Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 18 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:

A week of some important numbers, with six of them capturing the latest key developments. In ascending order, the numbers include 2, 4.1, 5, 50, 88 and 115. Here’s the story behind each.

2 or rather Mark 2, refers to a future furlough scheme – the subject of fierce discussion this week for two reasons. First, because this week’s latest labour market figures heightened anxieties about what happens when the scheme ends next month. And second, because this week brought the deadline for when employers have to publish consultation plans for any future large scale redundancies beyond furlough. The reality of it all came with figures from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) this week, suggesting a further 450k redundancies for the third quarter of this year, with 200k more by the end of the year. France and Germany have extended their furlough schemes, why can’t we, the argument goes? 

Various Mark 2 schemes have been put forward. Sir Keir Starmer, for instance, told the TUC Annual Congress this week that he favoured a version of the German Kurzabeit scheme, under which employers reduce hours rather than jobs, with government helping with the costs. He, like the TUC itself, which put forward its own ‘job protection and upskilling deal,’ wanted to outlaw ‘fire and rehire’ schemes where employees are laid off then brought back on worse conditions. The IPPR think tank is another body which has proposed government subsidies for sustainable jobs and part-time work. The Reform thinktank and UNITE union have also added their voices. The furlough scheme peaked in May according to the latest Treasury figures and has helped one in three eligible employments across the UK at some point, despite concerns about fraud. Most recognise that any future scheme would need to be targeted, but the Chancellor, so far, remains unmoved: “I don't think the right thing to do is to endlessly extend furlough” although he did promise to be creative. Much depends on the next quarterly figures and the Budget in a couple of months’ time.

Next, and an obvious follow-on, 4.1%. This represents the latest unemployment figure and was one of the headline figures from the labour market data published this week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS.) Labour market data is being watched carefully these days as concerns about a rising tide of unemployment and economic difficulties increase. These latest figures cover mostly to July and indicate some signs of economic recovery with a pick-up in some sectors and an increase in vacancies. But as the Learning and Work Institute, which always offers a useful analysis of the data, suggested: ‘there are clear warning signs of trouble ahead.’ The warning signs are twofold. First, a rise in youth unemployment, up 36,000 on the previous quarter. And second, the increase in redundancies, with 3.4m people looking for work. Citizen’s Advice reckons it’s helping someone every two minutes with one-to-one redundancy advice. It rather brings it home.

Moving on to 5, or rather 5%. This is the suggested likely increase in university entries this year by 18-year-olds. ‘Suggested’ because the final figures from UCAS –  which traditionally come out 28 days after A’ level results day, so should have been this week – have been put back a week to allow more time to assimilate the grade changes this year. However, preliminary figures provided by DataHE and reported by the FT, point to what they call ‘a bumper year for admissions’, driven partly by this year’s grade increases and resultant scrapping of the numbers cap, but also by a likely increase in international students, non-EU, and that rise in 18-year-olds. That said, as experts have been pointing out, final figures – particularly on international students, not all of whom may appear – have yet to be confirmed, and not all universities will see ‘bumper’ numbers. There’s been a lot of toing and froing since the results first came out and some universities may have lost rather than gained numbers. We may not know the full picture for some time.

Next, and moving up the scale, 50. This is the number of local authority ‘cold spots’ dotted around the country where low levels of social mobility create enormous disparities, as identified by the Social Mobility Commission this week. Working with organisations like the IfS and UCL, the Commission used new data to track the progress of boys born in the late 1980s, through education and into the labour market. It found that where you grow up matters. ‘The pay gap in the least socially mobile areas is 2.5 times larger than in areas of high social mobility’. These areas of low social mobility, or cold spots, suffer not only from greater pay gaps than in more mobile areas, but also from fewer outstanding schools, fewer professional occupations, and higher levels of deprivation. The Commission called on government, community leaders and other players to use the data generated to help target support.

Fifth, 88, or more precisely 88%. This represents the number of pupils back in schools in England as of last Thursday. As it did in June and July when schools started to reopen, the government provides a weekly run down of the attendance figures as at the penultimate day of the week. This figure therefore relates back to last Thursday, September 10, when 92% of schools were fully open and 99% partially so. It will come as some relief to the government, which had placed so much store on the opening of schools at the start of the autumn term. 

According to Teacher Tapp, 84% of secondary senior leaders enjoyed being back in school last week, but since then, of course, new problems have emerged, with many schools reporting test and trace issues and not being able to offer all the learning they might want to. Yet they deserve credit when compared with global figures provided this week by UNICEF, showing that ‘half of the world’s student population’ is not yet back in the classroom; that’s 872m students in 51 countries. More worryingly, at least half of those have no access to remote learning and 1 in 4 countries has no set date for when students might return. UNICEF is calling it a crisis for young people and families.

