Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 09 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:

In the words of the old song it has been a week of wishing and hoping, or perhaps, coping. Wishing among other things for a decision to be made about next summer’s exam arrangements and hoping for something better for university students. 

It has also been a week in which the Conference season for the major Parties, virtual and slightly surreal this year, drew to a close,’ Ofsted reported on its pilot visits to schools this term; the Collab Group published a report on colleges; the Dyson Institute for Engineering and Technology became the first education provider to gain powers under the 2017 HE Research Act to award its own degrees; and the Resolution Foundation published its important 2020 Intergenerational Audit. The week has also seen two important ‘celebrations:’ UNESCO’s World Teachers Day and the Campaign for Learning’s latest ‘Learning at Work Week,’ shifted from May this year because of the pandemic. Plenty going on therefore, so here are a few details behind some of the top stories. 

The 2021 summer exams question first – a big story this week and a continuing concern to schools and families with a growing wish to see things sorted as soon as possible. As a survey from Parentkind this week reported, 84% of parents reckon that children were getting stressed by not knowing. Scotland has, of course, moved swiftly to declare that next summer’s National 5 exams will be cancelled in favour of teacher assessment and coursework, with Higher and Advanced Higher exams going ahead but on a delayed timetable. Is this the start of a domino effect? 

In England, as things stand, the government, which is still chewing over difficult options, is said to favour delaying the exam season for a few weeks to allow for work to be covered. Starting the university year a bit later would be ‘quite straightforward,’ the Universities Minister told the Education Committee this week. In the same spirit, Ofqual has consulted and agreed on some small modifications such as reducing requirements for practical elements in some subjects and offering greater syllabus choice such as the widely discussed optionality at GCSE English Lit. 

Others have been putting forward their own points of view. Last week, the Chartered Institute for Educational Assessors argued for a mix of external exams and externally moderated centre-based assessments using benchmark materials and nominated lead assessors as quality assurers. In their view, rescheduling exams or tinkering around with syllabuses would ‘be likely to increase inequality.’ This week, ahead of a meeting with DfE officials, professional body leaders got together to issue their proposals. These included learning from what happened this year, prioritising exam students for COVID testing, using staged assessments and reserve papers to ensure grades are accurate and, perhaps most importantly, pegging grades to a midway point between those achieved in 2019 and 2020. And having a robust Plan B. 

As things stand, however, despite fruitful discussions, the government has yet to declare a final position. The National Association of Headteachers, one of the bodies present at the DfE meeting, reported afterwards: ‘Despite widespread speculation that the government were about to announce a delay to 2021 examinations, it instead appears that we are still some way off an announcement on arrangements for next years’ GCSEs, AS and A-levels.’ Things may become clearer after the debate in Parliament on Monday, but for the moment, this summary from the BBC’s Education Correspondent, Sean Coughlan, helps to put it all in perspective. 

Still on the subject of schools, Ofsted this week published the findings from its pilot interim visits in September, looking to see how schools are coping and how far things are returning to any sense of normality for staff and students. The visits have been controversial, but the Chief Inspector stressed how important it was ‘to help others understand what’s being done in sometimes extraordinary circumstances.’ It’s early days and Ofsted is anxious that general conclusions aren’t drawn, but it’s clear that often against odds, schools are helping to restore stability to children’s lives, that most children are pleased to be back and a gradual return to the curriculum is happening although it may take until next summer in some cases for a full return. In her summary, the Chief Inspector highlighted two issues: a worrying spread of ‘myths’ about what schools can and can’t do, leaving some families missing out; and some unease about remote learning, not just access, but also whether it was tallying with what was required. 

Next, how are students and universities coping after what has been another difficult week of COVID infections and garish headlines?  Student advisers to the Office for Students this week outlined their recommendations for what universities should do to support students who are self-isolating, while Universities UK published its own checklist for universities. More universities have shifted to online provision for the moment, while talk of strike action is growing. The Universities Minister had little new to add in her appearance before the Education Committee this week and a sense of frustration continues. The bright spot, for some at least, was a visit to one university from the Duchess of Cambridge who popped in to discuss students’ mental health and offer her support.

