Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 22 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:

You wait ages for some important government pronouncements and then, like the proverbial buses, they all arrive at once. 

They include the FE White Paper ‘Skills for Jobs,’ a consultation on post-qualification admissions; the independent review of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in HE; the interim response to the Augar review; and some changes to the HE teaching grant – all of which arrived yesterday. In some cases we’ve been waiting a long time. The TEF and Augar reviews for instance both stem from 2019 and while they may have lost immediacy, there are some important directional signposts here about future education policy. 

The education press has been busy covering all the detail but here is a quick summary of each in case it helps.

The Skills for Jobs Paper first. Announced by the Education Secretary last July as a way of competing on skills, propelled by a continuing desire to counterbalance the degree route with a ‘high-quality’ technical route, and arriving with plenty of hype, ‘a new economic dawn’ and so on, the Paper mercifully avoids, in the words of the Association of Colleges, ‘taking a wrecking ball to the system.’ Rather it brings together many existing announcements, including the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, Kickstart apprenticeship and traineeship programmes, and T levels and higher-tech qualifications, and adds a few twists of its own, four in particular.

First, the adoption of Local Skills Improvement Plans, not new in concept, think RDAs to Skills Advisory Panels, but here potentially given a legislative footing, backed by Chambers of Commerce and granted delivery funding. Second, building a more flexible system of learning around the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. Consultation on this will follow, but it opens up the potential for a more responsive system for a key group of learners. Third, yet to be worked up, but changes to funding, multi-year perhaps, and accountability, outcome-focused. Fourth, funding to set up College Business Centres, a welcome anchoring of the place of colleges in communities.

There’s a lot more consultation and work that needs doing to bring all this to fruition and funding will be important, with FE starting from a low base, but as the Chief Executive of the AoC saw it: ‘it’s an ambitious package with a big and positive agenda.’ The Collab Group of Colleges ‘welcomed the direction of travel,’ while the Chambers of Commerce heralded the opportunity to play ‘a leading role in developing local skills plans.’

Next, the response to the Augar review, interim at this stage with a final response set for the Comprehensive Spending Review. It’s a brief response to what was a major review and proposes further consultation on such matters as minimum entry requirements, modular provision, TEF developments and student finance terms. This may be frustrating, but is arguably necessary given the need for an economic reset post-pandemic and Brexit. 

For the moment, the response further underlines the direction of travel, including an entitlement to lifelong learning, provision aligned to employer needs, a focus on so-called high-value courses (‘incentives are aligned to encourage courses with good job outcomes,) a big push on higher technical education and a continuing commitment to research. In response, the Times Higher wondered whether the delay in responding meant Augar had now lost impact. In the same article former adviser Diana Beech suggested a higher risk now of a return to student numbers control, while Professor Andy Westwood felt that the government had done little to remove tensions in the system.

On to post-qualification admissions (PQA,) where the government as promised has launched further consultation. The issue has been around for some time and recent months have seen leading players such as UCAS, UUK and UCU all put forward recommendations for reform. The current admissions system, as the Education Secretary recognised in his Introduction, was designed for a different age and has suffered from criticisms such as inaccurate predicted grades, a growth of unconditional offers, and a sense that disadvantaged students miss out, as the consultation indicates. 

Two models are put forward. One in which results come out earlier, typically July. Applications and offers are then made on the basis of known results and the university term starts later, early October. And one, perhaps less favoured, in which applications are made as now, but offers are held back until results are known. Either model throws up questions about pressures on families and schools/colleges in the summer, what to do about international and other applicants, and how far any changes would destabilise the current exam, including vocational assessments, and university entry routine. UCAS has welcomed the consultation, but said it will talk to its many stakeholders before responding.

Finally, in the coverage of the major reports out this week, the government issued its response to the independent review of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in HE. This had been chaired by Dame Shirley Pearce with a view to simplifying and making more transparent the system for assessing excellence in teaching and learning with its gold, silver and bronze ratings. Its report, published in 2019, made a number of recommendations.

