Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 11 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:

Week 2 of the Big Return and rather than uplifting stories of a further return to normality, it’s been a week of increasingly depressing headlines.

In summary, these have included: a rise in infection rates; a clampdown on social gatherings; concerns about cases in schools; continuing worries about students ahead of the new university year; a limited return to office working; a small increase in consumer spending; and a warning from the Deputy Chief Medical Officer of ‘a bumpy ride ahead.’ And that’s without mentioning Brexit …

There have been plenty of headlines for education too this week, thankfully not all depressing. For a start, we’ve had a flurry of important reports on everything from global education, FE local employer relationships, future jobs and university student finances, to child obesity and cultured communities. Elsewhere, MPs debated and rejected moves to release documents relating to this summer’s exams; Public Health England launched a new campaign to provide mental health support for children going back to school; a group of MPs got together to launch a new Levelling Up taskforce; the Education Committee invited FE leaders to offer their thoughts on the future shape of the sector; the government promised to cut red tape for universities; and some universities announced COVID testing regimes following a sharp rise in infection rates among young people.

A lot to take in, so here’s a few details from two of the biggest stories of the week: global education and university preparations for the start of term.

Global education first, where the OECD published its annual showstopper on how global education systems are shaping up. At 476 pages, Education at a Glance is perhaps a wry title. It’s more of a gasp, but its comprehensive analysis of 40+ education systems across the globe has proved valuable to policymakers, planners and practitioners alike for many years and is likely to prove so again this year – not least because of four features.

First, because a key focus of this year’s report is vocational learning. This is a form of learning that appears to have been badly hit by the pandemic, largely because of restrictions on practical activities and because hard-hit employers have been unable to take on work-based learners like apprentices. The impact on many industrial sectors which rely on skilled workers could be hugely damaging. 

Second, because the report offers a valuable summary of the impact of the pandemic on education systems and how different countries have responded to it. Its core message here is twofold: the lockdown has heightened inequality and, secondly, has created a long-term drag on skills and earnings potential. “Because learning loss will lead to skill loss, and the skills people have relate to their productivity, gross domestic product (GDP) could be 1.5% lower on average for the remainder of the century,” the report concludes.

Third, and following on because the report highlights six indicators to keep an eye on as countries seek to rebuild their education provision in the aftermath of COVID and the lockdown. These six include: the share of government spending on education; international student mobility; learning time; class sizes; the volume of students on vocational programmes; and unemployment by educational attainment. All pretty essential metrics. And fourth and finally, because, as always, the report contains some fascinating ‘I didn’t know that’ data. For example, the fact that compared to the OECD average, the UK has some of the youngest primary school teachers, and larger class sizes.

Before we leave this substantive report from the OECD, a word about a further, significant report also from the OECD this week as part of its barrage of information. This one looks at learning loss resulting from school closures due to the pandemic. It reinforces the effect this has had on creating educational inequality and underlines the longer term impact on pupils, both economically – in terms of lost future earnings power, ‘In other words, a loss of one-third of a school years’ worth of learning would reduce the subsequent earned income of the pupils concerned by about 3% – and in terms of loss of cognitive skills and emotional resilience. It’s a powerful message. 

Second, those preparations for the start of university terms in the next few weeks. This is a story that has been running for some time, but has become more pressing with the release of the latest data showing a spike among young people in the 17-21 range and the government’s latest response. The SAGE report at the end of last week highlighted many of the risks associated with the opening of universities, pointing to what it called ‘the large numbers of connections within universities and communities which could amplify local and national transmission’ and citing the need for clear strategies for testing and tracing. Some universities are gearing up for this. Exeter, Leicester and the University of East Anglia have all announced testing plans and Cambridge has recently announced a weekly testing regime for students living in college accommodation once term starts. Others have similar plans. 

