Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 30 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:

“I applied for over a hundred jobs; only a few got back to me but none with any job offers.”

The plight of young people has been at the forefront of news items this week, from schools worried about their pupils getting left behind and next summer’s exams, to young people worried about their futures as the furlough scheme comes to an end and job prospects diminish. Nor should we forget university students or hungry families; their worries haven’t gone away either.

The tone was set at the start of the week by Monday night’s Panorama programme. This used case study stories to highlight the problems faced by 16-25-year olds, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, as they attempted to navigate their way through school, university and the job market respectively in the face of challenges thrown up by the pandemic. ‘Has Covid stolen my future?’ the programme and the interviewees asked. It certainly looked like it.

Disrupted schooling, university lockdowns, uncertain employment prospects, poor wages and mental health worries; the issues have been highlighted for some time but are all becoming depressingly real for many. If further evidence were needed, it came in the shape of two important reports published this week.

The first was a new survey report from the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance and Exeter University. The report, which featured in the Panorama programme, provided some stark figures about labour market prospects for young people. “More than one in 10 people aged 16 to 25 have lost their job, and just under six in 10 have seen their earnings fall since the coronavirus pandemic began,” it reported. The subtext for much of this was growing inequality in the system; children from better off backgrounds getting more schooling for instance and in effect a better leg up for the future. The big danger, the report argued, was of long-term ‘education scarring,’ young people missing out on getting the grades needed for future progression.

The second report was the Resolution Foundation’s ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs’ report, a major survey into how the labour market in the UK had changed over the first eight months of the pandemic and how it was shaping up for the future, complete with extensive survey evidence. Its conclusions don’t make for happy reading. 

Three messages stand out. First, that young people and especially those from minority ethnic backgrounds, are facing the biggest job losses, leaving the UK staring at ‘the highest levels of youth unemployment in four decades.’ Second, it’s not just that people are losing their jobs, it’s that finding a new one is proving increasingly difficult. Largely this is because too many people are looking at sectors where they may have worked before such as hospitality and leisure, but which are now vulnerable and not recruiting in the same way. It’s an evolving jobs market. And third, and a depressing final note, all those fears about a winter of rising unemployment with charts of upward trajectories, are in danger of being realised. Over a quarter of those surveyed were worried about, or in some cases have been warned about, possible future redundancy. There are therefore, as the report concludes, “some signs that labour market disruption will likely become more widespread over time.”

The report acknowledges the importance of Treasury job support schemes so far, but believes more ambitious schemes are needed, for example in the much-touted green economy and in a better paid care sector. It also calls for better support and protection, for those most in need, most significantly by maintaining the weekly Universal Credit boost beyond next April. The Chancellor is said to be ‘open to the idea’ and may well say more when he announces the Spending Settlement on 25 November. 

Given the concerns above about future jobs and skills, it is perhaps reassuring that the college sector is looking to ensure that it’s well-structured for the future. The Independent Commission on the College of the Future has been doing just that, looking for the last 18 months at potential future College models, and this week it launched its final report

The report, widely welcomed across the sector, makes eleven recommendations with three seen as critical. These include: a statutory lifelong learning entitlement; the use of employer hubs to provide tailor-made employer provision; and a UK wide ten-year coherent strategy for colleges. The Commission’s Chair, Sir Ian Diamond, underlined ‘the transformational role’ that colleges play and this report reinforces rather than reimagines the increasing role that colleges are likely to be asked to play in the country’s recovery, both economic and social. 

Finally this week and still on the theme of tough times and uncertainty for young people, two other stories. 

First, for schools, the question about next summer’s exams and particularly the case for a Plan B has become more pressing as increasing numbers of pupils have to self-isolate and further lockdowns happen. This week the Welsh exams regulator set out its proposals for next summer’s exams. They include a mix of coursework and common assessments for GCSE and AS level, coursework, set tasks and one exam per subject for A’ level and sticking with the current approach of adapted assessments for vocational qualifications. Not everyone agrees, but as they said ‘there are no easy solutions,’ something the DfE no doubt recognises as it faces further calls for a rethink on its original position of going ahead with the exams, but three weeks later.

