Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 12 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:

Valentine’s Week and hints of passion in the air.

It all started with the Prime Minister as he helped launch this year’s annual National Apprenticeship Week claiming: “I’ve long been absolutely evangelical about the potential fulfilling, opportunity unlocking, economy turbocharging wonder that is the modern apprenticeship.” The theme of this year’s special apprenticeship week, ‘Build the Future, certainly played to his passion and further reinforced the importance of the apprenticeship system in helping the economy recover post-Covid. The Week concludes on Sunday with an appropriately themed ‘Show your love for apprenticeships’ Day.

The Education Secretary likewise declared his passion as he addressed the Association of Colleges (AoC) Conference, equally claiming “I’m sure that my passion for further education is not news to any of you.” Here too, the wider message was about the importance of the FE sector in helping rebuild and reskill the economy of the future. As the chief executive of the AoC put it, ‘this is very much FE’s moment.’ The Budget in a few weeks’ time will perhaps show us how much. 

But it hasn’t all been roses. The self-same Education Secretary welcomed the incoming new Chair of the Office for Students with a list of tasks likely to weigh down his in-tray. It included waving a potential red card at ‘higher education providers who do not demonstrate high quality and robust outcomes.’ And the Chair of the Education Committee pointed to the four horsemen of the apocalypse galloping towards schoolchildren with unwelcome gifts of lost learning, future income losses and mental health concerns as debate continued about when schools would fully reopen. 

All in all, it’s been another week of highs and lows for education; here are some details.

In Westminster this week, the Education Committee continued its inquiry into left-behind white pupils, taking evidence this time from Nick Gibb and children’s minister Vicky Ford. The Covid-19 Committee continued its inquiry into what effect living online was having on our future wellbeing, talking this week to a number of educationalists about the impact of online learning on children.

Elsewhere, Nick Gibb confirmed in a Statement to MPs that the regulations requiring schools to publish on their website what provision they are making for remote education come into effect today. Former Universities Minister Chris Skidmore announced a new Bill to prohibit essay mills, companies that ‘sell’ essays to university students. And this week has seen the International Day of Women and Girls in Science recognised globally, with UNESCO and Boris Johnson among those paying tribute and promising their support.

Away from Westminster three themes have stood out this week.

First catch-up education, still attracting a lot of interest, and where the government this week provided the job description for the new Catch-Up Tsar, advisory in nature and with no role in decisions on schools reopening or exam grading it seems. Both the TES and Schools Week questioned Sir Kevan this week about his role and while some in the profession remain concerned about the prospect of extended hours, summer schools and subject drilling, he was able to offer some reassuring noises. “The idea that it’s no more than just tagging on an extra lesson doesn’t seem to me to be as creative as we should be thinking, but the learning time includes learning in sport, the drama, the art – the kind of things that go around – that is learning.” 

He also talked about quality being more important than quantity, that there was no place for gimmicks, support for national tutoring and engaging with the profession. How far wider society might be involved in for example helping run after-school clubs, coaching sessions and so on remains to be seen. Both the Chair of the Education Committee and Social Mobility Foundation called this week for a wider role for civil society. 

The government meanwhile is seeking to back all this up with a package of resources and catch-up activity, including diagnostic testing to help teachers identify learning gaps. A pre-tender for a contract for this work worth £3.9m is being held next week.

Second, that list of tasks for the incoming Chair of the Office for Students. It came in the form of a letter from the Education Secretary, welcoming the new Chair, but laying out what was expected: ‘this letter replaces all previous guidance.’ While some of the letter conveyed routine expectations on for instance supporting students through the pandemic, tackling admissions reform and developing a regulatory system to accommodate credit, other parts of the letter came with some sharp red lines. These included calling on the OfS to take a strong line on quality standards with the prospect of fines and even deregistering an institution. A stronger line also on risk-based regulation and free speech where he promised a policy paper ‘in the near future.’  Wonkhe has a helpful summary of it all here.

And third, this week build-up to the Budget has continued with lines on skills, jobs and a plan for growth becoming more and more defined. 

The mantra here is of course ‘Build Back Better’ and this week the government published the remit for the Business Council that will help oversee business engagement in the overall project. Although only advisory, it will have an important role to play in helping boost jobs and investment post-Covid and Brexit. 

