Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 19 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:

High anticipation this week as the government prepares to launch its long-awaited roadmap out of lockdown. 

The general view is a three or four-stage approach. Schools and colleges first, followed over the ensuing months by some outdoor activity, non-essential shops, and then pubs and restaurants; ‘cautious but irreversible’ as the PM put it. "Our children's education is our number one priority, but then working forward, getting non-essential retail open as well and then in due course as and when we can prudently, cautiously, of course we want to be opening hospitality."   

Scotland has already set out its education plans: early years, primaries years 1-3, and those completing practical work, back from Monday. An announcement on others in a couple of weeks’ time, but again cautious in approach. It’s also adding a package of measures and support to go with all this, including £60m catch-up money and testing kits for senior pupils and those who work in education settings. It’s a similar picture in Wales, with a phased return, starting with 3–7-year-olds from Monday. As for England, will it be a big bang or a phased reopening for schools and colleges? Both have been mooted this week; we now wait to see, and to find out where it leaves universities.

Talking of universities, one of the main education stories of the week has been government proposals on freedom of speech and academic freedom in HE in England. This was always going to be tricky terrain and comes as part of a wider move by government to tackle so-called culture wars.

The implications for HE in England came in what the government described as ‘landmark proposals.’ These included: strengthening the current duty on HE providers in England to actively promote freedom of speech; extending this through to Student Unions, enabling individuals to seek compensation through a Court of Law where necessary; and legislating for a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion to sit on the board of the Office for Students, with powers to zoom in on infringements and potentially call for fines. The case for all this was set out in a report and reinforced in an accompanying letter to university Accountable Officers. 

Responses to all this have inevitably been mixed. The NUS suggested it was a non-issue and both they and the UCU questioned whether tackling it during a pandemic was a wise move. Wonhke saw it as ‘representing a breakdown of trust and confidence’ while the Conservative home page described the move as bold. Whether the Education Secretary was right to claim there has been ‘a chilling effect’,  with staff and students unable to speak out, is open to interpretation, but the government remains committed to putting some of this on a legislative footing in due course.

Three other education stories stand out this week.

First the economy, where a couple of weeks after the roadmap, the March Budget will set out the next stage in recovery sequencing. The Chancellor has not been short of advice as he prepares for this, with issues like how to transition out of support schemes; the timing of any tax rises; and the case for the Universal Credit uplift, all prominent. More has come this week with the Labour leader arguing for a new economic vision involving a partnership with business and new Recovery Bonds; the IPPR think tank proposing a Biden style ‘bold recovery plan worth £190bn’ to kickstart the economy; and the Resolution Foundation calling for furloughing to remain in place while phasing out is planned, an extension of the Kickstart scheme, and wage subsidies to help with job creation.

Much of this was captured this week in the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ (IfS) traditional pre-Budget event. The view here was that now was not the time for tax rises with the government facing the triple challenge of Brexit, Covid recovery and climate change –  as well as needing to work out a plan for carefully phasing out support schemes. ‘Easing transition to a new normal’ is the current mantra. 

Second, the Children’s Commissioner for England called on the government to get real about the needs of children and the challenges they face as she prepared to hand over the reins to Dame Rachel de Souza. In a powerful valedictory speech, she highlighted the links between disadvantage and educational attainment and set political parties of all persuasions three challenges: take children’s futures seriously; understand the harm caused by the pandemic; and if you’re serious about building back better, put children centre stage. A legacy to heed.

Third, the latest set of statistics from UCAS on university applications this year. Always an important moment and perhaps none more so than now given both the pandemic and economic uncertainties. The stand out headline is the increase in applications for nursing courses, up 32% and from all age groups. Applications from 18-year olds, including those from disadvantaged areas, as well as from mature, black, and mixed-race groups are all also up, but those from the EU down. It’s perhaps too early to be definitive about trends, but there are some welcome pointers in here all the same.

Elsewhere with Parliament in recess, things have been a bit quieter in Westminster at least. Here are a couple of headlines.

