Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 05 February 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:

The build-up to schools reopening continued this week with attention shifting on to something we’re likely to hear a lot about in the future, namely how to make up for lost time, the so-called 'catch-up learning'.

Although not confined to schools, college and university students have also been missing out, loss of schooling as children develop can be particularly damaging. The issue was highlighted in a series of reports by the NFER, Education Endowment Foundation, Education Policy Institute, the Institute for Fiscal Studies among others last year after the first lockdown, pointing in particular to the impact on more disadvantaged families. 

This week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies crunched some numbers to highlight the possible financial implications and it made for disturbing reading. The headline message was that losing half a year’s schooling could amount a loss of £40,000 in income over an individual’s lifetime. Such things can be difficult to measure and the effects may not be universal but the message was sufficiently clear for the IfS to conclude that ‘a massive national plan was needed to address this crisis.’ 

The government may not have a national plan, that may come in a couple of weeks’ time when it sets out its roadmap for schools reopening, but it does have a number of policies such as the national tutoring scheme and it does have someone now to head up developments with the appointment of Sir Kevan Collins as Catch-up Czar.

As a former CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation, which just last week published new evidence on gaps in attainment in reading and maths by young children following the first lockdown, Sir Kevan will be known to many, but it’ll be a tough job. As the BBC’s education correspondent summed up the appointment: ‘lots of good experience but he’ll have his hands full,’ particularly given the range of proposals swirling around at the moment such as extending school days or repeating the school year.

Back in Parliament this week education has again featured prominently. The Universities Minister answered questions from MPs on a range of matters concerning university students, including rent rebates and catch-up provision, sticking in most cases to the latest hardship fund announcement as the answer. Staying with higher education, the Education Committee questioned the government’s preferred candidate for the post of Chair of the Office for Students. According to one commentary, he gave ’a measured performance’ as he responded to questions on access, funding, fee rebates, regulation, how best to challenge the government and likely conflict of interests. And the Public Affairs and Constitutional Committee discussed devolution ahead of a proposed White Paper with Lord Heseltine and John Denham both offering their vision of what should be in the White Paper. 

Elsewhere it has been Children’s Mental Health Week with plenty of media coverage of activity at both a national and local level. At a national level, the government announced the appointment of Dr Alex George as Youth Mental Health Ambassador. Although independent he’ll work within the DfE and interestingly also with its new Mental Health in Education Action Group looking into pupil and university student wellbeing. As for local activity, Schools Week’s report of a pupil wellbeing dashboard being pioneered in schools in Manchester this autumn with support from the Anna Freud Centre was just one of many interesting examples covered this week.

In other news, responses to the recent consultation on arrangements for this summer’s exams have continued to be published, as a poll from the Chartered College suggested that teachers were pretty much split down the middle on the proposals. The Social Mobility Commission published its business plan for the year ahead listing a number of interesting educational projects. These included a couple of research projects looking at how to improve attainment for disadvantaged students at KS4, a behavioural study on how to encourage greater take-up of careers advice, and some research into why disadvantaged students often end up taking courses that lead to low wage returns. 

More immediately, UCAS published its final report into last year’s university entry trends, a year somewhat overshadowed by the exams problems, but with some interesting pointers all the same. Wonkhe has some helpful analysis of the data, singling out the 'Chris Whitty effect' for an increase in medical and nursing places. STEM, computer science, AI, business, and law also saw increases, but humanities and more sharply, modern languages, were notably down. The Times Higher published the results of an interesting survey conducted last autumn among university staff, both UK and abroad, into how they’d found the transition to online learning. It’s fair to say that challenges were high and views mixed given the speed and expectations involved. ‘To deliver the equivalent of a one-hour lecture takes at least 3-4 hours for recording and uploading. With editing and captioning, it’s more like 8-10 hours,” commented one. And what’s the conclusion? Support for continuing online meetings and lectures but not so much for online seminars or lab classes.

Finally, the government’s recent flurry of papers on FE and HE have continued to provoke comment. A Guardian editorial at the start of the week cast a fairly weary eye over both sets of papers and concluded for the FE White Paper at least that without investment, greater clarity over stakeholder accountability, and an injection of urgency, little would change. The Times Higher gathered some thoughts on the Augar review  suggesting it was never was likely to fly, although it may trigger a more flexible post-18 system in time. 

