Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 26 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:

As expected a steady drip-feed of news this week, much of it education-related. Here’s a run-down starting with that roadmap.

Described as “a one-way road to freedom,” by the Prime Minister, ‘striking a sensible balance’ by the Times and ‘a 4x4’ model with its four steps, four tests, and four important reviews by the i newspaper, the roadmap is part of a doubleheader from government, with next week’s Budget adding the economic context. With Mayoral and Council elections to follow in May and the PM and Ministers gearing up for some set-piece speeches in early summer, the sense of momentum that the government has been so keen to unleash appears to be building. 

Details of the roadmap were set out in a hefty 68-page document, quickly followed up, for education at least, by yet another dump of updated guidance for each part of the system. For schools and colleges, - universities have their own set of issues - three questions stand out.

First, will a big bang return trigger an increase in transmission rates? Teaching unions have called for a staggered start, pointing to concerns raised in some health advice and the lack of vaccinations for teachers. The government has acknowledged that for secondary schools and colleges at least, the week beginning 8 March will see a more gradual return for many students although it has tried to ameliorate this by encouraging schools and colleges to undertake Covid testing in advance. Either way, there’s likely to be careful monitoring of infection data over the coming weeks.

Second, how to manage the requirements around Covid testing, required at a rate of one every five and a half minutes according to TES calculations. As Geoff Barton explained: ‘The logistics of processing large numbers of students through testing bays are enough to make one's head spin, and this will be very challenging indeed for schools and colleges.’ The government sees the two weeks’ notice as helping give schools and colleges some time to prepare. 

And third, how easy will it be to get back into gear and help make up for any lost learning? The government has seen off some of the challenge here with its latest catch-up announcement extending the national tutoring programme, providing dedicated ‘Recovery Premium’ funding, and extending funded support into summer schools and activities. It’s a start, but we’ll be hearing a lot more about all this in the coming months.  

Next, this summer’s exam grading, where the government has confirmed that teachers will have lead responsibility for determining grades, based only on what students have been taught, and drawing on a range of evidence that includes mocks, coursework and optional exam board set questions. Multiple checks will be built into the system as the Schools Minister explained, including peer checking in schools, sign-offs and exam board moderation support. Results would be submitted to boards by 18 June and results day brought forward a couple of weeks to the week of 9 August to allow extra time for appeals. The system will apply to GCSEs, A’ levels and vocational and technical qualifications like BTECs while Covid secure assessment sittings will be used for professional competency qualifications.

In the words of one headteacher ‘it’s the least worst system’ and Universities UK has said admissions officers ‘will pull out all the stops’ but three immediate issues stand out here too. First, and the question raised by many commentators, will this fuel grade inflation? Ministers signalled they were aware of this and point to the ‘stabilisers’ like internal and external standardisation built into the system, but strong concerns have been expressed about this. Second, the appeals system left many people dissatisfied last year and there’s a need to see early on how the system will work this year. And third, is this just passing the buck to a profession already under enormous pressure? Views are mixed on this so far; some see it as a time to trust the teacher, others that they’re being placed in an invidious position. Perhaps as the journalist Greg Hurst put it, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to prove teacher assessments can be done fairly and reliably. If so, it could have longer-term implications for the exam system.

Next, education news from Westminster, where this week MPs returned (virtually) from their half-term break, and where the Education Secretary has been particularly busy. On Monday he issued a Statement confirming plans to press ahead in tackling free speech in English universities. A couple of days later, he set out government catch-up plans for education, and the next day arrangements for grading this summer’s exams. Elsewhere, Labour hosted an Opposition Day incorporating two debates on protecting jobs, businesses and family finances with proposals to extend the furlough scheme and Universal Credit. The Education Committee also held a session on school finances, discussing catch-up and Covid funding among other issues. And the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) issued a formal response to last December’s Lords Committee report on Artificial Intelligence, broadly pointing out the work already underway through the AI Council’s Roadmap, among other things.

