Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 20 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:

In the words of the old Herman’s Hermits' song: ‘there’s a kinda hush’ at the moment. 

It’s more a hush of anticipation than anything else. Not just about Christmas, but about a number of critical decisions expected soon. These include arrangements for the end of the latest lockdown, where both the CBI and British Chambers this week called for a bit of notice: whether a Brexit deal is in sight; what will be in next week’s Spending Review; what sort of government reset there might be; whether there’ll be a Ministerial reshuffle – and so on. And, more specifically for education, when we’ll get clarity on next summer’s exams, and when that long-awaited FE White Paper will be published (let alone what might be in it).

Some things have moved forward this week. For example, a new Conservative Party Policy Board has been announced, and Neil O’Brien MP, the Chair, has been listing his top ten policy priorities for it. And membership of the Skills and Productivity Board – the body that will help scope out future skill needs and labour market requirements – has also been announced. Both potentially important developments.

There’s also been the regular buzz of activity this week, much of it of interest to education. It included the Prime Minister launching from afar the government’s £12bn green industrial revolution, with the aim, among other things, of creating 250,000 jobs. And the Social Mobility Commission taking up the issue of downward social mobility in a new report, showing that vulnerable groups were aalready disproportionately affected. 

In Westminster news this week, the Education Secretary told MPs that the government would look to reform the university admissions system during the lifetime of the current Parliament. For those interested in this latest development, the House of Commons Library Service published a helpful explainer of admissions issues and the various attempts at reform over the years, while Wonkhe provided a useful summary of the context here. MPs also held debates on the Future of the Union Learning Fund and the Future of Work, and the Education Committee hosted a further session as part of its inquiry into white, working-class pupils, in addition to announcing a new inquiry into prison education.

Elsewhere, the university sector grappled with questions of quality and standards, with so-called low-value courses very much in mind. The Office for Students started to clear some of the wood with an initial consultation; Universities UK promised a Charter to demonstrate intent and best practice; while the Social Market Foundation outlined some of the difficulties involved in attempting to measure quality. The think tank Respublica discussed a new Social Contract for Education and Skills, with former Universities Minister Chris Skidmore among the contributors (a recording of the event is available here). 

In the absence of its popular annual FE bash at this time of year, the Association of Colleges (AoC) hosted an FE Summit, where there were important contributions from the Education Secretary, the Chief Executive of Ofqual and many others – and also where the AoC chief executive launched a version of the recent College of the Future report for the English FE system. ‘A bold report’ as Lord Willetts described it. In schools, the National Association of Head Teachers published a new report and highlighted concerns about the number of school leaders planning to leave prematurely. The government provided details on the arrangements for catch-up funding for schools and Marcus Rashford announced a new Book Club for children.

So plenty to report as ever, but back to those eagerly or otherwise awaited items to see if we can add any more contours to them. Two are particularly relevant to education and skills.

First, next week’s Spending Review, which will see the Chancellor present an economic picture described by some as ‘scary.’ ‘Sunak faces worst hit to UK finances since the second world war,’ as the headline in the FT put it. The Review will set departmental budgets for the next year, 2021/22. The NHS, schools, and now defence, have all got confirmed budgets so what should we look out for? 

The Institute for Fiscal Studies this week had a useful list of suggestions. They included what impact preordained commitments might have on the rest of the public spending budget. Will other departments be squeezed? How far will commitments on infrastructure spending, including levelling up, be maintained? Will there be a new strategy or set of rules? How will Brexit and Covid be treated? And what about the future for the economy, will there be any hints here, especially for skills and training? It’s a daunting set of scenarios. 

And second, the FE White Paper with its possible implications for the HE sector.

If this week’s green industrial revolution is anything to go by, it may well be a mix of something old, something new, something, borrowed, something (policy) blue. The green plan pretty much had them all, with some old announcements such as on coastal defences, a new target on phasing out diesel vehicles, borrowing the concept of hydrogen villages from Korea, and the blue in the form of green technology for levelling up. 

