Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 04 December 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:

Lots happening this week, but two big stories to take in: next summer’s exams in England and a clutch of Annual Reports from Ofsted, the Office for Students and the FE Commissioner in particular.

Next summer’s exams first, where after months of agonising, lengthy discussions and a missed deadline, the Education Secretary finally issued some details. It’s not the final word, difficult decisions on matters such as how to compensate for the worst affected students have been left to an Expert Group, which won’t report until sometime next year. Also, subject-specific details will follow next month, but for the moment this is where we are, in England of course. 

As the government has said all along, exams will go ahead, three weeks later than usual to allow for extra learning time and with some already announced assessment modifications. To help prepare them, students will be given advance notice of some of the topics coming up and will be able to take exam aids into the exam room for some subjects. Generous grading as in 2020 will apply, although 'Ofqual will aim to spread the generosity of 2020 results between subjects more evenly, so that students are not disadvantaged because of their choice of subjects.' There will be reserve papers and special arrangements, including a validated teacher assessment for students unable to sit part or all of the exams. Vocational assessments, as this year and under Ofqual framework regulations, may require some extra tweaking, but will adopt similar compensatory arrangements, again with more details to come. 2021 performance tables will not carry exam performance data, but some information, for example on student destinations will be made available to parents and exam and test data will be ’fed into the system to support improvement.’

In addition, Key Stage tests in primary will be slimmed down this year to English reading, writing and maths and won’t be used for performance tables, the multiplication tables check will be postponed and schools will be able to shift the phonics screening tests and Key Stage 2 assessments back a week in each case. Ofsted will continue its interim visits to see how things are going around remote learning and safeguarding for instance but will not commence graded inspections until the summer term. And the government has set out new expectations on remote learning time; three hours a day on average for primary, four hours in secondary.

The response has been broadly welcomed by education professionals. Geoff Barton from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) gave it all a schoolmasterly judgement of ‘reasonable.’ The Social Mobility Commission, which put forward its own proposals last weekend welcomed it all but called for asterisked grades and no jeopardy resits for those most disadvantaged. Junior school headteacher Michael Tidd tweeted that the government had ‘got it about right on SATs.’ Labour called for more information on how to help students in the worst hit regions while the National Education Union (NEU) went for: it’s all a bit late but ‘better than nothing.’

Next, the Ofsted Annual Report, often an important moment in both the educational and political calendar with its assessment of how the education system in England is performing. This year’s report covered a very different year of course, a year – as the Chief Inspector acknowledged – of two halves, BC and AC, before Covid and after Covid. 

Ofsted hasn’t been carrying out formal graded inspections since the Covid lockdown struck in March and won’t do so until the summer term. But it has been carrying out interim visits this term, where concerns about the effect of the pandemic have been building up and are reflected in this Annual Report. Three stand out.

First, what the report calls ‘out of sight’ children, vulnerable children who have been absent from school since the lockdown first started and not seen since: ‘Our autumn briefings have also covered headteachers’ reports of children who haven’t returned at all.’ Some of these are known to agencies, some not, but safeguarding and supporting their future remains a big worry. Second, the full impact of the loss of schooling may take some time to realise, but some disturbing signs are evident; unlearned behaviours and widening opportunity gaps to name but two. And third, and a point made forcibly by the Chief Inspector in her speech, Covid has exposed just how much is demanded of schools these days: ‘Schools are the go-to solution, perhaps more than any other institution in society.’

As for some of the headline detail, for schools, there has been no great change in performance ratings. 86% of recent inspections were rated good or outstanding, with primary continuing to show strongly, but it’s clearly proving more of a challenge for some Alternative Providers and Special Needs providers. A key feature of outstanding schools is good teaching and the report highlights the importance of what it describes as ‘a rich, well-planned, well-sequenced and comprehensive curriculum.' For FE, 80% of providers were judged good or outstanding at their most recent inspection, one percentage point lower than last year but with some notable differences within that. Adult and Community learning programmes performed well, but apprenticeship and independent learning providers less well for instance.

