Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 28 October 2022

Welcome to Education Eye, a regular update detailing the policies and stories happening in UK education, compiled by Steve Besley.

What's happened this week?

Important stories across the board:

Another week of comings and goings including at the Education Department. 

Like the re-appointment of Nick Gibb and Rob Halfon, Gillian Keegan, the new Education Secretary, is not of course exactly new to education, having served time there a couple of years ago working on apprenticeships and skills. She’s since worked across a number of government departments, leaving Wonkhe to describe her ‘as a difficult woman to pigeonhole’. 

However, she has been broadly welcomed by many in education, not least because she has a good understanding of the sector, and hopefully can bring a bit of stability to the role. In the words of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT): 'School leaders will be hopeful that in Gillian Keegan we might now finally have an Education Secretary who understands that education should be seen not as a drain on the nation’s finances, but as the best investment that can be made in our country’s future – and who stays the course to the next election to make education a priority for this government again'.

Away from the ministerial roundabout, these have been the main education stories of the week.

  • Questions to education ministers. Education ministers took questions in the House of Commons at the start of the week. It was a slightly unreal exercise with a new PM pending and ministers expected to be moved. Questions ranged over school budgets, the cost-of-living for students, teacher recruitment, technical education and social care, But, as the Education Secretary at the time acknowledged, “we wait for the opinion of the new Prime Minister as to his priorities in the months to come”. 
  • Education funding. This has been a big theme this week with the IfS, Education Policy Institute, ASCL, school and college bodies, and the University and College Union all pitching in. As indicated previously, it’s building up to become a major issue over the autumn and winter. The Guardian reckoned this week that the DfE may have to find £1.8bn of savings if Treasury cuts go ahead.
  • Education policy. As education bodies said in their funding plea letter last weekend, for too long education has been on ‘the margins of political priorities’,  but is that about to change? Rumours are growing that the new PM is looking to unleash what The Times called 'a radical set of reforms to transform the nation’s education system.' The appointment of two ‘heavyweights’ at the DfE have added to this speculation. A British Bacc for 18-year-olds is said to be high on the list of proposals.
  • Inspection reports. Ofsted has published two important generic reports this week. One on T levels and how they were going at this stage and one on National Tutoring Programme. Initial advice and guidance, placements, resources and the Transition Programme were early issues when it came to T levels. As for the Tutoring Programme, most providers welcomed it and it helped in many cases but much depended on the time, resources and existing curriculum strengths. Further reports are planned in both cases. 

Links to these and other stories below as usual.

But first, a quick look at two of the top stories, namely education funding and Labour’s skills proposals, starting with the former.

The general consensus has been that as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak has his work cut out. The BBC’s political correspondent reckoned he faced ‘a bulging basket of priorities’ while the FT pointed to ‘a daunting in-tray.’ Others have been quick to endorse what the Institute for Government saw as ‘the top headaches’ awaiting the new PM. 

And high up there, at least for the world of education, is the question of funding, highlighted in an open letter from leading education bodies to Conservative MPs last weekend. 

Calling on the MPs to urge the new leadership to resist further cuts and commit to restoring funding to 2010 levels as promised in the 2019 manifesto, the signatories pointed to the challenges they’re currently facing. Anything it seems from cutting support for those most in need, to surviving in dilapidated buildings, to making staff redundant. Any further squeezing will make things impossible. ‘We will not be able to afford to continue to provide the education that pupils and students deserve.’ 

The letter includes an intention to resurrect the School Cuts website to press their case. As the NEU put it: the incoming PM needs to look at the education sector with fresh eyes and recognise the strains its been under for far too long.’

And it’s not just schools and colleges in the line-up for education funding. The new chief executive at Universities UK, Vivienne Stern, told the Times Higher this week that as far as the higher ed sector is concerned, ‘things can’t go on like this.’ As she acknowledged: “we have got a huge challenge on our hands making sure that [the drive for savings] doesn’t end up impacting both teaching and research funding.” All this as the University and College Union announced ‘a decisive vote’ for strike action over pay and pensions.

There have been many other similar calls for action. 

To take just three examples from different corners. 

The CBI said the new PM ‘should lose no time in easing the impact of market turmoil on households and firms, and helping to restore fiscal credibility.’ The Early Years Alliance urged the new PM “to scrap government plans to relax ratios in early years settings, and instead commit to the substantial investment needed to ensure the sector cannot just survive, but thrive in the years to come.” And Barnardo’s pointed to the need to extend free school meals, deal with worries over online abuse and help with young people’s mental health as it called on the new PM to ‘put children at the heart of the new government.’ 

