Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 14 August 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:

It’s been a week for big headlines with exam results clearly the hot story. In other news, we’ve had some important new data on the UK economy and the labour market; Pearson published its latest global learners survey, and the Prime Minister visited a school as part of the push for reopenings. Oh, and the Chancellor created three new Rs: “relight economy, return to work and reopen schools.”  

Let’s start with those results first, where this year, of course, things have been more difficult than ever before. Partly, this has been down to the scrapping of exams as a result of the pandemic and the obvious desire to ensure all students received fair outcomes. Full details of the procedures adopted this year can be found in the technical guide issued by Ofqual on results day. It explains, for instance, that 96.4% of the final calculated grades were the same or within one grade of that submitted by the centre. But partly it has also been down to fraught political decisions – initially in Scotland and ultimately in England – each fuelled by extravagant media headlines. As one university officer wrote on the eve of results day: "Never in recent memory have we been faced with such uncertainty and challenge on the eve of A-level and BTEC results day.”

So how do things stand now? Well, at the time of writing, always an important caveat these days, results for vocational and vocational qualifications remain similar to last year. While at A’ level, the overall pass rate (at 98.3%) is slightly up on last year. The Joint Council for Qualifications – which does all the heavy lifting on the results’ facts and figures – indicates that maths is still the most popular A’ level subject; science entries, while still large, are down a bit this year; and Spanish is the most popular language. 

So far so good, but there are concerns principally around the fact that small subject entries appear to have been more favourably treated compared to large centre entries. In a nutshell, this appears to favour private schools, which tend to have small subject entries, rather than FE centres and big state schools which don’t. Both the AoC and ASCL have called for an enquiry. Here’s Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL: “the education system is not a statistical model, it is a collection of individuals, and we fear the process has lacked this important degree of nuance. “We are now calling on the government and the exam regulator Ofqual to review the situation as a matter of urgency, and we would warn them against simply digging in their heels, and insisting all is well.”

On university entry, a fast-moving picture at present, the latest picture from UCAS is that 358,860 people of all ages from across the UK have been accepted for a university place this year, up 2.9% on results day last year. This also includes a record number of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds, up 7.3% on last year. Of course, many more students are going through Clearing Plus, awaiting appeals and considering their options.

It’s too early to draw too many formal conclusions and many individual students and families are still struggling with their options, but currently four questions stand out from the 2020 results season. First, will there be a review of the standardisation process and what will come out of it? Second, universities have coped well with a difficult hand, but does this add to pressures to reform the admissions process? Third, does this all raise questions about the post-2010 exam reforms and in particular about the role of teacher assessment? And fourth, and for later, where does this leave political leadership?   

Moving rapidly on to that data on the UK economy and labour market, none of it very pretty. The latestfigures on the UK economy cover the second quarter of the year –  April to June, when the lockdown was at its height – so wasn’t expected to be great, but we’ve ended up worse off than most competitor countries, with the economy contracting by 20.4%. The Office for National Statistics called it ‘a technical recession.’ The big problem was a collapse in private consumption which, given over 60% of us apparently didn’t buy any new clothes or shoes during this period, isn’t surprising. On a more hopeful note, things have picked up in recent weeks and there has even been talk of a bounce. 

As for the jobs market, the latest set of ONS figures also made for grim reading. The number of people in work has continued to fall, down 2.5% since the start of lockdown, with pay and hours worked also both down. On the plus side, vacancies over the last quarter were up, but the big concern is that many of the people out of work are from vulnerable groups, such as older, younger, manual and temporary workers. Hence the anxiety about what’s going to happen once the furlough scheme ends.

The plight of older workers, those aged 50+ and out of work, was the subject of a new report this week from the Learning and Work Institute and the Centre for Ageing Better. According to the report, these older workers face particular difficulties are ‘far more likely to slip into long-term worklessness’ unless further support is provided for them. At the moment, things don’t look too promising. Recent weeks have seen a string of redundancies announced. And as the CIPD and Adecco Group reported in their latest labour market outlook this week, business confidence is low, with just over a third of companies expecting to cut jobs over the next quarter. In their words, ‘this looks set to be sombre autumn for jobs.’ Calls for at least a sector-based extension of the furlough scheme have been growing shriller and the government is keen for a major strategy reset this autumn with a Budget and Spending Review central components of this, but even these now appear to be at risk of delay if COVID rears its ugly head again. 

