Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 15 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:

A lot’s been happening again this week. 

The ever-lengthening list of headlines for the week includes further developments around this year’s exams; an appearance in front of the Education Committee by the Education Secretary; a Parliamentary debate about prioritising teachers in the vaccination programme; a new Mental Health White Paper; a major report on UK poverty; worries about student rent; an updated action plan for T levels; a flurry of activity around remote education; a call by Marcus Rashford for a review of the free school meal system in the wake of the latest school food parcels; and a history of the last 30 years of FE in just under 10 pages. It's been that sort of week. 

Links to these and other stories all below but if it helps, here’s a quick summary of four of the top stories.

First, this year’s exams. This week the Education Secretary wrote to Ofqual setting out his initial thinking about this year’s exams with Ofqual duly responding. They haven’t been the only ones thinking deeply about it all. The British Academy for instance offered an interesting perspective this week based around using school Assessment Committees; others have been offering their thoughts as well.

The Education Secretary’s proposals include a form of external test for GCSE/AS/A’ level students, looking into what forms of evidence should be used to help determine teacher assessments, developing quality assurance procedures for teacher assessments, and conducting assessments as late as possible in the term to allow for more learning time. And, no algorithm of course. Then for vocational qualifications, cancelling the February/March exams, enabling occupational competency qualifications to go ahead, and building on assured internal assessments for other vocational qualifications such as BTECs. 

The proposals have been generally well received. Geoff Barton at ASCL referred to them as ‘broad and sensible’ while David Hughes for colleges described the exchange of letters ‘as a positive step forward.’ For them, as for many others however, the devil remains in the detail which will follow the consultation. 

Second, there’s been plenty of discussion about education in Parliament this week. The Education Committee zoomed the Education Secretary and the Depatment’s Permanent Secretary to tackle them about school closures, exams and other matters, although it was Covid tests for primary children, vaccinations for teachers, remote learning and school meals that dominated much of the discussion. MPs had actually debated prioritising teachers in the vaccination programme a couple of days earlier, where the Minister concerned, Nadhim Zahawi, stuck to the government line of following the science, let alone the recommendations on priority groupings from the Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. 

In a further debate, MPs discussed support for pupils during the lockdown in a morning Westminster Hall debate, where teachers and families were praised for their efforts in keeping learning going, albeit remotely, but worries about attainment gaps were highlighted. And in other Committee news, the Public Accounts Committee published a critical report into the Department of Culture’s failure to meet progress in delivering the promised nationwide gigabit broadband connectivity. And on the other side of the coin, the Covid -19 Committee looked at how far the enforced spending of more time online was affecting social relationships and wellbeing. A report will follow.

Third, online learning, also a busy area this week, with the government upping the numbers of laptops delivered, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Children North East calling on the Education Secretary to ensure disadvantaged children were equipped with the right resources to be able to learn at home, and the DfE and Ofsted both publishing guidance documents. 

Remote learning, or online education, is an important issue at present for three reasons. First, because we now have recommended guidelines for the amount of provision expected, something that wasn’t in place for the first lockdown. Second, because each successive lockdown is adding to worries about the effects of lost learning, and third because as the CPAG letter indicated, there are continuing concerns that many families are missing out on the resources needed. Two of the unions this week condemned the government for being late to the party on this. 

That said, the government’s latest figures point to an increase in laptops distributed, 750,000 by the end of this week according to Nick Gibb, while the DfE has produced a template for schools and colleges to review their progress in providing remote provision. For its part, Ofsted has come up with a guide to good practice based on evidence gathered so far. ‘Keep it simple’ and ‘Focus on the basics’ being some of the more reassuring headings. It comes in the wake of the Education Secretary’s attempt last week to draw the inspectorate into overseeing expectations on remote learning, with Ofsted sticking to its position as a place of last resort for those with concerns about such provision.

Fourth, poverty, an increasingly worrying backcloth to so much in education, heightened this week by not just the issue of laptops, but also the provision of such basics as food. Both the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Resolution Foundation, each of which had reports out this week on poverty, singled out the coronavirus effect, pointing to the fact that it’s some of the most disadvantaged groups – such as lone parents, part-time employees, and BAME households – that have been hardest hit by it all. 