In a short response, the government ‘mostly’ accepted the recommendations before passing it all over to the Office for Students to ‘develop a revised and invigorated provider-level TEF.’ It did, however, add a number of points of its own. These included adding the principle of proportionality, suggesting a 4/5 year cycle, dropping subject-level assessments, changing Student Satisfaction to Student Academic Experience, and adding a fourth lower rating category. Oh, and for it all to be in place by September 2022. The Office for Students has published its initial thoughts on how it will tackle this as well as the latest funding grant proposals.

Away from reports and back inside Westminster, its been another busy week for education. Here’s a quick guide. 

The Education Secretary formally launched an independent review of children’s social care in a statement to MPs; DfE Ministers answered MPs’ education questions, with school meals, remote learning, exams and Covid testing among the main topics; and the Education Committee took evidence from medical and science advisers about school closures. Following the science proved quite difficult here with so many questions still open about how far schools were transmitters of the infection, but perhaps the main takeaway was that reopening schools might require a phased approach, ‘differential application’ as Dr Jenny Harries put it. Gavin Williamson has promised to give schools two weeks’ notice of opening.

Elsewhere Labour hosted two debates, one on providing more support for schools during the lockdown, including free school meals and laptops and the other on maintaining the £20 a week Universal Credit uplift. Each motion was passed without opposition and although the vote is non-binding, it enhances the profile of the issue in each case. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Apprenticeships discussed among other things how to improve entry into apprenticeship schemes, reinforcing the case for a single portal. The Covid-19 Committee examined the impact of the pandemic on AI, automation and remote working. David Davis MP presented a Bill to Parliament placing a duty on universities to uphold free speech, with financial penalties a possibility. And Nick Gibb gave the opening address at this week’s BettFest event, where in an apparent Damascene conversion, he extolled the virtues of technology in learning.

Finally, it never seems to stop, and two more important consultations are drawing to a close over the next ten days, each also likely to have an important bearing on future education provision. One is the Office for Students’ consultation on regulating HE quality and standards and the other is the government’s consultation on L3 provision. Hard-pressed bodies, it has to be said, don’t appear wildly enthusiastic in either case. Links below.  

I think that’s enough said for this week.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘BTECs: Ofqual asks DfE to delay qualifications reform.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Parents’ stress and depression rise during lockdowns.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Daily Covid testing plans paused in English schools.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘University tuition fees frozen for a year.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘GCSEs 2021: Teachers’ marking burden not much greater.’ (Friday)


  • Build Back Better. The Prime Minister, Chancellor and other Ministers hosted the first meeting of the Build Back Better Council, a group of 30 leading business figures who will work with the government over the year on plans for kickstarting the economy with an emphasis on jobs, investment and levelling up, including the more controversial issue of greater regulatory freedoms in working practices.
  • Business loans. The government published new data on its business-backed loans scheme indicating that 1.4m had been taken up with the retail and construction sectors the main recipients.
  • What should be in the Budget. The CBI set out its thoughts on what should be in the forthcoming March Budget calling among things for both the furlough and business rates schemes to be extended by a few months, Jobs Centres to become Jobs and Skills Hubs and the apprenticeship levy a Skills and Training Levy.
  • The Future of Furlough. The HR professional body, CIPD, called on the government to extend the furlough scheme to the end of June 2021, albeit reducing the subsidy level to 70% for the last couple of months, and creating a furlough scheme training fund for use by smaller firms.
  • Girls’ Envoy. The Prime Minister appointed Helen Grant MP as the country’s Special Envoy on Girls’ Education, where the aim is to get 40m more girls globally into schools by 2025 and which the UK intends to push as a key theme of its presidency of the G7 this year.
  • Youth worries. The Prince’s Trust published its latest annual survey of 16-25 yr olds, calling on the government not to give up on young people as it reported increasing numbers of them, particularly those not in education, jobs or training, feeling anxious, worried and depressed as a result of the pandemic.
  • Family stress. Co-Space, which has been working with leading organisations to monitor the impact of Covid on families and children reported on the pressures on parents and carers over last year with many, particularly those from low-income households, struggling with stress and depression and those with secondary age children worried about their education.
  • Living Standards 2021. The Resolution Foundation published a new report looking at what might happen to living standards this year as the pandemic hopefully recedes, suggesting that while many families were ‘protected’ by schemes in 2020, working families in particular may face a crunch in 2021, reinforcing the need to retain the Universal Credit uplift. 
  • Child poverty. The Children’s Commissioner for England published a selection of essays from politicians and professionals all expressing concern about child poverty and calling for the government to prioritise the issue.
  • Digital public services. The Reform think tank examined what progress had been made in the digitalisation of public services in light of the pandemic, finding some depts and systems better prepared than others and calling for a beefed-up cross-government digital skills strategy and a big push away from legacy IT.
  • R/D Roadmap. The government published a summary of some of the responses that have come into its R/D Roadmap proposals published last summer with continued investment, continued skills training and continued collaboration all emerging as key themes.
  • Sugar tax levy. Sustain, an organisation that campaigns for better food and farming, published a new report showing how schools and other organisations had used local funding to help improve healthy eating and calling for the creation of Healthy Food Innovation Fund for the future funded out of the sugar tax.

