Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 08 January 2021

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:

Joe Wicks back with live fitness sessions; the country in lockdown; Parliament recalled; schools, colleges and universities restricted to all but specific groups; online learning for most others; and SATs and GCSE/A’ level exams in their current form abandoned. 

Not the start of term planned for, let alone hoped for, in England, but one that many in the teaching profession had recognised was necessary some time ago. The fact it took so long for the government to accept what the unions were calling a necessary ‘pause’ has left a bitter taste for many. “I completely understand the inconvenience and distress this late change will cause millions of parents and pupils up and down the country,” the Prime Minister acknowledged in his Statement on broadcast media, but it has led to a frenetic week. The House of Commons Library Service has a useful summary of it all here.

Education has been at the forefront of much of what’s happened this week which has seen three fundamental questions emerge. 

First, this year’s exams and what to do about them? As the new interim Chief Regulator for Ofqual messaged this week ‘Exams and standardised assessment are the fairest way of determining what a student knows and can do.’ But, as he also said, ‘the way ahead is not straightforward.’ 

The issue at present is how to ensure that fairness at a time when Covid has denied a level learning playing field to so many young people. Some, like Lee Elliott Major, Professor of Social Mobility, argue that there should be a way of putting a marker or a flag next to the results of those who have been disadvantaged in this way. Others believe there should be fewer exams, or at least that they should be less tied into high-stakes accountability. Yet as former government adviser Tom Richmond pointed out in the TES, there are no easy alternatives.

Either way, what most people want is just some certainty about what’s going to happen. In his Statement to MPs, the Education Secretary went some way towards this, announcing that SATs and the phonics check would be scrapped this year and what he called, ‘a form of teacher-assessment’ with training and support would be used for GCSEs and A/AS levels. A ‘swift’ consultation on the details will be launched next week. There is also still work to be done around vocational assessment, and that for apprenticeships, particularly given the issues here this week. The Association of Colleges (AoC) for instance has called for – among other things – a national system of centre-moderated assessment, with national moderation to be established as soon as possible. So, as things stand on exams, it’s not all sorted yet and more is to come, starting with next week’s consultation. 

Next, how best to neutralise some of the most damaging effects of lockdown on young people? The Prime Minister’s reluctance to close schools was in part due to concerns about such effects: the yawning learning gaps, damaging mental health problems and wider inequalities and so on. Much of this was documented last year by the NFER, Education Endowment Foundation, OECD, Children’s Commissioner, Teacher Tapp and others. This week we’ve seen further substance added to this issue from three perspectives. 

First, Opposition MPs and others have publicly called on the government to ensure disadvantaged pupils have adequate Internet access and laptops. Their open letter suggested that 9% of children in the UK don’t have such access. The government claims to have delivered over 340,000 devices last term, with plans to treble that this term, but not yet it seems for primary schools. In his Statement this week, the Education Secretary claimed that ‘three quarters of a million devices will be delivered by the end of next week’ and, potentially more challenging, those without laptops could still attend school. Labour meanwhile has launched a ‘get every child online and every school supported to deliver digital excellence’ campaign.

Second, the Children’s Commissioner for England has further amplified her concerns including over the digital divide, calling among other things for schools to be the first sector to re-open when the time comes and for a clear education delivery plan to be put in place in the meantime. The Social Mobility Commission further believe that pupils should have the option of a funded repeat year as part of a major recovery plan.

And third, and on the wider front, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) and Resolution Foundation have both reported this week on some of the wider effects of lockdown on societal inequality. The IfS for instance published some of the findings from its current major review into inequality effectively debunking the notion that we’re all in it together. As they put it: “the best-paid and most highly educated have been much better able to ride out the crisis.” The call for action is clear.

And finally the third question: how all this week’s developments fit in with what’s happening around education this year?  

Some things are already in the pipeline and have been for some time. They include a report into the impact of school closures on pupil attainment commissioned by government and due out in October, with interim findings due earlier. There’s also a long-awaited FE White Paper; an updated industrial Strategy; a revised International Education Strategy; and a review into post-qualification admissions (PQA) for university. No dates have been set for any of these.