Finally, this week saw the annual Party Conference season for the major political parties draw to a close. The most striking thing about this year’s Conferences, largely because of current restrictions let alone a lack of audience participation, has been the absence of new policy proposals; normally we’re love-bombed with announcements. The Prime Minister talked about ‘a new Jerusalem’ and of a different country in ten years’ time with ‘excellent schools’ and technical skills being highly valued and being able ‘to walk among millions of trees’ in the new green environment. ‘Jam not tomorrow but in a decade’s time,’ according to Paul Waugh of HuffPost. As for the Chancellor, he listed the various steps, all nineteen, that the Treasury had taken to support jobs and keep the economy going during the lockdown. But in both cases, as commentators noted, there’s was little beef for the short term, particularly with a difficult winter looming. At least it stopped raining for a bit.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Government launches £238m scheme for jobseekers.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Three universities halt face-to-face teaching as UK strategy unravels.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Scottish National 5 exams to be cancelled in 2021.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘GCSEs 2021: Parents want teacher assessment, not exams.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘69% of teachers see COVID behaviour slump.’ (Friday)


  • The PM’s Conference speech. The Prime Minister said little about current issues in his 2020 Conference speech, using it instead to invoke a more hopeful future over the next decade with clean air, green energy, new hospitals, increased housing stock, one-to-one tuition in schools, and a skilled workforce.
  • The Chancellor’s Conference speech. The Chancellor listed 19 measures that the Treasury had taken to help jobs and businesses during the pandemic in his virtual 2020 Conference speech, promising in the absence of any new commitments to keep supporting people and businesses while looking to balance the books. 
  • Intergenerational audit. The Resolution Foundation published its latest significant annual intergenerational audit for the UK, taking in the social and health effects of the pandemic along with an analysis of living standards across four dimensions and highlighting both the economic and mental effects on generational groups and the importance of continuing to support most at-risk groups.
  • Rebuilding the economy. The LEP Network submitted its proposals to the Treasury Spending Review calling for a business-led, local recovery and rebuild deal that would see LEPs guaranteed £120m core funding for 3 years in return for £30bn of private sector generated funding that would help with skills development, housing, the green economy and local growth.
  • We’re hiring but not everywhere. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation and KPMG published their latest report on the jobs market covering September and showing an increase in both temporary and permanent vacancies, notably in the North and Midlands though not London with IT jobs topping the bill but retail and hospitality permanent vacancies in decline
  • JETS scheme. The government launched its Job Entry Targeted Support (JETS) scheme aimed at providing ‘light touch’ coaching and support for adults who have been out of work for 3 months or more.
  • Migration Advisory Committee. The Home Office called on the Migration Advisory Committee to undertake a rapid review of the Intra Company Transfer immigration route (which allows companies to shift eligible senior staff from overseas offices to work in the UK,) aiming for it to sit alongside the skilled worker route.
  • Student visa rulebook. The Home Office published introductory guidance for EU students about visa arrangements under the points-based immigration system which comes into effect on January 1 2021. 
  • Homeworking. The Institute of Directors reported on its survey of company directors last month in which nearly three-quarters indicated they intended to stick with more homeworking in the future but equally with concerns about a lack of support and clarity about employer responsibilities under such arrangements.
  • Not so good home working. The housing charity Shelter highlighted the difficulties many renters have been facing trying to work from home during the pandemic with 35% surveyed citing poor working conditions such as pests or damp and 29% pointing to a lack of space.
  • Funding Fibre. The Social Market Foundation reported on the current state of broadband availability and government plans on fibre rollout, showing the UK lagging behind other countries, with financing, consumer protection, regulation and government commitment all factors.
  • Industrial planning. Andy Westwood, Professor of Government Practice and Associate at Public First, reported on industrial and state planning post-COVID and Brexit, suggesting that traditional models were changing and new local demand approaches were likely to become important.

More specifically ...