Finally 115. This figure comes from a major report out this week from the National Audit Office (NAO) on college finances. It’s a timely report, partly because of the fluctuations in both funding and policy for the sector since the last such report five years ago, and partly because colleges are crucial to the economic and social recovery of the country. As the report puts it: ‘A financially sustainable college sector is vital to delivering the education and training that the country needs’. The figure of 115 refers to the number of colleges, out of 242, facing some sort of financial issues earlier this year. Much of the detail is well known: a 7% drop in funding for 16-19 year olds between 2013/14 and 2018/19, and a 35% drop for adult provision, yet performance has remained high in many colleges. The government has a reform plan and an autumn White Paper awaits, but as the report concludes, things remain ‘fragile.’

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Heads warn of teacher shortages without Covid tests.’ (Monday)
  • ‘DfE to measure lockdown learning losses without extra tests.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Colleges’ financial health ‘fragile,’ says audit office. (Wednesday
  • ‘Cyber threat to disrupt start of university term.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Schools in poorer areas lack catch-up cash.’ (Friday)


  • Latest labour market figures. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest (July) set of figures for the labour market indicating an increase in the claimant count and the unemployment rate especially for young people, but with some improvement in vacancies and wages.
  • In more detail. The Learning and Work Institute provided its regular helpful analysis of the latest labour market figures highlighting concerns about a future wave of unemployment and worries about prospects for young people.
  • A Plan for public service jobs. The TUC used its Annual Congress to call on the government to invest in public service jobs and help stave off unemployment by creating among other things 80,000 new jobs in education and 220,000 in adult social care.
  • Cyber threat. The UK’s National Cyber Centre highlighted a spate of ransomware attacks over the last month on UK academic institutions and issued new warnings and guidance to UK schools, colleges and universities, reminding them of the importance of having an incident response plan. 
  • Our Digital Future. The Labour Party launched a consultation on developing ‘a bold new approach’ to digital policy, listing five questions that could help determine a future set of principles for a digital revolution.
  • Economic Outlook. The OECD published a new report on the economic outlook for member countries concluding that while all had suffered some recession and risks and uncertainty remained high, the prospects for growth looked better than previously albeit slightly lower for the UK.
  • On Notice. The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) examined figures from employers on planned future redundancies, concluding that there’s likely to be a significant peak in the 3rdquarter of the year and recommending rapid access to training, controlled labour costs and clarity on employment rights to help ameliorate the impact.
  • The long shadow of deprivation. The Social Mobility Commission reported on its work tracking what happened to state-educated boys in England born between 1986 and 1988, showing that where you grow up matters, particularly in regional cold spots where those from a poorer background face low pay and large pay gaps.
  • Fraying at the edges. The Onward thinktank published a major new report on social communities in the UK, important ‘anchors’ for many people during the pandemic but according to the report in a state of decline, less well connected, with new divides, and in need of urgent repair.
  • Green recovery. The OECD reported that members countries had committed $312bn in green recovery programmes including skills training as part of their COVID recovery plans but that some measures such as bailouts of emission companies were not always environmentally friendly.
  • New ways of working. The CIPD reported on responses to the ‘new’ ways of working arising out of the pandemic up to the end of June, indicating that the shift to home working had not affected productivity, employees generally had valued home working but missed out on work interactions but concerns were growing about a two-tier workforce emerging.
  • The adaptive professional. The Association for Project Management (APM) launched its plenary report following its ’Big Conversation’ on Projecting the Future, making the case for strengthening the culture of professionalism and building the concept of the adaptive project professional. 

More specifically ...