In Westminster news this week, the Education Secretary confirmed details of the Covid workforce fund for schools and colleges in a Written Statement to Parliament, MPs debated the future of nurseries and early years settings, the All-Party Parliamentary University Group discussed reform to the university admissions system, and the Education Committee held its latest witness session into left behind white disadvantaged pupils. Applications for the skilled work visa under the new points-based immigration system –where job offer + salary level + English language level = points – got underway with the Home Office promising that applicants ‘will usually’ get a decision within three weeks. 

Elsewhere, the National Audit Office published a report into the free school meals voucher system – which ran into trouble this spring – while the FE Commissioner published his final report before rounding off his shift in March. And for universities, the Office for Students published its Annual Review of the year, with the response to the pandemic an obvious major feature, but with some distinct plans for the future. The government announced a staggered start, spread out over five weeks from January to early February for students returning next term. For this week, mass testing has been the story ,with students with two negative tests three days apart able to return home for Christmas. And bringing festive cheer, Research Professional News looked into how students at some universities, tested and trained, were helping out administering the tests, ‘Santa’s little helpers’ apparently.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Student Covid testing begins for Christmas exodus.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Pandemic has left legacy of child abuse and neglect, Ofsted warns. (Tuesday)
  • ‘Covid: Some students not back until February next term.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘GCSE and A’ levels to be marked more generously next year in light of Covid disruption.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Quarter of schools need Covid emergency cash.’ (Friday)


  • 2021 exams. The government announced arrangements for next summer’s exams leaving some of the thornier questions to an Expert Group, but confirming headline details about reduced SATs, exam aids, ‘generous’ grading and limits to published performance information.
  • Visa routes. The government opened up applications for a number of visa routes, including the Skilled Worker, Global Talent, Company Transfer, Start-up and Innovator visas, under its new points-based immigration system. 
  • Explaining the deficit. The House of Commons Library Service published a helpful explainer on the nature of the deficit which the Chancellor confirmed in his Statement last week will reach record peacetime levels next year.
  • Economic Outlook. The OECD published its latest Economic Outlook suggesting an uneven global recovery pattern next year, with much depending on the vaccine and continued financial support from governments, but with the UK in the slow lane as virus control and Brexit remain key factors.
  • Covid Fund. The Education Secretary confirmed in a Written Statement to MPs details of the Covid Workforce Fund that will provide backup funding until the end of term for schools and colleges having to meet the costs of large numbers of staff absences. 
  • ‘A terrible mistake.’ Leading charitable, religious and business organisations called on the government to confirm that the current £20 a weekly benefits uplift would continue beyond next April, saying to drop it would be ‘a terrible mistake’.
  • Rising Poverty. The Legatum Institute reported on its survey into the effects of the pandemic on family poverty showing that while government actions have helped and poverty is a long-term issue, the pandemic has hit a number of groups including notably working-age adults, meaning an anti-poverty strategy should be part of any Covid recovery response.
  • Falling through the cracks. The New Economics Foundation published its modelling, undertaken for a number of regional Mayors, showing that by next spring increasing numbers of people will be living below the so-called minimum income standard, calling as a result for a personal minimum income guarantee of at least £227 a week for the rest of the pandemic.
  • Watching over us. The TUC launched a new taskforce to look into what it highlighted in a new report as ‘the creeping role’ of invasive intelligence such as AI being used at work, calling for greater collaboration with workers on the development and use of new technologies in managing work, and promising a report on the matter next spring.
  • Growing up under Covid. The Nuffield Foundation reported on the outcomes from its major research into the experiences of 14-18 yr olds across seven countries including the UK during the first lockdown, finding many concerned about the impact on their education with a general feeling of being marginalised or seen as either ‘villains’ or ‘victims’.
  • Take 5. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published a new report looking at recent (2018) evidence on the development of 5-year olds from the International and Child Wellbeing Study, showing home environment important but those in England differing in two regards: greater development in emergent numeracy, lower development in inhibition.
  • The importance of languages. The British and other international Academies highlighted the importance of languages in a new global statement calling for support for the development of English language and of other foreign languages. 