And finally, three other important news items this week. First, Sir Michael Barber published his report, commissioned by government last year, into the impact and implications of the transition to digital teaching and learning in higher education. Universities and colleges shifted at great speed last year, 58% of students and 47% of staff polled had no such experience at the start, yet within months were all having to adapt to it. The report highlights developments through case studies and evidence and concludes with some valuable recommendations, not least the importance of building for the future rather than attempting to replicate the past.  

Second, the Education Endowment Foundation had an interesting blog about the value or otherwise of summer schools. These can add the equivalent of an additional two months' progress for some pupils, but this is not as high for instance as the gain from small group tuition or good quality feedback. It begs the question about how far summer schools are about learning catch-up or personal development, and what works best and would attract pupils. 

Third, there’s been some important labour market data out this week with both the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and CIPD/Adecco publishing updates. The unemployment rate continues to be worryingly high particularly for 18-24-year-olds although as CIPD/Adecco pointed out, opportunities in sectors such as healthcare and education were improving. The Institute for Employment Studies had a useful summary of it all here concluding: ‘things are weak but could have been worse.’

It’s a line, perhaps the Chancellor could use in his Budget speech next Wednesday.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Schools back 8 March in England with Covid tests at home.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Poorer primary pupils in England up to 7 months behind due to Covid.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Summer catch-up schools planned for pupils in England.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘A’ level and GCSE results to be decided by teachers.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘UK universities braced for A’ level grade inflation.’ (Friday)


  • Easing the lockdown. The Prime Minister laid out the roadmap for easing the lockdown restrictions over the coming months, outlining a series of managed stages into June starting with a return for schools, colleges, and specialist and practical university courses in England from 8 March. 
  • Roadmap details. The government published an accompanying 68-page report for the roadmap with further detail on the four tests, the four stages for coming out of lockdown and four future reviews (on Covid passports, international travel, large event management, and social distancing requirements) intended to roundoff the end of lockdown.
  • Throwing good money after good. The Resolution Foundation examined the economic runes ahead of next week’s Budget indicating that the sequence of lockdowns has created the need for longer-term economic support and calling for a substantial £100bn stimulus including £27bn for job retraining and support as part of the Budget package.
  • Global picture. UNESCO in conjunction with the World Bank published its latest Education Finance Watch on global education finance trends, showing the pandemic exacerbating the divide between richer and poorer nations with the latter cutting education spend and the former maintaining much of it.
  • Labour market overview. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest labour market data for the UK showing unemployment continuing to rise with 18-24-year-olds particularly hard hit but vacancies in some sectors improving.
  • Situations Vacant. CIPD and Adecco reported on their latest Labour Market Outlook showing an increase in the number of employers looking to recruit in the first quarter of this year with healthcare, finance, education and ICT appearing the most buoyant, but social distance sectors like hospitality continuing to struggle. 
  • AI response. The government issued its response to last December’s Lords Committee report on AI citing the work it was doing to position the UK as a lead player in artificial intelligence notably through the AI Council Roadmap
  • Mayoral manifestos. The CBI published a series of manifestos for regional leaders ahead of local and mayoral elections on 6 May, outlining three guiding principles: championing regional dynamism, stimulating local job creation, and transforming digital and physical infrastructure.
  • Future Learning.FutureLearn reported on its global survey undertaken by YouGov into future global learning trends, reinforcing many familiar expectations including the shift to online, the need for a wider range of qualifications, and the importance of self-development.
  • Wider social picture. The LSE published a new report funded by Nuffield looking at the UK welfare system and society on the eve of the pandemic pointing to gains in a number of areas including university participation, employment and reducing the public spending deficit but equally falls in reducing relative poverty, in the numbers of young people gaining a L2 qualification, and in closing the disadvantage gap for reception-age children.
  • Community, Connection and Cohesion. The Cohesion and Integration Network with Kent University published their Nuffield funded report into how various communities have pulled together during the pandemic highlighting the benefits of social cohesion through local youth, adult learning and community events.
  • Accelerator Zones. The Social Market Foundation published a new report by two Conservative MPs calling for the creation of Accelerator Zones which would bring together global talent, investment, knowledge and innovation with leading universities to generate jobs, economic growth and generally boost the regions.
  • Youth sector review. The government launched a consultation on youth support services seeking in particular the views from youth organisations about the funding, provision and wider vision for out-of-school and youth sector activities.