If the FE White Paper follows a similar pattern we may see some referencing existing or old announcements such as the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, the Chancellor’s various plans for jobs and training schemes, and the £3bn Skills Fund from the Party’s Manifesto. The new may include the college Business Units and local Chambers panels as reported recently by FE Week, versions perhaps of the college hubs mentioned in the recent College of the Future report. The borrowed may be an attempt to replicate the employer endorsement model for training and qualifications from Germany, a model the Education Secretary has enthused over, and the blue might well be an Institute of Technology provider system linked into higher education. We shall see.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Pandemic fuelling numbers of children out of school.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Universities may face sanctions if they fail most disadvantaged. (Tuesday)
  • ‘Williamson: Ofsted return will be safe and sensitive.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘GCSEs 2021: exam papers may be partly shown in advance.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Millions of public sector workers face pay freeze.’ (Friday)


  • Green Industrial Revolution. The Prime Minister launched the government’s green industrial revolution incorporating a 10-point plan intended to generate 250,000 green jobs and focused on ‘greening’ buildings and public/private transport, and developing wind, nuclear and hydrogen capacity.
  • Starter for Ten. Neil O’Brien MP, Chair of the Conservative Party’s new Policy Board, listed ten key policy priorities (beyond Covid and Brexit) that the Board might need to consider including a fiscal reset, a plan for growth, the structure of the UK, levelling up, devolution, school exams, universities, climate change and future foreign and security policy.
  • What to look out for in the Spending Review. The Institute for Fiscal Studies looked ahead to next week’s Spending Statement suggesting seven things to look out for including how generous the Chancellor is able to be, what happens to public sector pay, Brexit and Covid factors, and how things look for the future.
  • Reviving Regions. The CBI added its voice to the debate about tackling regional equality with a new report calling for greater devolution to local leaders so that they can respond to local skills gaps, help businesses grow, transform towns and work to local business manifestos and regional scorecards.
  • London’s Hurting. Researchers at Kings College and the Centre for London issued their latest Covid report showing that employee numbers had fallen steeply in the capital with it facing a sharper labour market decline than elsewhere in the UK.
  • Downward Social Mobility. The Social Mobility Commission published a new report indicating that some 20% of people, particularly women, non-graduates and those from a BAME background, experience downward social mobility in their lives, calling as a result for a fresh look at the issue. 
  • Anti-Bullying Week The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported on the prevalence of bullying in a report timed for Anti-Bullying Week, indicating 20% of teenagers in England and Wales had suffered over the last year from some form of online bullying with social media and smartphones exacerbating the problem.
  • Digital Identity. The Minister for Digital Infrastructure outlined in a speech the principles behind developing digital identity, confirming that the government was looking to publish a new Digital Identity Trust Framework early next year.
  • Sports package. The government announced a £300m Winter Survival Package to protect a number of major spectator sports over the coming months, including rugby union, horse racing and lower league football. 
  • People Profession 2030. The CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, reported on its research with fellow global HR colleagues about future trends for the profession pointing to organisational change, the digital effect, changing demographics, diversification, and responsible businesses as key elements.
  • Video games can be good for you. Oxford’s Internet Institute reported on a new study into the use of video games suggesting that contrary to belief, such games can bring benefits to many players, demonstrating competence, sharing interaction and generally enhancing wellbeing as a result.
  • Financial Literacy and Inclusion. The FT announced that in the first half of next year it intended to launch a new charitable foundation dedicated to improving levels of financial literacy particularly for those that need it most.
  • Children’s Book Club. Marcus Rashford announced he was moving into a new venture, teaming up with Macmillan Children’s Books next year to provide books especially for disadvantaged children.

More specifically ...


