Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 28 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 another week of difficult headlines. At times it’s felt like one step forward, two back, and one move sideways – with the intentions behind the choreography not always clear. 

Let’s start with what many regard as a step forward, namely clearer messaging about the importance of returning to school. This came in the form of a statement from the Prime Minister at the start of the week: “Nothing will have a greater effect on the life chances of our children than returning to school.” The government’s case was bolstered by two important medical reports this week. The first, from Public Health England (PHE), looked at infection rates in schools following the easing of lockdown in June and July and concluded that the risks were ‘uncommon’. The second involved some new research from the British Medical Journal, equally concluding that serious risks were low, ‘vanishingly small’ even, though there were caveats for certain groups.  

The National Education (NEU) has expressed concerns about protection for older teachers and the absence from government of a clear Plan B, but public opinion seems to be swinging behind a full reopening of schools, and as the National Association of Head Teachers’ survey indicated this week, the vast majority of schools are ready and looking forward to welcoming pupils back. For those about to pick up the pieces, the government’s behaviour adviser Tom Bennett has some sage advice about ‘rebooting’ things here.

Next week, with pupils hopefully back, the government will shift its attention to employees as it seeks to encourage them to return to the office – doing the things that can’t be done as well at home according to the Transport Secretary – let alone helping revitalise local economies. It could be a tough call. A new academic report  this week found that 88.2% of those who worked at home during the lockdown would like to continue working at home in some capacity. They may take some convincing to climb back on the commuter train. 

But back to schools, where plans for reopening were accompanied by one of those all too familiar steps back as the government changed its mind on the wearing of face coverings. The problem here was not so much the decision itself as the contortions the government went through to reach it. According to the FT, this was the 12th occasion since March that the government had changed its mind on a major policy matter. Headteachers had been asking for clearer guidance for some time, but this came just hours before schools opened up in Leicestershire and still left heads as final arbiters in many situations. The guidance is aimed at secondary schools and is mandatory in high risk areas and the government claims it’s following World Health Organisation (WHO) advice, but not everyone appears convinced, particularly head teachers who might have to deal with situations of pupils forgetting masks, their use in communal areas and so on. Social media this week has been full of conflicting opinions on the matter, including one parent who pointed out that her child would now be happy as she could secretly chew in class all day without being spotted.

The second step back this week concerned disadvantaged pupils and the growing attainment gap. Concerns have been raised throughout lockdown that such pupils were not getting the support and attention they needed and were likely to fall behind their better-supported peers. This week, in its latest annual report on education in England, the Education Policy Institute underlined the concern by indicating that not only had the gap widened under lockdown, but that this had actually started to happen even before COVID hit.‘Disadvantaged pupils are, on average, a year and a half behind their peers by the end of compulsory education,’ they concluded.

The report came as two further reports highlighted the problems facing many children and young people today. First, UNICEF reported that at least a third of the world’s schoolchildren had been left without access to remote learning when the pandemic struck and schools were closed. 72% of these children came from poorer families. As the report said: ‘The repercussions could be felt in economies and societies for decades to come.’ Second, the Children’s Society published its latest annual survey of young people aged 10-17 in England: their hopes, fears and wellbeing, gathered during April and June this year, so coming at a difficult time for many of them. The report applies a number of metrics to assess young people’s wellbeing and comes up with some powerful messages, but perhaps one headline stands out: ‘15-year olds in the UK were among the saddest and least satisfied with their lives in Europe.’ A sharp reminder of the challenges facing families and schools.

As for that sideways move this week, that came as changes were announced at the top for Ofqual with previous leadership coming back in to steady the ship. Coupled with changes at the top of the DfE as well, it suggests that education enters a new academic year with further change ahead. The most intriguing perhaps is around Ofqual, where for instance Rob Halfon Chair of the Education Committee has suggested possible integration within the DfE. He of course gets to develop this further when Ofqual appear before the Committee next week. The relationship between government and regulator is never easy and questions of independence often arise. It’s perhaps no surprise that recent general elections have seen the relationship questioned, with the Lib-Dems at least calling for an independent Standards Body with a stronger educational representation.   

