Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 06 November 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:

Back after half term and into a national lockdown. As the Director-General of the CBI wondered in her valedictory address to the organisation’s Annual Conference this week, ‘are we heading into a bleak winter?’ 

Bleak winter or not, if this week’s batch of reports is anything to go by (and there have been plenty of them) for education it’s more a case of overcoming the challenges posed by Covid, Brexit and elsewhere and building for the future than anything else. Building Back Better perhaps. 

And there’s been plenty of that this week. The Chancellor announced an extension to the furlough scheme to the end of next March and MPs held a debate on FE funding. The Education Committee continued itsInquiry into left-behind white pupils and held a joint session on Black History and cultural diversity in the national curriculum, and school leaders complained that the latest government guidance on lockdown restrictions arrived just hours before lockdown started. 

Elsewhere, the National Tutoring scheme got underway with a reported surge of requests from schools, while the National Education Union petitioned the government about school lockdowns and next summer’s exams. Ofqual meanwhile wrote to the Education Secretary spelling out what work it was doing to make next summer’s exams workable and confirming an announcement on contingency arrangements shortly. In other news, JISC hailed a ‘new dawn’ for digital learning in universities, a report from Policy Exchange reiterated the ‘Bring back Polys’ argument and a major Conference considered the future of apprenticeships. And one university student took to social media to describe the race to pack up and get home before the lockdown started. According to the NUS, not all students have heeded the Minister’s request to stay put. ‘I’m not staying here on my own,’ as one put it.

But, back to those reports and setting the scene for many was the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ latest annual blockbuster on education spending in England, spelling out the impact of the pandemic on the different sectors of education. The tone was perhaps set by this sentence in the opening chapter: ‘Looking to the future, education as a share of national income is likely to prove erratic and unusual in 2020–21, and perhaps for a number of years afterwards.’ Plus ça change perhaps. 

The report looks at the medium-term challenges facing providers in early years, schools, FE and HE, each facing a difficult set of circumstances sparked by the pandemic. For schools, the challenge is to help nullify the widening attainment gap and pupil deprivation on limited budgets. For FE, the challenge is to provide increased provision for a growing demographic as well as increased training opportunities – generally on the back of decades of cuts. And for HE, the challenge comes from increased uncertainty about student numbers, both here and from abroad, as well as developing new models of provision and pension burdens. The word ‘challenge,’ crops up in every scenario.  

In her speech to the CBI’s (virtual) Annual Conference this week, the Director-General called for a big focus on training, especially young people, ‘we need a retraining revolution,’ and for greater decentralisation so that local communities could act quickly on skills and infrastructure. 

Both of these proposals featured in key reports this week. The IPPR think tank, in a new report on FE and adult skills, called for a £1bn Job Training Scheme to help those people currently on furlough whose jobs are likely to disappear. Many don’t have Level 2 or 3 equivalent qualifications and the report went on to propose largescale investment in FE to help train up such people. As for greater decentralisation, this was a core ask in City and Guilds’ ‘Act Now’ report also released this week. Building on research undertaken over the summer, the report highlights the disparity between different regional economies and the need for local approaches as a result. The devolution White Paper may have been delayed, but if you want to avoid regions being left behind and levelling up to become a reality, you need to allow local autonomy, the report argued. 

Many of these issues were raised in this week’s Westminster Hall debate on FE funding, where the FE/Skills Minister fanned expectations about the forthcoming FE White Paper, suggesting that people will be ‘delighted’ with what they see in it. As the IfS report this week indicated, it may take a lot of investment for ‘delight’ to break out. 

Finally, among the headlines this week, a word on the continuing issue of next summer’s exams, where tensions have been exacerbated by the current lockdown and the effect this may have on some students. 

In its petition launched at the start of the week, the National Education Union called for assessed content for next year’s GCSEs and A’ levels to be slimmed down; an independent review to be held into assessment methods; and ‘a robust national system’ of centre-assessed grades to be developed. In fairness, parties on all sides have been working hard on options and this week we got some sense of how things are progressing in the shape of a letter from Ofqual to the Education Secretary. Significantly, it talked about adopting more generous performance standards for 2021 and possibly beyond, where it was still seeking views, along with ongoing work on slimming down assessed content, ‘making exams less daunting’ while still rigorous. Decisions here are not easy, but the tone of the letter suggested that Ofqual was keen to show it was on the case and with steps in place to avoid this year’s problems. A sense of purpose that will be welcomed by many.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Students told not to rush home for lockdown.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Universities and Colleges face Covid funding shortfalls.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Pupils and teachers to wear masks in communal areas.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘GCSEs 2021: Covid means generous grading, says Ofqual.’ (Thursday)
  • New lockdown: ‘Students pull down campus fences.’ (Friday