The work is likely to be driven by the Treasury’s Plan for Growth in turn built on the Plan for Jobs and taking the place of the 2017 Industrial Strategy. Measures such as local skills planning, the Lifelong Learning entitlement, targeted business grants, VAT and busines rates relief, an extension of the furlough scheme particularly for key sectors and Universal Credit support have all been called for in recent weeks and have been the subject of further reports again this week.

It’s looking to be a busy roadmap ahead.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Covid hits exam taking and poorer pupils worst, study finds.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Mental-health tsar: anxious pupils should return gradually.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Cronyism warning over Tory peer as student watchdog.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Two in five top universities see drop in students from state schools.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Youngest pupils in England worst affected by Covid loss.’ (Friday)


  • Build Back Better. The government published the terms of reference for its Build Back Better Business Council that will be chaired jointly by the PM and Chancellor and work with business leaders to ‘unlock investment, boost job creation, promote Global Britain and level up and unite the whole of the UK’.
  • Latest economic forecast. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) published its latest assessment of the UK economy suggesting that despite the vaccination programme and schemes like furloughing, economic growth is likely to be lower than predicted this year at 3.4%, unemployment high at 7.5%, and economic recovery generally slow.
  • Firm finances. The Resolution Foundation reported on the impact of the pandemic on firms indicating that for sectors like services it has been ‘unprecedented,’ calling for a further range of policies such as extending the furlough scheme and targeting grants at sectors affected to help remove uncertainty and support growth. 
  • Firms at risk.The IPPR think tank suggested that a third of UK firms, and potentially 9m people who work in them, could be at risk of insolvency if the government doesn’t take steps to help them, calling like the Resolution Foundation for extending furlough and loan guarantee schemes, and targeted grant support.
  • Boosting the minimum wage. The Learning and Work Institute in conjunction with Carnegie UK Trust reported further on their research into the minimum wage, calling for the commitment to increasing this to continue as part of a wider ‘good work agenda’ that would include social security support and employer investment in skills. 
  • Levelling up.The think tank Demos and a group of universities reported on what was needed to help achieve levelling up, pointing to a number of barriers that would need to be overcome such as deprivation and low skills, arguing that levelling up would be difficult but not impossible and laying out an eight-step plan to achieving this.
  • Unequal impact.The Commons Women and Equalities Committee published the results of its inquiry into the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable groups, focusing in this case on gender inequality, calling among other things for better equality impact assessment of Covid response schemes, recognition of childcare needs and more flexible sick pay arrangements.
  • Maintaining credit. The Commons Work and Pensions Committee called on the government to extend the Universal Credit uplift for a further year, abandon plans for a one-off payment option and set out future plans in the Autumn Statement.
  • In debt.The Resolution Foundation reported on its recent survey of families claiming Universal Credit indicating that at least a third of claimants faced a massive drop in family income with many struggling to pay bills, reinforcing the need for the current £20 a week uplift to be maintained. 
  • Cyber security. The government announced that UK Cyber Security Council would become the new independent body responsible for setting standards, skills and opportunities for working in the cyber security sector.
  • Digital identity.The government set out its thinking on a ‘trust framework’ that could be safely used to establish digital identity when, for example, a person needs to be able to prove things about themselves such as age or status.
  • Changing behaviours. The Local Government Association (LGA) reported on its commissioned research into how the pandemic was changing people’s behaviours, in particular their attitudes locally, concluding that existing attitudes of what was good and bad locally had changed little beyond an increase in community spirit and most just wanted to get back to life as before.

More specifically ...


