Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 04 September 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:

Was this the week that things started to get back to some normality? The Prime Minister certainly hoped so as he hosted the first Cabinet meeting of the new Parliamentary term from a socially distanced meeting room on Tuesday morning, claiming that “this incredible country is getting back on its feet … despite this wretched COVID”.  Just how many people have been returning to offices remains open to dispute, but schools, MPs and office workers have all been among the groups making the headlines this week.

For schools, armed with their hefty last-minute manual of guidance from the government – ‘cough and you’re off’ as one newspaper rather bluntly put it – this has been an important week. The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) calculated that the return of schools could raise measured GDP by anything between 2.3% and 3.3%, indicating the wider importance of pupils being back in school.

A more pressing problem for many teachers, however, is the need to pick up the pieces with pupils. The extent of this was laid bare in a new report at the start of the week from the National Educational Foundation for Research (NFER.) This highlighted some of the realities teachers now face post lockdown, with pupils on average three months behind, great chunks of the curriculum not covered, the learning gap widened and all sorts of catch-up requirements needed – particularly for schools in more deprived areas. It’s a sharp reminder of the challenges that lie ahead and why the debate about pushing back next summer’s exams for a few weeks is so critical. Labour, for instance, has called for a national ‘Close the Gap’ strategy, overseen by an independent body such as the Children’s Commissioner.

MPs too have been back this week and the Education Secretary took an early opportunity to issue aStatement to MPs and answer questions following a difficult summer, although the session produced little that was new. 

A more significant event this week was the Education Committee’s witness session on the problems with this summer’s exams. On this occasion the Chair and directors from Ofqual were in the witness box. The lengthy 2½ hour session covered many of the issues, including the construction of the algorithm, one of 12 considered apparently, how far it favoured particular groups (or not), the appeals system, who knew what, and Ofqual’s relationship with government. Ofqual, which claimed it had actually favoured running socially distanced exams this year, gave a stout defence of its actions – let alone its future – but acknowledged that ‘the fundamental mistake was to believe that the algorithm would ever be acceptable to the public.’ Next up for this inquiry in a couple of weeks’ time is the Education Secretary. 

As for getting back to the office, which the PM claimed was happening “in huge numbers”, major companies continue to suggest home working will remain the norm for some time yet. The government has since said there is no back to the office campaign, but either way, this is an important week both for the Chancellor and his Plan for Jobs, as well as for employers, who start to pick up some of the costs of the furlough scheme as it continues its wind down to October. Employers are also being encouraged to apply for new cash incentives to take on apprentices, as well as supporting the Chancellor’s Kickstart scheme, which provides placements for young people on benefits. The government is hoping such schemes will cut through fears about unemployment, especially among the young.

It’s also of course been the week that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme drew to a close although some restaurants are setting up their own scheme which hopefully will help support the hospitality sector. And talking of food, Marcus Rashford continued his campaign to help poorer families, with a new campaign to end food poverty, calling among other things for an expansion of the school meals system. 

Over in higher education, many in the sector, both here and abroad, have been in virtual conference at the Times Higher’s World Academic Summit, discussing issues facing higher education globally and where the latest World University Rankings were published. One of those issues is digital learning, and this week, Sir Michael Barber, who committed to leading a major review of digital teaching and learning in English HE before he stepped down as Chair of the Office for Students (OfS), launched a Call for Evidence on the matter. The OfS is keen to learn more about the lessons from lockdown, the extent of any digital divide, and opportunities for the future. The aim is to have a report, with recommendations, ready by next spring. 

More immediately for many universities is the question of streams of students arriving in a few weeks’ time. The upheavals caused by COVID let alone changes to exam grades, have made planning very difficult this year, and the University and College Union (UCU) for one has highlighted some of the potential health concerns that might arise. In a report last weekend, seized on by much of the media, it outlined ‘five tests – such as comprehensive testing and contract tracing – needed for safe returns to on-campus working.’ News from across the Atlantic of the difficulties being faced by some American colleges provide a sharp reminder of what’s at stake.