  • Exams 2021. Unions and professional bodies put forward a number of proposals for next summer’s GCSE and A’ level exams including the need to learn from what had happened this summer, prioritising COVID testing for those taking exams, allowing more option choices in exams and ensuring comparable grades with previous years.
  • The view from parents. Parentkind reported on its survey of parents about next summer’s exams with most saying a lack of clarity was stressing out their children with teacher assessment the preferred model for use next summer.
  • Schools Update. Ofsted reported on its initial interim visits of schools undertaken in mid-September, showing schools returning to routine curriculum work in varying degrees with primary schools concentrating on reading and secondary schools readjusting approaches in many cases but with pupils generally keen to be back and attendance rates high though with continuing concerns about COVID.
  • September visits. The Chief Inspector offered her reflections on interim visits carried out so far noting that schools had worked hard to establish secure learning environments but raising concerns about the myths often circulating around COVID which prevent some children from participating as well as ensuring aligned remote learning.
  • New education mission. The IPPR think tank published new research on some of the key questions for education arising out of the pandemic including ‘how to prepare children for life not just exams,’ as it launched with Big Change what it called a new Co-Mission on the future of education and learning.
  • Where’s the support? The IPPR highlighted gaps in student support in schools with some vulnerable students missing out on counselling as it called for a national entitlement to support services.
  • Loss of schooling. The Education Endowment Foundation announced three new research projects on the effects, especially on disadvantaged children, of school and nursery closures under the pandemic, and how best to tackle a widening attainment gap. 
  • Good governance. The government published a commissioned NFER report into school and trust governance suggesting that most were working effectively, with clerks playing a key role although recruitment, skills mismatches and training were all important factors.
  • Governance roles. The government published latest guidance, particularly for new recruits, on governance structures and roles for schools and trusts.
  • The pandemic and the Early Years Workforce. The Education Policy Institute reported on the effects of the pandemic on the Early Years Workforce highlighting concerns about disruptions to provision as staff were furloughed with many still facing uncertainty.
  • Teenage depression. Researchers at Kings College London reported on their investigation into teenage depression noting that it particularly affected boys and those from poorer backgrounds, leading to progressively lower results by the time of GCSE.
  • Primary dreams. The Careers and Enterprise Company launched its Primary Resources platform offering information and resources to help primary school children think about their careers and dreams and how best to attain them.
  • Doing the maths. Researchers at the University of Sussex reported that parental influence and attainment along with enjoying maths were key factors in a child’s success in the subject, especially when they reach secondary school. 
  • Going the distance. Researchers from Imperial, UCL and Cambridge pointed to the growing numbers of primary school pupils now signing up to the Daily Mile, an initiative launched by a headteacher in Scotland 8 years ago to encourage children to undertake 15 minutes of exercise a day. 


  • Traineeship contracts. The government launched an accelerated bidding process for providers seeking to be approved to deliver traineeships under the Chancellor’s programme set out in the summer, with contracts set to be awarded at the start of next year.
  • The view from here. The Collab Group of Colleges and Halpin reported on how college leaders see the state of the sector at present with most seeing colleges as vital to the country’s economic recovery but with funding, regulation and government policy among the big challenges, along of course with COVID.
  • Institutes of Technology. The government launched its competition for the next wave of Institutes of Technology, aiming to have eight more so that ultimately there will be one in every part of the country.
  • T levels. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) announced that City and Guilds and Pearson had been awarded the contracts for developing the third wave of T levels covering engineering, finance and accounting and due to start from Sept 2022.
  • Kickstarting Kickstart. The Learning and Work Institute outlined five key factors likely to help determine the success of the government’s support programme for out of work young people including scale, targeting, quality, outcomes and being part of a wider opportunity guarantee.
  • Youth employment. The Local Government Association (LGA) outlined a set of proposals to help young people move into employment at an obviously difficult time, calling for the creation of a dedicated taskforce, an extended September Guarantee and co-ordinated Kickstart support with greater flexibilities and pathfinder support for the future.
  • Annual Report. The IfATE published its 2019/20 Annual Report and Accounts showing notable increases in staff numbers and costs as workloads for apprenticeships and T levels continued to escalate. 
  • Financial services apprenticeship. J.P. Morgan announced it was expanding its apprenticeship programme using a University of Exeter Level 6 Financial Services Apprenticeship to provide a new route into frontline banking and due to start in January 2021.