In their report entitled Pandemic Pressures, the Resolution Foundation pointed to three pressures on low-income families arising from the lockdown: the cost of food and electricity through having children at home all the time; the cost of getting food delivered; and the additional costs of resources needed for homeschooling. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation in their recommendations called for more job training, improved earnings, and more affordable housing. But for both organisations, the immediate issue is to secure an extension beyond April to the Universal Credit uplift. A real case for levelling up.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Teachers at no greater risk of mortality, says minister.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Ofsted inspections to be done remotely after U-turn.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘GCSE and A’ level pupils could sit mini exams to aid grading.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Row over half term free school meals plan.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Regulator refuses to approve mass daily Covid testing at English schools.’ (Friday)


  • Green finances. The PM used the occasion of the One Planet Summit to commit £3bn+ from the government’s current ‘Green Budget’ to help with projects such as marine conservation, forests, clean growth and biodiversity.
  • Economic Update. The Chancellor gave an economic update for MPs at the start of the latest session of Parliament using the occasion to run through the financial steps the government had already taken, suggesting things could get worse before they got better for the economy but placing much hope on vaccinations for a better future.
  • Responsible fiscal policy. The Shadow Chancellor set out Labour thinking for what she called ‘a responsible framework for a resilient economy’ in this year’s Mais lecture, proposing an annual NAO report to Parliament on value for money and a focus on jobs, trade policy and climate change as economic priorities.
  • Family values. Sir Keir Starmer called on the government to give key workers a pay rise, stem council tax rises, stop any cuts to Universal Credit and extend the ban on evictions as part of a keynote speech on the economy and families.
  • New Minister on the line . Kwasi Kwarteng, the new Business Secretary, discussed business needs and priorities with leading business organisations as part of his first day in the office.
  • Digital leadership. The government announced the appointment of three key digital roles to head up the new Central Digital and Data Office and Government Digital Service respectively as part of a drive to enhance national digital developments in the coming months. 
  • Mental health reform. The government launched ‘a package of reforms’ for consultation as part of a new Mental Health White Paper aimed at giving patients a greater say over their treatment, tackling disparities in treatment and improving support for patients within the criminal system.
  • Restart scheme. The government provided more details on how its Restart scheme, which was announced in last year’s Spending Review and will launch this summer, will operate to help people back into work.
  • Personal and community belonging. The Onward Group which is backed by a cross section of MPs and focuses on improving the common good, published a new report calling for more power to be given to communities and individuals including for example a new funded civic scheme for unemployed young people and an option for older people to take their pension one year earlier and use the year to volunteer, retrain or start a venture. 
  • Poverty 2020/21. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a new independent report on poverty in the UK highlighting five drivers (unemployment, earnings, benefits, housing costs and inflation,) all made worse by the pandemic particularly for certain groups, calling for more help to get people into work, improved earnings and benefits, and more affordable housing.
  • Pandemic pressures. The Resolution Foundation and the Nuffield funded Covid Realities project at York University reported on the pressures facing low-income families during lockdown citing three main cost drivers: the costs of having children at home all the time, the cost of food and the cost of devices for home schooling, urging the government to retain the family credit uplift accordingly.
  • Learning from Lockdown. The Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East wrote an open letter to the Education Secretary highlighting issues faced by many families during lockdown and calling for cash payments as a replacement for free school meals and greater financial support for home learning.
  • Small business survey. The Federation of Small Businesses reported on its latest membership survey taken before the current lockdown showing confidence and profits falling and record numbers looking to close over the coming year. 
  • City plans. The FT reported that the City of London was considering a new post-Brexit and Covid strategy for the financial district, focusing on growth in green finance, fintech and the creative industries and building on smart technology and flexible work practices.
  • A plan for education. Rob Halfon MP, Education Committee Chair and leading educationalists called in an open letter for a long-term plan for education built around replacing GCSEs with a Baccalaureate qualification, individualised progression pathways and technology enhanced classroom learning.
  • Civil service skills. The government announced further plans to enhance the training and skills of the Civil Service with some immediate work on development programmes and data skills and longer term the creation of a Government Curriculum and Skills Unit.
  • Vaccine prioritisation. Public sector worker bodies including school and college organisations called on the government to prioritise education staff in the rollout of the vaccination programme.

More specifically ...


