Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 29 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:

After last week’s blitz of policy propositions on FE and HE, the focus this week has been on more immediate matters like route maps out of lockdown, school re-opening, and jobs and training – with a dash of reports on mental health, GCSEs, college finances, and graduate employment adding some spice. 

The big talking point has been schools and when they will be able to fully open again. Of course, schools have never completely closed and have remained open for vulnerable children and others throughout the lockdown. 99% of state schools in England for instance were open last week according to latest government figures, higher than during the first lockdown. 

Schools have also been busy preparing for and providing remote learning in various forms for all the other learners. But the whole lockdown exercise has proved hugely draining, with parents and teachers at their wits' end according to some media headlines, and huge concerns emerging about young people’s mental health and life chances. Hence the growing clamour for some clarity on when things might get back to normal – a roadmap setting out the path for schools reopening, as the Chair of the Education Committee, Children’s Commissioner and parental campaign group UsForThem, put it. 

The Prime Minister offered some prospect of this in a Statement to MPs this week. This confirmed that the government would publish details of a lockdown exit plan in the week beginning February 22, which will ‘hope to see schools begin to reopen from March 8.’ “This is about as fast as we can prudently go,’ the PM explained, although, ahead of the Budget, he did promise an additional £300m for tutoring and further initiatives to support catch-up work. 

The wording was cautious, and much depends, as the Schools Minister indicated in an Opposition debate at the start of the week, on the four stated criteria: hospitalisation rates; mortality; vaccination rates; and the behaviour of the new virus. FE and HE were not specifically referenced but the roadmap schedule applies to them as well.

Before we leave it, it’s perhaps worth noting four other codicils to this debate.

First, the DfE is setting up a mental health action group, convened by Vicky Ford the Children’s Minister, to look into the effects of the lockdown on pupils and staff. Let’s hope it gets going soon. It may want, secondly, to look at evidence that might emerge from the work of the Education Endowment Foundation, Teacher Tapp and Parent Ping who are collecting first-hand data as part of a Big Lockdown Learning Parent Survey. Third, concerns about mental health continue to be a big driver, with talk of schoolchildren becoming ‘forgotten victims.’ This week concerns have been further substantiated with the publication of two new reports, one from the Children’s Commissioner for England and the other from the Education Policy Institute working with the Prince’s Trust. The focus group quotes in each are illuminating. 

And fourth – and slightly tangential perhaps, but likely to be an important issue as schools get back to business – where does this all leave the future of exams? This week, the EDSK think tank published a new report calling for a significant rethink on a national high-stakes exam system at age 16, while the Chair of the Education Committee spelled out his thoughts on the future of assessment at a symposium hosted by Edge. An important debate is gathering pace.

In other education news this week, the Education Committee has been continuing its inquiry into left-behind white pupils, looking this time at the impact of early years provision and intervention. The Business Committee continued its investigation into the Industrial Strategy, and in particular post-pandemic economic growth; the All-Party Parliamentary University Group hosted a session on student mental health; and the Public Accounts Committee published a report on college finances, with some interesting comments about sharpening up the data, aligning policies to costs and improving intervention arrangements. 

And away from Westminster, the World Economic Forum has been taking place virtually in Davos, where big names beamed in have included Angela Merkel, Greta Thunberg, Narendra Modi and President XI. According to Reuters, it’s ‘eerily quiet’ there, but some big issues have been under discussion, to be fleshed out at the live session set for Singapore in May. 

Finally, many people have been busy reflecting on last week’s rash of government reports on FE and HE. There’s been considerable positivity around the FE/Skills White Paper, albeit a sense of déjà vu; for the other three reports, there’s a sense that things haven’t moved much further forward. Arguably, three themes stand out from the various comment pieces. First, that the government could now be consumed by consultations for months to come, given how things were left. Second, there are some interesting details and a lot of component parts in the various papers, but little sense of overall coherence about the future vision for FE and HE. And third, there’s a lack of conviction about how it will all shape up. 

It’s been that sort of week ...

