Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 02 October 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:

Skills, school exams and students top the news this week. 

The biggest buzz perhaps has been around FE, with a speech on skills from the Prime Minister, suggestions of a new Industrial Strategy, and a Plan for Skills from the Association of Colleges – all emerging within the space of a few days. Add to that two Parliamentary Committee sessions during the week on skills, employment and adult learning – and an FE White Paper and Spending Review hovering in the autumn mists, and the topic, let alone the speech, assume a new significance.    

Prime Ministers don’t traditionally make major speeches on skills, so what’s brought on this burst of activity? Three things: concerns about a winter of unemployment; a desire to build on the jobs’ focus established by the Chancellor; and the need to create a new post-COVID, post-Brexit economy. That said, the momentum has been building for some time, certainly well before COVID, and was given clearer perspective in the landmark Augar review of further and higher education some 16 months ago. The government had promised a response to the review this autumn, and the speech, as well as this week’s decision to give Ofsted responsibility for inspecting higher level apprenticeships from next year, tick off at least a handful of the review’s 53 recommendations.

The details of what the PM outlined have been well reported. They include: funded college courses for those without an A level or equivalent; more flexible and portable apprenticeship opportunities, especially in small businesses; an extension of ‘skill boot camps’ into other sectors like engineering; the inclusion of more courses on the free online Skills Toolkit; and the provision of flexi HE loans as part of a longer-term move to a flexible lifelong learning entitlement. Whether this will ultimately end what the PM called ‘the nonsensical gulf between academic and vocational learning’ remains to be seen. The CBI called it all ‘a strong start’; the Chair of the Education Committee reckoned it showed ‘strong commitment’; the chief executive of the Federation of the Awarding Bodies called it ‘a game changer’; while the Centre for Cities think tank called it ‘the most important announcement so far in terms of levelling up’ given its potential impact on low-skilled communities.

There are downsides, three perhaps stand out at present. First, that the funding guarantee doesn’t kick in until next April and yet most people are predicting unemployment will rise sharply this winter. The current average figure from economists, for example, suggests a doubling of unemployment by year end from 4.1% to 8%. Second, there’s not much mention of money in all this. A bit for boot camps, the use of the National Skills Fund for college courses, but still a feeling that this is a skill system on the cheap. And third, there’s promising and actually getting, particularly when we’ve been here before. When the PM says: ’we will move to a system where every student will have a flexible lifelong loan entitlement to four years of post-18 education,’ is that a hope or a reality?

In fairness, the detail is promised in the now much anticipated FE White Paper. With the Budget dropped, the devolution White Paper postponed and the Spending Review likely to be limited in scope, the FE Paper – let alone the possibility of a shiny new Industrial Strategy, built, according to the FT, around science and technology – offer major pointers for the country’s economic recovery.

Next, schools, and in particular exams and assessment. As with skills, this is not a new topic, but one that has been sharpened by this summer’s exam problems. The immediate issue is what to do about next summer’s exams, with the National Education Union set to discuss the issue at its virtual Conference this weekend and a number of University Vice Chancellors, along with a previous Education Secretary, Lord Baker, adding their pitch this week for teacher assessment to be used. The government has promised to make a statement before the end of the month and the regulator and awarding bodies are working with them on this as the Schools Minister confirmed to MPs this week.

The longer-term issue is whether we have too many exams, what impact this has on young people and whether we should be embracing new forms of assessment. Much of the debate is now centring, as it has been for some time, on GCSE and whether we still need a major series of exams at age 16 when most young people now have to stay on and labour market needs are changing. Previous attempts to reform things at age 16, by for example, reducing the number of exams taken or abandoning them altogether in favour of a teacher profile, have all failed, largely because as education commentator Laura McInerney pointed out, nobody’s come up with a convincing alternative. The creation of a new group of practitioners and professionals may well change things. Their Rethinking Assessment website already contains some interesting ideas and the DfE is aware. This could be an important debate.  