And second, a mention for Paul Greatrix’s comment piece on how it has been for universities and students so far this term. On balance, it was right to open campuses, he reckons, but it hasn’t been easy. The article can be found on the Wonkhe site here.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Generation Covid hit hard by the pandemic, research reveals.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Rapid test could let students escape at Christmas.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘The beginning of serious pride in the UK’s FE sector.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Wales qualification body urges scrapping of next year’s exams.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Numeracy Skills: what’s not adding up in the UK.’ (Friday)


  • Jobs, Jobs, Jobs. The Resolution Foundation reported on how the jobs market had changed during the first eight months of the pandemic and how things were looking for the future, concluding that fears of a spike in unemployment, particularly for young people and for some sectors, were likely to be realised.
  • Generation Covid. The LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) and Exeter University published initial findings from their Social Mobility Study, undertaken in September and October and pointing to inequalities faced by 16-25-year olds, especially those from deprived backgrounds who have faced limited schooling, fewer job opportunities and low wages.
  • Education spending in the UK. The House of Commons Library Service published a new report on government education spending showing it reached its peak in 2010/11, falling as a percentage of GDP each year to 2018/19, although still remaining better than the OECD average.
  • BAME women and work. The TUC published a new report highlighting the plight of many BAME women who are often trapped in lowly paid and insecure work, much of it frontline and high risk, calling for action plans to be instigated across UK workplaces. 
  • Points based immigration. The Home Secretary confirmed that the government intended to pause on the recent recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee about the prioritisation of shortage occupations under the new immigration system, preferring instead to wait and see how the labour market settled post-Covid. 
  • Going rate. The government also confirmed it was waiving the formal £38,500 salary threshold for skilled migrants, opting instead for the going rate for occupations where there are shortages of workers.
  • Online safety. The government announced strategic priority funding for a new online centre to help tackle issues of online harm, privacy and disinformation, along with funding support for Digital Economy Centres that can help develop safe technology to enhance people’s lives.
  • Small Business worries. King’s College published new survey evidence indicating financial worries among small and medium enterprises in the UK with many in ‘survival mode’ and concerned about their future.
  • Supporting Families. The IPPR think tank together with the TUC published a new report on supporting children and families during the pandemic calling for a ‘family stimulus’ in the form of targeted support for hard-pressed families.
  • Care leavers. The government issued new guidelines including housing protocols and sources of local support for young care workers as part of Care Leavers Week.
  • Child care providers. The government published commissioned research into childcare provision undertaken in July and showing at that time the majority were open although with reduced hours in some cases and using the furlough scheme to help survive.

More specifically ...


  • Next summer’s exams. The Welsh exams regulator set out proposals for next summer’s exams with GCSE and AS levels subject to coursework and assessments and A’ levels a mix of coursework, set tasks and one formal exam per subject.
  • Autumn 2020 exams. Ofqual published information on exam entry data for GCSE subjects this autumn apart from English and maths which come later, showing English Lit, some languages and combined science with the highest entries.
  • School attendance rates. The Education Policy Institute published new Nuffield funded research into school attendance rates across the UK since the start of the autumn term, showing that it varied considerably with primary schools having the highest attendance rates but with many deprived regions and vulnerable pupils showing lower rates of attendance generally.
  • Recent inspection data. Ofsted published data on school inspection outcomes as of the end of August 2020 including those held over the summer term, showing the number of primary and secondary schools rated as good or outstanding holding steady at 88% of primary schools and 76% of secondary.
  • Food matters. The National Food Strategy followed up its earlier Strategic Plan with a £1.2bn four-point plan to tackle food poverty that included Healthy Start vouchers, Holiday Activity and Food Programmes, and an expanded free school meal system. 
  • If you’re happy and you know it. Researchers at UCL’s Institute of Education reported on their work looking into the mental health and wellbeing of teaching in England, concluding that despite the challenges of the job, teachers were no more unhappy or mentally worse off than other professions.
  • Social and Emotional Skills.NESTA and the University of Bath examined how schools across the UK approach the development of social and emotional skills in pupils with all recognising the importance of such ‘coping’ skills albeit with differing approaches, but with time, space and resources as key hurdles. 