More specifically ...


  • Support during lockdown. MPs discussed and voted in support of a motion brought by the Shadow Education Secretary, calling for better support for schools during the lockdown including the provision of free school meals throughout the year and access to appropriate learning resources.
  • Covid testing. Public Health England (PHE) and NHS Test and Trace recommended that the proposed rollout of daily contact testing was paused in schools in England in light of uncertainty about the latest variant, instead, students should be tested twice when they return to school and staff twice weekly as previously.
  • Primary assessment. The Standards and Testing Agency published the assessment dates for the next academic year including for the reception baseline assessment, 2022 SATS and multiplication tables check. 
  • Covid related absences. The Education Policy Institute reported on staff and student Covid related absences in the autumn term indicating that confirmed staff cases rose higher than those of students but that there were great regional differences.
  • Exams 2021. The Social Mobility Commission commented on the proposals for this summer’s exams, welcoming the proposal that grades should be linked to school-based assessment for most types of qualification but highlighting difficulties over trying to ensure a level playing field for all. 
  • Prioritising teacher vaccinations. The four UK Children’s’ Commissioners wrote to the Chair of the Committee on Joint Vaccinations and Immunisation calling on the Committee to consider prioritising teachers and other key workers in the vaccination programme.
  • Careers Champions. The Gatsby Foundation and the Careers and Enterprise Company invited applications from individuals and organisations who have championed careers guidance and support and who should be nominated as Careers Champions as part of Careers Week in March.
  • Lost schooling. Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) reflected in a comment piece on the impact of lost schooling, how this could affect young people and families for some time to come and how overcoming attainment gaps should be a major priority for governments in the future.
  • Digital Divide. The Sutton Trust followed up its survey last year on the digital divide with further evidence from Teacher Tapp and others looking at the impact on learning of the latest lockdown, reporting an increase in intensity and provision of online live lessons and learning but with further concerns that less advantaged schools and families were falling behind. 
  • Remote Hub. The National Education Union (NEU) launched a new Remote Education Hub intending to provide not just access to shared resources but also advice, guidance and opportunities for networking. 
  • Free broadband offer. Broadband provider Hyperoptic announced it was offering a free broadband service, including a router and free installation until the end of August with no obligation to sign up beyond that for eligible families finding home-schooling difficult because of poor connectivity. 
  • Meal vouchers. The government announced that the £15 a week (per child) voucher system for free school meals was now up and running for the period up to half term, with schools able to order vouchers for those families unable to access the system.
  • Breakfast numbers. Magic Breakfast, the charity that provides school breakfasts at many deprived schools announced it had reached its 20thbirthday, by doubling the number of schools it was now working with and tripling the number of pupils it was reaching compared to previous years.