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Covid: Teachers not at higher risk of death than average.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Opening schools a national priority says government.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Covid: England’s schools will not reopen before March.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘MPs call for student Covid disruption funding in England to be doubled.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Covid-hit pupils should be allowed to repeat a year.’ (Friday)


  • Roadmap out of lockdown. The Prime Minister confirmed in a Statement to MPs that the government would set out details of a route map out of lockdown in the week beginning 22 Feb which could see schools starting to reopen from 8 March. 
  • Gaps in support. The All-Party Parliamentary Group, set up to speak for those left out of government support schemes, put forward proposals to help the 2.9m entrepreneurs and small business owners currently excluded from such support, with a £10.5bn system of one-off, targeted grants.
  • No jobs left behind. The Alliance for Full Employment published a new report arguing that the government had failed to measure the true numbers and cost of unemployment, calling for the Office for National Statistics to convene a group to come up with more accurate data and announcing a set of initiatives of its own around apprenticeships, digital skills and reskilling. 
  • Latest labour market picture. The Learning and Work Institute reported on the latest labour market figures for the period up to the end of November 2020, highlighting the importance of furloughing for job protection and citing two challenges: how best to exit support schemes and how best to kickstart the economy and jobs market post-pandemic.
  • Fire and rehire. The TUC published data from a new survey showing an emerging increase in the practice of firing employees and then rehiring them on worse terms with nearly one in ten workers affected, particularly among the disadvantaged.
  • Levelling down, levelling up. The Centre for Cities published its annual study of cities pointing to the economic slowdown and other pandemic issues affecting many cities including the previously prosperous South, calling for training support for adults, a potential Eat Out to Help Out scheme for retailers, and investment in city centres and transport links to help reinvigorate cities. 
  • More on levelling up. The Industrial Strategy Council examined how other countries had approached levelling up their local economies in a new report, identifying six factors including policy and investment consistency, collaboration especially with universities, skill-building and strong transport infrastructure.
  • Good Work. The Institute for the Future of Work published its Good Work Monitor examining the relationship between work and wellbeing showing how these can come together at a local level to enhance individual and community strengths.
  • Learning Factories. The Gatsby Foundation published a report into so-called Learning Factories, a model of learning and training that builds on an industrial concept using structures such as Catapults, Centres of Innovation and Institutes of Technology that can align learning to skill needs.
  • Insight into society. Understanding Society which along with research partners undertakes regular longitudinal studies into how family lives are changing, published its latest Insights report looking into health, welfare and family, with an interesting couple of chapters on education and training indicating for example that a good Ofsted report can be bad for GCSE results (as parents tend to reduce support).

More specifically ...


  • MPs questions on schools reopening. The Schools Minister responded to MPs questions about schools reopening arguing that the government was working to a plan guided by science, would give schools two weeks’ notice ahead of opening, and was setting up a mental health action group to look into the effects of the lockdown on pupils and staff.
  • Schools reopening. The Children’s Commissioner for England and local network Solace called on the government to reconvene the SAGE subgroup on schools and work with them to set out a roadmap for schools reopening.
  • Learning Loss. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published new research on the issue of learning loss arising from school closures using reading and maths assessments taken by a sample of Year 2 pupils in November showing lower achievement especially among more disadvantaged pupils.
  • Recovery Plan. The National Education Union (NEU) published a new Education Recovery Plan built around three components: education pupils safely; preparing for a better future; and ending child poverty
  • School funding. The government published new ‘experimental’ data on school funding trends in England over the last decade, pointing to a per-pupil allocation in cash terms in 2020/21 of £6,280, slightly down on the previous year after adjustment due to inflation and Covid costs.
  • Remote education. Ofsted published a new report on remote education bringing together research and field evidence gathered so far, suggesting that, while a mixed picture and a hard slog, many teachers and schools were getting to grips with it although there were concerns about pupil engagement, SEND pupils and accessibility generally.
  • International exams 2021. OxfordAQA announced it was ‘regrettably’ cancelling its summer 2021 international GCSE/A’ level exams and replacing them with teacher assessed grades in line with procedures in England.
  • Summer exams. The Education Policy Institute published its response to the current consultation on this summer’s exams calling for 2019 grade distribution to be used as a reference point, for standardised assessments to be taken in May, results issued in August and teachers to be given greater support generally.
  • 2021 exams. The Headteachers Roundtable Group published its response to the current consultation on this summer’s exams proposing that externally set papers should be optional, robust quality assurance procedures should work to Ofqual guidance and appeals should be managed by exam boards.
  • Beyond GCSEs. Tom Richmond of the think tank EDSK published the first of what are intended to be two landmark reports on secondary education in England, looking here at the lower secondary years and calling among things for the replacement of high-stakes exams at age 16 with a system of computer-based assessments. 
  • Mental health provision. The Children’s Commissioner for England published her latest annual report on the state of mental health services for children indicating that while funding and access is improving, there’s still a postcode lottery when it comes to services and government plans to roll out an NHS-led counselling service in schools by 2023 is not ambitious enough.
  • New mental health report. The Education Policy Institute with the Prince’s Trust published a new report into the mental health and wellbeing of 11, 14 and 16 yr olds in England, finding that things worsen in early teenage years especially for girls with family income and social media key factors, calling for more help and support in schools as a result.