In his press briefing this week, the Prime Minister called on universities not to send students home if they needed to isolate, something that the University and College Union (UCU) described as ‘ridiculously irresponsible.’ Its view is that students should be released from accommodation contracts and universities should fully embrace online teaching so that students don’t have to up sticks in the first place. The problem is – as the latest NUS field survey published this week indicated – students are also keen to enjoy a ‘normal’ experience when they get to university, i.e. normal teaching and normal socialising. Equally, a lot depends on the quality and access of digital learning as recent surveys have indicated. Ministers have been out in virtual force this week, showing their support for universities and the value of what they have to offer as well as strengthening their latest guidance, but it’s the Health Secretary’s blunt warning about not killing granny that may resonate more

The top headlines from the week:

  • ‘Williamson claims reopening is very much under control despite spate of COVID closures.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Older students increasingly taught by young teachers.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Big concerns over COVID catch-up tutor shortage.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Coronavirus: no student parties and more online learning.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Furlough must be extended to avoid mass unemployment say MPs.’ (Friday)


  • Brexit matters. The National Audit Office (NAO) published the latest in its various reports on Brexit preparations, in this case listing nine ‘insights’ or lessons for the government to consider as talks began on the latest round of transition talks with the government threatening to abandon some of the rules. 
  • National Data Strategy. The government announced further plans on its proposed new National Data Strategy, promising the creation of an army of data analysts by 2021, a new government Chief Data Officer, additional investment to tackle online harm and a consultation on the final framework for the Strategy.
  • Who’s hiring?KPMG and the Recruitment and Employment Confederation published their latest survey of the jobs market showing a pick up especially among temporary recruitment in August but overall vacancies falling, pay remaining low, and considerable variations by region.
  • Education at a Glance. The OECD published its latest comprehensive assessment of how different education systems are performing with much of the data coming from pre-COVID days but with some important reflections on the impact of COVID generally. 
  • UK at a Glance. The OECD highlighted six issues including early years enrolment, poor spending levels for vocational provision and concerns about the impact of the pandemic on international student recruitment in its UK specific section of its Education at a Glance report. 
  • Education Questions. DfE Ministers answered questions from MPs as part of regular departmental questions dealing with a range of issues including exams reform, school safety, the attainment gap, school and FE funding and university student numbers.
  • Furlough extension. The Treasury Select Committee published a 2nd report on the impact of the coronavirus on the economy looking at medium-term challenges and calling on the government to consider a targeted extension of the furlough scheme, continuing support for those on benefits, rethinking the triple lock and making more sense of levelling up.
  • Levelling Up. The Onward group published a new report by the MP Neil O’Brien, on levelling-up, setting three key tests around earnings and employment and launched to herald the creation of a new Taskforce comprising 40 MPs. 
  • Investing in infrastructure. The CBI called on the government to create a National Infrastructure Bank as it published a set of recommendations to encourage private sector investment in future infrastructure.
  • Fixing social care. The TUC called for a long-term funding settlement, a new national care body and improved pay and skills training for the care workforce in a new report on building a better care system.
  • Keeping the lifeline. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation called on the government, to make the £20 a week uplift for poorer families which is due to end next April to be made permanent, in a submission published as evidence for the Budget.
  • Childhood obesity. The National Audit Office published a new report on child obesity noting that this is something that governments have been trying to tackle for over 20 years but with only varying degrees of success, suggesting that stronger coordination and investment is needed for the latest, July 2020, strategy.
  • Cultured Communities. The Fabian Society examined the impact of cuts to local government funding for arts and cultural activities, looking at two regions in particular (Hull and Waltham Forest) and recommending among other things a new £500m Arts Resilience Fund, local charters and work with the Arts Council.

More specifically ...