The Treasury Committee published a further report into the economic impact of the pandemic, while today the PM is hosting a virtual meeting of G7 leaders – including the new US President – as part of its Presidency of the Group this year. The theme will be a global response to the pandemic. The formal get-together of this Group of world leaders in the UK is still set for June in Cornwall. 

Many will be hoping that with the roadmap established, they too will be able to get away to places like Cornwall this year.

It’s looking to be a busy roadmap ahead.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘No evidence schools play big role in spreading Covid.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Free speech plan to stop silencing on university campus.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘UK university students wasted £1bn in a year on empty accommodation.’ (Wed)
  • ‘Covid: Testing means staggered school return, say heads.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Pupils in Wales set to return to primary schools from 15 March.’ (Friday)


  • Budget lines. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) and Citi Research set out the economic context for next month’s Budget, arguing that targeted support needs to continue for a while but that the Chancellor also needs a plan for phasing these out ahead of putting the public finances on a sustainable footing.
  • New economic vision. Sir Keir Starmer offered what he called ‘a new economic vision’ in a major economic speech, calling for an economic rebuild like that after the war, a new partnership with business and the creation of Recovery Bonds and Business Loans
  • Six ways to raise taxes. Douglas McWilliams for the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) offered 6 ways in which the Chancellor could tackle tax rises including being honest, not clobbering enterprise, and moving away from taxing income and employment towards taxing spending, the environment and property.
  • Boost it like Biden. The IPPR think tank called on the Chancellor to take a lesson from America and adopt a massive (£190bn) economic stimulus programme aimed at firms and households hardest hit by the pandemic as well as public services and future growth industries.
  • Covid and the labour market. The Resolution Foundation reported on the state of the labour market as the lockdown has continued, suggesting at least 6m people have not worked during the pandemic with many concerned about their jobs, and calling for the Chancellor to adopt a gradual and sector led phasing out of furloughing, extending the Kickstart scheme and offering wage subsidies in hard-hit sectors.
  • Budget submission. The Federation of Small Businesses published its submission to the Chancellor ahead of the March Budget calling for gaps in support to small businesses to be addressed, employer incentives to encourage firms to bring staff back off furlough and further support for digital adoption and upskilling. 
  • Parting words. The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, highlighted the links between poverty and educational attainment in her valedictory speech as Commissioner calling on the government to put children centre stage post-pandemic and to tackle the issues holding them back.
  • System reform. Former Minister Nick Boles called for the government to seize the opportunity of coming out of the pandemic by launching a major review of the education system to provide new hope and opportunities for young people.
  • Gaps in support. The Treasury Committee published its third report looking into the economic impact of the pandemic calling among other things for clear criteria supported by modelling for exiting the lockdown and for better support for the self-employed.
  • SME business. The government reported on how it was working with small and medium businesses (SMEs) helping to maximise opportunities to participate in DfE procurement with the aim of securing a third of all procurement spend by March 2022
  • Green finance. The government announced the creation of a new UK Centre for Greening Finance and Investment, due to open this spring with hubs in London and Leeds that would work with leading UK universities to provide expert data and analysis to help banks and investors manage the ‘green’ impact of business decisions.
  • UK Cyber Security. The government and partners published the 2020 Annual Report into the UK Cyber Security Industry showing an increase in the number of cyber security companies and of people working in them with growth cited in the provision of solutions for industrial control systems and IoT security.
  • Northern Big Bang. The Centre for Policy Studies published a new report calling for a ‘Big Bang’ of investment and support for the North of the country, through for instance, the creation of a Northern Infrastructure Bond and a new Northern Growth Board, to help level up the economy.
  • ARIA announcement. The government confirmed steps to create Advanced Research and Innovation Agency (ARIA,) a new independent but government funded research agency that will work alongside UK Research and Innovation on developing the UK’s scientific research prowess.

More specifically ...