More specifically ...


  • Exams 2021 (1.) The government issued further guidance about arrangements for next summer’s exams with Key Stage assessments in primary reduced, advance note of exam topics and the use of study aids for secondary students, more generous grading and an Expert Group set up to look in more detail at disadvantage compensations and other issues.
  • Ofqual explains. The Chief Executive of Ofqual set out the thinking behind many of the decisions announced for next summer’s exams including those behind the use of advance notice in some subjects and how grading will work, also why regional grading was ruled out and the limits to teacher assessment.
  • 2021 exams (2.) The Labour Party called on the government to ensure no child was disadvantaged in next summer’s exams, urging it to adopt its proposals of more choice of exam questions, reserve papers, regional adjustments and a clear Plan B.
  • 2021 exams (3.). The Social Mobility Commission set out its proposals for exams to be held fairly next summer including offering the choice for exams to be taken in the autumn, a ‘generous’ grading system, the use of centre assessed grades as a contingency and the suspension of performance tables for the year.
  • Held to account. The government confirmed as part of the 2021 exam arrangements, that next year’s performance tables would not be published but exam and test data would be ‘introduced into the system’ with caveats, along with national and regional statistics for schools to be held to account.
  • Ofsted Annual Report. Ofsted published its Annual Report indicating that latest performance ratings for schools remained stable but highlighting concerns about ‘out of sight’ children, lost schooling and increasing demands on schools.
  • Report launch speech. The Chief Inspector highlighted the challenges that schools have faced from the pandemic in her speech launching this year’s Ofsted Annual Report, pointing to the social, emotional and learning issues that they have all had to take on.
  • 2021 inspections. Ofsted confirmed that it would continue its monitoring inspections of schools most in need of support from January but that full, graded inspections would not resume until the summer term.
  • Covid costs. The government announced ‘a short-term’ workforce fund to help cover staff absence costs for the rest of term, with criteria based on absence rates and levels of financial reserves.
  • Funding shortfalls.The National Foundation for Educational Research published new research showing many schools, particularly in deprived areas, struggling to meet the costs associated with Covid and concerned whether catch-up funding will be sufficient.
  • ITT Census. The government provided details on recruitment to initial teacher training programmes for 2020/21 indicating numbers up 23% on the previous year with the TSM (Teacher Supply Model) for postgrad recruits largely met.
  • Better Assessment. The Centre for Education and Youth (CFEY) together with Pearson published a follow-up report on their work on assessment, listing a number of tips for schools and teachers, including the need to be clear about the purpose of assessment on each occasion and the degree of flexibility permitted.
  • Free school meal vouchers. The National Audit Office (NAO) published its report into the free school meal voucher scheme launched in 18 days at the height of the first lockdown and run by a private company but which quickly ran into difficulties with logging on and distribution problems before settling down.


  • Exams and assessments 2021. The government issued further guidance for next summer’s exam arrangements that included advance notice, study aids and more generous grading for GCSE/A’ level students and ‘equal adaptations’ for vocational assessments.
  • Held to account. The government confirmed as part of the 2021 exam arrangements that while performance tables would not be published next year, exam and other performance data would be collected with caveats and used to hold colleges to account where necessary. 
  • Ofsted Annual Report. Ofsted published its Annual Report showing performance ratings remaining high particularly for adult community learning but less so for some apprenticeships and private providers and with some concerns about the learning and financial hit arising from the pandemic. 
  • 2021 inspections. Ofsted confirmed that it would continue its monitoring inspections from January but that full, graded inspections would not resume until the summer term.
  • Commissioner’s report. The FE Commissioner published his final report before completing his term of office next March indicating that 13 colleges had been referred for intervention over the year with 7 leading to a more detailed structural review while 54 colleges had received support generally from the Commissioner Team over the year.
  • Skills Bootcamps.The Education Secretary confirmed in a Written Statement to MPs that three more regions (Derbyshire and Notts, the Heart of the South West, Leeds City) had opened up registrations for Skills Bootcamps prior to launching from January 2021.
  • Skills Development Hub. WorldSkills UK announced the launch of its Skills Development Hub providing free, accessible resources to support FE providers working with young people caught up in the pandemic. 
  • Skills and Jobs Hubs. The Collab Group of Colleges added further detail to its proposal in a report last week for colleges to set up Skills and Job Hubs as local pop-up centres that can provide guidance, skills support and job matching.
  • High Needs provision. Leading local and college organisations published a commissioned report on the state of post-16 high needs planning and provision highlighting some areas of good practice but overall finding a system that needs a new coherence, a new funding model and in some parts, ’a radical overhaul’. 
  • Financial planning. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) published updated guidance for colleges on financial statements and planning in light of continuing pandemic restrictions.
  • Staying connected. Vodafone announced it was extending its schools.connected programme, which helps disadvantaged young people with connectivity for home learning, to college 16-18-year-olds.