  • The summer exams. The Education Secretary set out his thoughts about this summer’s exams in a letter to Ofqual outlining a number of principles for consultation including the approach and support needed for teacher assessment for GCSE and A’ levels as well as the use of externally set papers, and the use of internal and adaptive assessment for vocational qualifications.
  • Ofqual response. Ofqual responded to the consultation principles outlined by the Education Secretary highlighting the burdens being placed on teachers to undertake assessment and underlining the importance of a clear quality assurance process for this, agreeing on the case for external papers for GCSE and A’ levels, reinforcing the proposed thinking on vocational qualifications, and agreeing to work with the government on the consultation. 
  • Primary assessment. Nick Gibb confirmed in an answer in Parliament that the government was currently planning for ‘a full programme of primary assessments for the 2021/22 academic year’ that would include the Reception Baseline Assessment and Multiplication Tables Check. 
  • More laptops. The government indicated that it had added to the numbers of laptops and tablets now available to help disadvantaged pupils learn at home claiming that this now took the number of devices available to 1.3m.
  • Laptop numbers. The government published the latest figures on its delivery of laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children indicating this was nearly 140,000 since the start of this term.
  • Remote learning framework. The government published a non-statutory framework built around six features including context, curriculum, capacity, communication, safeguarding and leadership, that schools could use to review their provision of remote education.
  • What’s working well in remote education. Ofsted provided a brief guide to good practice in remote education based on research and evidence from interim visits, highlighting the importance of keeping things simple and structured and of providing interaction, feedback and assessment while recognising some of the challenges involved.
  • Remote inspections. Ofsted confirmed that in the light of current Covid restrictions, planned inspection activity would commence from 25 Jan and would be carried out remotely up to at least the February half term, with early years visits paused for the same period and any other vital on-site work such as looking into safeguarding, subject to risk assessment first.
  • Social care. The government launched a ‘fundamental’ review of the social care system for children looking at the provision of services and the experiences of children with a formal report to government.
  • School attendance. The Education Policy Institute, with support from the NAHT, reported on the government’s recent figures on school attendance for last term indicating it was 80%-85% on average for secondary schools and 90% for primary schools albeit with regional variations but with a notable drop, particularly in the London area, for the last week of term.
  • Demand for places. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) reported on its recent survey of members indicating the pressures on schools to accommodate increasing numbers of vulnerable children and those from families of key workers. 
  • Vaccination hubs. The HMC (Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference,) Cognita and a couple of leading Academies wrote to the PM offering their schools as hubs to help out with the vaccination programme. 
  • Road to recovery. Russell Hobby, Chief Exec of Teach First, looked at how schools might move on from the pandemic, pointing to the need to establish digital access, devise alternatives to exams, invest in the transition points, and strengthen the role of local schools.
  • How we’d award exam grades. The British Academy set out what it called ‘a simpler way to award exam grades in exceptional circumstances,’ based on Ofqual and/or exam boards first developing a national benchmark picture which could then be used to generate school profiles before moving to school-based Assessment Committees to complete ‘controlled’ centre-moderation.
  • Our plan for grading this year. Headteacher and blogger John Tomsett outlined how his school was planning to ensure their GCSE and A’ level students receive authentic exam grades this summer.
  • Essential skills..The Skills Builder partnership reported on its examination of data from the renowned British Cohort Study showing the importance of such essential skills as speaking, listening and problem-solving and how in five hypotheses tested, these can contribute to attainment for young people.
  • Curriculum review..The Education Policy Institute reported on case studies of curriculum review and reform, looking in particular at how five countries had gone about it, including Finland, Scotland and South Korea, concluding that there was no uniform approach but most had worked to a planned cyclical process using different agencies.
  • School governance..The National Governance Association re-launched for 2021 its Visible Governance in Schools campaign with a range of activities and resources lined up across the year to help spread the word about the important role governors, clerks and others play in supporting the school system.