Finally this week, early manoeuvres ahead of this autumn’s budget began with the Chancellor looking at a deficit of £370bn this year. Corporation tax and capital gains tax seem to be early targets, while schools have called for more money to help pay for COVID expenses, potentially £200m+ according to the NASUWT. The big arguments are likely to be around likely tax rises, raids on the middle classes, and for education, skills funding and university support. As the Chancellor acknowledged, some ‘difficult decisions’ lie ahead but he would do all he could to avoid ‘a horror show.’ Here’s hoping ...

The top headlines from the week:

  • ‘Push back GCSE and A’ level exams, says Labour.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Lockdown pupils three months behind, say teachers.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Ofsted visits ‘inspection by another name’ say heads.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Oxford ranked world’s best university.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Prevent tsunami of job losses when furlough ends, TUC urges Sunak.’ (Friday)


  • 2020 Exams and more. The Education Committee held its first witness session on the problems around this summer’s exams, in this instance questioning Ofqual officials about that algorithm, the relationship with the DfE, who knew what, and what should happen next summer.
  • Ofqual statement. The Chair of Ofqual issued an open statement ahead of their appearance before the Education Committee, offering apologies but also setting out their side of the events, suggesting that any blame was ‘collective’ and pointing to some lessons that could be learned.
  • All Clapped Out? The RSA reported on how key workers, many of whom had kept the country going during the pandemic were faring, indicating that while some had been able to make savings during the lockdown, others had lost hours, had pay cut and were facing long-term financial uncertainty.
  • Tackling food poverty. Footballer Marcus Rashford, along with leading supermarkets and food manufacturers, announced a new campaign to help tackle food poverty, highlighting three priorities from the National Food Strategy including expanding free school meals, extending holiday schemes and boosting Health Start vouchers.
  • Clearing the airwaves. The government announced that it had completed its programme of clearing airwave space so as to release new capacity for 5G and rural mobile coverage.
  • Digital identity. The government published its response to last year’s consultation on developing digital identity with plans to update existing laws and establish a new set of six guiding principles incorporating privacy, transparency, inclusivity, interoperability, proportionality and good governance.

More specifically ...


  • Dear Parents. The Education Secretary wrote an open letter to parents at the start of the new academic year, encouraging them to send their children back to school and highlighting the work schools had been doing to make things as safe as possible.
  • A challenging start of term. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) reported on the challenges facing schools as they return after lockdown, pointing to a widening attainment gap, gaps in curriculum coverage, health and emotional fears, and the need for managed catch-up and further support.
  • Morning All. The Children’s Commissioner for England heralded the start of term with a comment piece recognising the importance of teachers and of children being back in school while acknowledging the challenges that may lie ahead.
  • Welcome back. Teach First caught up with five headteachers as they prepared for the start of term with crisis management, financial pressures, accountability and of course COVID among the big challenges.
  • SEND concerns. ARK Research raised concerns about the difficulties likely to be faced by pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) seeking to return to school but facing social distancing and other guidelines, suggesting that some 20,000 such pupils may not return in the first instance. 
  • Moving to big school. Academics at UCL’s Institute of Education produced a series of leaflets to help pupils and teachers manage the transition from primary to secondary school for what has obviously been a very difficult year. 
  • Ofsted calling. Ofsted set out its procedures for its planned programme of autumn visits to schools which will start at the end of this month, cover 1,200 schools of all types, last a day, be used to assess how schools are managing the return to learning and result in a follow-up letter.
  • Science practicals. The Association for Science Education (ASE) reported on its survey of UK science teachers and technicians where concerns were high about the effects of a reduction in practical work arising from the lockdown and about future exam and practical requirements.
  • A’ level results in perspective. Former UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook offered a useful analysis of this year’s A’ levels noting a number of familiar trends in particular subject differences between boys and girls and the continuing dominance of the so-called facilitating subjects.
  • Opportunity Knocks. Former Education Secretary Justine Greening urged the government not to rush into launching a wave of new initiatives to help level up disparities in learning but to use existing schemes such as the Opportunity Area scheme developed during her time as Education Secretary instead.


