges, the FE Trust for Leadership (FETL) and the Campaign for Learning/NCFE have all been offering their thoughts this week.

Finally, for schools this week, Ofqual published its latest Annual Report and Accounts with some interesting facts and figures on the operation of the exams system. As last September’s Independent Commission report into Exam Malpractice concluded, the system works well and continues to deliver – over 6m GCSE, AS and A’ levels awarded last summer alone for instance – but faces constant challenges, and of course this year, natural anxieties about how grades will be calculated, as the DfE response to a recent petition indicated. 

The top headlines from the week:

  • ‘Coronavirus: 13 UK universities could go bust without bailout.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Cut back GCSEs and A’ levels next year say heads.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘The Chancellor announces apprenticeship support funding.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘UK universities receive record number of applications in lockdown.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Williamson: England to get German-style FE system.’ (Friday)


  • A Plan for Jobs. The Chancellor set out the second stage of the government’s economic recovery plan in the form of a Plan for Jobs with a kickstart scheme for young people, a Job Retention Bonus for furloughed workers, and measures to help hard-pressed sectors like housing and hospitality.
  • Chancellor’s speech and debate. The Chancellor was questioned and his Plan for Jobs cautiously welcomed by many MPs in the debate that followed his speech.
  • Letters of direction. The Chancellor issued formal letters of intention directing officials to implement the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme and the Job Retention Bonus Scheme.
  • IfS view. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) offered its traditional detailed assessment of the Chancellor’s Economic Statement suggesting it was a huge but necessary package with timing, scale and value for money, key issues.
  • Resolution Foundation view. The Resolution Foundation offered its assessment of the Chancellor’s Statement calling it a mix of tried-and-tested and innovative approaches with some measures likely to have more impact than others and worries about a persistent deficit.
  • Arts package. The government announced a £1.57bn package of support for UK arts and culture including infrastructure work on heritage sites, funded through a mix of grants and loans, with information on bidding and other details to follow.
  • Education spending. The Education Secretary published a detailed response on Dept spending ad strategy for schools, FE and HE in light of recent questions from the Education Committee. 
  • Annual Report. Ofqual published its Annual Report and Accounts for the period April 2019 – March 2020 a period which saw 6.1m academic exam results awarded, the first Qualification Price Index published and arrangements for 2020 exams developed on a budget of £19.60m.
  • Easing does it. The Resolution Foundation put forward a £200bn blueprint for economic recovery in a new report built around four major policy proposals including a Job Protection Scheme, a High Street Voucher Scheme, targeted family support, and enlightened structural investment.
  • Bounce Back. Leading figures at the Onward think tank outlined a series of measures to help the economy bounce back including a new set of fiscal rules and a new Restructuring Agency but also a lot on skills training such as increased stable funding for FE, a Right to Retrain for adults and compulsory English/maths/Digi skills training for all up to age 18.
  • Levelling down. The Social Market Foundation looked in more detail at which regions, industries and groups were most likely to be affected by the pandemic suggesting that while London and the S.E. may face the greatest economic impact from the downturn, they may equally be able to recover quicker leaving disadvantaged groups in already weak regions likely to struggle with recovery.
  • Employment Outlook 2020. The OECD provided its latest hefty contribution to how countries are responding to the COVID crisis pointing among things to the need for employment protection legislation, support for key sectors and the importance of market demanded vocational skills as unemployment looks set to double in 2021 across OECD countries.
  • Teenagers at risk. The Children’s Commissioner for England raised the issue of vulnerable teenagers, many of whom were falling through the cracks before the lockdown and now with many more now at risk over the summer, calling for agencies to work together to provide help and support for young people.
  • Project reports. The government published its latest annual report on major projects showing 125 undertaken last year in four main categories: ICT, construction, service delivery, and military capability.
  • Campaigning in style. Public First reported on models of campaigning in its report for Wellcome and the Campaign for Science and Engineering, highlighting among other things eight different factors for successful campaigning. 

More specifically ...