  • Remote learning regulations. Nick Gibb confirmed in a Statement to MPs that the Regulations for schools to publish on their website what provision they are offering in the way of remote education were laid last Friday and formally come into effect this Friday.
  • Catch-up contract. The government set out plans to contract out provision of catch-up resources, diagnostic testing and other likely services ahead of a future tendering process.
  • Primary loss. Juniper Education published its report into how lockdown and school closures had affected primary age pupils suggesting that those in the current Year 2 had fallen behind the most, especially those with special needs, with maths the subject most affected.
  • Lockdown lessons. ImpactEd published the final report from its seven-month research survey into the learning and wellbeing of pupils in England showing that GCSE pupils in Years 10 and 11 struggled the most with motivation, girls felt the most anxious and schools generally worried about ‘a lost cohort’.
  • National Tutoring. The Education Endowment Foundation published an evaluation of its National Online Tutoring pilot pointing to the fact that while face-to-face was still preferred by both sides and internet issues could be a problem, pupils enjoyed the experience and were keen to carry on. 
  • Qualification prices. The government published its Index on qualification prices for 2019/20 which showed an overall average price increase of 3.2% but which recognised that given the lack of exams in 2020, was based on assumed costs as well as recognition of some specific costs such as developing systems for centre assessed grades.
  • High Needs funding. The government launched a brief consultation on some initial changes to the national funding formula used for high needs funding, including looking at replacing historic spend with actual spend and using pre-2020 exam data, with further issues to follow in the wider SEND review.
  • Teaching Hubs. The government announced the creation of 81 new Teaching Hubs, dotted around the country and adding to the six created last year, all intended to operate as local centres of excellence for teacher development. 
  • International Teaching Qualification. The government launched consultation on a proposed new international teacher training qualification, based on English standards but deliverable in global settings with options for context-specific content.
  • PISA Plus. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published further analysis from the 2018 PISA assessments with two reports, one looking into the wellbeing of 15-year-olds, stressing the importance of identity and personal relationships, and one on how disadvantaged pupils have succeeded in core subjects where the approach to learning and aspiration were key factors.
  • Still not safe. The Children’s Commissioner for England reported on teenage gangs indicating that the problem was not going away with the pandemic leading to more children ‘disappearing’ and at risk of gangs, calling as a result for an expansion of local services, making school exclusion a last resort, and a national drugs strategy.
  • Early years challenges. The Anna Freud Centre published a new survey report highlighting the challenges faced by nursery workers having to cope with an increasing number of situations that involved children with mental, emotional or social difficulties. 
  • Schools as polling stations. The government confirmed that, given the amount of schooling lost due to the lockdown, it would try and avoid schools being used as polling stations for the local council and Mayoral elections in May and would provide funds to help councils use alternative venues.


  • The future is FE. The Education Secretary addressed the (virtual) AoC Conference where he praised the work of colleges, highlighted the importance of the White Paper in helping strengthen their work especially at a local level and encouraged them to deliver the new L3 offer.
  • 5 priorities. David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC) heralded this year’s annual AoC Conference, suggesting FE was now facing its ‘big moment’ and outlining five future priorities (students, partnerships, inclusion, context, opportunity).
  • Traineeship pilots. To help launch this year’s National Apprenticeship Week, the government announced the creation from this summer of sector traineeship pilots in construction and rail, hopefully fast tracked through to apprenticeships.
  • All at the Coop. The Coop, with Business in the Community, announced the launch of a major new fund to support apprenticeships among underrepresented groups, promising an initial £500,00 and calling on employers generally to pitch in and add their support.
  • Spreading the Levy. The Labour Party called on the government to re-direct unspent Levy funds towards a wage subsidy for young people that could create 85,000 new apprenticeships and generate new opportunities for young people.
  • SIP survey. The Science Industry Partnership (SIP) along with Cogent published its latest survey of apprenticeships in the science industry showing an increase especially at higher level along with plans to introduce a new Apprenticeship Strategy Group and to increase the Levy recovery rate.
  • Apprenticeship CPD.The Education and Training Foundation in conjunction with the AoC and AELP announced a new professional development programme for leaders and governors involved in apprenticeship delivery, comprising three modules delivered over the next three months in a programme funded by the DfE.
  • Manufacturing Taskforce. The assistant general secretary of Unite called on the government to set up a National Manufacturing Skills Taskforce bringing employers, skills bodies and unions together to help ensure skills and opportunities match individual and employer needs.
  • College catch-up. The AoC wrote to the new Catch-up Commissioner calling on him not to forget the plight of college leavers who will equally have lost learning and yet face entering a difficult labour market this year, proposing a ‘Task and Finish Group’ to support these young people.
  • T level panels. The government updated its listings of T-level titles and timings along with the full listing of subject panels. 
  • English and maths progression. Nuffield funded research from the Universities of Manchester and Aberdeen highlighted the challenges facing those who struggle to achieve GCSE English and maths requirements, calling as a result for a coherent 3-year post-16 phase of learning with better support, investment and data.
  • Impact report 2020. The adult education organisation WEA published its latest annual report highlighting the importance of such provision to many disadvantaged communities and to the many adults needing to develop the skills for a challenging labour market.
  • ACE Data. The Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) published a new report looking into data, trends and participation in Adult and Community Education (ACE) to help generate a better understanding of gaps, needs and outcomes particularly at a community level.
  • Understanding sustainability. he Education and Training Foundation launched an FE sector survey on Education for Sustainable Development, calling for views and experiences to help shape future work in this area.