  • COVID guidance. The government added further guidance for schools on the procedures to be followed if a pupil displayed coronavirus symptoms or tested positive.
  • Test concerns. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) raised concerns that the lack of suitable testing arrangements was hampering the opening up of schools, reporting that some schools were waiting days for tests let alone results.
  • The cost of learning loss. The OECD reported on the likely financial, mental and emotional effects of lost schooling in light of the pandemic suggesting that it could reduce subsequent earning income for pupils by a third and have further, so far unmeasurable, cognitive and emotional effects on children.
  • Every mind matters. Public Health England along with leading mental health organisations, launched a new campaign and website to support the well-being of children and young people back at school offering 5 tips including listening, caring and being involved..
  • Show us the papers. Labour tabled a motion calling for the government to publish all internal documents of meetings and ministerial submissions for this year’s exams, arguing that lessons needed to be learnt for the future 
  • Summer exams postscript. The Joint Council for Qualifications published full and final data on this summers A’ and GCSE exams complete with additional data on top grades, gender differences and performance by subject.
  • The fight for SEND. The BBC’s Panorama programme highlighted the challenges facing families and children with special educational needs and disabilities in an important programme this week.
  • Special needs visits. Ofsted set out its arrangements for local area ‘interim’ visits during autumn and spring to see how children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities were being catered for and what issues they may be facing, with interim reports to follow and a national report due next spring.
  • Special needs journey. The Edge Foundation reported on its case study of how one institution had supported learners with special needs through education and with their journey on to employment.
  • Phonics checks. The government issued new guidance on the phonics screening check that will need to be taken for Yr 2 pupils this term following the cancellation of the exercise in the summer term. 
  • Internet access. Siobhain McDonagh MP called for support for her Private Members Bill which is due for its Second Reading today and which is designed to place a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that children who are eligible for free school meals have internet access at home. 
  • Ed Psych support. The government invited trained and eligible Educational Psychologists to consider applying for temporary roles to support children and young people returning to school. 
  • System leadership. The government published the recommendations from the National Leaders of Governance (NLG) advisory group on boosting system leadership outlining new criteria, funding and performance measures for NLGs. 
  • Building Back Better. Big Education published its latest ‘Playbook,’ a manual of ideas and reflections to help schools recover from the lockdown experience by rethinking and redesigning what they do, in this case building on three stages: responding; recovering; rethinking.


  • COVID guidance. The government added further guidance for FE provides on procedures to be followed if a student displayed coronavirus symptoms or tested positive.
  • 16-19 catch-up funding. The government extended the eligibility rules for catch-up funding for 16-19-year-olds to include those who had achieved a grade 4 pass in GCSE English and maths.
  • Work Coaches. The Employment Minister called on jobseekers and others to apply to become Work Coaches in an effort to ramp up the numbers able to support the government’s Kickstart and other training programmes.
  • Where will the jobs come from? The Learning and Work Institute indicated it could take some time for jobs to recover after the pandemic, particularly in some sectors and regions, and called for a 3-pronged attack of investment, stimulation and support to encourage employment growth.
  • Spotlight on vocational education. The OECD included a special section on vocational education in its latest Education at a Glance report highlighting a number of facts and figures in an infographic but also suggesting that the pandemic had hit this form of learning particularly hard. 
  • What should be in an FE White Paper? The TES listed what was on the wish list from each of the major sector leaders for a future FE White Paper when they appeared before the Education Committee to discuss FE developments.
  • Vocational and technical assessments.  Ofqual confirmed the arrangements for the assessment of vocational and technical qualifications for 2020/21 following consultation which would mean no more calculated results, a further version of the Extraordinary Regulatory Framework (ERF,) and further work with awarding organisations to ensure consistent approaches.
  • Employers’ survey. The Institute for Apprenticeships invited employers to take part in a brief follow-up survey looking on this occasion at views on financial incentives and apprenticeship job security.
  • Reaching out. The Association of Colleges (AoC) reported on its survey of college relationships with local businesses and their community, finding a lot going on but too often with little time and resource to develop, calling on government to strengthen their(colleges’) remit in this area. 
  • Moving online. The AoC published initial findings from its research project led by Jisc into digital learning in FE, how it was going and how a high-quality digital future could be created, suggesting a lot more needs doing and coming up with a number of practical recommendations for government, sector bodies and colleges themselves. 
  • Workplace training. The British Chambers of Commerce published a progress report and further call for evidence from its Inquiry into workforce training where new ways of funding training such as a training levy, a focus on adult learners, and business skills needs planning have all been raised as solutions.
  • Skills recovery. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) called on the government to provide additional investment to enable apprentices to complete their programmes and for greater flexibility in supporting at risk learners as part of a package of skills recovery measures to be included in the Autumn Spending Plans. 
  • Pandemic effect. The AELP, with support from the FE Trust for Leadership (FETL,) called for views on what effect the pandemic had had on the sector and its relationships with funders and regulators, with a view to publishing a research paper later this year.