Finally an enormous amount has been written about exam grading this year and no doubt there’s plenty more to come, but this on the HEPI site from John Claughton, former Chief Master at King Edward’s School Birmingham, is as gripping as it gets.

The top headlines from the week:

  • ‘Johnson urges parents to send children back to school.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Pressure grows to allow masks in England’s schools.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Attainment gap between poor pupils and their peers in England widening.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Support rises for reopening schools, say pollsters.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Heads and teachers call for urgent grades inquiry.’ (Friday)


  • Changes at the DfE. The government confirmed that the top civil servant at the DFE would be leaving following the recent exams issues and would be replaced by an interim appointment.
  • Post exam developments. Ofqual also announced some significant changes at the top with a new/old interim Chief Regulator coming in and a new committee created to oversee the completion of this year’s exam process and the preparation for next year’s.
  • Professional recognition. The government launched a Call for Evidence, ahead of potential changes post-Brexit, on the recognition of professional qualifications and the regulation of professions across the UK.
  • Education check-up. The Education Policy Institute with the Fair Education Alliance and Unbound Philanthropy published the latest in their series of Annual Reports on education in England, highlighting increasing concerns about the growing attainment gap which has started to show at primary school for the first time since 2007.
  • Challenges of Childhood. The Children’s Society published its latest annual report into children’s wellbeing undertaken during April and June this year, finding 10-17-year-olds often unhappy with their life choices and appearance and the UK low down the international chart of children’s wellbeing, calling for a much stronger policy focus on children’s wellbeing in the future.
  • Cut off from learning.UNICEF reported on the challenges of providing remote learning to children in different parts of the world during the pandemic noting that while 90% of countries tried to offer remote learning, some 463m pupils globally, generally poorer and younger, tended to miss out. 
  • Out of office. The BBC reported on its research into office re-openings questioning 50 big employers and finding nearly half with no plans to return to office working yet, with difficulties over implementing social distancing and use of public transport among the concerns holding people back. 
  • Homeworking please. Academics from Cardiff and Southampton Universities examined what effect the lockdown had had on the shift towards homeworking finding that it rose eightfold in the first months of lockdown albeit mainly among professionals with the majority wanting to carry on in some form claiming that they could be just as productive at home.
  • Space for learning. Teams across UK museum, gallery, heritage and performing arts sites published updated guidance on the safe use of space for cultural and learning activities during the pandemic.

More specifically ...


  • Back to school. The Prime Minister led the messaging with support from the medical experts, reinforcing how much work had been done to get schools ready and urging parents to send their children back to school next week.
  • Public Health evidence. Public Health England reported on evidence of COVID infections in schools collected during June showing 30 outbreaks linked closely to regional cases and leading to 67 single confirmed cases largely involving staff.
  • Further evidence. The British Medical Journal carried further evidence about the impact of COVID on children suggesting they were very low but that certain groups including black and obese children, were at slightly higher risk.
  • We’re ready. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) published the results of its survey showing that 97% of schools are ready and looking forward to welcoming pupils back for the start of term with regular cleaning, staggered starts and finishes and pupil bubble groups all catered for.
  • Covering your face. The government changed its thinking on facemasks, making them mandatory for those aged 12 and above in communal areas in schools and colleges in regions where transmissions are high and leaving it to the discretion of headteachers in other areas. 
  • Latest guidelines. The government issued a further set of updated guidelines for schools for the start of term with updates on facemasks, use of bubbles, tiered responses to concerns, and other contingency planning.
  • Returning to school The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) in Nuffield funded research, reported on its survey of parents with school-age children during June/July which showed that provision had been pretty patchy during this time, with some children getting a fair deal but many, often poorer ones, not.
  • What will it be like at school? The Children’s Commissioner for England produced a little guide for children on questions they may have about returning to school.
  • Union call. The four main unions in England wrote to the Education Secretary calling on him urgently to set up an independent inquiry into this year’s exams and to put off the publication of performance tables for the coming year. 
  • Dear Gavin. The Royal College of Psychiatrists wrote to the Education Secretary calling on him to suspend fines for non-attendance at school given current anxieties around children’s health and wellbeing.
  • Early years language skills. The government announced support from its National Tutoring Programme for catch-up support for 5-year olds whose language skills may have fallen behind during lockdown.
  • Exam arrangements. The government outlined deadlines and dates for the forthcoming autumn series of exams with discussion continuing about exams and assessment for next summer’s exams.
  • Exam Support. The government confirmed that its Exam Support Service which will help schools and colleges with the costs of running an autumn series of exams will launch at the start of the autumn term.
  • Early years workforce. The Sutton Trust and Centre for Research in Early Childhood followed up on progress, or lack of, made since the 2012 Nutbrown review into the early years' workforce, listing five areas for urgent action including a clearer vision for the workforce with better pay, conditions and professional support.
  • Lockdown issues. The National Institute for Health Research confounded many with the results of a survey among 13/14-year-olds in S.W. England showing that while they were worried about friends, family and missing school during lockdown, in many cases their mental health and wellbeing actually improved. 
  • Soft Sel. The Centre for Education and Youth published a series of think pieces on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) developed out of an earlier roundtable and likely to become an important feature as schools reopen.