  • Dear PM. Leading education organisations expressed concerns about the lack of coronavirus testing capacity for schools and called on the Prime Minister personally to take charge of sorting things out.
  • Latest health guidance. The government issued the latest guidance for schools on managing arrangements while the coronavirus remained a concern including if a pupil displayed symptoms. 
  • In front of the Committee. The Education Secretary and senior DfE officials appeared before the Education Committee where they answered questions on this summer’s exams, next summer’s exams (decision due next month) COVID testing, and the role of Ofqual.
  • 2020 Exam results. FFT Education Datalab provided a helpful overview of this year’s GCSE results suggesting some variability between schools when it came to final grades but also a closing of the attainment gap overall.
  • School funding. The Institute for Fiscal Studies published its latest assessment of school funding in England acknowledging the current three-year settlement for schools but highlighting that this follows a long period of reduced funding and will leave funding still only back to what it was a decade ago.
  • ‘Divisive and inadequate.’ The four teacher unions criticised the government’s recommendations on pay and prospects for teachers in an open leader, calling for the removal of performance-related pay and arguing that rewarding new teachers at the expense of experienced ones was divisive.
  • NPQs.The government issued eligibility criteria for funding for National Professional Qualifications (NPQs) for senior posts in schools.
  • Recruiting teachers from overseas. The government set out the various routes, procedures and new rules that will apply for the recruitment of teachers from both the EU and non-EU countries from the start of next year.
  • Speaking to an inspector. Ofsted outlined guidance to be used when inspectors gather evidence from schools particularly when this may require speaking with pupils on sensitive issues.
  • Time for a change. Denis Sherwood continued his series of insightful analyses of this summer’s exams, highlighting where things looked to have gone wrong and calling for a rethink on exams as normal.
  • Core maths. The Nuffield Foundation examined how Core Maths, originally announced under the Gove reforms to boost the take-up of maths beyond age 16, was going, suggesting despite it being valued by those who take and offer it, it was proving a struggle to generate mass numbers and support. 
  • Helping with literacy. The National Literacy Trust, with support from its patron the Duchess of Cornwall, launched two new digital platforms including a virtual school library to help families and children who may have fallen behind with their literacy skills during the pandemic. 
  • Becoming less eligible. Researchers from the Universities of Bath, Kent and Winchester reported on the impact of cuts over the last decade in services for those with learning disabilities, indicating that 40% reported losing care support with just 7% saying things had improved.
  • An extra hour in bed. Bedales schools became the latest school to see whether an extra hour in bed would encourage teenagers to be more alert and ready to learn when lessons begin, which will now be at 9.45 a.m.


  • Latest health guidance. The government issued the latest guidance for FE providers on managing situations of COVID concern and particularly what to do if a student displayed symptoms. 
  • College finances. The National Audit Office (NAO) published its latest report into the financial sustainability of colleges in England, five years on from its previous report and with data collected before the pandemic but showing colleges subject to extensive cuts and in need of sustained funding to be able to deliver the critical role in future skills training that the government expects.
  • College view. Julian Gravatt, Deputy Chief Exec at the Assoc of Colleges (AoC) offered a valuable set of reflections on the NAO report on college finances, noting that the pandemic is likely to have made the funding problems identified in the report even worse and like many, looking to the forthcoming White Paper and Budget to bring funding stability to the sector.
  • Returning to public ownership. The University and College Union (UCU) called for colleges to be returned to public ownership and funded properly in a response to the latest NAO report on college finances.
  • Attendance monitoring. The AoC reported that the DfE had slightly modified its requirements for reporting on college attendance, for example comparing actual rather than theoretical attendance against expectations, but is still expecting daily returns.
  • System rethink. The Education and Skills thinktank (EDSK) published a new report on FE as political interest in the sector grows, suggesting among other things that the sector need a clearer focus with a tripartite model of colleges operating under a regional system of FE Directors.
  • Subcontracting. Ofsted published the results of its research into subcontracting in FE as part of its plans to make the system more transparent, noting variations in oversight and inspection arrangements, and proposing stronger sampling, access to better data and potentially more direct inspections accordingly.
  • High-risk providers. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) outlined how it would determine and define a high-risk provider, one that might have funding withdrawn or access to it denied.
  • Student digital experience. Jisc published its latest annual survey of students’ digital experience in FE with much of the evidence coming from pre-pandemic days and many rating the quality of their experience and digital provision as good or better but equally others stressing the need for more support to develop their digital skills.
  • Follow-up Staff Survey. The government published its commissioned follow-up survey of college staff last year looking at staff turnover (higher than in HE, lower than in schools,) reasons for leaving (management and workload,) and career progression views (decreasing).
  • Education and Training Professionals Survey. The government published its commissioned report into staff who work in sixth form colleges, training providers and adult learning looking at things like employment contracts (largely part-time in adult learning,) staff profiles (younger in sixth form colleges,) and salaries (higher in sixth form colleges).
  • VQ stats. The government published its latest quarterly update on vocational qualifications (VQs) covering the period April - June and showing a notable drop in the number of certificates awarded during this period.