More specifically ...


  • Schools opening. The government confirmed that schools in England would return to face-to-face teaching from 8 March with appropriate safety measures in place including Covid testing for staff and students and, until Easter at least, face coverings in secondary school classrooms.
  • Latest guidance. The government updated its guidance for schools in light of the published roadmap pointing to the continuing importance of having schools open and pupils fully attending, emphasising testing and safety expectations including face coverings in secondary classrooms and reinforcing curriculum expectations.
  • Catch-up support. The government announced a further package of support for pupil catch-up following school closures with a further expansion of the National Tutoring Programme, a one-off £302m Recovery Premium to help schools support the most disadvantaged pupils and additional funding to provide for summer schools and other summer activities.
  • Instructions on this summer’s exams. The Education Secretary set out directions to Ofqual for ensuring the awarding of this summer’s exam grades with particular attention to quality assurance arrangements for securing teacher judgments, appeals procedures, and assessment arrangements for the different categories of vocational qualifications.
  • Ofqual response. Ofqual responded to the Education Secretary’s instructions for the awarding of grades for exams this summer, confirming arrangements put in place so far and proposals to move speedily to consult on the detail of regulations required to enable this year’s exams.
  • Ofsted confirmed it would pause inspections for the week beginning 8 March to allow schools and colleges to return unhindered but would resume remote monitoring thereafter for the rest of term with graded inspections expected from the summer term.
  • School finances. The Education Committee held a witness session with officials from the DfE and ESFA on school finances where topics covered included catch-up funding (its monitoring and management,) the national tutoring programme (its coverage and extent,) the pupil premium (census date and sufficiency,) and Covid costs (seen as manageable.) 
  • Learning loss. The DfE published commissioned research undertaken by Renaissance Learning and the Education Policy Institute into learning loss in reading and maths for Year 3-9 pupils last year compared with outcomes the year before, suggesting an average 3 month learning loss for primary maths and between 1.6 and 2 months for reading but with regional variations.
  • Reception assessment. The Standards and Testing Agency confirmed the closure of the early adopter scheme for the Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA) which saw 2.7m schools conduct assessments last autumn ahead of formal rollout of the scheme this autumn. 
  • Free Schools. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) reported on the first ten years of Free Schools in a new commissioned report highlighting both the highs (high Ofsted rankings) and the lows (mixed performance at KS 2 and 5) and suggesting more research was needed on aspects such as poor teacher retention.
  • Effective Learning. The Chartered College published a new report looking at evidence on creating supportive learning environments and what makes for effective distance learning especially for vulnerable pupils, with accessibility, established routines and wellbeing measures all important 
  • Clerk’s Survey. The National Governance Association launched a new survey to seek the views of clerks and governance professionals with a view to developing further training and support.
  • Free School Meals. The government confirmed the extension of the supplementary grant, which provides additional income as the lagged system catches up, for a further year.