  • Apprenticeship funding. The Institute for Apprenticeships launched a further consultation on funding bands, proposing more of a hybrid model incorporating an estimated band to start with, plus an option to add variable costs for subsequent teaching and consumables.
  • Latest apprenticeship stats. The House of Commons Library published the latest report on apprenticeship stats by age, region, level and outcome showing a continuing drop in take-up. 
  • Apprenticeship bounce? Kathleen Henehan from the Resolution Foundation provided her regular helpful assessment of the latest apprenticeship data suggesting that it appeared to reinforce pre-COVID trends leaving some sectors and younger apprenticeships more vulnerable to a tight labour market. 
  • Apprenticeships and the public sector. Kings College published a new report looking into how apprenticeships had affected recruitment and retention in four different public sector professions including the police, teaching, NHS, and the armed forces, finding differences by sector with arrangements in teaching described as ‘fractured and disconnected’.
  • Traineeships. The government published new guidelines for the delivery of Traineeships following the Chancellor’s announcement in July of funding and incentives to help grow the scheme.
  • What just happened? Eddie Playfair, Senior Policy Manager at the AoC set out his thoughts on the recent exams debacle in a new blog showing how the engulfing of the centre assessed grades model led to anger, mistrust and blame.
  • Adult learning. The Learning and Work Institute outlined the work it was doing as part of a European as well as UK project to understand the impact of Covid-19 on adult learning, which according to its latest survey had seen a fall in participation. 


  • Targeted bailout. The Times Higher highlighted the concerns raised by many universities who may have lost out following the exam grades change and subsequent admissions scramble, indicating that anything up to £100m could be needed to stabilise the system.
  • A’ levels and the 2020 university admissions. The House of Commons Library provided a useful summary of the problems around this year’s exams and the issues they posed for university admissions.
  • 2020/21 Business Plan. The Student Loans Company set out its Business Plan for the coming year aiming to make the organisation ’leaner, better, doing more for less’ and measuring performance through three lenses: customer, front services and corporate.
  • Start-ups and spin-offs. Universities UK highlighted the latest figures from the HE Statistics Agency showing a record number of start-up and spin-off companies generated by students who had graduated over the last five years.
  • Soft power. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published its latest annual survey looking into which countries educate the most world leaders with the UK still 2ndto the US but down on volume on the previous year.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “First day of school. Overheard in the corridor earlier (in reference to teachers) "Yeah I think the someone has told them to be nice, they keep looking into our eyes in a weird way and smiling too much because they think that we've gone mental in lock down" | @Oh_Thereslovely
  • “Clarity of advice not ‘discretion’ was needed. Headteachers are not epidemiologists. If public health experts deem face masks necessary to the safety of secondary pupils and staff then government should say so, clearly” | @nick_brook
  • “No one arguing for mandatory face masks in secondary schools has set foot in a school for at least 25 years. How will teachers be able to tell who’s talking at the back? Who swore? Will those without them be sent home? Given detention? It will make classroom management impossible” | @toadmeister
  • “I wonder how many primary people who would never have taught in rows before COVID will really enjoy it?” | @Mr_AlmondED
  • “Part of me wants to be all slick corporate Exec Head with nice suit and studio headshot and the other part of me thinks who you kidding Michael get a grip” | @michael_merrick