On to that Global Learner Survey, the second such survey from Pearson and providing an interesting perspective on how learners in the UK and other countries view education, learning, technology and their futures at such a difficult time for them. Most see things changing as a result of the pandemic, with learning increasingly online and focusing on skills and accessible but quality provision. There are mixed views about the impact of technology and the value of degrees in different countries, but arguably the most telling message is of a continued belief in the importance of education by so many people. If this is a defining moment for learning, it is good to see its value being upheld. Pearson’s Anna Jackson has a useful summary on the Wonkhe website of some of the implications for higher education, while a link to the survey overall can be found here

Finally, the issue of schools reopening has rumbled on this week and is rapidly becoming an important test of faith for both the Education Secretary and the government as a whole. The government remains committed to whole school opening and appears less keen on a rota model as the Prime Minister indicated in a photoshop opportunity visit to a school this week. The official line is about it being the right thing to do – moral duty, children’s wellbeing and so on – but critics remain unconvinced and continue to call for a clear plan from government. The clincher could well be the forthcoming report from Public Health England with its evidence on classroom transmission. The government has been talking this up and trying to speed it along, but there are worries that while primary children may not be carriers, older students could be. Meanwhile, the days are slipping by to the start of term. 

The top headlines from the week:

  • ‘Coronavirus: PM understands anxiety over exam grading.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Universities told to keep places open for A’ level appeals.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘A’ level students get triple lock on their grades.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘A’ levels: Growing anger over ‘unfair’ results this year.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Ministers under pressure to review A’ level results.’ (Friday)


  • Economic contractions. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that the UK economy suffered a major contraction in Q2 (April-June,) worse than competitor countries and largely due to falls in services, production and construction but was now starting to show signs of recovery even though it remains well (17.2%) below pre lockdown levels.
  • Latest labour market data. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest picture on the labour market showing employment weakening over the last quarter with both hours worked and pay down but vacancies up.
  • Labour Market Outlook. The CIPD and Adecco Group published their latest Labour Market Outlook as we head into what many predict will be a difficult autumn for jobs, reporting a fall in employment confidence with employers considering redundancies and pay reviews although with sectors like healthcare and public admin remaining positive.
  • Global Learner Survey. Pearson listed seven key trends emerging from its second major global survey of learners where most learners reckoned the pandemic has changed learning and work for good but where belief and trust in education remain as high as ever.
  • Mathematical Futures. A number of leading organisations including the Royal Society and Royal Statistical Society with support from Google and others announced a new 2-year project to identify and develop the arithmetical, data and digital skills likely to be needed by employers in 20 years’ time and the training needed by maths teachers to be able to support such skills.

More specifically ...


  • A’ level facts and figures. The Joint Council for Qualifications published the details for this summer’s A’ level exams showing a slight increase in the overall pass rate, maths remaining the most popular subject and females achieving a higher proportion of the top two grades.
  • A’ level analysis. The Education Policy Institute provided further facts and figures in its analysis of the A’ level results suggesting that the widening attainment gap was one of the big concerns to fall out of this year’s saga.
  • Digging into the detail. FFT Education Datalab provided further useful analysis of this year’s A’ level results with a series of blogs covering how the grades were arrived at, the main trends and why some schools had done better.
  • Triple lock. The government announced in a late-night statement that along with calculated grades or opting to sit the exam in the autumn, students could now appeal to use a valid mock exam result to determine the best grade. 
  • Using the mocks. Ofqual responded to the government’s 11thhour announcement about allowing valid mock exams to be used in grade appeals, promising to have procedures in place next week.
  • Statement on Scottish exams. The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) announced that following a backlash about some of last week’s moderated results, it would revert to a system of awarding results based on teacher estimates, while leaving in place the results of those awarded a higher grade.
  • This year’s awarding process. Ofqual published an interim report explaining how they had gone about the process of determining exam grades this year, what issues they had faced and the thinking behind the procedures adopted.
  • In difficult circumstances. The Chair of Ofqual outlined the challenges faced by teachers, exam boards and the regulator as they set about determining grades for this year’s exam candidates.
  • Support for autumn resits. The government spelt out what support, typically additional invigilation and fee costs, it was providing schools and colleges offering autumn exams. 
  • IB 2021. The International Baccalaureate advised schools and colleges that they were making a number of changes to their Diploma and Career-related Programmes for next summer’s exams, largely taking out a number of components to allow for lost teaching time.
  • Back to school. The BBC reported on the return to school for pupils in Scotland, a week earlier than normal, and where many had not been in school since March.