  • View from on high. The Education Secretary addressed the UUK Conference where he praised universities for their provision and support during the pandemic, thanked them for helping provide extra places after the summer exams problems, confirmed that the government intended to review the International Education Strategy this autumn and re-iterated his mission to develop higher-level technical provision. 
  • Ministerial support. The Universities Minister also addressed the UUK Conference, adding her thanks to the sector for helping provide extra places this summer, confirming proposals to reduce bureaucracy in the sector and reinforcing the government’s latest messages around social distancing. 
  • Cutting red tape. The government outlined further plans to help higher-level research and teaching by reducing bureaucracy announcing a number of measures to be taken by the Office for Students around enhanced monitoring, data collection, registration fees and the National Students Survey.
  • Our plans. The Office for Students outlined how it intended to tackle government proposals for tackling bureaucracy including the expectations these place on other bodies such as the Quality Assurance Agency and HE Statistics Agency. 
  • Latest guidance. The government updated its guidance on university re-openings in the light of latest data on infection rates and following the latest SAGE advice, confirming the importance of COVID-safe face-to-face teaching but setting out four tiers of restrictions if necessary.
  • SAGE advice. SAGE (The Scientific Group for Emergencies) published a new briefing at the end of last week on COVID transmission in HE indicating that a national strategy, including for testing, tracing and isolation was needed as staff and students return in larger numbers, pointing to the end of term as a high-risk moment with students returning home and potentially carrying the virus.
  • Coronavirus and Students Survey Mark 11. The NUS reported on its second major survey of students about the effects of the pandemic and other matters, showing that most students plan to carry on their studies when term starts, that about a half have concerns about the virus, and that concerns remain about limited access to online learning for many students.
  • International recruitment. The Times Higher examined the messages from the OECD’s Education at a Glance report on international recruitment noting that the pandemic was likely to have a long-term negative effect on research, funding and international collaboration for some time to come. 
  • More university rankings. The Guardian published its rankings for 2021 based on eight metrics including course outcomes and student ratings and including a complement of over 50 subject tables. 
  • Purse strings. Student Money Survey published its latest annual survey of how students are coping with their finances showing over a third having serious money worries, ¾ relying on part-time work and 71% worrying about making ends meet with Leeds Arts University coming out as the cheapest for living costs.
  • Pension matters. The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) along with Universities UK launched a consultation on the scheme’s 2020 valuation to help determine contribution levels for future benefits.
  • UKRI Chair. Sir John Kingman, who has been Chair of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) for five years, announced he would step down next May.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Everyone has been to school & therefore believes they know how a school should work. I’ve been to a garage to get my car fixed but I can safely say I know very little about repairing cars” | @Strikomaster
  • “Three out of four cried this morning on the way into school, all have come out bouncing and happy. Well done that school” | @jon_severs
  • “Remember when our biggest worry at school was whether our canteen lasagne had horse meat in it? I miss those days” | @chrisedwarksuk
  • “I see that in my evening determination yesterday to find 3,000 words to cut from this essay I managed to add 1,000” | @sarahchurchwell
  • “For the first time ever in my life I typed the words ‘going forward’ in an email and now must surrender my fellowship of the @RSLiterature” | @lindasgrant
  • “One of my 15yo's school friends thought I was her sister and even though it was from a distance, I'm going to own that for a while” | @CathMurray_
  • “Frankly, if *all* your kids went back to school today and you *didn’t* succumb to wine with lunch, we probably aren’t friends” | @susiemesure