  • Kickstart moves. The government confirmed that it was scrapping the minimum threshold of 30 placements per employer as it looked to push on its scheme, intended to help young people (16-24) find jobs.
  • Traineeship bonus. The government opened up its trainee scheme inviting employers to apply for cash incentives of £1,000 to take on a trainee up to a maximum of ten, with the cash scheme set to run until the end of July 2021. 
  • Apprenticeship figures. The government published provisional data on apprenticeship starts for the first quarter of 2020/21 showing both starts and achievements down on the previous year but up on the previous quarter.
  • Apprenticeship reviews. The Institute for Apprenticeships published the outcomes of two recent route reviews, one into hair and beauty and the other into creative and design with some amendments recommended in each case.
  • Training and jobs. The government brought together on one page a range of useful links and resources for anyone seeking further training or job support.
  • College finances. The Public Accounts Committee published the outcomes of its inquiry into college finances in England, suggesting these remained ‘fragile’ with a number of pressure points including Covid, pension and VAT costs, calling for a clearer long-term strategy for the sector along with an improved intervention model and a funding formula based on current rather than lagged data.
  • 4 things missing. The Learning and Work Institute reflected on last week’s FE White Paper pointing to the Lifetime Skills Guarantee and general central positioning of FE as good things but citing four bits that were missing from the Paper including basic skills, retraining, local links and future investment.
  • CCF Projects. The government listed which colleges and partners had been successful in securing College Collaboration Funding with project details for those needing to get in touch. 
  • College podcasts. The Association of Colleges entered the world of podcasts launching the first of a regular series by taking a look at what lies ahead for FE students this year.
  • College leaders. The Collab Group, working with NCFE, announced the rollout of its programme for aspiring college leaders incorporating a range of masterclasses on current core issues.
  • Job application. The government invited applications for the post of Chair of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, a one-day a week post on a salary of £29,500 pa.


  • Graduate market 2021. High Fliers Research published its latest annual report on the graduate market based on evidence from the top 100 UK employers as of Dec 2020, showing that many had cut their recruitment budgets and numbers and while there’s some hope things may pick up this year, public sector recruitment remains the most buoyant.
  • Hardship Fund. The Scottish Government announced further support for students facing difficulties as a result of the pandemic in Scotland, with £10m set aside to help with rent rebates and £20m in a hardship fund, some of which will go to FE students, with details to follow.
  • APPG version. The Times Higher reported that the All-Party Parliamentary Group had called for a £700m hardship fund for students with additional plans to cover learning loss through a learning remediation fund.
  • Budget proposals. The Russell Group submitted its Budget proposals to the Treasury calling for continued investment in quality R/D, in teaching especially in key disciplines and high-level skills, and in providing for students hit by the effects of the pandemic with for example the creation of a student hardship fund.
  • Quality controls. The British Academy issued its response to the OfS consultation on quality regulation, raising concerns about the likely impact on humanities and social science courses.
  • Student mental health. The All-Party Parliamentary University Group published a useful list of resources and collaborative activity on student mental health as it hosted a witness session on the matter 
  • Those left behind. Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students (OfS) reflected on the question of low participation by white working-class students, pointing to place and expectation as key factors in holding back a group where progression rates into HE remain stubbornly low.
  • Student numbers. The HESA published new data on student numbers, types and courses for 2019/20 showing a continuing increase in the number of first-year students particularly among BAME, a slight increase in the number from low participation areas, Business and Management courses attracting the most numbers and a 7% increase in the numbers achieving a first-class hons.
  • Blue card scheme. The Times Higher reported on a proposal from an academic at LSE for an EU/UK blue card scheme that would provide free movement for academics, researchers and other professionals to work across the UK and EU for fixed periods.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “'I've probably sent off around 30 to 40 job applications in the last six months, the majority of which just go into the abyss. You never hear a word' | @SMCommission
  • “My wife is a teacher and apparently one kid has been changing his name to 'Reconnecting' during the Zoom lessons so that he doesn't get asked any questions. Been doing it for weeks. The lad doesn't need to worry about his education, he's already a bona fide genius” | @ChrisArnoldInc
  • “My son is talking about "success criteria" for his maths school work. He's in Year 1. ***** you, management consultancy” | @gabrielmilland
  • “However terribly homeschooling is going, be grateful that you're not the parent who inspired the "can all parents walking round in the background of virtual classes please ensure that they are adequately and appropriately dressed" email from my kid's school” | @CharlTaylorPage
  • “The sum total of sedition in my on-line teaching today is the fact that I am - outrageously and unbeknown to my students - wearing red socks. Take that for sticking it to the man” | @PhilBeadle
  • “I’m all for this working-from-home revolution but the person I share my life with just cooked an entire mackerel 10 feet from where I’m working and if you did that in any office I’m pretty sure there’d be some kind of formal complaint procedure” | @Joanna_Hardy
  • “One hour of videoconferencing...emits 150-1,000 grams of carbon dioxide (a gallon of gasoline burned from a car emits about 8,887 grams), requires 2-12 liters of water...But leaving your camera off during a web call can reduce these footprints by 96%" | @SarahWolfePhD 

