Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 16 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:

Exams, the economy and employment top the headlines this week.

More on these in a minute. In other news, MPs debated exam matters raised in two petitions; Education Ministers answered questions in Parliament; the Education Committee held the first witness session of its Inquiry into white working class pupils; the government collated guidance ahead of the ending of the Brexit transition period before spraying it out to schools, colleges and universities; and a Labour MP presented a new Bill that could see funding for school breakfasts put on a legislative footing.

But back to those alliterative three Es this week, starting with next summer’s exams.

Frustrations have been building for some time about a lack of clarity over next summer’s exams.  Will they/won’t they happen? Will they be delayed? Will the syllabuses be the same? Will some form of assessment be used instead? This week the Education Secretary finally set out the government’s position in a Written Statement to Parliament. Essentially, as has been widely reported, in England at least, GCSE, AS and A’ level exams will go ahead. And apart from an English and maths GCSE, which will be held earlier, will be pushed back by three weeks to allow some extra catch-up time, with results to be announced in late August. In addition, there will be no further changes to subject content beyond that consulted on and outlined by Ofqual in August. As for vocational and technical assessments, these will be aligned as far as possible with the same timescales following procedures set out by Ofqual this week.

In his Statement, the Education Secretary stuck with the government’s line on exams: “We know that exams are the fairest way of measuring a student’s abilities and accomplishments, including the most disadvantaged. We want to give our young people the opportunity next summer to demonstrate what they know and can do.” But as with so many things at present, there’s a sense that this isn’t quite the final word and further developments may follow. 

This may be sooner than later, given the reaction from the professional bodies. The NAHT called the delay in coming to a decision ‘disappointing’ and raised concerns about the impact on students. In stronger language the ASCL said it too was ‘dismayed’ that the government had taken so long to decide, adding that the three-week delay for the start of exams was of ‘marginal benefit’ and students should be given greater choice in exam topics. And, going up the scale, the NEU called the whole thing ‘a dereliction of duty,’ arguing that ‘It is completely unrealistic, and unfair, to expect these pupils to take exams which make no compensation for disruption to school teaching time.’

There are clearly still a lot of questions that need answering. The TES for example, listed eight, and arguably issues about fairness, compensation – particularly for disadvantaged students – whether tacking on three weeks will be enough to ensure syllabus coverage, what to do if a student is self-isolating, and whether there will be an almighty mad rush at the end of August to sort out college and university places, will be among those argued over in coming months. For many people, it will also raise longer-term questions about the nature of the exam system in England and the case for a post-qualification university admissions system. 

For the moment however, the government has confirmed that contingency plans will be announced next month and has also called on Ofqual to come forward with any further advice whenever. For its part, Ofqual is said to be mulling over options for greater choice in some exams as well as using invigilated mock exams as a possible back-up while the Joint Council for Qualifications is proposing regular reviews with the DfE and Ofqual. It looks like a big case of watch this space. 

Moving on to the UK economy where we’ve had three reports this week, from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the OECD and Capital Economics respectively, all pretty gloomy. The UK economy, already in a fragile state, is clearly in need of some long-term care. All three reports push back the recovery, generally to the end of 2022. As the OECD summary puts it: ‘While a rapid and massive emergency response has helped to steady the economy, the United Kingdom still faces a prolonged period of disruption to economic activity, which risks exacerbating pre-existing inequalities and regional disparities.’ It calls for increased investment in the digital economy, the service sector, green infrastructure and adult skills, given a potential doubling of unemployment next year to 7.1%.

The report that many will be familiar with is the IfS’s traditional Green Budget. This looks at the state of the economy and the challenges facing the Chancellor as he draws up future economic plans. This year’s report, prepared with the help of the financial services group Citi and funding from Nuffield, was launched this week.

Like the OECD, it expects unemployment to rise in the first half of next year, potentially to around 8%, but also borrowing to climb to record peacetime levels and GDP to remain at low levels. Both reports highlight the considerable levels of uncertainty that surround economic forecasting at present, which is why the IfS calls on the Chancellor to opt for a single year Spending Review this year rather than a 3-year one. There’s a lot in this report but two summary points linger. First, £43bn pa; that’s how much the report reckons the Chancellor will need to raise by 2024/5 to stabilise the economy. And second, and to compound this, a line that simply says ‘going into the final quarter of 2020, the UK has one of the worst starting points among major economies.’ Hardly fills you with confidence.   