Finally, universities, where the travails of lockdown students have again been on show for much of the week. Both the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Guardian had interesting podcasts on the situation this week and the government tried to sate things with a Ministerial Statement and debate during the week, but apart from promising more guidance on Christmas holiday arrangements, was unable to add much more. 

The University and College Union (UCU) has joined forces with the NUS to call among other things for a national test and trace system for universities, a factor identified in a survey of those institutions which have broken ranks to set up their own testing regimes by the Times Higher. As the HE Policy institute’s Rachel Hewitt pointed out this week, it’s helpful to look at what students were expecting/hoping for this year – essentially a blend of some online learning, face-to-face learning where possible. And also where possible, some social activities. Most were realistic in their expectations but it’s been a difficult year for expectations.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘About 40 universities report coronavirus cases.’ (Monday)
  • ‘PM promises radical shake-up of adult education.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Ministers sticking ‘fingers in ears’ over 2021 exams.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Students should be allowed home to learn online, say NUS. (Thursday)
  • ‘Will next summer’s exams be cancelled?’ (Friday)


  • PM’s Skills speech. The Prime Minister made a major speech on skills, setting out a range of measures as part of a promised Lifetime Skills Guarantee which would include funded adult technical courses, flexible higher ed loans, increased apprenticeship opportunities and more skills ‘boot camps’. 
  • 7 Questions. Labour’s Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds listed seven questions for the Chancellor including why it’s worth keeping employees on part-time and how self-employed workers should be supported, following his announcement last week of a winter economic plan.
  • Shortage Occupations. The Migration Advisory Committee, in work commissioned by the Home Secretary prior to a points-based immigration system from next January, published a full listing of occupations and salary levels to be used under the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) for favourable visa treatment, with health and social care occupations a major area of concern. 
  • Spending Review. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) published its regular initial take on the forthcoming Spending Review (SR) arguing that given the current levels of economic uncertainty arising from the pandemic and Brexit let alone plans for levelling up, the Chancellor would be well advised to stick to a one-year spending plan and leave multi-year plans for later.
  • Council finances. The Local Government Association (LGA) published its submission to the Treasury’s Spending Review citing pressures on services and from COVID and calling for a £10.1bn pa increase in core funding by 2023/24.
  • How to level up. The Centre for Cities thinktank called for the government to be much clearer about how it intends to achieve ‘levelling up,’ arguing for a greater focus on skills, housing and city centres, more investment and responsibility for local government and a clearer strategy on just what levelling up entails.
  • 5G rollout. The Centre for Policy Studies argued in a new report that delays to the rollout of 5G could cost the country billions of pounds and undermine the levelling up agenda, calling for changes to legislation and planning rules to remove barriers.
  • A tough time to be young. The Prince of Wales reflected on the difficulties facing young people currently as the Prince’s Trust marked having now supported 1m young people as well as setting up a new Relief Fund to help young people during the current pandemic.
  • Childhood in the time of COVID. The Children’s Commissioner for England published a new report highlighting some of the challenges faced by children and families as a result of the pandemic and calling for a dedicated recovery package for children, families and local authorities plus a review of whether children under 12 should be exempt from the rule of six.
  • The pandemic and older workers. The Institute for Fiscal Studies and partners reported on the impact of the pandemic on older workers noting that many have retired or been furloughed, while many others are having to change or postpone their retirement plans and those still in work are worried about job security.
  • 5 steps. The Anna Freud Centre launched ‘a new interactive framework developed by mental health experts and teachers’ to help schools and colleges develop an institution-wide approach to supporting mental health using such principles as ‘Working Together’ and ‘Understanding Need’.
  • Glass half full. The Chief Economist at Deloitte blogged about why fears about UK unemployment may not be as grim as in previous recessions citing four reasons: the scale of the government’s response; business access to credits and loans; the growth in sectors such as online retail; and the supply of labour.