  • New intray. The Education Secretary welcomed the incoming Chair of the Office for Students with a new set of priorities including a continuing response to the pandemic, measures to ensure quality standards, changes to admissions, sharper risk-based regulation, free speech limits and international opportunities.
  • International strategy. The government updated its 2019 international education strategy, sticking with its core targets on student recruitment and income generation while reducing the placement time, adding the Turing scheme and prioritising five future market regions (India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam).
  • Banning essay mills. Former Universities Minister Chris Skidmore confirmed cross party support for the introduction of a Bill to ban essay mill services which received a formal Reading in the House of Commons.
  • Brexit impact. The government published a report into the potential impact of Brexit on UKHE based on modelling undertaken by London Economics using a range of factors including changes in fees and status with universities grouped in different impact clusters showing elite universities in the top cluster likely to benefit but the rest not, with total losses anything between £42.5m and £66.5m. 
  • Lost learning. Paul Blomfield MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Students called for the setting up of a Covid Student Learning Remediation Fund and an extension of research studentships to help students who’ve missed out on learning and other opportunities because of the pandemic. 
  • Using data to enhance outcomes. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) reported on its work into how best to use data to enhance outcomes and in particular how to get staff buy-in and monitor data impact, recommending supportive working with staff, student pulse surveys and early sense checking of data as potential solutions.
  • Future HE? Edge published further work on its theme of ‘Rethinking HE,’ with five case studies each offering non-traditional HE reflecting different ‘21stc’ demands and drawing out a range of principles including transferable skills and personal development that could help shape future provision.
  • TEF review. Dame Shirley Pearce reflected on where we are with the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) as part of Wonkhe’s discussions on post-18 reform, acknowledging the government’s response but making the case for institutional ownership.
  • Fair Admissions? Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions at Bath University, blogged in a personal capacity about some of the issues likely to face universities during this year’s admissions cycle including the appeals system and the likely grade distribution.
  • Dealing with harassment and misconduct. The Office for Students picked up its work on dealing with harassment and sexual misconduct, confirming that it intended to speak with student bodies to see if any new challenges had arisen over the past year as well as fast track the statement of expectations with a view to reviewing potential changes to regulatory requirements later in the year.
  • Situation vacant. The government invited applications for the post of Chair of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI,) calling for ‘an outstanding individual with a passion for and knowledge of research and innovation’ on one day a week at £29,000 pa.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “I’ve been asked not to sing any more in my online lessons, as it was disturbing a zoom meeting in another room of the house” | @mrlockyer
  • “I think I could just about bear the idea of another four weeks of wfh and home schooling and no family and no friends and no cafes. If I could have the weekends off” | @CarolineJHogg
  • “Me to my 14 year old year 10 son “are you looking forward to going back to school?” Him “I just want to see my friends and catch up with everyone. I miss them” That’s what we mean by “catch up” | @missyjules1974
  • “Home schooling parents, have you too been struck by your children's need to give you updates every five minutes on whatever they're doing? The mum part of my brain is interesting and pleased they're sharing. The rest of my brain is crying out for one uninterrupted half hour” | @Helen_Barnard
  • “Just taught a 3 year old the Black Lace Superman routine and honestly it’s the best night out in a year” |  @CM_Gallagher
  • “When the children returned from evacuation after WW2, I wonder if they were told they were doomed and they would lose forty grand over their lifetime” | @BaldHeadteacher
  • “I am a master at mentally replying to texts and emails but failing to *actually* reply” | @Joanna_Barrett
  • “Anyone else find themselves talking more to inanimate objects during lockdown? In the last 24 hours I've thanked the kettle, apologised to a small table I'd knocked over, and explained at some length to the laundry why I wouldn't be hanging it up until later” | @redhistorian
  • “I'm sorry, the end of your sentence interrupted the beginning of mine” | @managerspeak