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “As the chief medical officer has said, the risk of contracting Covid-19 in school is very small and it is far more damaging for a child's development and their health and well-being to be away from school any longer” – the PM makes the case for schools reopening.
  • “Government advice needs to cover the possible self-isolation of bubbles and, in extremis, moving to rotas or to more limited opening” – the NEU make their point about schools reopening.
  • “I’m afraid, your grades were almost derailed by a mutant algorithm” – the PM tells pupils what he thinks was the problem with exams this year.
  • “A predictable surprise” – the chief executive of the Royal Statistical Society with a different take on this year’s exams problems.
  • “The robust pursuit of equitable and just data-driven innovation requires that those who are scanning the horizons of possibility for and the use-contexts of potential innovation interventions, first and foremost, take into account the likely impacts of these interventions on the interests of the vulnerable and the underserved” – a commentator at the Alan Turing Institute applies some depth to the algorithm debate.
  • “Outside of local lockdown areas face coverings won’t be required in schools, though schools will have the flexibility to introduce measures if they believe it is right in their specific circumstances” – the government attempts to bring clarity on facemasks.
  • “To wait until the Friday night before most schools return isn’t the government’s finest moment” – unions respond to the release of the government’s latest hefty wedge of guidelines on schools opening that arrived on Friday afternoon.
  • “At age 15 children in the UK are sadder, less satisfied, and do not feel they are flourishing compared to their European peers” – the Children’s Society reports on the wellbeing of children in the UK.
  • “I have been out for breakfast sometimes and then out for dinner as well" – a customer on the ‘joys’ of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme which closes at the end of the month.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 3% – Projections for growth in the UK economy in the third quarter of the year as schools and businesses reopen, a potential record according to City of London economists. 
  • 50% – The number of new homeworkers who would like to continue working that way in some capacity post COVID, according to a new academic report.
  • £13 a day – How much workers on low incomes will be able to claim in parts of England if they have to self-isolate, according to the government.
  • 18% – The number of jobs lost or likely to be in the UK travel industry as a result of the pandemic, according to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA).
  • -45% – The fall in retail employment up to August, the sharpest for over a decade according to the latest survey from the CBI.
  • 22% – The increase in the number of students placed on nursing course this year, according to UCAS.
  • 299,700 – The number of apprenticeships starts in the first three quarters of the current year up to June, down 13% on the same period for the year before according to latest government figures.
  • 198 – The number of confirmed COVID cases associated with the reopening of schools in June, 70 children, 128 staff, according to Public Health England.
  • 5bn – The number of children globally who were affected by school closures at the height of the lockdown, according to a new report from UNICEF.
  • 87% – The number of schools that will be staggering start and finish times for pupils when schools reopen, according to the National Association of Head Teachers.
  • £8m – How much the government is promising in support to staff working in schools and colleges as part of its Wellbeing for Education Return programme, according to the DFE.
  • 10 – How many coronavirus home test kits will be made available for schools and FE providers, according to the government.
  • 3 months – The attainment gap in primary school between poorer pupils and their peers, the first time the gap has widened in over a decade according to a new report from the Education Policy Institute.
  • 220,494 – How many laptops/tablets had been dispatched by the government by the end of August under its scheme of providing free devices for disadvantaged pupils, according to the DfE.
  • 55% – The number of 13/14-year-old girls who used social media for at least 3 hours a day during lockdown compared to 42% before, according to research from the National Institute for Health Research.
  • 5% – The average weekly visit level to government-sponsored museums at the end of July, according to latest official figures.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Parliament returns (Tuesday)
  • Start of term for many schools in England (Tuesday)
  • Education Committee Virtual session with Ofqual about exams (Wednesday)
  • Times Higher Virtual World Academic Summit (Tuesday, Wednesday)

Other stories

  • Did anyone say what’s for lunch? Apparently, despite more people working from home with fresh access to the fridge let alone the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, our lunch habits have got pretty poor during lockdown. According to a survey this week from HR News, 39% of those surveyed, snack on just a packet of crisps, 36% go for instant noodles, 27% biscuits and 6% opt for cold baked beans from the tin. 19% said having lunch at home was the worst part of home working. Did anyone say..? A link to the survey 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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