Finally, briefly employment. This week the Office for National Statistics published the data for the summer period, June-August. The impact of coronavirus is, as the House of Commons Library service put it, ‘a fast-moving crisis’ and there was some evidence of that in these latest, more finessed figures. On the plus side, this quarter saw an increase in vacancies and the first increase in employees on payroll since the pandemic started. But, and it’s a big but for many families, it also witnessed a big rise in redundancies and in unemployment. The concern is that it’s affecting some, generally more vulnerable groups, harder than others: low-paid workers, women, those at either end of the age spectrum, and those from a BAME background. The Institute for Employment Studies has a good summary of it all here while the FT described what it was like for some young people currently: ‘I’ve been applying for 50 jobs a day’ as one put it. A tough time for many.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Exams go ahead in England next year with later start.’ (Monday).
  • ‘Covid secondary school disruption getting worse in England.’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Ministers plans pre-Christmas Covid lockdown for English universities.’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘GCSE resits: November exams pose public health risk.’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Almost half of Johnson’s catch-up fund remains unallocated.’ (Friday).


  • Coronavirus statement. The Prime Minister announced the new 3-tier system of local Covid Alert Levels in England in a Statement to Parliament but confirmed that ‘retail, schools and universities will remain open’.
  • Economic Outlook. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) published its latest economic outlook ahead of government autumn statements, suggesting that the UK faces a long road to economic recovery with unemployment at around 8% in the first half of 20201, GDP at 4.7% below pre-Covid levels over the next 4 years, government borrowing at huge levels and a tax hike of £40bn pa needed over the coming years
  • Another economic prognosis. The OECD published its latest economic survey for the UK noting that Covid and Brexit present a double whammy to the economy, concluding that the UK faces ‘a prolonged period of disruption’ and calling for increased investment in the digital economy, service sector, green infrastructure and adult skills.
  • Latest labour market figures. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published labour market figures for the summer quarter, June – August, showing an increase in vacancies and in some pay levels but big increases in unemployment, redundancies and claimant count amid fears of the job market tightening.
  • Global Action Plan. The Chancellor reported on the work with G20 Finance Ministers to secure a Global Action Plan for supporting economies through the pandemic, which includes supporting research and helping developing countries while stabilising finances and providing for inclusive recovery.
  • Are you ready? The Business Secretary wrote to business leaders reminding them that there were fewer than 80 days now to the end of the transition period and urging them to check that they had done all that was necessary to be ready for life outside the EU from the start of next year.
  • Saving our Culture. The Culture Secretary announced which arts and cultural organisations had been successful in securing the first chunk of funding from the Culture Recovery Fund with over 1,300 theatres, galleries, museums, arts groups and others in line to benefit.
  • Children and young People’s Wellbeing. The government published its 2020 ‘State of the Nation’ report on the wellbeing of young people aged 5-24, using data collected between March and August 2020 across seven different domains including health, education, relationships and home, showing young people displaying remarkable resilience but equally worried about the future. 
  • For those at risk. The RSA pointed to workers at risk as the labour market changes due to Covid, automation, and other factors, calling for a two-track Job Support Scheme along French lines, Swedish style Job Security Councils, and learning accounts to help ameliorate concerns.
  • The Narrow Corridor. The IPPR think tank examined the Chancellor’s recent Winter Economic Plan suggesting that collectively it will only save a small amount of jobs, calling instead for the Job Retention Bonus to be converted to a monthly payment scheme for hours worked, with savings used to improve the Job Support Scheme.
  • Child Poverty. The End Child Poverty coalition published new research from Loughborough University based on local data and highlighting the scale of child poverty even before the pandemic with rising numbers in the Midlands and parts of the North, calling among other things for the government to retain its temporary Universal Credit uplift introduced at the start of the lockdown.
  • Levelling Up. The independent Covid Recovery Commission published the first of what’s intended to be a series of papers on building a fairer and more resilient economy post-Covid, highlighting on this occasion how Covid had exacerbated regional inequality and calling for a set of metrics that could be implemented by local leaders to measure non-economic effects such as health and wellbeing.
  • Partnership for Prosperity. The CBI set out a range of proposals around future trade policy with the UK championing free trade post-Brexit especially in industries and services of the future including technology and life sciences.
  • Corporate purpose. The British Academy reported on its work on re-defining corporate purpose, pointing to survey evidence showing support for reviewing values and culture and for focusing on profitable solutions to some of today’s global problems. 
  • Ethnicity Pay Gaps. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published figures on ethnicity pay for 2019 showing the pay gap between white and ethnic minority employees narrowing and in some cases overturning but a lot depending on age, region and group.