  • New term arrangements. The government set out the arrangements for students to return or start-up university terms in the new year with testing and staggered starts depending on the nature of the course and available provision, all spread out over five weeks from 4 January to early February 2021.
  • Annual Review. The Office for Students (OfS) published its Annual Review of HE in England focusing on the response to the pandemic and the rapid shift to online learning and scoping out priorities for the coming year that include maximising the potential of digital teaching and learning, raising the bar on quality and standards, and improving opportunities for mature students.
  • Student views. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) and Youthsight published the third of their surveys this year into how undergraduates are coping with the pandemic and associated issues, finding students remaining pretty positive about their learning provision and the experience overall but with rising concerns about mental health.
  • Skilled worker route. Universities UK published a guidance document for employers on the new Skilled Worker visa which under the new points-based immigration rules replaces and contains some differences to the current Tier 2 visa such as a lower skills threshold and an extended qualification period.
  • Postgrad conversion courses. The Office for Students gave an update on the range of people who’d taken up funded postgrad conversion courses, designed to enable more people from all backgrounds develop sought after skills in digital, AI and tech areas.
  • Student withdrawals. The Student Loans Company provided data on student withdrawals this year in light of the pandemic and difficulties facing many students, but finding no great change in trends to previous years.
  • Developing THE. The Gatsby Foundation published a follow-up Paper to its 2018 report on higher technical education (THE,) pointing to how other countries had developed such systems and recommending ways in which the UK could do the same including developing work placements, modularisation and employer engagement.
  • International students. The global education provider, Navitas, reported on its second (September) survey into how far the way in which governments had handled the pandemic was affecting international student recruitment indicating that this was now less of a factor and that the UK had emerged as one of the most attractive destinations.
  • Fixed contracts. The FT reported on the use of fixed and part-time contracts in HE and the challenges and uncertainties faced by the 30% or so of academic staff on them.
  • Grade reduction. The University of Surrey became the second University (following Birmingham) to announce that it would reduce entry requirements for many undergraduate courses this year by one grade to reflect the disruption and challenges faced by many applicants arising out of the pandemic.
  • Freedom of Speech. Stephen Tope, Vice Chancellor at Cambridge University reflected in a blog how the University was going about updating its Freedom of Speech Statement, given the widespread media and public interest in developments.
  • Centres of Excellence. The government published the full listing of universities now recognised as Academic Centres of Excellence for Cyber Security Research, most of whom are working to support the government’s National Cyber Security Strategy.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Incredible. Got an update today from colleagues on @qaatweets campaign against essay mills. In October 2020, we discovered 881 contract cheating sites were listed on a website that ranked essay mills active in the UK. 23 new sites have been added since. This has to be stopped” | @black_dug
  • “We’ve arranged for @streetcoffeeco to come into school for each of the last 3 Thursdays of term to serve coffee to the staff (the first one is on us). 6th formers can buy coffee over lunchtime. @FSDSixth@fram_official. Supporting hospitality business & saying thanks to our staff” | @Framheadteacher
  • “There are so many times per day when I'm like dang I need to drink more water, and then I just drink more coffee” | @meenaharris
  • “Social mobility is like a hose pipe. Some flow right through life, others face kinks in the pipe. The water flows but you keep getting stuck” | @Dawid1
  • “Psychologists have found that those who put up their decorations early are happier than their peers and appear more sociable” | @Phil_Baty
  • “Son, 5, has been stashing soap at the end of his bed. Asked why. It’s so that Father Christmas can wash his hands, apparently” | @JG_THE