Unsurprisingly, not much of this featured in Rishi Sunak’s summer leadership campaign. Education titbits there were largely restricted to more free schools, digital technology training for teachers, post-16 reform, ’Russell Group’ type technical colleges, prescriptive degree outcomes and that old favourite – British Bacc. Not much on increased funding then. 

It’s unlikely that the forthcoming fiscal statement  – eye-watering or not, and now set for November 17 – will offer much in the short-term, but education leaders will be looking anxiously for anything that sounds at all hopeful.    

Next, skills, and the release this week of a hefty report from the Council of Skills Advisers, a group of experts set up by the Labour leadership last autumn, under the stewardship of David Blunkett, to come up with proposals in this area for a future Labour Party manifesto. 

It’s very much a David Blunkett type report – detailed, wide-ranging, and rippling with actions. It’s also a hefty read. 17 pages of recommendations for a start, ranging across every phase of education and skills. Not all of it is new: Sure Start children’s centres, education maintenance allowances, and individual learning accounts, all for instance hark back to early Blair days. Nor is it all radical. Devolved responsibilities, skills-based programmes in schools, an integrated F/HE post-16 sector, a wider apprenticeship levy, and a National Skills Taskforce, are all very much part of the debate currently.

But there are some headline proposals in the report. Three in particular: the creation of an experts-led National Curriculum Agency to lead on modernising syllabuses; what’s termed ‘a complete shake-up of the careers service’ to align with learner/employer needs; and a new ‘Right to Retrain’ to help with re-skilling.

Not everyone will agree with the report. In many ways, it does feel a bit of a throwback. Schools have moved on. And there are no costings to go with it, but many will perhaps argue that the cost of not tackling skills issues is even greater.  

Finally, on a lighter note, The Guardian this week carried some of the latest worst examples of corporate speak. It included this hummer from a school 'Next week in Year 3 we will be editing and uplevelling our setting descriptions using the toolkit'. A link is here.

The top headlines of the week

  • ‘School cuts campaign is back as unions warn of £2bn shortfall’ (Monday).
  • ‘University staff to strike over pay and pensions’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘England’s Covid catch-up tutoring often haphazard and poor, Ofsted finds’ (Wednesday). 
  • ‘Most schools to cut staff, axe repairs and up class sizes over funding crisis. (Thursday).
    ‘British companies and universities demand R/D be spared cuts’ (Friday).


  • New PM’s speech. Rishi Sunak outlined the challenges facing the government and the country as he addressed the nation for the first time as PM, confirming a commitment to stick to the 2019 mandate with its pledge on ‘good schools’ among other things.
  • What school did you go to? The Sutton Trust provided its regular analysis of the education background of the new Cabinet noting that 61% were educated at fee paying schools and 23% went to a comprehensive, with Oxbridge remaining the top HE route for many. 
  • People profession 2022. The CIPD in conjunction with Workday published its latest snapshot from those in HR highlighting the work of the profession in supporting employee welfare and pointing to the prioritisation by companies on reskilling and upskilling as they seek to build momentum post-pandemic.

More specifically ...


  • Funding crisis. Leading education bodies called in an open letter to Conservative MPs to acknowledge the extent of the funding crisis currently affecting schools and colleges, and urging them to put pressure on the new PM to commit to meeting funding needs.
  • School funding. The Education Policy Institute published its assessment of the current school funding situation based on IfS analysis, concluding that costs and inflation meant that the current funding settlement would continue to leave schools short and disadvantaged groups vulnerable.
  • And more on funding. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) published the results of a survey of over 600 school and college leaders with 60% reporting that they’d have to make savings both this year and into the future with class sizes and staff numbers both in the firing line.
  • Strike ballot. The NASUWT launched its ballot for industrial action, remaining open in England and Wales until 9 January.
  • Exams 2022. Ofqual wrote to the Education Committee with further details about its follow-up work on this summer’s exams confirming that there had been a 20% drop in the volume of assessment material errors this year and that full details and data would be provided in December as part of its regular post-exams report.
  • Exams 2021. Ofqual published a report of research evidence compiled by YouGov on perceptions and issues around the awarding of results for exams in 2021 when teacher assessed grades had to be used, suggesting that people broadly understood what the arrangements were and were happy for teachers to conduct assessments but had concerns about bias and reliability and just whether students would get the grades they deserved.
  • Ofsted on tutoring. Ofsted published findings from its initial commissioned report into the National Tutoring Programme, based on evidence to 63 schools where most adopted the school-led model which in turn helped lead to ‘quality teaching’ largely in English and maths and although much depended on resources, time and curriculum strengths, many were positive about the Programme.
  • Prevent duty. The government issued guidance, resources and advice for staff in schools and colleges with safeguarding responsibilities in relation to the Prevent duty, setting out steps to take where there were concerns and providing a self-assessment tool for monitoring effective action.