  • Ofsted visits. Following last week’s announcement that Ofsted will ‘check in’ on schools during the autumn term, the inspectorate explained that the visits will involve ‘professional conversations’ around how schools and pupils are coping, safeguarding and pupil support, with a follow-up letter rather than an inspection grade.
  • 2020 Exam grades. The government moved to allay fears that exam grades might be significantly downgraded this year in light of a petition suggesting this might happen.
  • Autumn series. The Joint Council announced the dates for the autumn series of exams for England with A’ levels in October and GCSEs in November 2020.
  • From acorns. The Oak National Academy published its curriculum plans for the next academic year containing some 10,000 free lessons from Reception to Year 11, able to be adapted where necessary and covering most topics and with more to come.
  • Inspecting local SEND. Ofsted reported on its framework for inspecting local special needs provision and where changes could be made as it confirmed work with the Care Quality Commission to carry out some local visits to monitor provision post-pandemic and to develop a new area SEND inspection framework.
  • Languages strategy. A number of leading organisations including the British Council and British Academy along with school and university leaders proposed a new national languages strategy incorporating a review of the grading and content of GCSE and A’ level language exams and new incentives to boost take-up.
  • Skills for the Future. The Careers and Enterprise Company published the results of its Teacher Tapp survey into the sorts of skills teachers think young people will need for a post-COVID labour market with employability skills coming out ahead of academic qualifications amid concerns about how disadvantaged students will fare in particular.
  • How some schools are doing it. The United Learning Group of schools put together an interesting set of case studies of how different school types were hoping to implement official guidelines for opening school from September with some using extended lessons, some going for zoning, others using staggered timetables.
  • A different kind of normal. Peter Hyman, co-director of Big Education reflected on how schools could use school reopening to create a more forward-thinking and dynamic school sector proposing four reform principles: a balanced offer, smarter assessment, imaginative leadership, and aligned technology. 
  • Diversity and inclusion. Russell Hobby, chief exec of Teach First, outlined some of the new steps the organisation was taking in recruitment and job roles to help strengthen diversity and inclusion.
  • Be a Sport. The government confirmed that primary schools in England will be able to benefit from the higher rate PE and Sport Premium for another year.


  • Kickstart scheme. The Chancellor announced as part of his Plan for Jobs, a new scheme to help vulnerable 16-24-year-olds by funding six-month work placements that hopefully might lead to jobs.
  • Apprenticeship bonus. The Chancellor announced a new scheme to encourage employers to create new apprenticeships by offering them bonus payments for each new apprentice they hire between 1 August 2020 and 31 January 2021.
  • Traineeship boost. The Chancellor also announced a boost for Traineeships for 16-24-year-olds with 30,000 new places to be made available from this September and employers promised £1,000 for each work placement offered as part of the six-month prep for work programme.
  • L2/3 courses. The Chancellor promised £101m for the next academic year to enable 18 and 19-year-olds to take L 2 and 3 courses in key sector subjects.
  • Catch up premium. Rob Halfon, Chair of the Education Committee called for a catch-up premium for 16 - 19 years particularly to help disadvantaged students who needed help with English and maths, tutoring and other forms of support. 
  • FE White Paper. The Education Secretary confirmed in a speech to the Social Market Foundation that he intended to become the latest Education Secretary to launch a major White Paper on FE, seeking on this occasion to re-align colleges and courses with the needs of local communities and the so-called other 50%.
  • 19+ learners. The government updated its guidance for providers to allow for priority adult learners to be able to return from next Monday within current guidelines and to add such learners to its preparation plans for September provision.
  • Ofsted visits. Ofsted published guidance for what its visits next term will entail where the focus will be on how providers, especially those requiring improvement, are coping, how they are providing for learner needs and safeguarding, with a follow-up letter in the form of next steps.
  • FE regulation. The FE Trust for Leadership (FETL) published a new paper looking into regulation and oversight in the FE sector and in particular the number of bodies involved and the experiences of those on the receiving end, concluding that any future White Paper should be seen as an opportunity to devise a more coherent system. 
  • Revolutionary Forces. The Campaign for Learning and NCFE published a new collection of think pieces highlighting some of the ‘revolutionary forces’ such as the changing nature of the UK economy and lower employer investment in training, that might shape the post-16 White Paper being planned for the autumn.
  • Group mentality. Ian Pretty, CEO of the Collab Group of Colleges, argued for a system of college groupings, able to deliver to cost, with smaller colleges reverting to public ownership, as part of a comment piece about a future post-16 White Paper.
  • Youth Transitions. The Education Development Trust published a new paper looking at how best to support people into work in a post-COVID world, calling for many familiar features such as greater investment in skills training but also a coherent youth and communications strategy.
  • Platforms for Growth. The Centre for Policy Studies called for a big push on technology and digital platforms to help small businesses with changes to the Apprenticeship Levy to help employers with funds for digital training.
  • Exciting Engineering. The Royal Academy of Engineering offered funding of up to £30,000 for innovative projects to inspire the public post-COVID as part of its Ingenious Public Engagement awards scheme which remains open for applications until 28 Sept 2020.
  • T levels. The government announced some changes to T level subject offers, moving the launch of HR and Legal back a year and dropping Cultural Heritage and Visitor Attractions altogether.