  • 2020 University entry. Ahead of next week’s figures from UCAS, the FT reported on figures from DataHE suggesting a ‘bumper’ year for university entry fuelled partly by those grade changes but also by a continued increase in international students.
  • Campus anxiety. The Times Higher reported on its global survey of how university staff feel about returning to campus, finding considerable anxiety particularly among professional staff with some anger in the UK at least about how poorly the government has managed things.
  • Send us the details. The University and College Union (UCU) raised concerns about how far the government was providing data on coronavirus cases in education and called on colleges and universities to send them details of where it had concerns so that it could ‘name and shame’ where necessary.
  • Inhouse testing. Nottingham University announced it was creating its own in-house testing system for asymptomatic students and those who may have concerns about any COVID contact.
  • Petitioning support. The government acknowledged that university students should be able to take action if they’re not satisfied with the services and response provided by their university during the pandemic but rejected calls from the House of Commons Petitions Committee for a new centralised system to assist with seeking fee and loan refunds.
  • ‘Publish or perish.’ The Science Minister called for a rethink of the ‘publish or perish’ model of research in a (virtual) speech to researchers, lauding the importance of their work and stressing the need for better wellbeing support and diverse funding for those involved in research generally.
  • Student digital experience. Jisc published its latest annual survey of students’ digital experiences in HE with much of the evidence coming from pre-pandemic days but indicating digital inequality, collaborative activity and student focused provision all as issues.
  • Postgrad returns. The government published a further research report on earnings returns on higher degrees based on LEO data and suggesting that while earlier estimates may have been optimistic and returns vary by subject, they are still beneficial especially for females.
  • What do we want? When do we want it? The University of Winchester published the results of its survey undertaken by Public First and YouthSight into what Gen Z, those born between 1995 and 2010, want from their university experience and the wider world with climate change and the NHS featuring among the wider priorities and quality teaching the priority for the university experience.
  • Election counts. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) investigated the importance or otherwise of the student vote in the last four general elections, confirming that Labour tends to do well in high student constituencies but that the student vote cannot be taken for granted and students are often motivated by wider issues such as climate change and the NHS than just student finances. 
  • AI and research. The think tank Demos in a report sponsored by Jisc examined how far and how quickly AI was pushing research boundaries, ’investigating questions that would have been unanswerable a decade ago,’ but calling for better support, provision and flexibility in the future including and the development of AI skills in the post-16 curriculum to support future researchers.
  • Code of Governance. The Committee of University Chairs updated the voluntary but recommended Higher Education Code of Governance for universities around the six core principles of accountability, sustainability, reputation, effectiveness, engagement, and equality/diversity/inclusivity.
  • Careers Service resourcing. The Graduate Careers Advisory Service published a brief snapshot survey of members pointing to concerns about future resourcing, working remotely and the graduate market generally.
  • Willetts on Goodhart. Former Universities Minister David Willetts reviewed David Goodhart’s latest ‘Head, Hands, Heart’ book, challenging Goodhart’s critique of universities, particularly the non-elite ones, arguing that a diverse system rooted in local communities provides for a richer system.
  • Fantasy land. The University of Glasgow, which already features some research and activities in the field of fantasy, launched the world’s first Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, intended to bring together artists, illustrators and writers from around the world interested in fantasy.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Each school was “given 10 home testing kits at the start of term”. What larks: 10 a class wouldn’t have covered it! As I’ve said before, it’s almost like parents and teachers were not well represented in the discussion about what might happen in September” | @hannahfearn
  • “In 1665 Cambridge University closed because of plague. Isaac Newton retreated to rural Lincolnshire. During his 2 years in lockdown, he worked out calculus, the true meaning of colour, gravitation, planetary orbits & the 3 Laws of Motion. Will 2020 be someone’s Annus Mirabilis?” | @RichardDawkins
  • “I’d like to read an education column in the schools press written by a current ‘on trend’ teacher or leader which starts with an appreciation of what’s gone before rather than an assumption that a past practice or culture is best derided & replaced with their unique wisdom” | @DrRLofhouse
  • "Well Mr Inspector, here's the 1 year group we've got left in school at the moment, and the 3 staff who are still available to teach them. We've arranged for you to deliver a Maths lesson as we've heard you love data. There are 90 socially distanced students waiting in the Hall!" | @danielstucke
  • “My son (fresher) is moving into a student flat with 9 others. They count as a household/bubble. They aren’t allowed to mix with others/have others in their flat, etc. and we aren’t even allowed in his flat when we drop him off to move in” | @The BabyExpert
  • “Who Wants to be a Millionaire? winner says he ‘walked into school to cheering’ | @Independent

 Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “It is very English to muddle through on education reform; maybe it works but there have been missed opportunities, and periods of painfully slow development such as the 1920s and 1930s” – Sir Michael Barber on one of the lessons of 150 years of education reform in England.
  • “This analysis sets out that redundancies in the autumn will almost certainly exceed anything that we have experienced in at least a generation” – the Institute for Employment Studies ends its report on future redundancies with a sobering conclusion.
  • “Do everything possible to protect jobs and to deliver for working people. My door is open” – Sir Keir Starmer uses his TUC speech to tell the government he’ll work with them to avoid job losses. 
  • “The findings are challenging, confirming what some have always known intuitively” – the Social Mobility Commission reports on disadvantage ‘cold spots’.
  • “We intend to lay the report in due course and to publish it alongside the government’s response” – the Universities Minister responds to a question in Parliament on the Pearce report.
  • “The quintessentially Anywhere institution’ – David Goodhart’s description in his latest book, of modern universities. 
  • “What you have this week is admissions and planning staff in a mad scramble to find out exactly what our needs on different courses are going to be, how much accommodation do we need, what’s the capacity for extra-curricular activities and so on” – The FT reports on Bristol University’s rush to be ready for the start of term.
  • “They have to be applauded for that but it has to change” – the Association of Colleges responds to the latest report on how colleges have survived funding shortfalls.
  • “What we both failed to recognise was the fact that we weren't in peace time. But we were in a very different situation in terms of the global pandemic” – the Education Secretary reflects on the situation he and Ofqual were in when it came to this summer’s exams in an appearance before the Education Committee.
  • “We are not sure that we are very much further forward in understanding what went wrong with the grading process this summer” – the Association of Schools and College Leaders (ASCL) responds to the Education Secretary’s appearance before the Education Committee. 
  • “But schools and colleges need certainty now” – the NAHT calls for clarity about next summer’s exams.
  • “The testing system is not good enough, and threatens to undo all of the good work that schools have done to get ready for the autumn term” – teacher unions call on the PM to help sort out the COVID testing system for schools.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 1% – How much the UK economy is set to contract by this year, slightly better than previously forecast, according to the OECD.
  • 1% – The UK unemployment rate for the three months up to July this year, according to latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
  • 650k – The number of people likely to face redundancy in the second half of the year, according to the Institute for Employment Studies.
  • 2% – The CPI (consumer price index) inflation rate for August, one of the sharpest drops in years according to the ONS.
  • 30% – The number of 18-24-year-old women affected by anxiety, a threefold increase (lesser among men) over the last decade, according to research in the British Journal of Psychiatry.
  • 153% – The increase in the number of food parcels likely to be needed by the end of the year largely for self-employed workers and their children, according to data from the National Institute for Economic and Social Research. 
  • 30% – The number of people expected to be working remotely in the coming months, according to the Welsh government.
  • 48% – The number of people who belong to a community group such as a local social club or residents’ association, high among older residents but declining among younger people, according to the Onward thinktank.
  • 50 – The number of local authorities in England with low levels of pay for those from disadvantaged backgrounds along with large pay gaps and defined as cold spots by the Social Mobility Commission.
  • 77% – The number of university students who rated the quality of digital teaching and learning on their course as good or better, according to the latest survey from Jisc.
  • 143,000 – The number of students’ maintenance loan payments supported so far this week, according to the Student Loans Company. 
  • 7m – The number of people of all ages studying in colleges in England each year, according to a report from the National Audit Office.
  • 872m – The number of pupils and students worldwide still not back in school or college, according to UNICEF.
  • 20,000, 20,000 and 40,000 – The numbers of extra secondary, primary and support staff respectively needed over the next couple of years, according to the TUC.
  • 25,000 – The number of teachers in England self-isolating, according to reports in the media.
  • 88% – The number of pupils in school (state-funded) at the end of last week, according to the government’s latest figures.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Nuffield Foundation webinar on ‘Improving learning in the next stage of the pandemic.’ (Wednesday)
  • UCAS report on 2020 university entry. (Thursday)

Other stories

  • Ten characters who have shaped English education. Choosing your top ten anything is always good for discussion. To mark the 150thanniversary of universal state education in England, Sir Michael Barber put forward, with explanations, his top ten people who over the last 150 years have helped shape English education. They include some of the early ministerial legislators as well as of course Lord R.A. Butler whose 1944 Act shaped the modern system. There are some intriguing inclusions, Margaret Thatcher for example makes it into the top ten while Lord Baker rounds things off. A link to the publication which includes a valuable little list of lessons learned from over the years and is published by the Foundation for Education Development (FED) can be found here.
  • New phrase of the week. ‘Episodic attendance:’ a new approach to office working. 

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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