  • Post-16 funding. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) considered the latest position on post-16 funding acknowledging that the government had increased funding for both FE colleges and sixth forms for 2023/4 but pointing to the fact that inflation, rising costs, catch-up demands, pay expectations, and increased numbers of young people staying on in education were all adding to the pressures, with the prospect of future cuts very worrying. 
  • Skills report. The Council of Skills Advisers, set up by Keir Starmer last autumn under the stewardship of David Blunkett to provide policy recommendations for the Labour Party on the issue of skills, published its report, coming up with over 20 proposals, some more familiar than others, covering everything from early years to adult and lifelong learning.
  • T levels review. Ofsted published an interim report on the new T levels, drawing on evidence from visits to 24 providers and finding at this early stage a mixed picture with some concerns about how well prepared staff and students were for the demands of the work and some particular concerns about the Transition Programme, pointing to recommendations for all bodies accordingly.
  • 16-19 tutoring. Ofsted reported on its commissioned review into tutoring for 16-19 yr olds based on visits to 21 providers where most had focused on English and maths albeit with some other catch-up support, concluding that although in its early days, most were supportive of the programme. 
  • Post-16 qualifications. The Education Committee published the transcript of its evidence session last week where the importance of curriculum breadth, the nature of GCSEs, the fit between BTECs and T levels, and the case for a post-18 Bacc were all tackled by the three witnesses representing different parts of the education system.
  • Jobs and Employment Support. The Learning and Work Institute published its response to the DWP Committee Inquiry on Jobs and Employment Support, pointing out how the pandemic and other factors had changed much of the labour market, the challenges that were hindering those returning to work and the need to target support more effectively.
  • Adult numeracy. The Learning and Work Institute announced the launch of a new network and support system for the government’s 3-year programme intended to support adult numeracy and known as Multiply.


  • University applications. UCAS reported on 2023 applications as of the mid-October deadline, pointing to ‘a slight fall’ in numbers so far including among disadvantaged UK 18 yr olds as well as international students, with the return of formal exams and concerns about the cost-of-living both seen as factors.
  • Applications perspective. Clare Marchant, chief executive of UCAS, reflected on the latest university applications figures in a blog on the Wonkhe website, pointing out that while volumes were down so far, the overall trend ‘remained upwards,’ and UCAS was continuing to reform the admissions process to encourage more disadvantaged students to apply.
  • Strike action. The University and College Union (UCU) reported on the results of its latest ballots over strike action, pointing to a majority in both the pay and pension ballots, and confirming that a plan for action would be determined next week.
  • Student satisfaction. The Office for Students (OfS) spelt out the changes being made as part of ‘the shake-up’ of the National Student Survey which will include now a question on mental health as well as (in England) on freedom of expression along with a clearer form of responding.
  • Sparking growth. Universities UK outlined in a new report for the incoming PM, ways in which universities could help ‘spark growth’ in the UK economy, listing four in particular including developing University Enterprise Zones, creating more enterprise and opportunity hubs, building university-employer partnerships, and centralising the role of universities in UK policymaking.

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “It is estimated that by 2024 you’ll never be more than 20ft away from a former education secretary” | @MisterFirth.
  • “Lessons don’t exist for jobs that don’t exist yet” | @Trivium21c.
  • “Hi all, Tomorrow the school library moves into its new, purpose-built block. Ofsted will be amazed at the selection of books and audio-visual resources. After the next inspection, it will become the new SLT lounge and the books will go back into a shipping container” | @NewbieSlt.
  • “On this day in teaching history, two teachers were on break duty, looked at each other and said ‘It’s a bit wet, shall we take them in?’ Thusly, wet play was born and these two went down in history as the scourge of afternoon learning in winter” | @secretHT1.
  • “A man walks into the library and asks if they have any books about coincidences... The librarian says, "As a matter of fact, this one's just arrived” | @DadJokeMan.