It means that as HEPI’s Nick Hillman outlined in a blog this week, once again ‘we must raise our eyes to the next spending review ‘to see where priorities really lie.’ It’s a position education is used to adopting.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Lost school time could cost pupils £40,000 in earnings.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Scottish schools to start phased return this month.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘PM names head of school pandemic catch-up plan.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Record numbers of students accepted on to medicine courses, UCAS data shows.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘A’ levels 2021: Schools should report missed learning.’ (Friday)


  • New Taskforce. The PM announced the setting up of a new taskforce, TIGRR (Taskforce on Innovation, Growth, and Regulatory Reform) chaired by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, to look at ways of stimulating growth, opportunity and innovation post-Brexit, and to report back in April.
  • New Agency.The FT reported that the government planned to go ahead with the creation of a new ‘blue sky’ science research agency, based as originally envisaged by Dominic Cummings on the US version, and to be known as the British Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).
  • Subsidy controls.The government launched consultation on a new system of providing financial subsidies/support to UK businesses with the aim of trying to stimulate local jobs and growth and support UK business growth generally.
  • Job Finding support. The government announced the launch of a system of digital Job surgeries where Job Search Advisers would be available online or on the phone to offer ‘quick-fire’ support for jobseekers who needed to brush up their skills and interview technique. 
  • Future Vision.Tony Dranker, Director-General at the CBI, called in his first major public speech, for a new economic plan and vision for the future with business and government working together to tackle the three main challenges that we currently face of Brexit, Covid and climate change. 
  • Social Mobility Review.The Social Mobility Commission published its annual report, highlighting some of its work over the last year including the publication of 13 major reports and the development of its Ambassador network while outlining plans for the future that included a new 30-year strategy and ramped up work with the education sector.
  • A Workers’ Budget. The TUC submitted its proposals to the Treasury ahead of next month’s Budget, calling for furloughing to continue to at least the end of the year, an extension of sick pay and of Universal Credit, and a job creation plan.
  • Roadmap steps. The CBI set out six economic features the government needs to consider, including whether to continue with regional tiering and how long social distancing needs to be in place, as it develops its roadmap out of lockdown. 
  • Flexi working.The CIPD launched a campaign for flexible working arrangements to be made more available, including as a requestable right from day one as it published evidence indicating a mixed picture on flexi working generally.
  • Give us the cash.The Social Market Foundation called for benefits such as food parcels to be paid in cash, arguing that cash benchmarking was likely to be more efficient and less patronising in the long run.
  • Mental Health. The government announced the appointment of Dr Alex George as Youth Mental Health Ambassador where he’ll work closely with the DfE on mental health matters.

More specifically ...


  • Lost learning. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined the likely impact of lost learning arising from the lockdown, indicating that disadvantaged pupils were likely to suffer the most in terms of attainment gaps and future earnings loss, calling as a result for ‘a massive national plan’ to help tackle the problem.
  • Catch-up Commissioner..The PM announced the appointment of Sir Kevan Collins as Education Recovery Commissioner with a brief to lead a programme of catch-up learning for pupils that have missed out because of the pandemic.
  • Summer exams.The Chartered College reported on its poll of teachers about the latest DfE/Ofqual proposals for this summer’s exams, indicating that teachers were pretty evenly split for and against the proposals, with workloads, time, trust, accountability and the need for more details, all listed as concerns. 
  • Grant funding. The government released details of grant funding available to support schools and colleges with coronavirus testing during this first half of term, with a one-off payment to be made based on test numbers and workforce costs. 
  • School meals.The Public Accounts Committee reported on its investigation into last year’s school meals voucher scheme highlighting a number of sharp criticisms of the scheme, the DfE and the managing company involved and calling for lessons to be learned.
  • School buildings.The government announced the first 50 recipients of its School Rebuilding Programme which along with further opening of Free Schools and support for sports facilities are intended to modernise and improve the school estate.
  • SEND during lockdown.ASK Research with the NFER and funded by Nuffield, reported on its survey of parents and staff about the return to schooling for SEND pupils last autumn, highlighting the particular challenges they faced and calling for better guidance and resourcing.