  • Here to help. The Student Panel which offers advice to the Office for Students recommended three ways in which universities could best support students currently having to self-isolate including communicating effectively, supporting wellbeing and addressing loneliness.
  • Checklist for self-isolation. Universities UK published a checklist to help universities support students who are having to self-isolate highlighting the importance of such features as regular communication, support of key services, and access to guidance and wider support systems.
  • Testing, testing. The government announced that Health Service Laboratories at four London universities would be used to help boost UK testing capacity for COVID.
  • Principles-based regulation. The Office for Students teed up its forthcoming set of regulatory consultation and guidance by looking in more detail at its use of what it called principles-based rather than rules-based regulation, suggesting that the former was more in tune with the flexible and student-led system it was aiming to deliver.
  • Dyson degrees. The Dyson Institute for Engineering and Technology became the first education provider to be granted New Degree Awarding Powers under the 2017 HE Act, with the first batch of students, who will be salaried and pay no fees, due to start next September.
  • Social contract for research. The Science Minister spoke about the government’s approach to R/D at the Foundation for Science and Technology calling in particular for a new social contract for research based on a quicker and better interaction between science and society. 
  • International facts and figures. Universities UK published its annual summary of UK international education and research indicating that in 2018/19 the UK remained a popular destination for international staff and students, making up about 20% in each case, with Business and Engineering topping the most popular subjects and students from China the largest group.
  • International students. Universities UK set out five steps that could help stabilise international student recruitment as new immigration rules come in from next year, including supporting the new Student route, extending the Study UK campaign and financially supporting EU students where possible. 
  • Student loans. The House of Commons Library Service published a summary paper on the latest facts, figures, trends and issues on student loans noting that the average debt for those who finished courses last year was £40,000.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “’It only seems like yesterday that I was teaching @GavinWilliamson government and politics,’ says his ex-teacher. ‘I have to say he hasn’t changed a bit” | @tes
  • “3 year old (4 tomorrow)is now self isolating, ceiling came down in school hall, full day of rain when the sports coach is in with no use of hall, daughter collected at lunch, school lunches taken to class due to ceiling and apparently there is a global pandemic. Exhausted” | @Newheadteacher
  • “Gran, 52, moves into university halls so she can 'embrace student life' |@jim_dickinson
  • “What skills matter to young people? My son (13) gave a talk this week on why schools should teach more skills. Included first aid, responding to fire, parenting, money management and global labour market opportunities (my words but that was the gist!)” | @tanner_e
  • “Important finding: sorting your email is pointless. Putting email in folders wastes an an average of 67 hours of your life a year. People who use folders take MORE time to find stuff compared to searching & are no more accurate in finding what they want” | @emollick
  • “Everyone in my GCSE IT class failed the exam because the teacher didn't show us how to use Excel properly. Just saying. Can't imagine why this has popped into my head now” | @theadegallier
  • “Planning some interview questions "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?" no longer seems as incisive as it once did!” | @marcusinstroud
  • “Important discovery today. If you use the ‘team organisation’ on Teams for visual layout of participants, everyone can give each other a virtual hug” | @CatThornton4
  • “No zoom call needs to last more than 30 minutes. 80% of zoom calls don't even need to happen” | @Sathnam

 Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “We are working for the day when life will be back to normal …and when we no longer have to greet each other by touching elbows as in some giant national version of the Birdie dance” – the PM in his Conference speech on getting things back to normal.
  • “I have always said I couldn’t protect every job or every business. No chancellor could” – the Chancellor spells out the realities in his Conservative Party Conference speech.
  • “It’s less than a fortnight into my first term of university and it seems like I have received more emails informing me of coronavirus restrictions than I have about my actual course” – one university student on how it’s going so far.
  • “We will ensure that, when outbreaks occur, students are fully supported to self-isolate” – Universities UK on its commitment to students.
  • “Finding ways to do this (introducing options into exams) without introducing confusion, and potentially further disadvantaging some students, cannot be beyond the skill and experience of those designing our exams” – professional bodies set out their thoughts for next summer’s exams.
  • “Ofqual has asked for a further two weeks to come up with proposals. The government, however, is not showing signs of thinking hard enough about the issues facing teachers and students” – the NEU reports on this week’s meeting with officials on next summer’s exams.
  • “I for one am tired of hearing the young described as snowflakes” – the new Chair of the HMC talks up young people at its Autumn Conference.
  • “Leaders told us that they were teaching most of the subjects they usually teach, though many have re-ordered topics within subjects” – Ofsted reports on its initial visits to schools this term.
  • “We've got these amazing assets, we've got amazing staff that are desperate to show what they can do and how they can help” outdoor education staff call on the government for help outdoor centres.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 66 – The new (as of Oct 6) state pensionable age for men and women with further rises to 67 and 68 respectively set for 2028 and 2037.
  • 13,500 – The number of extra Work Coaches recruited to support the new Job Entry Targeted Support (JETS) scheme, according to the government.
  • £43bn – How much the government is likely to have lent to businesses under the Bounce Bank scheme with £15bn -£26bn likely to have been lost to fraud or defaults when the scheme ends at the end of November, according to the NAO. 
  • 900,000 – The number of people in the hospitality sector on full-time furlough, according to a survey from Personnel Today. 
  • £107 – How much more could be added to an average household energy bill this winter for those working full time at home, according to Energy Helpline.
  • 7% – The number of international students as a percentage of the total student population in 2018/19, according to Universities UK.
  • 19% – How many college leaders feel confident about their college finances over the coming year, according to the Collab Group and Halpin.
  • 97,615 – The number, of course, starts on the Skills Toolkit between the end of April and end of September this year with 16,219 completions, according to the Skills Minister.
  • 58,160 – The provisional figure for apprenticeship starts between March and July this year, down 46% on the same period last year, according to latest government figures.
  • £19.8m – The operating costs for the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education over the last year, up from £13.5m according to its annual report.
  • 86% – Student attendance at state-funded secondary schools in England as of last Thursday, up from a previous 84% (93% for primaries up from 91%) according to latest government figures.
  • 3% – How many parents think next summer’s exams should be based on the full curriculum with exam delays and/or teacher assessment the preferred options, according to a survey from Parentkind.
  • 89% – The number of children in a US survey who didn’t feel confident telling their parents they’d had a dodgy experience online during lockdown, according to Avast research.
  • 115m – How many more people across the world are likely to be pushed into extreme poverty this year largely as a result of the pandemic, according to the World Bank.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

Other stories

  • Is University Challenge getting too easy? That’s a question that’s been trending on social media this week with both teams on this week’s programme achieving high scores on what some people termed were ‘pub-quiz’ questions. It may have been of course that both sets of students were incredibly clever especially as previous weeks have seen some quite low scores. But questions like: ‘Who is the only English player to have won the European golden boot - given to the player who's scored the most goals in the top division of one on Europe's national leagues. He played for Sunderland from 1997 to 2003?’ have rather added to the charge. A link to the story and to a list of other questions asked of the teams this week can be found here
  • If you’re happy and you know it. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has recently published its latest analysis of children’s views of what brings them happiness and wellbeing. The children concerned were aged 10 – 15 and were questioned in focus groups between last September and this February. Feeling loved, feeling safe, having someone to talk to, being with friends, being able to express themselves and having supportive school structures were all, perhaps fairly expected features that made children feel happy. There were some interesting reflections in the section on schools. Children’s views of what makes a good teacher for example, include: respectful, good listener, positive attitude, approachable, understanding, and fun. A link to the analysis can be found 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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