  • An urgent review needed. The Association of Colleges (AoC) raised concerns about large centres like FE and Sixth Form Colleges seeing a notable drop in A’ level results this year calling on the DfE and Ofqual to undertake an urgent review. 
  • BTEC Class of 2020. Pearson celebrated the success and hard work of this year’s BTEC students with a special live stream highlighting individual case studies from around the country.
  • When the going gets tough. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) called on the government to get tough about the lack of awareness about apprenticeships among young people with results day providing an obvious opportunity to consider options. 
  • Call for Nurse. The government announced a funding package to enable healthcare employers to take on increasing numbers of nursing degree apprentices over the next four years.
  • How we work. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) set out its role, responsibilities and governance as well as expected relationships with key bodies such as the DfE and Institute for Apprenticeships as part of an updated framework document.
  • Mid-life employment crisis. The Centre for Ageing Better and Learning and Work Institute highlighted the difficulties often facing workers over the age of 50 made redundant in a new report, noting many never return to work and calling for better support and retraining programmes accordingly.
  • Apprenticeships reboot. The Centre for Social Justice think tank became the latest body to outline the issues with apprenticeships in a new report, concluding with 20 recommendations including providing more support to help more young people and small businesses take them up, providing more quality guidance, and aligning programmes to local needs.
  • Future skills. McKinsey and Co looked at the importance of upskilling and reskilling (gaining new skills to take on new roles) particularly with ‘39% - 58% of global work activities in operationally intense sectors’ facing automation with manufacturing, food services and retail at the top of the automation list.


  • Open doors. The Universities Minister called on universities to hold places open for students who needed grade appeals to be completed, and adding for its part that the government would exempt eligible students who succeeded with such appeals from counting towards student number controls.
  • Young people’s concerns. The Sutton Trust published a new survey of university applicants conducted by YouthSight showing ¾ concerned about what impact the pandemic has/will have on their university experience and with a third still unsure if they’ll take up a place but waiting on results to determine. 
  • #2020MADEUS. Universities UK launched a new campaign ahead of results day to make university students from both here and abroad feel welcome and supported, outlining sources of help and case studies to emphasise the point.
  • Time for change. The University and College Union (UCU) published a further report on university admissions suggesting strong support for its earlier call for a post qualification admissions system (PQA) with more time given over to looking at options and seeking advice.
  • Credit Framework. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) invited views from HE providers in England on how they use the Credit Framework, what issues they face and what thoughts they may have, ahead of a promised review.
  • Saving Britain’s Universities. The (new) think tank Cieo published a report by two academics arguing that the pandemic had simply exposed underlying problems in the British university system, suggesting that this was now a moment to seize the initiative to demarketise the system, reduce and liberate the sector, restore academic self-governance, and create new kinds of institution. 
  • US fee cuts. The Times Higher reported that a number of US universities were resorting to cutting fees and other expenses in an effort to attract students and demonstrate continuing provision of services.
  • International students. The House of Commons Library provided a useful summary of facts, figures and policy developments around international students including those from the EU, covering matters up to 2018/19 but with a listing of recent questions in Parliament on the topic as well.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “The U-turn on grading in Scotland is jaw-dropping. Children whose teachers were wildly over-optimistic will really benefit. And those graded more harshly will miss out on moderation. I know there's no perfect solution but, wow, what a mess” | @nicolawoolcock
  • “On the bright side, in about 2065 we’ll have the modern day version of Jeremy Clarkson going “don’t worry about your A Level grades kids. I took mine in Scotland in 2020 and thought I’d done badly and ended up with straight As!! ” | @jonathansimons
  • “I mean, for only children in particular, two days of not-quite-a-bit-of-work-on-you -progress 8-subjects is better than what we have now, but it ain't childcare or a way to tackle generational scarring” | @stephenkb
  • “The more I think about it, the more I think that Kenya had the right idea. Just go 'no, there was no academic year in 2020' and restart the school year as if it were September 2019” | @stephenkb
  • “Anyone who mentions their degree result (unless a mature student) after the age of 25 is deeply suspect. A golden rule for life” | @xtophercook
  • “Stressed students encouraged to walk dogs rather than sink pints or play sports at university" | @jim_dickinson