  • Teachers’ Pay. The government published evidence to the Review Body on teachers’ pay supporting its position on restricting a pay award this year to those teachers, largely unqualified, earning less than £24,000 (while remaining committed overtime to increasing starting salaries to £30,000.)
  • Union response. Teacher unions issued a joint letter to the Pay Review Body calling on it to reject government advice on pay limits and instead put forward proposals for pay increases and reform of the pay structure that demonstrate the value of teachers.
  • Catch-up support across the UK. The Education Policy Institute examined school attendance and catch-up support across the UK, indicating for example that while each nation has pledged catch-up funding, it’s unlikely to be enough to cover lost learning'
  • Lockdown learning.The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) reported on its Nuffield funded study into the learning experiences and school closures affected different groups of pupils last year effectively highlighting the importance of schools being open and the impact such opportunities had on families. 
  • Not vectors of transmission. Warwick University published new research, as yet non peer reviewed, but looking at school absences last autumn to suggest that schools, particularly primary, were not the cause of major transmitters of infection.
  • Remote learning. Ofsted added details of its YouGov survey undertaken to support its recent report on remote learning with some interesting takeaways including recognition of the step-up taken by schools to provide remote provision, the challenges involved in keeping pupils engaged, and the different issues facing different groups.
  • Qualifications and assessment. Pearson launched a major new review of the future of qualifications and assessment post 2020, looking at aspects like the critical 14-19 stage of learning, with a view to publishing an interim report in April and a final report later this year.
  • MeeToo app. The Anna Freud Centre and MeeToo announced funding from Innovate UK to develop and trial a peer support app whereby young people with worries and anxieties could post concerns and get supportive, verified messages in return.


  • L2 Review. City and Guilds and Research Base reported on their survey of views on L2 reform highlighting concerns that the government review could see important stepping stone qualifications for many people curtailed and highlighting the importance of flexible choices still being available.
  • Lifelong Education Commission. The think tank ResPublica prepared to launch a major new Lifelong Education Commission intended to look at what was needed in terms of investment, qualification reform and partnership working to create an innovative post-18 sector.
  • Economic insecurity. The RSA announced it was launching a major new research project, supported by the Health Foundation, to understand how young people experience economic insecurity given the current challenges they face.
  • Learning from the past. The Edge Foundation began in interesting series of papers looking at lessons to be learned from past initiatives, in this first case the Connexions advice and guidance service which ran for 10 years from 2001, sometimes critically but which could offer lessons on future provision.


  • Free speech. The government set out new proposals on free speech and academic freedom in HE pledging among other things to place a new registration condition on HE providers to protect free speech, create a Free Speech Champion, and enable redress through a Court of Law where necessary.
  • University applications. UCAS released the latest set of data on university applications this year showing a notable rise in applications for nursing courses, a drop in EU applications but another rise in applications from UK 18-year-olds.
  • Talking about Quality. The QAA launched a new briefing designed to help students clarify issues of quality, standards and value for money in discussions with providers in light of the pandemic.
  • Mixed media. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published a new report looking into the university sector’s relationship with the media, noting that media scrutiny has intensified and become more obsessed with the consumer effect but urging universities to engage with the media on wider issues such as the value of the student experience and how HE shapes up post-pandemic. 
  • International students. The House of Commons Library Service published a useful summary paper on international students in UKHE covering recent trends, income levels and developments up to the recent International Strategy Paper.
  • Accommodation costs. Save the Student website published its latest National Student Accommodation Survey showing the impact of the pandemic on many students with 43% having spent less than 3 months in rented accommodation this year, 50% struggling to keep up with their rent and many looking for more flexibility in contracts next year.
  • Generation Rent. The FT reported on the costs and challenges facing university students during a difficult pandemic year in a long read for its Life and Arts section.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Weird feeling. After 10.5 years and roughly £21,000 of debt- I finally paid off the last instalment of my student loan today. Next month, for the first time- I’ll receive my full post tax salary, for the first time since I graduated” | @lewis_goodall>
  • “First home-school homework fail, the grandparents had to help compose a rap, they misread 'homophones' and have produced lyrics about how awful homophobes are” | @PankhurstEM
  • “Asked the 14 year old where he'd like to visit if we get to go on holiday this year. He replied Delphi and Mycenae. The triumph of a knowledge rich curriculum? Not quite - we can thank hours spent playing Assassin's Creed Odyssey on the XBox for that one” | @debrakidd
  • “The whole day is just a massive countdown to teatime” | @mattforde
  • “Can't believe it's Pancake Day today, that's creped up on us quickly!!!!” | @BigBearF1