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “There’s only one thing better than apprenticeships and that’s the apprentices themselves’ – the PM helps launch National Apprenticeship Week.
  • “I can say without any hesitation that the future is further education” – the Education Secretary addresses the AoC Conference without hesitation or deviation.
  • “At one point we were the world’s biggest buyer of this equipment” – Gavin Williamson talks up the school laptop scheme.
  • “The four horses of the education apocalypse are galloping towards pupils: a big loss of education attainment, huge rise in mental health problems, significant safeguarding hazards and a future loss of earnings of £40,000 per pupil” – the Chair of the Education Committee on the importance of opening up schools.
  • “The Commissioner’s advice will focus predominantly on catch-up actions starting from Autumn term 2021 onwards” - the government sets out the remit for the Catch-Up Commissioner.
  • “We need to make sure that whatever we offer children is broad, is rich and doesn’t completely stifle all the other things in life that matter” – the Catch-up Commissioner reflects on the task ahead.
  • “The essential element of catch-up support is quality rather than quantity, and schools are very good at identifying learning needs and putting in place the appropriate support” – ASCL offers its view on catch-up schooling.
  • “Screen time seems to be like a drug. You open the door and they want more and more”- parents tell The Guardian about some of the challenges in home schooling.
  • “I could make you a great breakfast and make you smile at the start of the day but you wouldn’t want me in your history lessons” – Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters claims he’d be no use in home schooling.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 62%. The number of people across Europe working from home who think it will be June this year when they start to return to the office, according to a survey undertaken for Morgan Stanley.
  • 600,000. The number of international students the UK is still hoping to recruit by 2030, according to the updated international education strategy.
  • £62.5m. The potential drop in fee income from EU sources for UK universities arising out of Brexit, according to a report from London Economics.
  • 4.9%. The number of apprentices working in the DfE as of 31 January 2021, according to an answer in Parliament.
  • 12%. The number of local authority schools in the red in 2019/20, up 2% on the previous year according to latest government figures.
  • £3.9m. How much a contract for providing providing catch-up services and resources is likely to be worth, according to government pre-tender thinking. 
  • 15.9%. The pupil attendance rate in state funded schools in England as of last Thursday, up slightly on each of the previous two weeks according to latest published figures.
  • 40%. The number of KS4 learners who struggled to develop a routine for learning, according to new research from ImpactEd.
  • 26%. The number of teachers in a survey who said pupil behaviour had worsened since the pandemic, according to a poll undertaken by the TES.
  • £42.02. The average weighted cost for a GCSE last year based on presumed calculations, according to latest figures by government. 

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • IfS webinar on the forthcoming Budget. (Tuesday)
  • Valedictory speech by Anne Longfield as Children’s Commissioner for England (Wednesday)
  • Launch of ResPublica Lifelong Education Commission. (Friday)

Other stories

  • Struggling to make ends meet. The latest report from the Financial Conduct Authority provides an interesting picture of how the pandemic has affected people’s financial lives and habits. It’s a hefty 200+ page report with mound of charts and data and reflects spending behaviours both before and after Covid struck. The headline message is that “Covid‑19 has had a profound impact on adults’ financial situations but has not affected the finances of all groups in society equally.” The hardest hit includes the self-employed, adults in low-income households, 18-54 yr olds and BAME adults. In terms of specifics: 9.8m have cut back on essentials, 7.8m have switched to a new service provider to save costs, 18.6m have received unsolicited approaches thought to be scams. It’s a disturbing report and can be found here
  • Teenage drink and drugs. The issue of teenage alcohol and substance misuse is not new of course but how extensive is it? This week, researchers at the Institute of Education reported on evidence from the major Millennium Cohort Study which has been tracking young people for some time. According to the Study: “31% of young people had tried cannabis and 10% had tried harder drugs by age 17. More than half (53%) had engaged in binge drinking – drinking five or more drinks at a time – and 9% said they had done this on 10 or more occasions in the past year.” The full 8-page report 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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