  • Exams 2021.The Association of Colleges (AoC) issued its response to the consultation on arrangements for this summer’s exams, setting out a number of principles that should guide decisions, including the need for vocational and general qualifications to be considered jointly and for a common evidence approach to be used across awarding organisations.
  • Youth employment. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Youth Employment released its report on youth employment policy following a lengthy inquiry, calling among other things for a coherent youth employment strategy building on current initiatives and with improved career routes, guidance and quality outcomes.
  • Skills Bridges. City and Guilds and job market analytics group Burning Glass examined the issue of career switching at a time of a changing job market, suggesting that job vacancies were growing in some sectors but that many people found career switching difficult, not knowing where to start and which skills were transferable.
  • Work-based learning. The OU and employers 5% Club highlighted the findings of a survey due to be published next week as part of National Apprenticeship Week, showing that employers are increasingly looking to increase their apprenticeship intake and focus on work-ready skills as they seek to bounce back post pandemic. 


  • University entry 2020. UCAS published its final report on university entry last year, highlighting an increase in uptake for such courses as STEM subjects, medicine, engineering, law, business and nursing but a drop for humanities and modern foreign languages, among its reported data and trends for the year.
  • University entry 2020 analysis.Wonkhe provided a range of useful analysis of the UCAS 2020 university entry data pointing to which courses, which students and which institutions appeared to have come out best.
  • Student Hardship.The government announced a further £50m, which will be passed on to universities via the Office for Students to help students facing hardship arising out of the pandemic 
  • Fee rebates.Jim Dickinson considered the issue of fee and rent rebates in the context of consumer protection law as debate on rebates gathered momentum.
  • Dear Prime Minister. A small group of Vice Chancellors called on the government to implement a short-term interest waiver on student loans along with better investment in skills training to support the transition to work for students.
  • Exams 2021. The Russell Group issued its response to the consultation on exam arrangements this summer arguing that results day should be brought forward to earlier in August and calling for more contextual information on candidates as well as greater clarity on this year’s grade distribution.
  • Annual Review. The QAA published its Annual Review for 2020 outlining its work over the year on matters like essay mills, grade descriptors and the quality code, and highlighting its three priorities (regulation, global reputation, quality/ standards) for the year ahead. 
  • On reflection. The Times Higher gathered further reflections on the government’s recent brief response to the Auger review suggesting that the review was never likely to have met its immediate objectives but may yet help build a more flexible system for the future.
  • Higher Technical Education. Universities UK examined the issues involved in expanding higher technical provision in a new discussion paper, taking in employer engagement, regulation and quality, learner needs, funding and FE partnership, and suggesting possible options in each case.
  • Digital teaching. The Times Higher reported on its major staff survey of the transition to transition to digital teaching over the last year with many suggesting that the transition, often at speed and with little back-up, had been challenging and with mixed views about its impact and future.
  • Future learning. Pearson reported on its research with Wonkhe into how the pandemic was shaping approaches to learning both now and in the future, suggesting that many students had coped well with the transition to online learning, valued the support many lecturers had provided and were ready to embrace the benefits that flexible learning might bring in the future.
  • Shared learning. The Times Higher formally launched The Campus, a joint venture with Arizona State University and Microsoft, creating a shared community to support online learning.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Does anyone know how you resign from the position of unpaid IT technician for parents? | @HannahAlOltham
  • “Q. How do you know if an educator is a published author? A. Read one of their tweets” | @JamesTheo
  • “I wish the BBC would stop saying children have lost half a year of school, my daughter has worked through both lockdowns. The school are now providing live lessons. Registration is at 9 and she finishes at 3! Better to be at home than in an unsafe school” | @suefosterinfo
  • “I'm a little worried that the longer schools stay closed, the more my children are going to learn about my hopeless caffeine addiction” | @ThomasWPenny
  • “Think I know the answer to this, but when my 13 yo son tells me with a panicked look that I don’t need to bother signing up to some of his teachers on parents night, I’m guessing those are the ones I should prioritise?” | @Wigdortz
  • “While we undoubtedly need to be focussing on mental health and things are bad, I can’t help thinking that teenagers constantly hearing about the ‘mental health crisis’ is not at all helpful to them” | @RosMcM
  • “An hour after hunting fruitlessly in five different shops, it’s clear that printer ink is very much the toilet roll of #Lockdown3” | @jonathansimons
  • “Your internet connection is unstable” c’mon it’s like week 50 we’re all unstable pal” | @janinegibson