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “We’ve had 13 major fiscal announcements since the last Budget on March 11 last year” – the IfS and Citi Research put next month’s Budget in perspective.
  • “This pandemic has pulled back the curtain on that way of doing things. This must now be a moment to think again about the country that we want to be”– Sir Keir Starmer starts to sketch out an alternative vision for Labour.
  • “But I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring” – the Education Secretary announces new measures on free speech in universities.
  • “There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus” – the NUS responds to the government’s proposals on free speech in universities.
  • “Overall, applications are buoyant as students plan their futures for life after lockdown” – UCAS reports on the latest university application figures.
  • “The current system is a ramshackle hodgepodge combining the ideological projects of successive education ministers (like me) with institutions designed to do a different job in a different age for people who would lead different, and much shorter, lives and do different jobs in a society with different values and different needs. It requires wholesale reform” – former Minister Nick Boles calls a new Commission on Education.
  • “As we hit the 100,000 mark, I want to congratulate all those who have successfully passed their apprenticeship” – the Skills Minister acknowledges the latest apprenticeship landmark.
  • “Schools don’t need policy gimmicks, such as proposals rumoured in the media to be under consideration in England for extended school days and a longer summer term. What schools need is sufficient funding to be able to provide high-quality, targeted support for the pupils who have fallen behind” – ASCL responds on pupil catch-up rumours.
  • “As we come out of this pandemic, our memory should be the new opportunities it gave children, not what it took away”- the Children’s Commissioner departs with some important messages.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 0.9%. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for the year to January 2021, up 0.1% on the previous year according to the latest ONS figures.
  • 25%. The number of firms indicating in a survey that they will have to make staff redundant if financial support ceases in the next couple of months, according to the British Chambers of Commerce.
  • 46,683. The number of people working in the UK Cybersecurity industry, according to the latest sector report.
  • 616,360. The latest figures for university applications this year, up 8.5% according to UCAS.
  • £930,270,890. How much has been spent on rent for student accommodation across the UK this year that has been left empty, according to the Save the Student website.
  • 7,000+. The number of mainstream media stories about universities last year, indicating heightened levels of interest according to a new report from HEPI.
  • 15.9%. Average reported pupil attendance at state schools in England as of last Thursday, with the highest rates in primary and special schools according to latest government figures.
  • 1.05 m. The number of laptops and tablets dispatched since the start of the scheme, according to latest government figures.
  • £50,000. How much Pearson donated, along with 250 laptops, to support the Daily Mail ‘Computers for Kids’ campaign.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Government to set out its roadmap. (Monday)
  • More education announcements, including on 2021 exams. (Tues-Thurs) 
  • Schools Week/Pearson virtual Roundtable on ‘A Vocational Revolution for Schools?’ (Wednesday)
  • Universities UK ‘Fair Admissions’ online Conference. (Wednesday) 
  • Launch of Barber Review into ‘Digital teaching and learning.’ (Thursday)

Other stories

  • Pros and cons of working from home. Working from home has obviously gained a new currency during lockdown but according to commentary in the FT last week, a number of issues will need to be resolved as businesses hopefully go back to work and working patterns re-establish. One issue is that those who want to continue a pattern of home working may find out that they lose out on promotion. Apparently some research indicates their promotion rates are lower because they are not seen around the office as much. And second, a lot of people have jobs that can’t be done from home but equally are most vulnerable in the jobs market and may need to be supported. A link to the article can be found 
  • Not spoken here. According to a survey quoted approvingly in the North East of the country, the Geordie accent is the most popular and Cockney the least popular. Whether it’s anything to do with Ant and Dec being on telly so much isn’t clear but the poll conducted by the training company, the Knowledge Academy, indicated that people surveyed could listen to a Geordie voice for 4 minutes 19 seconds before getting irritated but could only last 58 seconds listening to a Cockney accent. The next most popular was Plain English and perhaps no surprise, Essex or Estuary English, like Cockney, was one of the next least popular. A link to the story 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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