More specifically ...


  • Rethinking assessment. A group of leading academics, professionals and stakeholders launched a campaign to rethink assessment in the light of this summer’s exam difficulties let alone longer-term system issues, with a website initially capturing ideas and proposals.
  • New model GCSE. Stephen Tierney, chair of the Headteachers’ Roundtable, argued in a new blog that one way the GCSE could be reformed would be to adopt a 3-level ‘recognition’ system at age 16: foundation, mastery, excellence.
  • Impact of school closures. The Sutton Trust reported on new research undertaken by London Economics on the impact of learning lost as a result of school closures suggesting it could have a significant impact on those from poorer backgrounds, potentially a £2,000+ differential in net earnings on current figures, and on social mobility generally. 
  • Remote learning. The government used ‘temporary directions’ available under the 2020 Coronavirus Act to ensure that where pupils were unable to attend schools perhaps through self-isolation, schools had a duty to provide ‘immediate access’ to remote learning.
  • Reporting from the frontline. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) outlined the challenges facing schools and school leaders in a comment piece in the TES arguing that removing Ofsted’s autumn visits, scrapping this year’s league tables and ensuring a proper test and trace system, would be three things that could really help relieve the stress.
  • School COVID map. The National Education Union launched its new COVID school map which will be updated weekly and show the number of cases in a school’s surrounding area along with latest trends.
  • Removing Outstanding Exemption. The government reported on the consultation to remove the right for outstanding schools and colleges to be exempt from routine inspections which was widely agreed on in responses and which will now be re-introduced subject to Parliamentary approval with previously exempt institutions liable to inspection within six years.
  • Home education. The House of Commons Education Committee announced a new Inquiry into home education with questions in particular about what impact if any the pandemic has had and whether the current regulations are robust enough.
  • Interim Ofsted visits. Ofsted confirmed in its guidance that it would not be using evidence collected as part of the current interim visits for when full inspections resume.
  • School governors. The National Governance Association published its latest annual report highlighting the work governors do in supporting schools and pupils and in demonstrating accountability to local communities but with concerns that their work is poorly recognised. 
  • Teacher shortages. The Migration Advisory Committee recommended that maths, physics, computer science and MFL secondary school teachers should be included on the latest Shortage Occupation List for favourable migration treatment.
  • Performing better.  The OECD released a further major report derived from data collected for the 2018 PISA series, in this case looking at what policies help make for successful schools, pointing to such standard factors as high-quality support and resources but also to the importance of the balance between school autonomy and centralised accountability and of closing the digital gap. 
  • Making an impact. The National Literacy Trust released its Impact Report for 2019/20 showing that through its various activities, it had supported the literacy of over 260,000 children as well as gifting 196,000 free books and launching three new Literacy Hubs.
  • Missing pages. Teach First called for more racial diversity in the books studied at school, pointing to the power of literature in helping children reflect on the world in which they live, and recommending among other things that at least a quarter of authors studied at GCSE should be from ethnic minority backgrounds.


  • Supporting skills. The Education Secretary ran through the current things the government was doing to support technical and apprenticeship provision as he reinforced the PM’s Skills speech and raised the option of T levels in a Statement to MPs, confirming once again the addiction to the German model for the forthcoming White Paper. 
  • Planning for the future. The Association of Colleges (AoC) highlighted the importance of future skills planning and the needs of disadvantaged young people as it submitted 20 proposals for the Treasury to consider as part of its forthcoming Spending Review.
  • Apprenticeship inspections. The Education Secretary confirmed that from 1 April 2021, Ofsted would pick up inspections of apprenticeships at levels 6 and 7, thereby making it the sole agency for apprenticeship inspections. 
  • Interim Ofsted visits. Ofsted confirmed that following some trialling it would not now be collecting learners’ views through webinars or surveys.
  • Board reviews. The Education and Training Foundation confirmed it had been commissioned by the DfE to work with the AoC to conduct ‘capability’ reviews of College Boards most in need, as a way of helping improve governance.
  • Skills Chair. The Education Secretary announced that Stephen van Rooyen would chair the Skills and Productivity Board, first announced a year ago and likely to play an important role in tackling skills issues post-pandemic.
  • WorldSkills UK.WorldSkills UK announced plans to host this year’s International Skills Summit in November as a virtual event but with an array of leading industrialists and renowned speakers.