  • Kickstart launched. The government’s Kickstart scheme which was announced by the Chancellor in July and which funds employers to provide 6-month work placements for 16-24-year-olds on benefits, was formally launched. 
  • Incentive payments. Employers were encouraged to sign up from this week for the new incentive payments for taking on new apprentices as announced in the Chancellor’s Jobs Plan in July. 
  • Ofsted calling. Ofsted set out its planned programme of autumn visits to colleges and skills providers which will start at the end of the month, normally last 2 days, look in particular at 3 things including curriculum response, learning development and student safety, and result in a draft report. 
  • What should be in an FE White Paper? The Collab Group offered some thoughts about what should be in the intended forthcoming FE White Paper citing three priorities in particular including a rationalised and more networked sector, retaining incorporation, sustainable long-term funding, and colleges leading L4/5 provision nationally.
  • The view from here. The Association of Colleges (AoC) announced a new student conference which will take place (virtually) in November, hear from leading figures on current issues and enable students to consider relevant key themes from both this year and for the future.
  • T level training. The Education and Training Foundation launched its new T Level Professional Development package aimed primarily at 2021 providers with two components, on Industry Insights and virtual Networks respectively, ready to roll.


  • Branch guidance. The University and College Union (UCU) raised concerns about health and safety as HE campuses gear up for the arrival of students over the coming weeks, outlining five tests such as comprehensive testing and contact tracing, that should form the basis of safe provision.
  • Dear students. The Universities Minister wrote an open letter published on The Student Room to university applicants arguing that she had their interests at heart, was working with universities to ensure needs were met where possible and was looking at further ways to help students in the future.
  • Tougher TEF? John Morgan in the Times Higher reflected on possible changes that the government was considering to tackle so-called ‘low value’ courses, suggesting among other things that the TEF could be sharpened up to curb providers with poor outcomes.
  • Call for Evidence. The Office for Students launched Sir Michael Barber’s swansong Call or Evidence on digital teaching and learning in English HE with a report planned for next spring.
  • Cambridge intake. Cambridge University reported that it was taking a record number of students this year with no deferrals following the summer exams recalibration, with an increase in the number from UK state schools and from deprived areas.
  • Top ranking. The Times Higher published its latest annual World University Rankings covering 1500 universities across over 90 countries and based on 13 measures including teaching, research, industry income and international outlook with Oxford still topping the ranking, Cambridge, Imperial and UCL all in the top 20, and Chinese universities continuing to make gains.
  • Early findings from the delivery phase. The Office for Students published some early findings from an independent evaluation of the delivery phase of its Mental Health Challenge Competition showing that the initial projects were helping to improve mental health outcomes for students but that more partnerships, particularly with Student Union reps, would help. 
  • Welcome thoughts. Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell set out her thoughts on the importance of university teaching and research as she took up the role of Chair of the Russell Group.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “My form tutor looks like Pep Guardiola' The only revelation my son has offered me after his first day at secondary school...” | @IrenaBarker
  • “In a previous school 20 years ago I did a Lesson Obs on a teacher who made his class stand up until he had given them their books back (with a comment) one by one. I asked a student did he do this every lesson and how long did it take "Until his ego trip is over!" was the reply” | @agittner
  • “Our INSET today - lunch shorter to 30 mins & our PPA time significantly reduced. Lots more tutor time added so staff are stressed but it’s okay as they are adding additional ‘staff wellbeing’ sessions AFTER SCHOOL!” | @VeryVintageVie
  • “Seriously Ofsted, just do a thematic report. You get something to do, we all learn” | @miss_mcinerney
  • “ I’ve had more fine speeches about academic freedom from European politicians than I’ve had hot dinners, and they haven’t made a ***** bit of difference, @M_Ignatieff” | @timeshighered
  • “My 13yo has just solved a tech problem for me I’ve been wrestling with for weeks & that’s it, I now have an in-house IT dept & therefore need never return to the office, also I knew there was a reason I had kids” | @gabyhinsliff
  • “One HUGE downside of Zoom I have not heard appropriately acknowledged is that there is no way to exchange covert glances with one other person about the nonsense some other person is spouting and that is like 50% of how I communicate” | @TheRebeccaMetz
  • “Life is good when you are happy; but much better when others are happy because of you.' Pope Francis on great form again” | @BaldHeadteacher
  • “I'm supposed to go to a lecture on String Theory next week, but nobody can tell me how long it's going to be” | @NickMotown