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “The United Kingdom is a great country, but there is no doubt we face a profound economic challenge” – the new PM considers looks into his in-tray. 
  • “As the right hon. Member will know, the legislative timetable is under review – or it was, under the previous Prime Minister” – the (old) Education Secretary responds to an MP’s question about what’s happened to the Schools Bill.
  • “Education transforms lives - I know that talent is spread equally around the country and I will work tirelessly to ensure opportunity is also” – the new Education Secretary reacts to her appointment.
  • “This revolving door shows a complete disregard for the importance of what should be a key government post and it must stop” – ASCL’s Geoff Barton on the fifth Education Secretary in four months.
  • “We aren’t militants and we aren’t greedy. What we are asking for is a share of the billions of pounds that are in reserves” – UCU general-secretary Jo Grady on looming industrial action.
  • “While the number of applicants is below the number seen in 2021 and 2022, it remains the third highest on record – 15 per cent higher than 2019, and 42 per cent higher than 2013” – the chief executive of UCAS on the latest university application figures
  • “The proposals in this paper together constitute a radical overhaul of skills provision in this country” – David Blunkett releases a plan for skills for the Labour Party to consider.
  • “Education has felt as if it is on the margins of political priorities” – leading education bodies call on Conservative MPs to prioritise education funding.
  • “Nevertheless, our evidence suggests that tutoring cannot really work, however good the teaching is, without a well-considered and constructed curriculum in place” – Ofsted reports on the National Tutoring Programme in schools.

Important numbers

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

  • 86. The number of British companies that issued profit warnings over the summer, up 66% on last summer according to The Times.
  • 3.2% The drop in 2023 applications so far this year from UK disadvantaged 18 yr olds applying for the most selective university courses, according to UCAS.
  • 81.1%. The number of members voting for strike action over pay in the latest ballot, according to the University and College Union (UCU.)
  • 49%. The number of UK manufacturers citing skills shortages as a barrier to growth, the highest number for nearly 50 years according to the CBI.
  • 93.7%. The attendance rate in schools in England for w/commencing 10 October, according to latest government figures.
  • 4,310. The number of children in need at present, the highest number for four years according to latest government figures.
  • £200k - £250k. The funding shortfall facing the average secondary school by 2024, £35 – 45k for primary schools, according to a group of education bodies.
  • 20%. The increase in household broadband speeds, according to Ofcom’s latest performance report.
  • 46%. The rise in the cost of tea over the last year, according to the ONS.
  • £277. The amount a person can save on energy bills and the cost-of-living generally by taking up all-inclusive month-long package to Egypt next January, according to a promo from EasyJet..

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Deadline day for 2023 secondary school applications (Monday 31 October).
  • Westminster Hall Debate on ‘RE in modern Britain’ (Tuesday 1 November).
  • New Statesman debate on skills and productivity (Tuesday 1 November).
  • Westminster Hall debate on the contribution of international students to the UK (Wednesday 2 November).

Other stories

  • Experience matters. An interesting blog this week from Rachel Wolf, one of the founding partners at the consultancy Public First. The theme was Richi Sunak’s new Cabinet and just how many of the people moved around the chessboard had knowledge/experience of the policy area they were now heading up. She offered a chart looking at just what tenure of experience each had in their area. The highest was Ben Wallace at Defence with three years in the job but many had had weeks, months, nothing at all. Someone calculated this week that the average tenure of Education Secretaries this year had been 93 days. As she pointed out, knowledge matters; the football manager model of rapid turnovers doesn’t always work. A link to the blog is here
  • Education and social mobility. Late last week, the Social Mobility Commission published its latest Business Plan. Unsurprisingly perhaps given that the oft-quoted headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh is its Chair, the Commission had a number of interesting things to say about education and skills. The Commission is keen to move to ‘a broader’ view of social mobility and sees education as a key force in this. Interesting priorities for the year ahead thereby include a research project on pupil premium support measures, investigating how parents can best help their young children, looking into teaching styles, and examining how students can access information on the labour market value of qualifications. A link to the Business Plan is here.

If you find my policy updates useful, please consider donating something, however small, to help support its publication. EdCentral is a not-for-profit social enterprise and relies on donations to continue its work.

You can sign up here to receive access to Education Eye straight from your inbox on publication.

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.



EdCentral Logo