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “The wartime British state produced solutions, whilst the modern state mainly procures solutions, often from global markets” – Charles Leadbetter reflects on how things have changed in managing a crisis.
  • “I was wrong then and am right now.’ John Bercow changes his mind about supporting grammar schools.
  • “I have been told that in some cases more progress was made in a month than in the previous five years” – Sir Michael Barber, Chair of the Office for Students reflects in the Annual Review how quickly universities shifted to online learning. 
  • “Treating schools as the great panacea of our time underlines the importance of education, but it doesn’t make it any easier to run a school” – the Chief Inspector reflects on the demands on schools in the latest Ofsted Annual Report.
  • “Most children went back to school in September 2020, having been out of school for 14 weeks. To put 14 weeks in context, it is about 3% of a child’s entire time in school, from Reception to Year 11” - Ofsted reports on lost learning time in its latest Annual Report.
  • “In short, Ofsted’s view is that the government expects too much of schools and offers them too little support. We agree. – the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) responds to the Ofsted Annual Report.
  • “The suspension, this year, of school league tables demonstrates completely that this is not education as normal and that Ofsted should stay away for the whole of the academic year” – the National Education Union (NEU) responds to the announcement that graded Ofsted inspections won’t resume until the summer term.
  • “Whilst the government has not gone as far as we would have liked, they have moved significantly towards the profession” – the NAHT responds to the latest announcement on next year’s exams.
  • “Even in the constrained timeframe involved it should have been possible to do better than the chaos which ensued” – the ASCL responds to the National Audit Office report on the free school meal voucher system.
  • “Christmas this year will be a bit weird” – the Children’s Commissioner questions children about Christmas this year.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 5m. How many more people (compared to September) are likely to be living below the minimum income standard, according to the New Economics Foundation.
  • 59%. The number of undergraduates reporting that they are happy with their online learning, up from 42% in the summer, according to a survey from HEPI and Youthsight.
  • £170,000. Fines levied out to university students during the first part of this term for breaking Covid regulations, according to The Guardian.
  • 1%. The pay rise offered to FE staff in England much to their dismay according to the University and College Union (UCU).
  • 5%. Pupil attendance rates in state schools in England at the latest census point last week, the same as the previous week according to the latest official figures.
  • The number of ‘stuck’ schools (schools that have struggled to improve their inspection ratings over the past 13 years) in England as of 31 August 2020, according to Ofsted figures.
  • 41,472. The number of new recruits this year (2020/21) for initial teacher training, up 23% on last year, according to latest government figures.
  • 10%. The number of teachers who find government guidance on remote learning and in-school support helpful, according to the Chartered College of Teaching.
  • £384m. The projected costs of the free school meals voucher scheme launched during the first lockdown, according to a report from the National Audit Office.
  • £1,000. How much some parents are expected to spend on tech gadgets for their children this Christmas with the £450 PlayStation 5 topping the list, according to a survey in The Independent.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Education Committee witness session with the Minister and Ofqual on 2021 exams. (Tuesday)
  • Launch of Joseph Rowntree Report on Destitution. (Thursday)

Other stories

  • Eating habits. The fate of many High St shops has become an unhappy consequence of the pandemic but what about food shops and eating behaviours? A new report this week from a European Food Body looked at consumer eating habits across ten countries including the UK. Many people faced financial difficulties and resorted to bulk purchasing and carefully planned shopping trips. Inevitably online shopping grew but so too did support for local shops in many countries. For the UK, although we ate more fruit and veg, both up 30%+, we also drank more, consumed more convenience foods and snacked more than our European colleagues. Some habits die hard perhaps. A link to the report 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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