  • Skills for Jobs. The government published its FE White Paper bringing together a range of reforms, some of which such as the Lifelong Learning Guarantee have already been announced, some such as local skills planning requiring consultation but broadly setting out the thinking behind a reformed, skills driven and employer aligned FE and skills system for the future.
  • AoC view. The Association of Colleges heralded the White Paper as an opportunity to build on much of what colleges already do and to help rebalance education and skills around the needs of all employers and learners while recognising that future investment will be needed to deliver what’s required.
  • Collab view. The Collab Group of Colleges welcomed much of the FE White Paper notably the commitment to employer engagement, adult skills, and the role of colleges as ‘skills solutions powerhouses’ but noted that a lot more needed doing to turn the proposals into a reality.
  • AELP view. Independent training providers welcomed the recognition of their role in the FE White Paper along with proposals on careers, digital skills and accountability but raised questions about the nature of Local Skills Improvement Plans as well as further changes to the Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers.
  • Capital funding. The government outlined procedures for the initial bidding for £1.5bn of capital funds, announced in last November’s Budget, to help improve and upgrade college facilities and estate, with colleges expected to contribute to project costs.
  • Building up to the White Paper. Alun Francis, Chief Exec at Oldham College and Andy Westwood, Professor of Government at Manchester University, reflected in a comment piece for the think tank Policy Exchange about some of the key issues that should determine FE and HE relationships ahead of the White Paper, citing local autonomy and flexibility as defining principles.
  • Consultation response. Ofqual published its response to the government’s current L3 consultation pointing to a number of potential risks to both learner choice and the awarding body system in the proposals and calling for reforms to be postponed for a year in the current circumstances.
  • Colleges’ response. The Association of Colleges (AoC) set out its thoughts on the government’s proposals for L3 reform, arguing that a framework based around a dual route of just A’ levels and T levels would leave many learners without proper options and could be particularly damaging at a time when skill and learner needs were likely to be at their most acute.
  • Sixth Form Colleges response. The Sixth Form Colleges Association published its response to the government’s L3 consultation listing seven key messages largely around the fact that the proposed dual A’ level/T level route would leave many students uncatered for and that the government has not well understood the 16-19 qualification framework.
  • Skills Bulletin. Edge published the latest in its series of Skills Bulletins, on this occasion examining skills shortages arising out of the pandemic with a range of contributions focusing on many of the issues and two sectors, green jobs and digital, under the microscope and offering hope of growing job opportunities.
  • L4 apprenticeships. The Learning and Work Institute published its commissioned report into L4 and above apprenticeships and how to encourage greater use and diversity, citing upfront information and employer support particularly with off-the-job training as key factors. 
  • Moving on to Multiverse. WhiteHat, the start-up company co-founded by Euan Blair that helps coach and match young people with apprenticeships and opportunities in various companies, rebranded as Multiverse, securing at the same time considerable back-up funding and a potential opening in the US. 
  • Light at the end of the tunnel. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) welcomed the latest set of exam and testing arrangements proposed by government which could finally allow many thousands of apprentices and vocational learners to have their English and maths assessed and hopefully move on.
  • College governance. The Education and Training Foundation announced the launch of two new training modules for college governors, one beginner and one intermediate, to be delivered by the Association of Colleges.