  • Colleges opening. The government confirmed that colleges in England would return to face-to-face teaching from 8 March with appropriate testing and safety measures in place.
  • Latest guidance. The government published updated guidance for colleges in the light of the latest roadmap, emphasising testing and safety expectations including face coverings in classrooms, along with full provision where possible especially for 16–19-year-olds and appropriate mental health support.
  • This summer’s exams. The Education Secretary set out directions to Ofqual for awarding exam grades this summer with particular attention to quality assurance arrangements for securing teacher judgments, appeals procedures and appropriate assessment arrangements for the various categories of vocational and technical qualifications.
  • Ofqual response. Ofqual responded to the Education Secretary’s instructions for the awarding of grades for exams this summer, confirming arrangements put in place so far and proposals to move speedily to consult on the detail of regulations required to enable this year’s exams.
  • VTQ Consultation. Ofqual issued a brief two-week consultation on some regulatory changes to its Regulatory Framework for Vocational and Technical Qualifications to enable results to be awarded for vocational and technical qualifications (VTQ) when an exam cannot be undertaken or when a learner has not been able to complete all required coursework
  • Functional skills awarding. The government set out the arrangements for functional skills assessment this year, listing three options (online, centre-based, agreed alternative arrangements) and which were available from which Awarding Organisation. 
  • Apprenticeship assessments. The government announced further flexibilities for apprenticeship assessments following recent ‘roadmap’ announcements, confirming that apprentices could now start their end-point assessment before they take their functional skills and from 8 March could attend on-site training and assessment.
  • Catch-up funding. The government announced £102m to extend catch-up support for 16–19-year-olds, particularly those that needed to achieve required levels in English and maths, as part of its general catch-up announcement.
  • L2 and below. The government published the conclusions of a commissioned study into how adults below L2 make decisions about learning, concluding that career and personal improvement were key drivers albeit with concerns about how they would come across or a poor previous learning experience. 
  • Covid Support Fund. The insurance and saving industry’s Covid-19 Support Fund announced new funding to support the Learning and Work Institute’s New Future’s programme and the Shaw Trust’s Care and Construction Academy as part of its work to support reskilling for those hit hardest by the pandemic.
  • Opportunity Finder. Youth Employment UK launched Opportunity Finder, a new database of youth-friendly employers who have signed up to the Good Youth Employment Charter and offer training and support for young people.
  • Skills for a Green Recovery. The IPPR think tank examined aspects of the construction industry given the growing importance of green economy skills, citing concerns about a lack of investment, skills and collective action in the sector and calling for a new focus on modernising the industry, raising skill levels and developing more responsible procurement.
  • T level registration. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) published the arrangements for current T level providers to register for T levels for 2023/24 as well as for a T level Transition Programme with greater flexibility permitted over inspection and financial health requirements. 
  • T level training. The Education and Training Foundation launched its programme of Route Specific Training for staff due to be delivering T levels.


  • Opening plans. The government updated its guidance for universities in light of the PM’s latest roadmap, confirming further face-to-face teaching for some practical and specialist courses with appropriate testing and safety measures, from 8 March but online provision for the rest ahead of a further review by the end of the Easter holidays.
  • Digital developments. Sir Michael Barber published the outcomes of his review into digital teaching and learning, listing six lessons identified from the recent enforced shift to digital teaching including the importance of access, staff skills, student voice, and opportunity development, calling on universities to continue building on what they’ve learned rather than trying to replicate existing approaches.
  • Student support. The Sutton Trust announced the launch with JPMorgan of a new £4.8m bursary fund to help improve employment opportunities for Trust alumni at university who because of the lockdown are likely to have missed out on enrichment and training activities needed to develop wider skills. 
  • UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) confirmed the latest funding allocations for doctoral research students, adding £11m to the pot and allowing for continuing flexibilities in the use of grants where possible. 
  • Dropping languages. The Times Higher reported on the decline in modern foreign languages in many universities evidenced by the latest UCAS data but equally with some universities managing to buck the trend.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Wondering if @OpenUniversitywill award me a BA (Hons) in Procrastination instead of Childhood & Youth Studies when I graduate this year” | @strictlyellie
  • “Teachers are one of the least likely professions – along with clergy – to be heavy drinkers, according to a press release. Suspect journalists are a fair bit higher up that list” | @Charlotte Santry
  • “New research shows that parents of teenage daughters argue more about parenting than do the parents of sons” | @TheEconomist
  • “My suggested activity for #WorldBookDay is to read a book” | @C_Hendrick
  • “Sherlock Holmes in the first drafts for the books was a gastric surgeon. Watson kept asking him what kind of op was he going to do and Holmes would reply, 'Alimentary, my dear Watson' | @MichaelRosenYes
  • “Just booked to get my highlights done at SEVEN THIRTY AM on April 12th” | @Marina Hyde