  • Lockdown restrictions. The government issued updated instructions in light of the latest lockdown confirming for education that schools, colleges and universities should remain open, next summer’s exams remain on course to go ahead as planned, universities and adult ed should use remote learning and university students should stay put until the end of term. 
  • Latest guidance. The government issued further guidance on restrictions for education on the eve of lockdown, with face masks to be worn in communal areas in secondary schools, clearer guidance on clinically extremely vulnerable students and staff in all sectors, the current exam resits to continue, onsite delivery to continue where appropriate for 16-19 learners but online where possible for older learners. 
  • Furlough extension. The Chancellor announced a range of measures to ease pressure as the latest lockdown began, including extending furlough on original terms until next March, increasing the latest grant for the self-employed, adding £1.1bn to Local Authorities, and extending mortgage holiday payments.
  • Money matters. The Bank of England published its latest Monetary Policy Report showing the economy likely to shrink by 2% in the final quarter of the year, unemployment expected to peak at 7.75% in quarter 2 next year, and CPI inflation likely to remain at 0.5%.
  • Education spending. The Institute for Fiscal Studies published its latest Nuffield funded report on education spending in England bringing together a range of data and reports pointing to the effects of the pandemic generating huge costs for each sector as schools seek to counter learning and inequality gaps, colleges respond to skills demands on limited budgets and universities face huge uncertainty over future provision and student numbers. 
  • Priorities for the future. The Director General of the CBI outlined five economic recovery priorities and three skills recommendations with a special emphasis on helping young people especially those in FE, in her valedictory speech at this year’s CBI Annual Conference. 
  • People-first recovery. Lord Bilimoria, the new CBI President called for a people-first recovery in his inaugural speech to the CBI Annual Conference listing inclusivity, innovation and global leadership as his three big priorities. 
  • Latest economic survey. The British Chambers of Commerce published its latest Quarterly Recruitment Outlook covering August and September showing business conditions still weak especially in hospitality and catering but over 60% of firms expecting no change to their workforce over the next 3 months.
  • Hit by a 2ndwave. The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) reported on the likely impact of a second wave of lockdowns on western economies suggesting it could reduce monthly GDP by 5% - 10%.
  • How have public services coped? The Institute for Government (IfG) looked at five ‘critical’ public services including schools to see how they were coping with the pandemic, calling for a review of the quality of remote learning, funding to avoid more children falling behind, and consideration of inspections and next summer’s exams given the current climate, among its main recommendations for schools.
  • Cybersecurity. The National Cyber Security Centre published its latest annual report showing that over the year to August 2020 it had dealt with 723 cybersecurity incidents and taken down over 166,000 phishing URLs, many relating to coronavirus scams but had also more positively, grown its work in education as part of its skills programmes.
  • 5m Futures. Deloitte followed up the success of its 1m Futures programme dedicated to helping people gain success through education and employment by launching a new 5m Futures, with the aim of helping 5m people across much of Europe develop the skills they need for future success by 2030.

More specifically ...


  • Tutoring catch-up. The new subsidised National Tutoring and Mentoring programme, announced earlier this year, opened for business with 32 organisations lined up to offer help and support particularly to disadvantaged pupils and those in danger of falling behind. 
  • Next summer’s exams. Ofqual wrote to the Education Secretary outlining the work it was doing in preparation for next summer’s exams including how to ensure standards while making exams more manageable for students, adopting more generous performance standards, and preparing for an announcement on contingency arrangements.
  • Summer 2021 exams. The National Education Union (NEU) handed in a petition on next summer’s exams calling for three things: slimmed down subject content; a review of assessment methods; and a national system of teacher moderated grades.
  • Inspections online. Ofsted confirmed that it would move to remote inspections from this Thursday as the country moved into lockdown.
  • Early Career Inductions. The government set out the arrangements for the 2-year Induction and assessment process for early career teachers due to commence next September, with further guidance planned for next spring.
  • Qualification guidance. Ofqual sought to prepare for next summer’s exams by outlining modified rules and guidance in individual subjects that awarding organisations offering GCSE, AS and A’ levels next summer should observe.
  • MFL assessment. Ofqual published new arrangements for GCSE modern foreign language assessment next year outlining a more flexible approach to spoken language assessment and the criteria to be used for the pass, merit and distinction endorsement.
  • Maths matters. The Royal Society and Joint Mathematical Council called on maths teachers to let them know in a survey how maths teaching and learning was going this term in light of pandemic restrictions.
  • Some sort of normal. The Children’s Commissioner reported on its recent survey of children and want they want from school with most (71%) saying they were excited to be back at school, 50% worried about catching up, and 91% saying they understood the Covid guidelines in their school.