  • Response to Augar. The government issued an interim response to the Augar review with a final response set for the Spending Review, proposing further consultation on such matters as minimum entry levels and student finance terms but overall confirming a direction of travel around R/D, employer aligned provision, high-tech courses and a flexible system.
  • Response to the TEF review. The government issued a short response to the Pearce review into the Teaching and Excellence Framework (TEF,) accepting the broad thrust of the recommendations, calling on the OfS to carry out further consultation and confirming an intention to drop subject-level assessments, add a bottom rating and move the whole thing on to an extended cycle.
  • TEF review. The government finally published the Pearce independent review into the Teaching and Excellence Framework (TEF) which came with a battery of supporting evidence and set out a number of proposals on improving the purpose, principles, structure and process of the Framework.
  • PQA. The government launched consultation on a potential post-qualification admissions (PQA) system suggesting two models, one with exam results published earlier allowing for applications and offers to be made on the basis of known results and one with applications as now but offers only made when results are out.
  • T Grant 2021/22. The government issued its Teaching Grant Funding Letter for 2021/22 directing the Office for Students (OfS) to undertake a phased reprioritisation of funding towards strategically important subjects including healthcare and labour market needs, cut funding under London weightings and Uni Connect and repurpose funds towards student mental health and hardship.
  • Free Speech. David Davis MP presented a Bill to Parliament proposing to make universities responsible for upholding free speech and liable to fines where necessary.
  • Consultation response. Universities UK responded to the recent consultation from the Office for Students on regulating quality and standards, questioning the timing of the consultation with so many related issues going on and challenging in particular the emphasis on outcomes especially for so-called low-quality courses.
  • Safety nets. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) published further guidance for providers on the use of safety nets or special support for students during Covid restrictions, suggesting using such options as using self-certification in some evidence claims.
  • Russell Group response. The Russell Group issued its response to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Students’ Inquiry into the impact of Covid on tuition and accommodation matters, listing the measures their institutions had been taking while acknowledging that there were still issues to be resolved in both areas.
  • The Future for fees. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published an important new ‘Debate Paper’ on the continuing issue of the student fee and loans system arguing that current loan model is unsustainable and calling for ‘a more transparent graduate contribution system,’ including significantly potentially contributions from those who graduated when things were grant-funded
  • The view from here. Professor Graham Galbraith, V.C. at Portsmouth, offered some thoughts in a blog on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) website about possible policy issues likely to dominate HE this year, pointing to an increasing emphasis on standards, regulation, success measures and so-called ‘low value’ courses as emerging aspects.
  • Getting through the year. Debbie McVitty, Editor of Wonkhe set out some proposals to help students and universities get through the rest of the year including keeping essential learning online until at least Easter, a digital divide loan fund, mitigation grant payments for home students, considering extending the summer term by a month and allowing unconditional offers for this year’s applicants. 
  • Fee and rent rebates. The Times Higher looked at some of the options facing the government over fee and rent rebates with some suggestions that the government was looking at the latter though the view seemed to be that there was ‘no easy answer’.
  • HE’s digital divide. JISC and a number of HE representative bodies wrote an open letter to the government calling for a meeting to discuss greater digital support for HE students, many of whom were struggling as much as school and college students yet whose needs had not received similar attention.
  • New Research Institute. Oxford University announced receipt of a £100m donation from the manufacturer Ineos to help set up a major new Institute to help tackle antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
  • HE workforce. HESA published new statistical data on academic staff working in UKHE as of December 2019, showing a slight 3% increase in total at 223,525 on the year before, with an increase to 32% of those on teaching-only contracts and 33% on fixed-term contracts.
  • Supply and demand. The OECD raised the issue of those with degrees in public sector fields such as nursing, health and teaching whose income returns tend to be lower than those in medicine, law, IT and engineering but whose skills may now be in increasing demand, calling for governments to consider how to make such careers more rewarding in future.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “French students promised one euro lockdown meals” | @BBCWorld
  • “This is something that perplexes me about distance learning. Benefits of it for younger primary school seem limited, mainly just exhausts teachers and parents - just seems like busywork to avoid govt thinking about the actual problem” | @stephenkb
  • “May just be me but teachers are real creatures of habit! Right? Staff car park is a classic example when school is quieter people still go to their space!” | @MrWithersAHT
  • “I was home schooling my daughter today and I thought ‘I quite fancy a pint.’ I looked at my watch and it was 9.14am” | @elisjames
  • “My daughter says ‘math’. So do her friends. ‘I’ve finished my math!’ It shouldn’t want to make me through the tv out of the window, but it does” | @ShappiKhorsandi
  • “Tweets only go virile when they contain a humiliating typo” | @kingstonwrites
  • “My three favorite things are eating my family and not using commas” | @EssexPR