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “We will get it right next time” – the Foreign Secretary reflects on this year’s exams problems.
  • “My department is working on a new, post-COVID digital strategy that will build that workforce, giving people the tools to digitise their businesses and adjust to the tech-led economy of the future" – the Culture Secretary on another digital strategy.
  • “The show must go on” – Lord Lloyd Weber joined MPs in calling for extended funding for the arts.
  • “If they are soulless places with only a trickle of people, then it won’t work” – the CBI’s Dame Carolyn Fairbairn on the need to reinvigorate offices.
  • “The 45-minute lecture – it’s so outdated, it’s pedagogically not sound, it’s not evidence-based…And if you put that kind of delivery online, it’s even worse” – the new V.C. at the University of Leeds tells the Times Higher that the traditional university lecture has had its day.
  • “It may be necessary for HE institutions to take significant actions in response to outbreaks, and it may be necessary for institutions across the HE sector to take coordinated action in November to prevent seeding and disseminated outbreaks in December” - SAGE issues advice on COVID transmission in HE.
  • “‘The University of Arizona says it caught an outbreak of COVID before it started by analysing students’ sewage’ – a claim from the Washington Post. 
  • Since April, only five colleges have needed to access emergency funding” – the Skills Minister answers a Question in Parliament about FE finances.
  • “Shaping the digital future of FE and skills requires investment, insight and collaboration” – Jisc and the AoC report on what’s needed to transform digital learning in FE.
  • “It is surely not too much to ask that schools are given at least one term’s grace from Ofsted processes, however framed, so that they can focus on the very demanding job of reintegrating pupils, and we ask you to reconsider your plans” – leading unions write to the Chief Inspector asking her to re-consider Ofsted’s planned autumn visits.
  • “The lockdowns have interrupted conventional schooling with nationwide school closures in most OECD and partner countries, lasting at least 10 weeks in the majority of them” – the OECD in its latest report on global education systems.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 62% – The number of Britons who said they’d support a night-time curfew to help prevent a second wave of the coronavirus, according to a poll by YouGov. 
  • £210bn – The cost to the public purse of government interventions and actions for the first six months of the pandemic with the furlough scheme at £35.4bn the most expensive, according to the National Audit Office.
  • 2% – How much consumer spending grew last month, the first increase since February although largely for online shopping, according to latest figures. 
  • 8,000 – The number of calls made to HMRC’s fraud telephone hotline about the furlough scheme, according to the HMRC Permanent Secretary.
  • 43% – How many workers can’t afford to self-isolate, according to the TUC.
  • 81% – The number of university students who want their course to run as normal when they return to their studies, according to a new survey from the NUS.
  • £795 – How much the average student spends per calendar month, according to the latest Student Money Survey.
  • 29% – The number of primary school teachers in the UK under the age of 30, more than double the average across the OECD, according to the OECD’s latest report.
  • 4m – The number of children between the ages of two and fifteen classified as obese in 2018, according to a new report by the National Audit Office. 

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • TUC Annual Congress (Virtual.) Monday/Tuesday, keynote speech by the Leader of the Opposition on Tuesday.
  • Launch of Onward’s report on ‘The State of our Social Fabric’ (Monday).
  • Social Mobility Commission/IfS report (Tuesday).
  • Wonkhe ‘Student experience 2020’ virtual event (Thursday/Friday).

Other stories

  • Search for the heroes. Who would you single out as education heroes during the pandemic, those people and organisations that have gone the extra mile?. In an interesting article this week, Rob Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Committee, listed his seven education heroes, all of whom he argued had put children first. They included: the HE Minister, the President of the Royal College of Pediatrics, the Children’s Commissioner for England, a PPS at the DfE, the online Invicta Academy, the Institute for Education (for highlighting the learning gap,) the media, and of course school and college staff. A link to the article can be found here
  • Spit it out. A fascinating article highlighted in The Spectator this week has suggested that English speakers may be responsible for the high transmission rate of COVID. Apparently this is to do with the use of so-called ‘aspirated consonants’ in English, words that begin with the letters h, t, p or k and which require an extra burst of breath, and thereby spittle, when expressed. According to linguistic experts if you get a piece of tissue, hold it close to your lips and say ‘top,’ the tissue will move with the vibration of exhaled air. A link to the article 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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