  • Catch-up funding. The government provided further details on the allocations, use and accountability of the £1bn catch-up funding, first announced in June, and intended to help provide for lost schooling for those most in need.
  • Improving Schools. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) published its independent Commission’s report into Improving Schools with a number of recommendations for developing and supporting teachers and school leaders, all intended to shift the focus from holding schools to account to helping them to improve.
  • Exam options. Colin Hughes, chief executive of the exam board AQA outlined in an interview in the Times Ed six possible options including fewer papers, greater question choice, spring mocks, and regional grading, that might help with delivering GCSE and A’ levels next year but agreed that none would completely solve all the problems.
  • 3 lessons for next year’s exams. The Centre for Education and Youth offered three lessons for the government as it considers what to do about next year’s exams, including ensuring trust through being transparent, consulting adequately and not leaving decisions till too late. 
  • Missing education. The Local Government Association (LGA) reported on children missing education, suggesting on 2018/19 evidence this could be around 2%, calling for a clearer definition, better resources and a strengthened framework around electively home educated children.
  • Secondary maths. The government published a commissioned global report looking into the teaching of maths in secondary schools based on evidence gathered by the OECD in 2017/18 looking at classroom management (generally whole class,) context (limited) and assessment (a lot). 
  • All going on a shorter holiday? Jonathan Gullis MP argued in a new paper for the Onward research group that modern work culture let alone the pandemic meant it was now time to consider reducing the school summer holiday from six to four weeks, tacking an extra week to each of the autumn and summer terms instead.
  • White working-class boys. School Dash examined the data behind the headlines about left behind boys’ performance, indicating that while levels of poverty and attainment may vary, they can still be a factor in underperformance.
  • Children’s lives during the pandemic. The Open Data Institute reported on its work with Barnardo’s, Mumsnet, Teacher Tapp and others collecting data on the impact of the lockdown on children, families and teachers, reinforcing existing evidence on attainment gaps and wellbeing issues but suggesting that better data is needed to ensure a more complete picture.
  • Teach First..Russell Hobby, chief executive of Teach First, blogged on how the organisation was supporting schools and in particular this year’s cohort of trainee teachers during the lockdown, with visits where necessary and managed, beginning next month.
  • Class size matters. Academics at the Institute of Education published a new book on class sizes concluding that it can have an impact particularly in a subject like maths, let alone on teachers and pupils generally having to cope with different dynamics. 
  • Bone tired and freezing cold. Laura McInerney, Guardian education commentator, reported on how things were in schools indicating that teachers, let alone pupils, were pretty tired and cold, calling for a bit of common sense in allowing coats and gloves to be worn in classrooms where windows need to be open.


  • College of the Future. The Association of Colleges (AoC) published a report from the Commission on the College of the Future, looking at a model for England which would see colleges as key players in local networks and employer hubs working to deliver the skills and lifelong learning needed. 
  • Vocational assessment. The Chief Executive of Ofqual wrote to the Education Secretary to report on procedures being developed to regulate and support vocational assessment in light of the pandemic, pointing to the Extended Extraordinary Regulated Framework as a vehicle for providing awarding organisations with the flexibility needed to adapt assessment where needed.
  • Getting every adult to Level 3. The TUC reported on the importance of the Union Learning Fund in helping adults progress to Level 3, arguing that over 70% of participants reckoned the Fund had helped them carry on in learning.
  • The case for reskilling. McKinsey highlighted the importance of reskilling suggesting that in some 75% of cases UK business would benefit from it, setting out three steps to achieve this including: undertaking strategic workforce planning, improving the training offer, and developing a culture of lifelong learning.
  • Developing digital skills. The innovation foundation Nesta presented some findings from its Future Fit programme in Scandinavia – a programme aimed at the digital reskilling of those at risk of ‘job displacement – noting that apart from time constraints, most workers had significantly upped their expertise.
  • Plan for Jobs. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) provided case study evidence of how different employers were using the apprenticeship incentives and Kickback Scheme to help both their business and young people.
  • Apprentice Council. The Association of Apprenticeships, a membership organisation set up to support and speak for apprentices, called for applications from those in the system to join a new Apprenticeship Council that would meet about once a month and help shape future developments.