One important date that has been set is the Budget, which is due on 3 March. Local Council and Mayoral elections, and elections to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, due for May, may have to await the effects of the latest lockdown. As for a Cabinet reshuffle and change of Minister, everyone has a favoured date for that.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Schools to close and exams facing axe in England.’ (Monday)
  • ‘BTECs: petition against January exams reaches 100,000.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Teachers’ grades will replace exams in England.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Fears schools will be overwhelmed by laptopless pupils.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Students pledge rent strike over unused uni rooms.’ (Friday)


  • Lockdown statement. The Prime Minister confirmed the latest lockdown in an address to the country, defending moves to try and keep schools open, but acknowledging that current plans for exams will have to change although free school meals and laptop distribution will continue and nurseries remain open.
  • Lockdown grants. The Chancellor followed up the latest lockdown announcement by providing one-off top up grants to help the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors manage their costs over the next few months with additional funds available on a discretionary basis through Local Authorities. 
  • Business call. Number 10 released a few details of the Prime Minister’s call with business leaders this week where post-Brexit opportunities, levelling up and Building Back Better were all cited with education, skills, technology and infrastructure underlined as key themes.
  • All about the workers. The Prime Minister launched a new campaign to boost and support the numbers of public sector workers including teachers, police and health workers, with media campaigns due to commence shortly.
  • Digital divide. Labour MPs and other leading figures called on the government to ensure that given the current school closures, all children had access to the internet and devices to be able to learn at home and to create a register of those without access with clear plans to meet their needs.
  • Furlough parents. The TUC called on the government to provide an entitlement to flexible working and 10 days paid leave for working parents while urging employers to use the furlough system for parents with home schooling children.
  • Sharpening inequalities. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) published some interim findings from its Nuffield funded major Review of Inequalities, launched before the pandemic but highlighting how this was exacerbating gaps in terms of health, income and education, prompting the need for future urgent action.
  • Missing Billions. The Resolution Foundation reported on wealth distribution in the UK suggesting that official data failed to reflect the full picture with potentially some £800bn not accounted for, arguing accordingly that wealth inequality was something that the Chancellor now needed to tackle. 
  • Global economies. The Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) reported that despite the pandemic, effects of recession and projected slow economic recovery, the UK had regained fifth place among the world’s largest economies and was likely to remain in sixth place overall over the remaining decade. 
  • March Budget. The Treasury invited representations and proposals for its March 2021 Budget with a closing date set for 5.00 pm on 14 January.
  • AI Roadmap. The AI Council, an independent Committee providing expert advice to government, set out a roadmap for AI with 16 recommendations to help the government set a national strategy for Artificial Intelligence incorporating skill development, investment in R/D, and building public trust. 
  • Supporting UK scientists. The BEIS Dept announced further funding to help upgrade UK science and research facilities including for digital research and for tackling current challenges such as Covid and climate change. 
  • Taylor’s view. In the first of a number of valedictory articles as he prepares to step down this summer as Chief Exec of the RSA, Matthew Taylor examined accountability and how it can operate at different levels.
  • Future steps. The pop group Steps joined forces with the Prince’s Trust to support next month’s ‘Future Steps’ campaign, a 10,000 steps a day challenge which will encourage healthy activity, raise funds and hopefully help young people focus on future opportunities. 
  • The Value of Volunteering. The Education and Employers organisation published a new report highlighting the value of educational volunteering, with significant benefits both for educational institutions as well as those who volunteer to help.

More specifically ...


  • Lockdown measures. The Education Secretary confirmed in a Statement to MPs that following the latest lockdown, more digital devices would be sent to schools who would be expected to follow mandatory requirements in delivering online learning, ‘a form of teacher-assessment’ would be used for this year’s GCSE and A’ level exams, free school meals would continue and Covid testing used to help schools re-open when appropriate.
  • Lockdown Q/A. The DfE provide a list of responses to many of the key questions arising out of the latest lockdown announcement.
  • Lockdown guidance.The government published a further hefty guidance document for schools for this latest lockdown covering much of the familiar ground but with confirmation of directions on online learning requirements, exams and future Covid testing among other things.
  • Exams matter. The General Secretary of the HMC raised concerns about the scrapping of this summer’s GCSE and A’ level exams arguing that the decision had been poorly handled and risked undermining the work of teachers and students.
  • Protecting our children. The Children’s Commissioner for England highlighted continuing concerns about the effects of school closures on children calling on the government to ensure they had adequate access to digital devices, for vulnerable children to be protected, for schools to be the first to re-open when the time comes and for a clear education delivery plan to be established in the meantime.
  • Home schooling.The BBC outlined helpful resources and tips to help families with home schooling including its own series of programmes due to start from next Monday as well as other sites and available links.
  • Professional development. The government announced that it was going to use some of the training funding announced in the Spending Review to create a new Institute of Teaching, due to be set up with regional campuses in England from Sept 2022 with a focus on mentoring, professional development and qualifications.
  • Teacher vaccinations. A petition calling to eligible teachers and childcare workers to be added to the priority list for vaccinations reached the required rate for the government now to hold a debate on the matter.
  • Changing seats. Ofqual confirmed its recent leadership changes with a listing including the new interim Chair and Chief Regulator.