  • Adult Learning. The Learning and Work Institute published its latest annual survey of adult learning participation undertaken in August and September and showing considerable enthusiasm for learning during lockdown but not universally and with many of those most in need least likely to be involved.
  • FE funding. MPs discussed FE funding in a Westminster Hall debate raising issues of long-term underfunding, the costs of Covid, the virtues or otherwise of the latest Skills package, the levy and the Union Learning Fund, as they reflected on the key role colleges play in many parts of the country and the expectation of improved funding.
  • Devolving training. City and Guilds suggested in a new report that the pandemic provided ‘an act now moment’ for reforming the skills system by creating local training hubs and giving local authorities greater say over the funding and provision of skills training that can better meet local needs.
  • Going Further. The IPPR think tank called in a new report for a new Job Training Scheme for furloughed workers along with a long-term funding settlement for FE to enable it to lead a drive for skills training. 
  • Remote learning. The Education and Training Foundation released 14 further bite-sized training modules covering aspects like managing quality of online provision and creating video content, to help staff supporting learners working from home. 
  • Heading into space. The Institute for Apprenticeships confirmed that the space engineering technician L4 apprenticeship, developed with the University of Leicester, had now been approved with the first students due to start training in January 2021.


  • New national restrictions. The government updated its guidance for HE following the announcement of a new lockdown confirming that students should not attempt to return home during the lockdown, universities should move to more online learning where appropriate, libraries and study places should remain open, and socialising restricted as before.
  • Lockdown guidance. The Office for Students (OfS) published updated guidance for higher ed institutions in light of the lockdown reminding them of their responsibilities to communicate clear details on provision, plans and forms of support to students.
  • Joint Call. The University and College Union (UCU) and NUS issued a joint statement calling for an immediate move to online learning wherever possible, granting students the right to leave or stay as appropriate, and for increased provision of mental health support.
  • How much? Research Professional News reported on its survey on how much Russell Group universities were spending on Covid-secure procedures keeping campuses open with many spending over £1m on sanitisers, testing, special equipment, cleaning materials, IT equipment and so on.
  • Learning and Teaching re-imagined. JISC published a major new report on how teaching and learning in HE could develop in a post-Covid age based on research among HE staff suggesting that different modes of blended learning are the future and outlining seven challenges, including invest, explore and embrace, to reach full digital transformation. 
  • Higher Tech space. The V.C. of Nottingham Trent and colleagues from Policy Exchange argued for universities like Nottingham Trent having a major role in delivering higher-level technical qualifications, operating as applied universities akin to Polys, working in ‘close alliance’ with colleges with restructured funding.
  • Widening access. The Office for Students published its commissioned evaluation of the ‘Addressing Barriers to Student Success’ scheme which helped young people from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve successful outcomes from higher ed, pointing to a number of valuable interventions that were tested out but with some uncertainty about how it will all be carried forward.
  • Not yet closing the gap. The Times Higher commented on the latest UK university entry data acknowledging an increase this year in the numbers from underrepresented areas accepted at high tariff universities but noting also an increase in the numbers from better-off areas leaving the entry gap continuing to widen. 
  • Levelling Up. The UPP Foundation examined the role of universities in helping the levelling up agenda publishing two reports, one suggesting that many non-graduates wouldn’t be helped by the government’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee and the other calling for a greater role for universities in helping level up local communities.
  • Commission Inquiry. The independent HE Commission announced that former Universities Minister Chris Skidmore would co-chair with Lord Philip Norton a new research project into how research funding could be used by universities to help the government’s levelling-up agenda.
  • A Quadruple Helix. Core Cities UK called on the government to support what it called ‘a quadruple helix’ of universities, businesses, the public sector and communities, working together to help drive job creation and economic development in UK towns and cities.
  • Student Space. The Office for Students and Welsh Council confirmed that health and wellbeing online support for students through the Student Space platform which was due to finish in December will now carry on to next June.
  • Here to support. The Russell Group outlined how members were supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing needs during the pandemic pointing to case study evidence of academic, wellbeing and in some cases, financial support being offered.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Anger as English secondary schools given last-minute rules on face coverings - just the standard thoughtless incompetence. Heads will be thrilled to be writing another letter to parents to change what they said at the beginning of the week” | @SchoolDuggery
  • “Cambridge University warns students they won't graduate if they break lockdown” | @jim_dickinson
  • “The one lesson we haven’t learnt is about training and skills. Every government notes that the skills system is hopeless and claims it is going to reform it. It rearranges the deckchairs and the problems with skills remain precisely the same” | @nickmacpherson2
  • “Big moment: the Rishi Sunak signature has disappeared from Treasury graphics, along with the word "chancellor". He now appears to be a tree” | @GeorgeWParker
  • “As always great being back. The kids are happy and although attendance dipped ... it is still in the '90s. They had pizza for lunch, wore beautiful uniforms and their behaviour was summed up with their non-stop smiles of enthusiasm” | @chrisdysonHT
  • "I came up today on the train and I bought my ticket on an iPhone... two years ago I couldn't. It makes all the difference to productivity" | @advanced CEO Gordon Wilson at #CBI2020” |@CBItweets
  • “We beam live assemblies to every classroom via Teams video conference. Works a treat” | @EmbleyDeputy
  • “A study has shown a correlation between children who play Mary or Joseph in their school nativity play, and being a high earner later in life” | @quikilpedia

 Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “The outlook for the economy remains unusually uncertain” – the Bank of England in its latest Monetary Policy Report.
  • “There are currently no plans for school closures or to implement rota systems” – the DfE reinforces its latest position on schools during the lockdown.
  • “It won't be popular with families” – the Chair of the Education Committee responds to a union’s call to lockdown schools.
  • “We need world-class vocational education. Life-long learning. In-work training. And for a Labour government led by me this will be a priority like never before” – Sir Keir Starmer addresses the CBI Annual Conference.
  • “We are going to have young people with so much time on their hands. Let's use it to train them online with Further Education, with unions. Go after the hard to reach. Business can step up and play a huge role” – the Director General of the CBI calls for a retraining revolution for young people.
  • “You should only return home at the end of term for Christmas. We will publish further guidance on the end of term” – government guidelines for university students.
  • “I’m coming home, Mum. I’m not staying here on my own. Everyone’s going” – The Guardian reports the reaction of one university student.
  • “Some courses are run wholly online, which is turning out to be better than most expected, but a few intense sessions in a row can give teachers Metallica ears, Bridget Riley eyes, and a Teletubby brain” – Jonathan Wolff on university teaching.
  • “Members will all be delighted with what they see in the FE White Paper” – the FE Minister raise expectations among MPs about what will be in the FE White Paper.
  • “As the sun rises on this new dawn for higher education it is illuminating new digital models of learning and teaching, while at the same time casting a shadow of darkness across some traditional, increasingly old fashioned, ways of working” – JISC spots a new dawn in digital learning for universities.
  • “Frankly, it is ridiculous that this new guidance has landed on school leaders’ desks less than 24 hours before the start of the national lockdown” – the NAHT expresses frustration at the late arrival of government guidance on new lockdown restrictions for schools.
  • “In our view an opportunity to recognise, and to compensate for the baleful impact of the pandemic for all students qualifying in 2021 (and possibly beyond), by setting national performance standards more generously than in normal times” – Ofqual reports on its work for next summer’s exams.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • £150bn. How much the Bank of England is injecting into the UK economy in the form of quantitative easing, according to the Bank’s latest report.
  • 6%. How high unemployment is expected to reach in the EU next year, up from 7.7% currently according to the European Commission.
  • £95bn. UK spending on education last year, second only to health spending according to figures from the IfS.
  • 35%. The number of people surveyed who believe the government remains committed to its levelling up agenda, according to a survey by House magazine.
  • £100,000+. How much some universities have spent on hand sanitisers alone in an effort to keep campuses open, according to Research Professional News.
  • 1,000+. The increase in the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds accepted at high tariff universities this year, the biggest increase for some time according to the OfS.
  • 75%-80%. The number of people who wouldn’t be helped by the government’s proposed Lifetime Skills Guarantee either because they already have the required qualification or have higher aspirations, according to the UPP Foundation.
  • 43%. The percentage of adults who took part in some form of learning during lockdown, according to the Learning and Work Institute.
  • £8,300. What the per 16-19 learner funding should be by the end of this Parliament, up from a current £5,200, according to the IPPR think tank.
  • The number of Academic Mentors, recruited and trained by Teach First and now ready to go in and support disadvantaged pupils in schools, according to the Education Endowment Foundation.
  • 71%. How many children in a survey said they were ‘excited’ to be back in school, according to a report from the Children’s Commissioner.
  • 53%. How many people think Christmas ads should acknowledge the pandemic as opposed to 25% who think they shouldn’t, according to YouGov.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Education Committee witness session with Ofsted. (Tuesday)

Other stories

  • In need of some help. Who do we turn to most for advice and help? Many people now click on Google or YouTube when they need practical help but when it comes to all those other difficult decisions in life, parents and in particular Mum, is the one we turn to most of the time. That at least is what emerges from a new survey on lifestyles by Olbas and reported in the Independent this week. Dad gets called on when advice is needed about buying a car, moving house or something to do with money and we turn to friends when we want advice about fashion or relationships but for pretty much everything else, it’s good old Mum. A link to the article 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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