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “I don’t want to give too much concrete by way of dates for our summer holidays” – Boris Johnson looks ahead to the summer.
  • “The outlook for the economy remains unusually uncertain” - the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee issues its latest report.
  • “In light of the decision to cancel exams, the Department is refocusing this group and is working to finalise the terms of reference and membership” – Nick Gibb confirms the current status of the DfE’s expert working group originally announced last December.
  • “Small-scale funding packages like this are simply a sticking plaster and not the answer to the widespread problems facing the sector.” – the University and College Union (UCU) responds to the latest government support for students.
  • “In short, the government looks like it is seeking to outsource responsibility for education to businesses, while hoarding yet more power in London” – The Guardian editorial reflects on the recent FE/Skills White Paper.
  • “The inescapable conclusion is that the lost schooling represents a gigantic long-term risk for future prosperity, the public finances, the future path of inequality and well-being” – the IfS considers the effect of lost schooling in the UK. 
  • “We have decided that all planned inspection activity will be carried out remotely until March 8 at the earliest” – Ofsted updates its inspection plans.
  • “We really do need a national languages strategy or we’ll end up becoming an entirely monolingual society at exactly the time when we need to be more outward facing” – ASCL responds to the drop in foreign language numbers at university.
  • “I find my work meaningful and fun. I get to work with the smartest, most talented, most ingenious teammates. When times have been good, you’ve been humble. When times have been tough, you’ve been strong and supportive, and we’ve made each other laugh” - Jeff Bezos emails staff to announce he is relinquishing his role as CEO at Amazon.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • £3,500. The amount by which some houses have increased in value as a result of superfast broadband connection, according to new government research.
  • 19%. The number of employees surveyed indicating that their organisation didn’t offer flexible working arrangements, according to the CIPD.
  • £800. The fine for attending house parties including in halls of residence, according to the government’s latest guidance.
  • 15%. The number of pupils in state funded schools in England in attendance as of last Thursday, largely in primary and special schools according to the latest government figures. 
  • £40,000. The income loss that might accrue over an individual’s lifetime from missing out on half a year’s schooling, according to illustrative calculations from the IfS.
  • 22 Feb. The date on which Scotland hopes to start a phased return for schools and early years settings, according to the First Minister.
  • 365,268. The number of digital devices dispatched to help with remote learning since the start of this term, according to the latest government figures. 
  • £2.5bn. The projected funding available for the Pupil Premium this year, according to latest government figures. 
  • 29%. The number of parents in a survey who admitted they’d feel embarrassed if their child wanted counselling, according to a poll by Place2Be.
  • 81%. The number of teenagers globally who exercise for less than an hour a day, according to data from UNESCO released as part of Global Sports Week.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • AoC online Annual Conference (Monday/Tuesday)
  • National Apprenticeship Week (All week)
  • Covid-19 Committee witness session on the impact of online learning on children’s futures. (Tuesday)
  • Wonkhe event on ‘Making sense of the government’s post-18 reforms. (Tuesday)
  • Learning and Work Institute report on the minimum wage. (Wednesday)

Other stories

  • Support for mental health. This week’s focus on children’s mental health has been accompanied by a number of reports and commentaries. Many people working in schools and colleges might find the latest publication from Public Health England useful. It was published this week, and sets out what it calls ‘Eight principles to promoting a whole school and college approach to emotional health and wellbeing.’ The principles may be fairly standard but they come with a number of case studies and a useful list of resources. A link to the report is here
  • Dry January? Apparently sales of non-alcoholic beer were up 12% for the month of January while those of alcoholic drinks increased by over double that, up 29% on last year. Details come from the market research company Kantar and perhaps point to the different ways in which people have been adopting to the post-Christmas lockdown. Adding to the picture of some people deciding to stick with a strict regime and others looking for treats to keep their spirits up, sales of vegan meals were up 10% while that of chocolate spread was up 42% on last year. These and other insights into our food and drink habits as we seek to battle through this latest lockdown trend 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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