  • Ministerial statement. The Education Secretary made a Statement to MPs about the current situation in universities confirming that COVID testing was being made available, that universities were providing support and tiered provision, and that students should be able to go home for Christmas though they may have to self-isolate first.
  • Regulator’s position. The Office for Students set out its position on the refunds and services for students facing current lockdown problems, citing the need for universities to be clear on what students can expect and to offer regular communication and support, leaving it to students to take up cases with their university or Adjudicator if they had concerns. 
  • Testing, testing. The Times Higher reported on the various Covid testing regimes being set by individual institutions noting that it raised questions about national testing and tended to be adopted by the more prestigious institutions. 
  • Call for action. The University and College Union (UCU) joined forces with the NUS to call for action on dealing with COVID concerns proposing among other things a national test and trace system, safe exits from university if needed by students and no financial hit to students giving up accommodation or deferring. 
  • Credit worthiness. Professor Sue Rigby, V.C. at Bath Spa responded to the PM’s speech about developing a more flexible F/HE system by outlining the work her group, set up by the QAA to look at credit frameworks, was doing noting that much of the mechanism required is already in place and ready to go.
  • Fair Access. Chris Millward, Director of Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students, reflected in a blog on the HEPI website on how things currently stood around fair access and how far the pandemic had exacerbated issues in this area, suggesting that next spring’s reporting will indicate how far things like the shift to online learning have sharpened or not the social divide.
  • Mental health support. The Office for Students (OfS) invited universities and colleges to bid for its relaunched Dept of Health supported fund for innovative projects supporting student mental health.
  • No Deal worries. The Times Higher highlighted concerns in the HE sector about future research collaboration with Europe as the controversial Internal Market Bill headed to the Lords amid continuing talk of a No Deal.
  • Annual Report. Universities UK International published its latest Annual Report –‘it wasn’t the year we imagined’ – but highlighting its work supporting members through the pandemic and preparing for life post-Brexit with the introduction of the two-year graduate work visa one of the standouts.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Four weeks back in the classroom after a six-year break. My conclusion? It's a lot easier to talk about teaching than it is to actually do it” | @therispguy
  • “A bit gutted for my daughter off to first year Uni tomorrow. Three days enforced isolation in a self-catered flat with six students she’s never met before. This could either go very well or very badly. She’s being very brave. Prayers please” | @FrDidymus
  • “Is this the dawning of the age of Augar-ius?” | @ipryce
  • “I constantly come to the conclusion that exams, like democracy, are the worst system, except for all the others that have been tried” | @miss_mcinerney
  • I've thought about it, talked about it, thought about it some more & I still don't know what the answer is to exams next year. It's really really hard. We should be collectively sceptical about anyone who tells us they have a great plan - whatever it is, there are big downsides” | @matthewhood
  • “One good thing about remote lecturing. You know how suit trousers wear out before the jackets? Now, I am wearing the jacket but not trousers, so the jackets will catch up” | @Uncivil_S
  • “Today I’m officially raising my sense of threat level from Animal Farm to Nineteen Eighty Four. If we get to The Handmaid’s Tale we’re doomed“ | @Lisa7Pettifer
  • “For every actual use of AI in education there's 20 people being paid to do moral grandstanding” | @DonaldClark
  • “If you're having a rough day, never forget that I ended an email with 'that would be the sweetest teapot' this week instead of 'sweet spot' and have now resigned from existing” | @matt_hfoster

 Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “For anyone, this is a difficult time – but it is a particularly difficult time to be young” – Prince Charles reflects on the challenges facing students and young people seeking jobs.
  • “Now is the time to end the pointless, snooty, and frankly vacuous distinction between the practical and the academic”– the PM on ending the age-long divide in education.
  • “Now is not the time for the economics of Chicken Licken” – the chief economist of the Bank of England on keeping our pecker up.
  • “The new Permanent Secretary will be a passionate and dynamic leader who can lead the department through the challenges ahead as we recover from the COVID crisis, complete our transition from the EU and renew our economy, society and global position” – the DfE advertises for a new Permanent Secretary.
  • “We have recommended adding to the SOL senior care workers and several other health occupations who meet the required skill level for the skilled worker visa route” – the Migration Advisory Committee reports on shortage occupations.
  • “My department will publish this guidance shortly so that every student will be able to spend Christmas with their family” – the Education Secretary promises guidance, including finishing term early, so students can be home for Christmas.
  • “If someone is doing a history degree, they cannot be condemned to permanent online teaching. They might as well sit at home; why have they paid all that money?” – a Conservative MP questions the Education Secretary about university provision.
  • “We would expect a university to consider the circumstances for each student rather than to adopt a blanket policy that refunds are not available” – the Office for Students on the issue of student refunds. 
  • “There is not the headroom to make big discounts” -one university governor’s view on whether students should be granted fee refunds.
  • “Our proposal is simple: extend learning throughout this academic year, until July, and not sit exams” – two university vice-chancellors offer their thoughts about next summer’s exams.
  • “Yet the great art of being responsible adults is making sure we don’t transfer our anxiety to children” – the Chief Inspector on coping during difficult times.
  • “It is increasingly clear that schools have effectively found themselves on the frontline of managing the public health emergency, as well as delivering education, and the support simply has to be there” – ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton on the challenges facing schools.
  • “We’ve built a platform where it will look and feel like a conference but on a computer screen” – the Conservatives on their new, virtual, high-tech 2020 Conference. 

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • “19.8%– How much the UK economy contracted in the second quarter of the year, slightly better than expected but the largest fall since records began according to the latest official figures.
  • 11%-12%– The amount by which the UK economy is expected to contract this year before rebounding next year, according to the latest economic outlook from PwC.
  • £100bn – How much is needed in match funding over the next ten years to support levelling up, according to the Centre for Cities.
  • 37% – How many managers surveyed said they were expected to make staff redundant by the end of the year, according to a survey from YouGov.
  • 4,000 – The number of jobs Aldi is planning to create in 2021, according to its latest trading news.
  • 2% – The number of students who think the Rule of Six will make it harder to make friends at university, according to a survey from Hype Collective.
  • £1.62m – How much the FE sector is calling for under its proposed Plan for Skills, according to proposals submitted by the AoC.
  • 93% – The number of state-funded schools in England fully open late last week, down 1% on the previous week due to COVID restrictions according to DfE figures.
  • 20,100 – The number of entries for A’ subjects in England this autumn, mainly in maths, chemistry and biology, according to Ofqual.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Conservative Party (virtual) Conference with the Chancellor speaking on Monday and the PM on Tuesday.

Other stories

  • Homeworking rules. The shift towards home working has raised all sorts of questions about what rights such employees should expect when working from home, how far a duty of care should extend, how performance should be monitored and so on. Many European countries are considering developing new regulations to cover homeworking and this week it emerged that Germany is preparing legislation that would grant employees the option of working from home as well as limits to their hours. The FT has a good summary of it all here
  • Word/Phrase of the week. ‘Tunnel talks,’ a term currently being used by Brexit negotiators to indicate entering into an intensive period of talks (and hopefully re-emerging into the light at some point with solutions).  

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.

And if you find Education Eye useful, please consider donating to help support its publication. EdCentral is a not-for-profit social enterprise company and relies on donations to continue its work.

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.



EdCentral Logo