  • The summer exams. The Education Secretary set out his thoughts about this summer’s exams in a letter to Ofqual outlining a number of principles for consultation including the approach and support needed for teacher assessment for GCSE and A’ levels as well as the use of externally set papers, the use of internal and adaptive assessment for vocational qualifications, the cancellation of this spring’s vocational exams and managed assessments for required competency qualifications.
  • Ofqual response. Ofqual responded to the consultation principles outlined by the Education Secretary acknowledging much of what had been said, highlighting the burdens being placed on teachers to undertake assessment and underlining the importance of a clear quality assurance process for this, reinforcing the proposed thinking on vocational qualifications, and agreeing to work with the government on the consultation.
  • Autumn 2020 exams. The Joint Council for Qualifications published the provisional results for GCSEs in English and maths taken last November which included this time both over and under 16 yr olds and showing overall a 49% grade 4 pass in English and 34.9% rate in maths.
  • L3 consultation. The government extended the deadline for this to 11.45pm on 31 January 2021 with the L2 consultation also extended in this case to 11.45pm on 14 February 2021.
  • Skills bootcamps. The government invited local suppliers, preferably consortia, to bid for contracts to run Skills Bootcamps with one set covering the regions and one covering the sectors, and contracts due to run from May 2021 to May 2022. 
  • Remote learning framework. The government published a non-statutory framework built around six features including context, curriculum, capacity, communication, safeguarding and leadership, that FE providers could use to review their provision of remote learning.
  • T level action plan. The government published the latest version of its T level Action Plan updating activity since the launch of the first three T levels last September including the further roll-out, funding and support available, the development of components such as the Transition Programme and Industry Placements, and wider qualification reform.
  • T level funding. The government published the list of successful Wave 2 applications for T level capital funding and invited bids for Wave 3 applicants to access some of the £135m set aside for equipment and facilities to support T level delivery from Sept 2022.
  • 16-19 funding. The Education Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) confirmed the funding rates for 16-19 provision for 2021/22 incorporating the additional money announced in last November’s Budget.
  • Extended flexibilities. The Institute for Apprenticeships confirmed that it was extending its current flexibilities around apprenticeships, such as time to complete and remote assessment, to at least the end of August.
  • Policy memory. The FE Trust for Leadership (FETL) published a report mapping the constant stream of policy developments in the FE sector over the last 30 years, highlighting significant trends and ending with a sea chart listing developments in FE over the last three decades.
  • Jack of all trades. Simon Kelleher spelled out in a new briefing paper for the FETL, the increasingly wide variety of roles senior leaders in the FE sector may have to undertake and the shifting environment in which they have to operate. 
  • Northern support. The N.E. Chamber of Commerce and local colleges called on the government to support adult education in the North of England where needs are particularly acute, citing the need for leaning accounts and flexibilities to the Lifetime Skills Guarantee and training restrictions.
  • EdTech teaching and learning. The Education and Training Foundation launched 14 new EdTech modules designed to help practitioners with digital content and delivery as more providers switch to online learning. 


  • Service continued. The Office for Students wrote to all HE institutions ahead of the release of further guidance, calling on them to ensure that they are continuing to provide expected levels of provision, services and support to students, and to alert them of any likely risks or issues arising.
  • Fair assessment. The Chief Executive of the Russell Group responded to students who’d expressed concerns about the fairness of their assessments and integrity of their degrees this year, reassuring them that universities individually were putting in a range of measures to mitigate potential issues.
  • Fair treatment. The Chief Exec of the Russell Group also wrote to applicants thinking of applying to Russell Group universities this year to confirm that such universities recognised the challenges they faced with school closures and exam cancellations but that universities would do all they could to ensure applicants were not disadvantaged as a result.
  • Fair Admissions. Two academic researchers from Durham University outlined on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) website, features of their new report into the university admissions system which highlights the tensions between equality and equity of opportunity and recommends among other things greater use of socioeconomic contextual data and of monitoring information.
  • Augar in aspic? The Times Higher considered where we are with the Augar review and whether the landmark 2019 report is still now relevant, with the view from commentators being that other, more focused issues such as student numbers controls, loan write-offs and future skills requirements are likely to dominate now.
  • Cambridge Foundation Year. Cambridge University announced it intended to launch a new, philanthropy funded, Foundation Year from Oct 2022 for 50 students from disadvantaged backgrounds with 3Bs or equivalent which would lead to a CertHE qualification enabling them to progress to further study or alternative routes. 
  • Not hard, not soft but essential. Wonkhe and Adobe reported on their recent work around so-called essential skills, communication, problem-solving and so on, looking at the nature of such skills, how they’re developed in student programmes and ways in which they could be recognised.
  • Higher tech qualifications. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) launched consultation on the first wave of higher tech qualifications intended to meet employer/learner needs, in this case, digital qualifications due for first teaching from Sept 2022.
  • Turing questions. Professor David Carter, Head of International Study at Reading University outlined further issues about the successor to the Erasmus+ scheme, listing in a blog on the HEPI website five further questions that needed asking, including how far the money will go and what will happen to existing European exchange agreements. 
  • The customer’s always... The Student Loans Company invited applications for its new Customer Panel, promised in its recent Corporate Plan, and intended to help develop and enhance its ‘customer experience’.
  • Student renters. The NUS published its latest survey of student renters, taken during last November, and showing over two-thirds concerned about their ability to pay their rent and over 50% of those who were self-isolating failing to receive any support from their accommodation provider.
  • Rent relief. Unite, the student accommodation provider, announced a 50% rent discount for eligible students for a 4-week period from 18 January – 14 February, plus a month’s free extension at the end of tenancy agreements to allow students to complete their courses.
  • Welcoming the new President. UCL welcomed Dr Michael Spence, former V.C. at Sydney University, as he took up the position as President and Provost of UCL.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Marcus Rashford is a 23-year-old professional footballer and part-time Secretary of State for Education” | @Gareth_Davies09
  • “‘We expect caterers to ensure our food standards are met and adhered to when lunch parcels are prepared’ | @educationgovuk
  • “Here's a thought... almost all workplace 'classroom' training stopped for months on end. Has it made any difference? I doubt it... may have been a good thing...” | @DonaldClark
  • “We are currently operating a courtroom in one room, a classroom in another and an office in the kitchen. Thinking of charging rent” | @AmyBraier
  • “Just asked my class why 'name of student' wasn't attending on-line sessions expecting to hear tales of woe. "He don't like learning, Sir" was the response” | @PhilBeadle
  • “Teaching six-year-olds via zoom is so funny. I’ll spend 15 minutes explaining a literacy task and when I ask if they have any questions they’ll be like “do you have a cat?” | @softboyuk
  • “Did some Macbeth in home school this morning and *apparently* I over-acted the “is this a dagger I see before me” scene” | @janemerrick23
  • “Parents with full-time jobs and home-schooling who like cooking: it's normal to eat the evening meal at 9.45pm, right?” | @Ed_Dorrell
  • “Chrome books bought and being picked up tomorrow. These kids had better get their school work done on them now or else” | @helendaykin
  • “There was a kid in my class at school who was doing his French oral, and at the end the teacher said ‘c’est fini.’ So he said ‘fini’ | @BBCJonSopel