  • Latest UCAS figures. UCAS published the latest figures for applications up to the end of June 2020 showing applications overall up 1.6% on the same point last year with a record number of UK 18-year-olds applying including from disadvantaged backgrounds, but a slight drop in EU applications.
  • University finances. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined the impact of the pandemic on university finances in a report funded by the Nuffield Foundation pointing to a potentially large financial hit with 13 institutions, typically those already in a weak situation and/or reliant on international recruitment, at risk. 
  • In response. Nick Hillman, director of the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) responded to the IfS report by pointing to the wider picture for universities, in particular, the healthy domestic student recruitment figures this year and the opportunities in research.
  • 2021/22 fees. The government announced that maximum undergraduate fees would remain unchanged for 2021/22 but that living cost and PhD loans would be increased by inflation and the Disabled Student Allowance would be simplified. 
  • How we’ve been coping. The Chief Exec of the Student Loans Company outlined how they had been coping throughout lockdown pointing to increased digitalisation of services, hard work by staff and some holding back by students although things appear to be picking up now.
  • Relationships with China. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published a timely collection of essays on academic relationships with China, timely partly because of the current tensions in global policy but also because of new moves to establish managed online learning models for Chinese students. 
  • R/D taskforce. The National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) announced it had been asked to launch a new taskforce to advise government on ways in which universities and businesses could work together to help drive economic growth. 
  • Policy but not strategy. Mark Leach, CEO of Wonkhe unpacked the Universities Minister’s speech from last week looking for clues about the future direction of government policy for HE but identified more questions than answers with significant rebalancing between HE and FE a principal driver.
  • Ditching the 50% target. Former Universities Minister Chris Skidmore reflected on the 50% entry to HE target, acknowledging it has never been well understood and now needs to be ditched to reflect a new reality of lifelong learning, skills-based provision and potentially credit-based provision.
  • Price sensitive. The Times Higher looked at the current debate in Australia about the latest fee reform package which could see some subjects with a fee rise and others with a fee cut, finding strong views on both sides about how far fees and earnings as opposed to subject interest and opportunity, drive people to study.
  • PhD costs. Opinion Lex for the FT examined the opportunity costs for MAs and PhDs which have seen global numbers rise and which may again, given a tight post-pandemic jobs market which fare better in some countries than others.
  • Coronavirus survey Mark 11. The NUS launched a follow-up survey, four months on from its previous survey, to gather further information on how the pandemic was affecting students, their work and lives.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “The chancellor has spent approximately £250m a minute since he started talking” | @jonathansimons
  • “Pupils want normal lessons when they go back to school, not "but how did it feel?" | @RosieDBennett
  • “Stay in education as long as you can. The results justify it | @JoJohnsonUK speaking at the @UniOfBuckingham HEPI_news Festival of Higher Education” - @JOGOODMAN
  • “My earlier jokes about whether lockdown had led to the longest period on record without a once-in-a-generation FE reform have aged very well.” | @xtophercook
  • “Also, as a teacher, think about how you model your own mistakes. I’ll love Miss Watson forever for the way she would positively say, “It shows I am only human!” if we spotted she’d made a mistake. Sometimes now, I think she did it on purpose” | @miss_mcinerney
  • “My wife and I have been using a university internal catering model for every time we bring each other coffee and biscuits for a meeting during lockdown. So far £1.3 million has changed hands” |@RobDrummond
  • “Huge audience interest in education stories at moment. More than 2m on university story yesterday. Saw that premier league football claiming its biggest UK TV audience with 5.7m at weekend. That's less than read a single story on u-turn over primary schools going back” | @seanjcoughlan
  • “Apparently one person has phoned the school to ask how old I am” | @missvbishop
  • “I keep going to the shops to buy lunch coming back and eating it at my desk, just to feel closer to the office experience” | @justinpearce