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “We have a moral duty to do so” – the Prime Minister on reopening schools.
  • “Teachers should take that as an absolute imperative, not look for reasons why they can’t reopen fully” – Iain Duncan Smith with his thoughts on schools reopening.
  • “I apologise to every single child right across the country for the disruption that they've had to suffer" – the Education Secretary offers broad shoulders.
  • “This is the weakest set of data we’ve seen for several years” – Gerwyn Davies, CIPD’s Senior Labour Market Adviser on their latest labour market survey data.
  • “No sign of a July bounce back” – the Resolution Foundation comments on the latest labour market figures.
  • “Despite all of this year’s upheaval, trust in education systems generally is on the rise” – John Fallon, CEO at Pearson, points to a more hopeful mood among learners in its latest Global Learner Survey.
  • “Students enrolled in remote learning will be sitting up out of bed preferably at a desk or table” – guidelines for High School students in Illinois this year. 
  • “I ask that you extend some flexibility in your admissions decisions this year, wherever you can, to assist young people in moving on to their next steps” – the Universities Minister calls on universities to be flexible over student admissions this year.
  • “No grade is being awarded purely on the basis of statistics” – the Chair of Ofqual moves to calm fears ahead of results day.
  • “They aren't a set of exams which all conform to the same standards. The clue is in the name 'mock’ – ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton reacts to the government’s late announcement about the use of mock exams in grade appeals. 
  • “It will only affect a small group of people” – School Standards Minister Nick Gibb on the mock exams issue.
  • “I eat much more unhealthy food Mondays to Wednesdays but I'm doing it for the good of the nation” – A Times reader tucks in for Britain.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 4% – The amount by which the UK economy contracted in the second quarter of the year, according to latest figures from the Office for National Statistics.
  • 000 – The fall in the number of employees since the start of lockdown, according to latest figures from the Office for National Statistics.
  • 33% – The number of organisations surveyed planning to make redundancies over the next 3 months, up 11% on the spring quarter according to the CIPD and Adecco Group.
  • 257 – The number of years that it’ll take to fully close the global gender pay gap, according to the World Economic Forum.
  • 73% – How many university applicants in a survey remain concerned about the potential negative effect of the pandemic on their university life and work, according to the Sutton Trust.
  • 84% – The number of learners surveyed who reckon that students can still enjoy a worthwhile experience at university, according to Pearson’s latest Global Learner Survey.
  • 2,000 – How many nursing apprentices the government is hoping to train up each year over the next four years.
  • 1% – The upgraded pass rate for Scottish Advanced Highers this year, up 13.7% on the previous year according to the Scottish Qualifications Authority.
  • 3% – The pass rate for A’ level exams in England this year, according to the latest official figures. 
  • 7% – The number of A’ level students who take 3 A’ levels, increasing gradually each year according to Ofqual.
  • £30m – How much money the government is making available to help with autumn exam arrangements, according to the DfE.
  • £40m – How much the government is putting in to help authorities with transport arrangements at the start of next term. 
  • 5m – How many times the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ discount was used in the first week according to the Treasury.
  • 29 – How many hours a year a typical house in the UK loses to broadband outage, according to a new report from

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • GCSE results day in England (Thursday)

Other stories

  • Silence is not golden. Apparently many people now working from home have been missing the buzz of the office so much that websites have been creating artificial sounds to make people feel less isolated. It seems that office sounds create a sense of routine and reassurance that help many of us feel more connected and more productive. Sounds now available on websites include the hum of background chatter from neighbouring desks and the gentle bubbling of coffee machines. No one yet has asked for that fist punching sound that occurs when the copier gets jammed. A link to the story on the BBC 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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