More specifically ...


  • Statement on next summer’s exams. The Education Secretary issued a Written Statement to Parliament confirming that next summer’s GCSE, AS and A’ level exams will go ahead with most pushed back for 3 weeks and with results set for the end of August.
  • Dear Ofqual. The Education Secretary enshrined the government proposals on next summer’s exams in a formal letter to Ofqual confirming that further advice on arrangements and developments would be welcome as well as the need to work closely together in the coming months. 
  • Qualifications Bodies response. The Joint Council for Qualifications responded to the government announcement on next summer’s GCSE and A’ level exams, acknowledging the challenges involved but agreeing with offering exams while recognising there may have to be trade-offs to be able to fit everything in.
  • Exams 2020 and 2021.MPs held a further debate on exams in the light of two petitions presented to them, one calling for a review into this summer’s problems and the other on reduced subject content for next summer’s exams, but without further resolution.
  • GCSE MFL assessment. Ofqual launched a brief consultation on some proposed changes to assessment requirements for the spoken language element of GCSE modern foreign languages (MFL) next summer intended to relieve some of the pressures arising from Covid restrictions.
  • National Reference Test. Ofqual and the NFER as administering body, issued details for schools on the 2021 National Reference Test which will take place between 22 February and 19 March 2021 using 1 hr English and maths tests.
  • Latest NPQs. The government published the latest National Professional Qualification (NPQ) frameworks, developed over the last 18 months and available for use from September 2021 covering leading teachers as well as school leaders.
  • Teacher Training Bursaries. The government confirmed the funding for initial teacher training bursaries for 2021/2022 which will see many reduced and others scrapped altogether.
  • Catch-up cash. Schools Week reported that a large chunk (40%) of the money promised by government to support catch-up tuition has not yet been spent with questions being raised about how the rest of the money will be allocated, if at all.
  • State of Technology in Education. Promethean, which specialises in interactive technology in schools, published its latest major report into edtech in schools showing a perhaps to be expected increase in enthusiasm for the use of edtech in the classroom with teachers becoming more at ease with it, and with improving results and attainment the top priorities for many schools.
  • EdTech insights. Edtechpublik and Oriel Square reported on latest developments and future options for edtech especially arising out of lockdown where new resources, new approaches to learning and new opportunities have emerged.
  • National Adoption Week.The Education Secretary gave a speech to mark National Adoption Week pledging additional funding for local authorities and adoption agencies to help adoptive families during the pandemic along with a campaign to encourage ethnic groups to come forward. 
  • Cafcass inspections. Ofsted proposed aligning its inspections of Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) with its broader inspections of children’s social care in a new consultation with the aim of providing a better all-round picture.
  • Tackling poverty. The National Education Union (NEU) called on the government to do more to tackle childhood poverty, setting out steps that were needed including providing free household internet and expanding free school meals for families on benefits.
  • School Breakfasts. Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck presented a new Bill that would make provision for funding from the Soft Drinks Levy to be used for schools to provide breakfasts where 50% of children are from deprived areas.
  • Rise in Free School Meals. The Food Foundation, which is working with Marcus Rashford and the #End ChildPovertyCampaign reported a large rise in demand for free school meals including those from higher-income families, calling as a result for the system to be expanded and Health Start vouchers increased.
  • Welsh moves. The government in Wales announced it was providing funding so that free school meals could be guaranteed throughout school holidays up to next Easter.
  • Flexi working. The government invited applications from eligible schools that have introduced flexible work practices and can help guide and advise other schools to do the same.