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “People need to know that although hardship lies ahead, no one will be left without hope” – the Chancellor introduces his Plan for Jobs.
  • “The time to pay for all this will come. But not this year and not next. Our capacity to do so will depend above all on how the economy recovers” – the Institute for Fiscal Studies responds to the Chancellor’s Plan.
  • “At this moment, we’re seeing an encouraging picture emerge out of national lockdown” – the UCAS chief executive on the latest university application figures.
  • “FE stands for Further Education but for too long it may as well have stood for Forgotten Education” – the Education Secretary sets the ball rolling on a new FE White Paper.
  • “I always worry about the financial stability of the sector, but I am just a touch more optimistic about next year than I have been in the last two or three years” – the FE Commissioner tells the Education Committee about financial issues in the FE sector. 
  • “I would expect adjusting at the margin, not wholesale curriculum narrowing” – Ofsted Chief Inspector reacts to stories that schools may narrow down their curriculum to a few core subjects when they return in September.
  • “This is about a constructive conversation – we’re not trying to catch schools out” – Ofsted Chief Inspector sets out to reassure about their autumn term visits.
  • “We have also spoken with some of the main social media companies to explore ways they can help to tackle the sale of real or fake papers online” – Ofqual outlines some of the steps being used to prevent breaches of exam security.
  • “Inside we know a simple truth: ‘normal’ was not right” education leader Peter Hyman calls for a new normal for schools.
  • “Home schooling has been hell” – a survey respondent to the group campaigning for a clear and safe start for schools in September.

“School was often a stretch for them, and I am concerned we are never going to get some of them back into education” – the Children’s Commissioner on teenagers out of school and at risk.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • £189bn – How much the government has spent on responding to the coronavirus pandemic, almost £3000 per person in the UK, according to latest official figures.
  • 350,000 – How many people have been furloughed in the leisure and recreation industries since April, according to government figures.
  • 17% – How much the fall in UK GDP is likely to be in the 2ndquarter, more optimistic that previous forecasts by other bodies according to the Resolution Foundation.
  • 2 out of 5 – How many people worked from home in April across OECD countries, according to the Organisation’s latest Employment Report.
  • £11bn – The potential total losses to the university sector as a result of the pandemic, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
  • 5% – How many UK 18-year-olds applied by June for university, the first time such figures hit 40% according to UCAS.
  • 161 and 15,000 – How many Awarding Organisations and qualifications respectively Ofqual is responsible for as of March this year, according to its latest Annual Report.
  • 9% – The percentage of pupils attending schools and colleges in England towards the end of last week, up from 15.6% the week before, according to latest government estimates.
  • 74% – The number of teachers surveyed who believe that employability skills rather than academic qualifications (62%) will be more valuable for young people in a post-Covid marketplace, according to a poll by Teacher Tapp.
  • 123,000 – The number of teenagers in 2017/18 falling through gaps in provision and at risk, according to latest figures from the Children’s Commissioner for England. 

Everything else you need to know ...

Other stories

  • Don’t bring me down. Many people will have seen the story on the BBC this week about music, but it’s worth repeating because it offers hope and joy at a time when things aren’t easy. It seems that songs from even just a few years ago had a slow beat and came across as rather deep and depressing, whereas now as the article puts it: ‘The average tempo of 2020's top 20 best-selling songs is a pulse-quickening 122 beats per minute. That's the highest it's been since 2009.’ Music has always had the power to excite, this seems to confirm it. 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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