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “While the vaccine provides hope, the economy is going to get worse before it gets better” – the Chancellor updates MPs.
  • “Too early to tell” – the PM answers MPs’ questions about whether schools will reopen after February half-term. 
  • “Kwasi Kwarteng has a massive task” – the Shadow Business Secretary welcomes the new Business Secretary.
  • “However, my view is that any changes to grades as a result of the external quality assurance process should be the exception” – the Education Secretary sets out his thinking ahead of consultation on this summer’s exams.
  • “It is critical that school places for the children of key workers are only used when absolutely necessary in order to reduce the numbers in school and stem the spread of the virus” – the National Association of Head Teachers raises concerns about the use of school places during lockdown.
  • “It’s harder to engage and motivate pupils remotely than when they are in the classroom” - Ofsted offers a good practice guide to remote learning.
  • “Our plan is to establish local “hub” schools dedicated to administering the vaccine to teachers, childcare workers and school support staff, starting with workers in nurseries and special schools so that these establishments can remain open over the coming weeks” – leading independent and Academy schools offer their services with the vaccination programme.
  • “I'm just coming up for air after painstakingly copying 17 circles divided into various fractions on to a piece of paper for my seven-year-old to colour in because yup, my printer has packed up” – the reality of homeschooling for some families.
  • “Just not good enough” – Marcus Rashford on the latest food parcels sent to free school meal families.
  • “I think I speak for teenagers everywhere when I say we are exhausted” – A’ level student Beatrice Gove, daughter of Michael Gove, with her view of the latest lockdown.
  • “It’s on us to keep it funny,” – the producer of Horrible Histories on being included as part of the BBC’s new learning output.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 250,000+. The number of small businesses facing closure over the coming year unless they receive support, according to the latest survey from the Small Businesses Federation.
  • 1.2m. The number of people employed by Amazon, according to Lex.
  • 69%. The number of student renters worried about being able to pay their rent, according to a survey from the NUS.
  • 74%. The number of headteachers surveyed who reported increased pressure on school places in this lockdown compared to that of last March, according to the NAHT.
  • 71%. The number of working Mums who have had their requests for furlough following the latest school closures turned down, according to a survey by the TUC.
  • 300,000. How many more laptops and tablets have been lined up to help disadvantaged children learn at home, according to latest figures from government.
  • 60%. The number of people surveyed saying they’re finding it harder to stay positive during this lockdown with women finding it harder than men, according to Ipsos Mori.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Keir Starmer to set out Labour 2021 priorities at Fabian Conference. (Sat/Sunday)
  • Opposition Day Debate on Free School Meals and Remote Education (Monday)
  • AELP online event on the Ofsted Annual Report and inspections (Monday)
  • Education Committee evidence session on the impact of Covid-19 on education and children’s services (Tuesday)
  • Inauguration of the new US President (Wednesday)

Other stories

  • BBC education output. It’s been the first week of BBC education programmes intended to help hard-pressed families with their homeschooling so how’s it been going down? According to a comment piece in The Conversation pretty well. The reviewer, a media professor, praised in particular the lively presentations and styling, the use of celebrity presenters, and the coherent sequencing. A long way from those ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ days of old. A link to the article is here
  • Let it all out. Many people may well sympathise with columnist Melissa Kite who in this week’s Spectator magazine proposes a new neighbourhood ritual called ‘Scream if you’re going round the bend.’ She reckons 8.00 on a Friday evening is a good time. A (subscriber) link to the article is 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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