  • University admissions statement. The Education Secretary declared in a Written Statement to Parliament that the government intended to consult shortly on a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system and deliver reform within the lifetime of the current Parliament.
  • Admissions reform. The House of Commons Library Service published a briefing paper on university admissions reform referencing the various reviews over the years, the current issues and the three latest sets of review proposals.
  • 2021 Entry requirements. Birmingham University announced it was looking to lower 2021 entry requirements by one grade across many courses to reflect the loss of schooling and other disruptions faced by young people.
  • Grade distribution. The Office for Students (OfS) reported on degree grade classification over time looking particularly at trends between 2010/11 and 2018/19 which showed a considerable increase overall in the numbers of full-time, first degree graduates gaining first class honours, in some cases unexplained. 
  • Raising the Bar. The Office for Students launched initial consultation on strengthening regulation for HE courses in England, with clearer definitions of quality and standards requirements and proposals on minimum standards, monitoring and measurement, and with a further, more detailed consultation on likely adopted measures to follow early next year. 
  • ‘Low value’ courses. Universities UK announced a range of procedures to look into the issue of ‘low value’ courses, including developing a Charter over the coming year that could be used in portfolio review and in identifying best practice.
  • Evaluating quality. The Social Market Foundation offered its thoughts on evaluating higher ed in a new briefing paper, arguing for much greater clarity on the nature, purpose and intended audience of any evaluation and questioning whether the government had sufficient time or money to invest in a comprehensive system.
  • Fee reimbursement. The Institute for Fiscal Studies looked into the issue of fee reimbursement for students this year, the subject of a number of petitions considered by MPs, concluding that it would be an expensive and contentious exercise that might not benefit the students who perhaps most deserved it.
  • Work ready. The Times Higher reported on another survey of higher education, the Global University Employability Ranking, which perhaps unsurprisingly pointed to a rise in interest from recruiters in seeing universities develop job-ready skills in graduates, with the UK slipping a couple of places down the rankings on this.
  • Dear Ministers. Universities and related industry bodies wrote to the government urging them to clarify when the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the promised successor to current EU Structural Funds, would be ready and to ensure that research and innovation was integral within it.
  • Resetting the relationship. Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation, called in a blog on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) website for a reset by the government on its relationship with universities, suggesting five measures they could adopt for this including: toning down criticism of universities, using universities to help levelling up, and engaging more actively with staff and students. 
  • A constant state of flux. Nick Hillman, director of the HE Policy Institute, reflected on the current state of HE policy in a speech to Guild HE, indicating it was in a constant state of flux and likely to remain so with some important reports awaited and turf wars being fought out.
  • International students. IDP Connect which monitors and reports on international student recruitment, highlighted the importance of the new graduate route in attracting foreign students to the UK in a paper for the All-Party Parliamentary University Group but added that it was equally important to understand the concerns and needs of different student groups to be able to attract numbers.
  • Digital divide. Lara Bird, who is working on Sir Michael Barber’s review of Digital Teaching and Learning, put forward a working definition of what might lead to digital poverty based on any one of six features such as appropriate device, good connectivity, reliable back-up and adequate space being absent. 
  • Extending support to PhD students. Over 700 researchers called in an open letter to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) for funding and timescales to be extended to doctoral students whose work may have been delayed due to the pandemic.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Helena Mills, CEO of BMAT Education Trust, says that pupils at her schools have "never been so nice to their teachers and they are working incredibly hard" because they don't know whether there's going to be exams or teacher assessed grades...” | @whazell
  • “There won't be an "inspection frenzy" next year, says @amanda_spielmanat #SAAShow20” | @tes
  • “My 8yo son will be embarking on a BA in Politics and International Relations for the next 14 days because I do not have time to home school him in anything else” | @DrHDexter
  • “I’m on a rare day off today so walked my daughter to the bus stop. Fresh air & time with her is something I don’t do enough. She talked about narrating her school play, about her science project, about the funny kid she sits next to & she held my hand all the way. Rejuvenating” | @bvulliamy
  • “Oxford University students vote to BAN beef and lamb from campus canteens" | @jim_dickinson
  • “Geography teachers who take one lesson of PE a week but wear trackies 100% of the time have the biggest teacher flex” | @MissRegardless
  • “You might not like lockdown much. But you should have seen Sundays in England in my teenage years” | @JoWolffBSG
  • “Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine because he didn’t have to waste a billion hours telling his children to put their shoes on” | @emmavj
  • “Sad thinking about all the freelancers' being caught out by their full-time work partners who have realised what their 'work' 'life' looks like for the first time. We had a great run. All good things come to an end” | @Oobahs
  • “Now that the Christmas ads are on let’s start the 2020 themed cracker jokes. I’ll start: A. Why couldn’t the pirates get off their ship & spend their treasure? B. Because the Arrr rate was over 1” | @Helen_Barnard

 Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “For all the government's talk of a 'green industrial revolution', it is off to a slow start with this plan” – the TUC responds to the government’s green industrial revolution.
  • “We are fairly optimistic that spending will recover quite fast with GDP in the second half of 2021 pretty close to where it was at the end of 2019” – the Centre for Economics and Business Research strikes an optimistic note on economic recovery.
  • “For many experienced teachers and leaders the prospect of a pay freeze will be the final straw and we are extremely concerned that it will lead to an exodus from the profession” – ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton on media reports of a public sector pay freeze.
  • “The government will therefore consult universities, colleges, schools, students, and other interested parties to develop a potential model of reform over the coming months” – the Education Secretary formally confirms forthcoming consultation on reforming the university admissions system.
  • “Most large universities will struggle to test numbers at the speed which the very tight timescales demand” – universities worry about being able to deliver mass testing before Christmas.
  • “The perception of value will depend on who is making the assessment, be that students, graduates, employers, or the government” – Universities UK announces plans to look at ‘low value‘ courses. 
  • “Ofsted is a vital feature of our educational landscape. Its experts give us a rounded view of how a school functions, from teaching and the quality of education as well as pupil behaviour and attendance” – the Education Secretary on the importance of Ofsted. 
  • “But ultimately if you didn’t have Ofsted you would need to reinvent it” – the Shadow Schools Minister also on Ofsted.
  • “We had five secretaries of state in nine years... if that level of turbulence in leadership occurred in a school, Ofsted might be tempted to put it into special measures” – Sir Michael Wilshaw on the need for consistency in policy leadership.
  • “When nearly two-thirds of secondaries are sending home pupils we have a chaotic rota system by default” – ASCL comments on the latest school attendance figures.
  • “On average teachers spent 7.6 hours on the topic of quadratic equations” – one of the findings from OECD’s latest global study of secondary school maths.
  • “If the teacher makes the weather, the school creates the climate” – Sir Tim Brighouse introduces the NAHT’s report on Improving Schools.
  • “Children today are not the ‘snowflake’ generation” – the President of the Girls’ Schools Association addresses their (virtual) Annual Conference.
  • “I only started reading at 17, and it completely changed my outlook and mentality" – Marcus Rashford launches a new Book Club for children.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 9%. The CPI rate for UK inflation in October, up from 0.7% in September largely due to rises in clothing, food and furniture according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
  • 21% and 24%. The number of men and women respectively who have experienced downward social mobility in recent years, according to the Social Mobility Commission.
  • 5%. The proportion of graduates in England awarded a 1stclass hons in 2018/19, a considerable increase over the decade according to latest research from the Office for Students.
  • £10bn. How much it would cost to reimburse full-time English domiciled undergraduates this year, and double that if all student categories were included, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
  • 43%. The drop in the number of international students starting at US universities this academic year, according to a report in the Times Higher.
  • 9m and 2.1m. The number of GCSE and A’ level entries respectively in England this year, according to Ofqual. 
  • 94%. The number of Key Stage 4 leavers in ‘sustained’ education, apprenticeships or employment in 2018/19, according to the latest official data.
  • 5%. Pupil attendance in state schools in England as of the latest census day last Thursday, down from 89.3% in the previous week with more pupils self-isolating according to the latest figures.
  • 47%. The number of headteachers surveyed who said they were thinking of leaving their job prematurely largely because of the stress from the pandemic, according to the National Association of Head Teachers.
  • 20%. The number of 10-15 year olds in England and Wales who had experienced one form of online bullying in the year up to March 2020, according to the ONS as part of Anti-Bullying Week.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Wonkhe ‘Student Experience 4.0’ virtual event. (Tuesday)
  • Education Policy institute virtual event on Digital Learning. (Tuesday)
  • Spending Review announcement (Wednesday)
  • OfS ‘Online teaching in HE post-Covid.’ (Wednesday)
  • Learning from Lockdown webinar on Effective Communication. (Wednesday)
  • Nuffield ‘Changing Face of Early Childhood’ webinar. (Thursday)

Other stories

  • Zoom backdrop. Fed up with re-arranging your bookshelf for the next Zoom call? No worries, let the National Trust do it for you. They’ve advertised six iconic libraries from Vita Sackville West’s Writing Room at Sissinghurst Castle to the library at Blickling Hall that can be downloaded and used as a backdrop for any Zoom call. View the six libraries on offer here
  • Thanks for the email. According to the FT, we send over 64m unnecessary emails a day and they’re contributing to our carbon footprint. While the contribution to the footprint is very small and many emails are necessary, a fair number aren’t. These include emails that simply say ‘thanks’ or ‘cheers’ or ‘LOL.’ Although IT systems now are generally much cleaner, it's been estimated that if each person in the UK sent one less email a day, it could reduce carbon output by 16,000 tonnes a year. A link to the FT article about this 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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