  • Government position on BTECs. The government responded to calls for clarity from the AoC among others on whether the current BTEC exams/assessments should go ahead by leaving it up to individual schools and colleges to determine.
  • Predicted grades. A petition was launched to support teacher predicted grades as a fairer system for BTEC students.
  • Pearson on BTECs. Awarding Organisation Pearson reassured students that those who had completed sufficient evidence would receive a grade while those unable to sit an exam currently would not be disadvantaged and should be able to sit one later.
  • Summer exams.The Association of Colleges urged the government to adopt a national system of centre-moderated assessment with national moderation and a special consideration process as part of a ‘robust’ plan for this year’s exams.  
  • Unleashing talent. The Learning and Work Institute published the final report from its Youth Commission which has been looking at how to improve education and employment opportunities for young people in England, proposing a comprehensive 10-year strategy incorporating a Youth Guarantee, action on apprenticeships and L3 performance along with a new Youth Allowance.
  • 100 not out. The Learning and Work Institute announced plans to celebrate the centenary of it and its predecessor’s work in adult learning and skills with a series of events and activities.


  • Latest guidance. The government issued its latest round of guidance for HE providers following the new lockdown, confirming the use of online learning apart from specific disciplines, limits to student movement and approach to testing as indicated in the Minister’s earlier missives. 
  • SAGE advice. The Times Higher reported on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advice that in light of the current Coronavirus developments, universities should adopt online teaching for the rest of this term, with universities such as UCL, LSE and York confirming new arrangements.
  • NUS expectations. The NUS called for rent rebates, no-detriment policies, the scaling up of mental health services and the provision of high-quality online teaching and learning in its response to the government’s latest lockdown.
  • Extenuating circumstances. Local media reported that Leeds Beckett University had re-introduced its safety net policy for students, adopted during the first lockdown, whereby students have the opportunity to base progression on their best 60 credits for a year out of 120.
  • UCAS applications. UCAS announced that it was pushing back its normal mid-January deadline for a couple of weeks to 29 January to give students and advisers, both here and abroad, more time to complete processes during the current lockdown. 
  • 2021 University admissions. David Kernohan, Associate Editor at Wonkhe, reflected on university admissions processes this year given the scrapping of traditional exams, concluding that a system of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers that could be rescinded if things changed, might be preferable.
  • Drop out matters. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published a new briefing on the issue of student non-continuation which has risen up the policy agenda, arguing that behind the headlines it’s not well understood and while it may be prevalent among certain groups, the UK has a good track record in this area although measures like maintenance support and staged learning could always help. 
  • Erasmus limits. The Times Higher reflected on the government’s decision to drop the Erasmus+ exchange scheme as part of the recent EU Trade Agreement suggesting that as the alternative £100m pa Turing scheme wasn’t reciprocal and wouldn’t cover all costs, it could end up as a ‘pale imitation’. 

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Future pub quiz question: “what day did children go to school on in 2021”? | @sjpinches
  • “BREAKING: Captain Sir Tom has ordered a new pair of trainers #Lockdown3” | @DominicFarrell
  • “PE with Joe is back Monday 11th January at 9am(UK time)” | @thebodycoach
  • “Lockdown 3, eldest is home schooling, youngest is drawing over my work and I’m studying my law degree with him on my lap, and work tomorrow as I’m healthcare and run my own business” | @hmatthews 1990
  • “Listening in on my son’s first online class of the day. Teachers are incredible, aren’t they? Where can I buy the magic dust they sprinkle on the kids to make them sit still and listen?” | @SkyLucyMarg
  • “Our 4 year old wears his school jumper at home as well. An attempt to differentiate between just normal 'being at home'. Can't say it's making much difference though” | @lyndseypallant
  • “This school-age CoVID generation, who've absorbed lockdowns, school closures & tragedy, mirror the evacuated generation from 1939. Their experiences created a postwar generation of inventors, musicians, designers, politicians who'd look beyond obvious to create extraordinary” | @stephenheppell
  • “Things they don’t teach you on your PGCE: how to set up a mass testing centre” | @MissHChambers
  • “Is teaching the only profession where non-professionals tell the professionals what they should & shouldn’t be doing? I don’t remember telling a plumber what to do & how to do it, or a solicitor or any other profession for that matter” | @ActiveYouthUK
  • “Can I live in precedented times now please?” | @jcrdandaly
  • “Every so often, mostly on a Monday evening, I get an overwhelming sadness that I will never be on University Challenge” | @hansmollman
  • “All over the land, parents are questioning the wisdom of dry January...” | @thosethatcan
  • “I don't want to go for a walk with someone or watch a boxset ever again after this pandemic” | @Sathnam