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “It’s time to end the uncertainty and anxiety. The Chancellor must urgently extend furlough support to the end of the year to keep jobs safe” - The TUC responds to the latest unemployment figures
  • “Believe me there’s nothing I want to do more than reopen schools” – Boris Johnson on getting schools back.
  • “I’m not a lockdown sceptic but I am a school down sceptic” -Rob Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Committee.
  • “Cutting funding for creative subjects as we enter a recession is a ludicrous act of economic self-harm,” - the V.C. for the University of the Creative Arts responds to government funding cuts for the arts subjects.
  • “There is clear evidence that the financial health of the sector remains fragile” – the Public Accounts Committee reports on college finances.
  • “It is an imperfect but necessary substitute in mitigating against learning loss where classroom teaching is not possible” – Ofsted reports on remote education.
  • “They’ve got natural impulsivity, spatial kinaesthetic learning styles and a physical energy that’s just not suited to remote learning” – a witness tells the Education Committee Inquiry why boys struggle with remote learning.
  • “Can I encourage all those particular parents, who now consider themselves to be educational experts, to sign up for teacher training at their earliest convenience, since there are never enough teachers and I suspect many will be leaving the profession after this year” – a headteacher invites parents who have been critical of some of the teachers’ offerings to come and try and do better.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 4.5%. The growth projection for the UK economy this year, down on last year’s growth forecast of 5.9% but slightly above the growth forecast for the eurozone, according to the IMF.
  • 5%. The UK unemployment rate for the three months to November 2020, up 0.6% on the previous quarter with a record redundancy rate, according to the latest figures from the ONS.
  • 12.3%. The drop in graduate recruitment among top UK companies in 2020 compared to 2019, according to the latest High Fliers data. 
  • 35%. The percentage of HE students in the UK achieving a first-class hons in 2019/20, although the figures may reflect a no detriment approach due to Covid according to HESA.
  • 91,100. The number of apprenticeship starts last autumn, down 27.6% on the same quarter in the previous year according to latest interim figures from government.
  • 313,592. The number of laptops and tablets dispatched since the start of this term as of the start of this week, according to latest government figures.
  • 21%. Pupil attendance in state primary schools in England as of last Thursday, with 5% in secondary schools and 30% in state-funded special schools, according to latest government figures.
  • 800m. The number of students worldwide, one year on from the start of the pandemic, still facing some form of disruption to their education, according to UNESCO.
  • 16%. The number of people struggling to pay their broadband bills, according to Citizen’s Advice.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Education Committee pre-appointment hearing for Chair of the OfS. (Tuesday)
  • OECD webinar on ‘What schools can do to develop high-performing students.’ (Tuesday)
  • UCAS End of Cycle reports. (Thursday)
  • Times Higher’s panel event ‘How to thrive in HE’s online future.’ (Thursday)
  • Nuffield funded webinar on ‘Moving on from GCSE ‘failure.’ (Friday)

Other stories

  • Do not disturb. It was only a small research sample carried out on a group of elderly Chinese residents but it appears to confirm that a brief nap after lunch can help cognitive function. According to the research quoted in a British Medical Journal:‘ afternoon napping was associated with better cognitive function including orientation, language, and memory in the present study.’ So if anybody needs an excuse, here's’ a link to the research
  • Personal Statements. For anyone struggling with these, UCAS has provided a useful little briefing this week along with a video on how to complete personal statements. Although it applies to HE applications, it could perhaps be adapted for job and other applications as well. The hardest bit to get right on these things, as no doubt many can attest, is the opening line where the guidance lists 5 cliché openers to avoid such as, ‘Throughout my life I’ve always enjoyed…’ The ‘necklace approach’ in which you link the opening line to the final line(s) with a loop of detail in between seems a useful idea. A link to the item 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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