  • Statement on next summer’s exams and assessments. The Education Secretary confirmed that next summer’s GCSE and A’ levels would go ahead but with most pushed back for three weeks with vocational and technical assessments aligned to the same timetable where possible. 
  • Vocational assessments. Ofqual published its Extended Extraordinary Regulatory Framework following recent consultation, setting out the regulatory principles Awarding Organisations need to follow when adapting qualifications and assessment for 2020/21 in cases of disruption caused by the pandemic.
  • Exam concerns. The Association of Colleges (AoC) raised a number of concerns about health risks, contingency plans and catch-up support ahead of the forthcoming November resits let alone next summer’s exams.
  • Training moves. The Skills Minister confirmed in a Written Statement to Parliament that the National Retraining Scheme would cease as a separate training programme and become part of the National Skills Fund, hinting that further developments on adult skills would follow ‘later in the autumn’.
  • Employer Skills Survey. The government published its latest commissioned report into skills issues facing employers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the second half of last year showing skills problems in sectors like manufacturing and construction, and skill shortages in professional, caring and many trade occupations but with the onset of Covid likely to have deepened many of these issues.
  • Skills poll. WorldSkills UK reported on its recent survey from Censuswide showing that nearly 70% of people surveyed believe that skills, apprenticeships and vocational education should be a high priority in the forthcoming Spending Review.
  • UTC effect. The Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER) examined the case for University Technical Colleges (UTCs) suggesting that entry at age 14 had a detrimental effect on student performance but for those who entered at age 16, the benefits in terms of opportunity and progression were much better. 
  • End point assessments. The Institute for Apprenticeships confirmed that it was working to ensure that simplifications to end point assessments introduced to respond to the pandemic including using specific professional competency tests to meet end point assessments, would continue.
  • Pandemic app. Leading organisation including Petroc College, the University of Exeter and the AoC with support from City and Guilds announced the launch of a new app that helps identify local areas at risk of Covid enabling colleges and providers to plan provision and support learners accordingly.


  • Go for it. Admissions tutors and UCAS urged 2021 university applicants to ‘be ambitious’ in their applications for entry next year pointing to institutions prepared to be flexible and with ready capacity. 
  • The Future of Student Outcomes. The National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) with partner support looked into ways of improving student outcomes and how they are perceived, proposing a more student-focused approach that recognises gaps between different student groups.
  • Enhancing TNE.QAA launched a consultation on a new approach to evaluating and enhancing the quality of Transnational Education (TNE) using principles proposed by Universities UK and Guild HE.
  • Managing risks. Universities UK published new guidelines, with government support, for institutions on managing security risks when working with international partners, pointing to the importance of due diligence and protecting intellectual property and campuses generally from cyber attacks.
  • Never mind the quality, feel the exhaustion. Jim Dickinson outlined in a comment piece on Wonkhe, some of the difficulties university students face when they try and challenge a lack of services and/or provision.
  • Online’s OK. Deloitte reported on its survey of postgrad students in Australia in August which found that more than three-quarters who studied at home rated digital learning equal to or better than face-to-face learning, giving it an 8 out of 10 satisfaction rating, with potential implications for future provision. 
  • HE for All. Sir Anthony Seldon highlighted the importance of higher education as a public good and called, ahead of the launch of his new book, for higher education to be made available to all throughout people’s lives. 
  • The future of HE. Nick Hillman, Director of the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) spelt out in a speech to St Mary’s University, six potential trends for higher education post-Covid including pressure on unit resources but more postgrads, the campus model continuing for many, and greater expectations about models of delivery. 

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “I find it interesting that many of the people who are consistently late for work meetings due to traffic are also consistently late for zoom calls from home” | @JoeTwyman
  • “Overheard in the newsroom: "Homes under the Hammer - that's how all my au pairs learn English" | @JackieLeonard01
  • “Anyway I’m fairly sure that in 20 years most jobs in ‘cyber’ will be done by machines: and data scientists will need to retrain as ballerinas” |@JamieJBartlett
  • “Recreate working in an office at home by microwaving some fish at lunchtime” | @TobyonTV
  • “WHY are the zips of so many school uniform dresses adorned with “cute” heart charms? Why not a book, robot, rocket...anything that doesn’t suggest to 4-11yo girls that their role at school is to look adorable?” | @CharlotteSantry
  • “My best advice for school colleagues is to first schedule their calendars for personal and family priorities. Then fit work in. This is not putting work second. It is ensuring work gets the best of you” | @LesWalton500
  • “Will there be a Christmas truce in which we can play football against the virus?” | @GroomB 
  • “Remember when Zoom quizzes were a thing? That was this year. Absolutely wild” | @Joanna_Hardy

 Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “This year’s deficit will reach a level never before seen in the UK, outside of the two world wars of the 20th century” – the IfS with a sobering message in its latest economic report.
  • “'This is a terrible plan that has been drawn up without the input of the people it affects the most, staff and students” – the University and College Union (UCU) responds to rumours of a pre-Christmas lockdown for students.
  • “Whilst we understand that face to face teaching would be preferable in normal circumstance and accept that there will be inevitable difficulties to moving online, this must be measured against the seriousness of the current situation the city finds itself in” – local MPs write to Leeds University V.C. calling for a move to online teaching in the current circumstances.
  • “I think the longer corona lasts, the less picky I’ll get” – a final year university student reflects on her job prospects.
  • “And with this and the subject content for these qualifications now settled, teachers and students have some welcome certainty in these uncertain times” – Ofqual welcomes the government announcement on next summer’s exams.
  • “Announcing a delay is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the planning that now needs to be done” – the National Association of Head Teachers responds to the announcement on next summer’s exams.
  • “We have plans in place for another 250,000 laptops, and £160 million has been spent ensuring that people have access to the internet should they need to self-isolate” – the Schools Minister answers a Question in Parliament on laptops for schools.
  • “We are competing for attention and so we want the shortest and concisest possible number of words to explain concepts because any extra words increase the chance that a cat dancing on Tik Tok is grabbing their attention and they will go and watch the cat dancing on Tik Tok rather than doing work with us” – the Principal of Oak Academy on the importance of keeping students engaged when learning online.
  • “Schools and FE providers in particularly high-risk areas may be eligible for an additional delivery of test kits” – the government prepares to make extra testing kits available.
  • “We believe the best way to support families outside of term times is through universal credit, rather than schools subsidising meals” – Number 10 rejects the latest moves to extend free school meals.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • £350bn – The amount that government borrowing is likely to reach this year, a record outside war years according to the IfS.
  • 5% – The unemployment rate for the latest (summer) quarter, up 0.4% from the previous quarter according to the latest weighted figures from the ONS.
  • 300,000 – The worryingly large number of young people (16-24) out of work over the last quarter, according to the latest official figures.
  • 5% – The potential unemployment rate for Q.4 this year, up 0.5% on the previous estimate, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research.
  • 162,479 –The number of new businesses registered with Companies House during April and June this year as lockdown encouraged people to set up their own business, according to former Chancellor Sajid Javid.
  • 8% – The number of fully open state schools in England last week, down on the previous week’s 92%, according to latest government figures.
  • £8,017 – The amount that schools have spent on average on Covid safety measures since the start of term, according to the NAHT.
  • 1,385 – The number of cultural, theatre and arts venues in line to benefit from the first tranche of the government’s Culture Recovery Fund.
  • 900,000 – The number of children newly registered this autumn for Free School Meals, according to the Food Foundation.
  • 55% – The average increase in bulk buying by wealthier households during lockdown compared to 30% by poorer households, according to the IfS.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Education Committee witness session with Nick Gibb (Tuesday).
  • Westminster Hall debate on the role of colleges in a skills-led recovery (Tuesday).
  • Pre-launch of PISA 2018 Volume VI on ‘Students in an Interconnected World.’ (Tuesday).

Other stories

  • How to get a promotion when working from home? Make sure you get noticed seems to be the key. One of the problems when working from home is that you can readily slip under the radar or your manager may not see or hear all the hard work you’re doing. This may become an issue if you’re looking for promotion, so what can you do? BBC Business News examined the problem this week in an article offering a number of tips which basically come down to keeping in touch and keep putting yourself forward for things. A link to the article is here
  • Following the onion principle. School children in Germany have been advised to bring multiple layers of clothes following government advice to keep classroom windows open to avoid the risk of spreading infection. Temperatures in Germany have started to drop as the winter weather approaches and there are concerns that a similar approach may be needed in the UK where many schools have been encouraged to keep windows open. The advice in Germany is to keep classroom windows open for at least 5 minutes every 20 minutes. Temperatures in parts of Germany are apparently already at 5C meaning many layers of clothes are needed. A link to the story is here

That's it for this week. Watch this space and/or check-in with my Twitter stream @stevebesley to make sure you don't miss out on the next issue of Education Eye.

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Steve Besley

Disclaimer: Education Eye is intended to help colleagues keep up to date with national developments in the education sector. Information is correct at the time of writing and is offered in good faith. No liability is accepted by Steve Besley or EdCentral for decisions made on the basis of any information provided.



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