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Education is a birthright, so let’s make sure we get all children back, back to learning, back to playing and back to being kids again” - the Education Secretary spells out for parents the importance of getting children back to school.
  • “I think compared to being in shops being in school will be a lot safer” – one student weighs up the risks.
  • “What we would point towards is that the fundamental mistake was to believe that this would ever be acceptable to the public” – the Chair of Ofqual on the problems with that algorithm.
  • “We have great expectations of assessment in this country” – Dame Glenys Stacey reflects on the challenges that lie ahead as acting chief regulator. 
  • “'Moving a million-plus students around the country is a recipe for disaster and risks leaving ill-prepared universities as the care homes of a second wave” – UCU general secretary Jo Grady raises concerns for the university sector.
  • “How do you envisage teaching and learning delivery will change in the next three years?” – one of the leading questions in the Office for Students’ Call for Evidence on digital teaching and learning in HE.
  • “We have repeatedly warned Ofsted about the perception it will create by publishing letters, and urged it to give schools at least one term’s grace to cope with an unprecedented set of challenges, but it seems that it simply cannot help itself” – the Association of School and College Leaders remains unimpressed by Ofsted’s plans to visit schools this term and publish summary letters.
  • “Just to see the smiles on their faces and to see how much it's helped them, you know, made me happy” – Marcus Rashford on his campaign to end food poverty.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • £70bn pa – How much higher UK GDP could well be when education is fully back up and running, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research.
  • 16% – How many key workers had to dip into their savings as a result of the pandemic, according to a new report from the RSA.
  • 7,000 – The number of new permanent jobs that Amazon is looking to create in the UK along with 20,000 for this Christmas, according to the latest retail news.
  • 51% – How much of the arts, entertainment and leisure workforce is still furloughed, the largest of any workforce according to the ONS.
  • 41% – How many Mums with children under the age of 10 are struggling to get childcare help to enable them to get back to work, according to a new survey from the TUC.
  • 9,204 – The number of academies, free schools, UTCs and studio schools currently open, according to latest government figures.
  • 47% – The number of parents who think secondary school children should wear masks as opposed to 36% who are against, according to a poll from YouGov.
  • 78% – How many parents were opposed to the government imposing fines on families for not sending their children back to school, according to Parentkind
  • 3 months. How far behind on average pupils are as a result of lockdown, according to new research from the NFER.
  • 24% – The number of teachers who reckon they’ll remember all their passwords when they get back in and log on, according to Teacher Tapp.
  • 47th– Where the UK ranks among other countries in the world for broadband speed, down 13 places on last year according to

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Launch of the OECD’s annual ‘Education at a Glance 2020.’ (Tuesday)

Other stories

  • Top Ten Essentials. There’s perhaps not much call these days for that new pencil case for pupils returning to school but there’s no shortage of advice, often from big retail outlets, for what students should pack into their case before heading off to university. Needs may be very different this year but this list in one of the main newspapers contains fairly traditional stuff starting with a collapsible reusable pocket coffee mug and even including a dinner set. But no sanitizers in sight. The list can be viewed here.
  • Don’t try this at home. Apparently a quarter of us have resorted to DIY dentistry during the lockdown. This includes 7% of households where someone has tried to yank their own, presumably painful, tooth out. The figures come from the Association of Dental Groups, the dentists’ trade association which is getting rather worried about the repair jobs it’s now going to have to do. As the Groups Chair said ‘pulling your own teeth out is rarely a good idea’ and is perhaps why the government is keen to increase the number of dentistry places in higher education. 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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