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “My very strong instinct is that those who through their work may come into contact disproportionately with the virus, police, shop workers, teachers... should be prioritised" – Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi.
  • “For too long we have squandered much of our latent creativity and talent: this White Paper will be the lever to unleash it” – the Education Secretary ‘unleashes’ the FE White Paper.
  • “The rationale for the 2012 scheme is in tatters” – Alan Roff tackles the student loan system in a new Debate Paper for HEPI.
  • “Today’s announcement has not shed much light on the long-term changes that are to come in the higher education sector” – the NUS reacts to the government’s response to the Augar review, PQA proposals and TEF review.
  • “We know from our work to introduce regulations for some Key Stage 4 performance table qualifications, that reforms aimed at addressing weaknesses in qualifications may have the potential to remove some of the features of qualifications that can help to motivate learners” – Ofqual expresses some caution about the government’s reform of L3 qualifications.
  • “I am the father of a six-year-old girl, a four-year-old son, and, in addition, a 14-month-old baby screaming in the background. I have just managed to wrestle this laptop away from their learning today” – former Universities Minister Chris Skidmore joins in the debate in the Commons on access to remote education.
  • “It did not get to grips with this issue early enough, and it has been playing catch-up ever since” – ASCL’s Geoff Barton on the government’s laptop scheme.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 0.6%. The figure for UK CPI inflation last month, slightly higher than expected, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). 
  • 4%. The likely fall in income for low-income families this year if the government abandons its current Universal Credit uplift, according to the Resolution Foundation.
  • 272 – 0. The number of votes for and against a Labour motion to support free school meals throughout the year and greater access to laptops, according to a debate in Parliament.
  • 26%. The number of children from working-class households undertaking five hours or more of schoolwork a day compared to 40% of those from middle class households, according to research from the Sutton Trust. 
  • 239,103. The number of digital devices dispatched by government since the start of this latest lockdown, according to latest official figures.
  • 56%. The numbers of 16-25-year-olds reporting always or often feeling anxious and/or depressed, according to the latest annual survey from the Prince’s Trust.
  • 21%, 5%, 30%. The number of pupils attending state-funded primary, secondary and special schools respectively at last week’s census day of 13 January, considerably higher than during the first lockdown according to the latest figures.
  • 203%. The increase, between November 2019 and November 2020, in the number of jobs advertised as remote working opportunities, according to New Street Consulting and quoted in Personnel Today.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Education Committee witness session (Tuesday)
  • ‘Assessment – time for a rethink?’ Edge Panel event (Wednesday)
  • National Careers Service Virtual Careers Fair (Wednesday/Thursday)
  • Summary analysis of UCAS Teacher Training Applications (Thursday)
  • UN International Day of Education (Thursday)
  • OECD webinar on ‘What education will look like in the future.’ (Thursday)
  • Deadline for January UCAS applications (Friday)

Other stories

  • Keep it simple. Stick to one page, only make three points, use the KIS principle. Busy political leaders have used various tactics in the past to keep information flows manageable and readable. According to The Independent, which in turn picked the story up from The New York Times, Joe Biden has adopted another principle; ‘read it to your Mum and see if she gets it.’ A link to the actual quote is here
  • Zoom lounging. There’s been some debate recently about whether schools should encourage pupils to wear school uniform when they appear on zoom lessons. It may have followed the recent ticking off by the Commons Speaker of Jeremy Hunt who appeared on the Parliamentary screens in casual gear. Now we hear that lounging around all day in your pyjamas is bad for your mental health. According to Australian researchers cited in the Times Higher, sticking around in your pyjamas all day can lead to ‘blue pyjama syndrome,’ a condition in which hospital patients that wore bedclothes all day tended to feel more depressed. The article in the Times Higher can be found 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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