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “We have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it” – the Prime Minister channels the inner spirit in his New Year message. 
  • “There’s no doubt in my mind that schools are safe” – the PM offers his view on the Marr show about schools opening.
  • “If you, the government, know better than the scientists, could you show us the evidence?" – ASCL’s Geoff Barton asks a key question.
  • “In England, we must therefore go into a national lockdown which is tough enough to contain this variant” – the PM announces a further lockdown.
  • “And as was the case last spring, our emergence from the lockdown cocoon will be not a big bang but a gradual unwrapping” – the PM addresses MPs about the latest lockdown.
  • “There is no doubt in my mind that teachers and support staff should be a priority for vaccination alongside NHS workers” – Rob Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Committee.
  • “In a country with free state education, no child’s education should be dependent on their internet connection” – MPs and others call on the government to ensure children have access to digital devices and the internet.
  • “We strongly advise students not to leave their application to the last minute and if they are ready to submit now to go ahead and do this” – UCAS extends its mid-January application deadline by a couple of weeks but urges students not to leave things to the last minute.
  • “To go ahead with this exam series now would also be unfair on students” - the Association of Colleges calls on the government to abandon this month’s exams. 
  • “This year we are going to put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms” – the Education Secretary sets the context for this summer’s exams.
  • “Ofqual now faces a race against time to come up with the ‘fine-tuning’ of a credible alternative to exams” – ASCL responds to the Education Secretary’s announcement about this year’s exams.
  • “It is much easier to complain about exams than it is to design something *better* than exams” – Tom Richmond on exam alternatives.
  • “As a minimum I would like to see daily contact with teachers” – the Children’s Commissioner for England outlines her expectations in a letter to the Education Secretary.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 18. How many months it will take for the UK economy to return to its pre pandemic levels, according to the FT’s annual New Year poll of economic experts.
  • 85m v 97m. The number of jobs that automation will replace versus the number that it will create, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report.
  • 20%. The number of workers having to self-isolate who receive no wages or sick pay, according to the TUC.
  • 41,000. The number of new trainee teachers recruited last year, according to latest government figures.
  • 100,000. How many laptops and tablets the government claims to be delivering for schools during the first week of this term, according to the DfE.
  • 575m+. The number of school days lost last year, according to the Children’s Commissioner for England.
  • 15,747. The number of retail store closures as of 31 December 2020, according to the Centre for Retail Research.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • MPs debate on whether teachers and nursery staff should be a priority group for vaccination. (Monday)
  • Education Committee session on the effects of the lockdown on schools (Tuesday)
  • Westminster Hall debate on ‘Supporting for pupils’ education during school closures.’ (Wednesday) 

Other stories

  • WFA anyone? Apparently ‘Working from Anywhere’ (WFA) is one of the new workplace buzzwords for 2021. This is at least according to a comment piece in the FT this week which looked into how the pandemic had changed working practices and what was ‘in’ this year. Working from Home’ (WFH) incidentally is rather last year Other key descriptors for use this year include ‘Collab’ (collaborative software such as Slack which enables different sets of people to work together;) ‘asynchronous’ (fitting it in when you can) and ‘intentionality (self-explanatory but less restrictive target or resolution.) A link to the article is here
  • Groaning twenties or roaring twenties. Also this week from the FT was the annual set of forecasts from leading economists about how the economy might perform this year. Last year the group forecast that things would remain fairly stable in 2020, so they come at this from a pretty poor forecasting base but the main divide is between those who think that things will quickly pick up post-Covid and post-Brexit leading to the roaring twenties and those who reckon it’s be a sluggish recovery, the groaning twenties. A slow recovery is the general consensus. Details here

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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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