  • College of the Future. The Independent Commission which has been looking at the college model of the future for the UK published its final report emphasising the importance of people, productivity and place and pointing to three critical priorities for the future including lifelong learning, employer skills needs, and coherent planning.
  • College Oversight. The government upgraded its policy on supporting and intervening in colleges with financial and/or quality issues, setting out a range of procedures that would allow more a detailed assessment to be undertaken before formal intervention occurred. 
  • Devolved Budgets. The Education and Skills Funding Agency brought together in a new document guidance and information on devolved budgets for 2019/20. 
  • EQA transitions. The Institute for Apprenticeships confirmed that the first wave of end point assessment to come under Ofqual external quality assurance (EQA) would take place from 12 November.
  • ACE stuff. The Local Government Association reported on local Adult Community Education (ACE,) highlighting examples of good practice through case studies and setting out how councillors can help with developments in the future.
  • Crisis in the Capital. The Learning and Work Institute put forward a four-point plan around training, jobs and support to help boost post-Covid economic recovery in London where wages and jobs have been particularly hard hit.


  • Spending Review Submission. The Russell Group published its Submission to this year’s government Spending Review grouping its proposals under three headings: making the UK a science superpower; supporting local economies; and investing in teaching and research.
  • OfS Business Plan. The Office for Students (OfS) published the last stage of its current Business Plan focusing primarily on keeping things going with quality provision and participation along with ‘effective’ regulation, all ahead of a strategy refresh next year.
  • Legal challenge. The University and College Union (UCU) took the first steps towards a judicial review into why the government had ignored scientific advice and allowed colleges and universities to open rather than rely on online provision.
  • First data on 2021 applications. UCAS published data on application trends by the October 15 deadline, the deadline for Oxbridge and medical and veterinary undergraduate courses, showing applications up 12% on last year with an increase also in overseas applications. 
  • PQA survey. The Sutton Trust published new survey evidence conducted among university applicants with two-thirds in favour of removing predicted grades and over half supporting a post-qualification application (PQA) system which the Trust argues would produce a fairer access system.
  • International students. The Times Higher reported on its survey of international students with nearly half still keen on studying abroad albeit online but with only a third preferring it to face-to-face tuition at home although this varied by country.
  • Local recruitment. The Times Higher reported on which universities recruited the most and which the least from their local area with Durham, Cambridge and Warwick recruiting the least and Newman, Wolverhampton and Edge Hill recruiting the most students locally.
  • TNE latest. Universities UK published data on UK HE transnational education for 2018/19 showing more providers engaged in it in 226 different territories worldwide but a decrease of nearly 4% from the previous year in the number of UK TNE students on board. 
  • NSS 2021. The Office for Students (OfS) issued guidelines for the 2021 National Student Survey which will officially launch in January but for which contact details are required by the end of next month.
  • The story so far. Paul Greatrix, Registrar at Nottingham University, reflected in an interesting comment piece on Wonkhe, about how things had gone for universities and students so far this year, arguing that on balance it had been right to open campuses at the start of the year, a lot of good work had been done and it was important to work together in the face of continuing challenges. 

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “£2.7m seems an undiplomatic amount of money to be trousering from student rents, when there are already calls for refunds for rent” | @seanjcoughlan
  • “The only good thing about working from home is that each day can reliably be time marked; via a 7am espresso and a 5pm chardonnay” | @HashemiLab
  • “Been thinking about that school dinner dessert with cornflakes and jam and custard for two days now” | @hansmollman
  • “Texted daughter and asked her to pick up some doughnuts on the way back from school, and now I realise this is what the agony of childbirth is for” | @FionaSturges

 Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Nimbleness is good; signs that economic policy is being made on the hoof and is not joined at the hip with health policy perhaps less so” – Paul Johnson at the Institute of Fiscal Studies considers the Chancellor’s latest spending announcement.
  • “I don't know how the future's going to pan out but perhaps society can come out better than we were before," – young people reflect on the future in a Panorama documentary.
  • “I just sat in my room all day” – the Guardian highlights the plight of some university students.
  • “The sector must be funded on the basis of three-year, block grant funding settlements” – one of the recommendations from the College of the Future report.
  • “Oli joins us at a time when we are more determined than ever to support young people through the challenging environment we face as a consequence of coronavirus” – the Careers and Enterprise Company announce Oli de Botton as its new CEO.
  • “It is now clear that the scale of ongoing disruption caused by Covid is so severe that the idea of a full exam series in England must be in jeopardy” – ASCL on growing concerns about next summer’s exams.
  • “Our impression is that the government has never fully grasped the scale of the challenge” – ASCL comments on the reduction in the numbers of laptops being made available. 
  • "Homeworking means serendipity is supplanted by scheduling, face-to-face by Zoom-to-Zoom. What creativity is gained in improved tunnelling is lost in the darkness of the tunnel itself” – Andy Haldane on the downsides of home working.
  • “Men can be doing a ton more to recognise what their responsibilities are in sharing the load at home” – the CEO of the Girls Day School Trust on shared responsibilities.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 9%. The proportion of people on full or partial furlough in October with the majority being in food and hospitality services, arts and leisure, according to the ONS ahead of the closure of the scheme.
  • 43%. The number of people who have lost their jobs since March and been able to find work by September, with even fewer numbers (33%) for young people according to the Resolution Foundation. 
  • -23%. The fall in retail sales in the year to October, although internet sales picked up, according to the latest figures from the CBI. 
  • 557,000. The number of businesses reported to be struggling financially particularly those in property, hospitality and some construction, up 9% since March according to a survey from corporate restructurers Begbies Traynor. 
  • 7%. The number of job postings in larger cities that now contain reference to remote working (6.4% in the rest of the UK,) according to the Centre for Cities think tank.
  • 76,940. The number of people who have applied through UCAS for undergraduate courses at UK universities next year at the initial Oct 15 deadline, an increase of 12 % on last year according to UCAS.
  • 22% and 20%. The number of secondary and primary school teachers respectively in England who were unhappy, broadly on a par with other professions, according to research from the IoE.
  • 40%. The percentage of pupils who received full school days during lockdown, tilted heavily in favour of private school pupils (74% to 38%), according to research from the LSE/CEP.
  • 2%. Pupil attendance in state-funded schools in England as of last Thursday’s ‘census’ day, down from 89% due to cases of self-isolation, according to the latest official figures.
  • 57%. The percentage of people who think free school meals should be provided during non-term time with 29% saying they shouldn’t, according to a poll by YouGov.
  • The minimum temperature for a workplace’ according to the official guidelines although unions are calling for it to be higher as children shiver with classroom windows being kept open to avoid the spread of the virus. 
  • 105,508. How many laptops and tablets have been dispatched since the start of term, although now restricted to the disadvantaged leaving many schools facing reductions, according to latest allocations.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • UfI Week of VocTech (Monday-Friday)
  • CBI (virtual) Annual Conference (Monday-Wednesday)
  • Release of Learning and Work Institute ‘Adult Participation in Learning’ Survey. (Monday)
  • Institute of Government online event ‘How Public Services (including schools) have coped with the pandemic.’ (Tuesday)
  • Westminster Hall debate on FE funding (Wednesday)
  • Wonkhe’s ‘Don’t Drop Out’ (virtual) event.’ (Wednesday)
  • Pearson/EPI Webinar on the Digital Divide (Wednesday)

Other stories

  • Seven Tribes. Amid growing fears that the country, let alone the world is becoming more polarised and divisive, the ‘More in Common’ initiative published an interesting survey report this week, suggesting that in the UK at least we are bound by more that unites than divides us. As part of the research for the report, the organisation looked into political divides suggesting that rather than being divided by ‘left’ or ‘right’ views, we tend to gravitate towards at least one of seven different groups or tribes which in turn morph around particular issues. These groups are (in order of popularity:) Disengaged Traditionalists; Loyal Nationals; Backbone Conservatives; Progressive Activists; Civic Pragmatists; Disengaged Battlers; Established Liberals. Defining characteristics of each for those who want to see which tribe they associate with, can be found in the report here
  • Here for the long read. If you’ve never had time to read some of the great classics, now apparently may be the time to do it. While some have used lockdowns to take up gardening, DIY or Keep Fit, many others have reached for great works and set up Bookclubs. That at least is the verdict of Penguin Books which has reported a surge in sales of traditional classics like ‘War and Peace,’ ‘Middlemarch,’ ‘Don Quixote,’ and others. For those who still consider them difficult reads, a diet of 50-60 pages a day is recommended, ‘well-suited to a 14-day isolation’ apparently. A link to the story is here 
  • New acronym. REPHRAIN = the newly announced National Research Centre on Privacy, Harm Reduction and Adversarial Influence online. Set up by government, being developed through university projects and intended as the name implies to tackle online harm and misinformation. Details 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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