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “The crocus of hope is poking through the frost and spring is on its way both literally and metaphorically” – the PM strains the imagery as he announces the easing of lockdown restrictions.
  • “It’s madness” – NEU joint general secretary Mary Boustead on a big bang return for all school children. 
  • “Even with the Prime Minister’s new roadmap, the future of thousands of firms and millions of jobs still hangs by a thread” -the British Chambers of Commerce responds on the roadmap.
  • “My fear is that, as a populist government, giving money away is always easier than collecting it in” – former Chancellor Philip Hammond lays down the challenge to the present Chancellor ahead of the Budget.
  • “We are so used to being on the back foot, we have forgotten we have front feet” – Sir Anthony Seldon urges universities to be on the front foot in a comment piece for HEPI.
  • “I have a slight horror at the idea of a free-speech champion. I don't see the need for it” – Amber Rudd on free speech proposals. 
  • “As far as graduation is concerned, I think we’re going to have to suck it and see, so we may have small school-based or subject-based graduations” – the V.C. of Sussex University on plans for graduation ceremonies this year.
  • “It may not have taken the form expected but a disrupted avalanche has arrived” – Sir Michael Barber rolls out his avalanche imagery as he reports on the arrival of digital teaching and learning.
  • “In this exceptional year, this government’s policy is that Ofqual should give priority to results that credibly reflect teachers’ judgments about their students’ performance, rather than seeking to ensure that the national distribution of grades follows a similar profile to that of previous years”- the government issues directions to Ofqual for this summer’s exam grades.
  • “It's certainly not ideal but it acknowledges reality - precise grades are simply not possible this year” – Sam Freedman expresses for many the reaction to the decision on grading exams this year.
  • “Summer schools will be of value for some pupils but it will be important not to overwhelm students. Recovery cannot happen in a single summer”- the NAHT responds to the government’s latest catch-up proposals.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 5.1%. The UK unemployment rate as of December 2020, up 0.1% on the previous month according to the latest official figures.
  • 34.3%. The number of women on FTSE 350 boards, up from 21.9% five years ago according to the latest official figures.
  • 6m. The number of people claiming Universal Credit in January 2021, double the number compared to March 2020 according to latest government figures.
  • 56%. The number of employers surveyed looking to recruit in the first quarter of this year, up 3% on the previous quarter according to the latest CIPD/Adecco Labour Market Outlook.
  • 10,000. The number of new Work Coaches now in place, according to latest government figures.
  • 27.6%. The drop in apprenticeships starts for the first quarter of the 2020/21 year compared to the same quarter in 2019/20, according to the latest data.
  • £1.7bn. The cost of catch-up plans for schools and colleges in England so far, following the latest government announcement.
  • +2 months. The additional progress on average for a pupil attending a summer school contrasted with a pupil who doesn’t, compared to an additional 0+4 months progress from small group tuition and +8 months from high-quality feedback, according to evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation.
  • 337%. The increase in flight bookings reported by Easy Jet following the Prime Minister’s roadmap announcement.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • National Careers Week. (Monday – Saturday)
  • Education Committee witness session with Sir Kevan Collins. (Tuesday)
  • Wonkhe/UCAS virtual event on University Admissions. (Tuesday)
  • Budget Statement. (Wednesday)
  • World Book Day. (Thursday)

Other stories

  • Careful with that catch-up language. In a week in which the government announced its latest catch-up proposals, the British Psychological Society highlighted the dangers of letting children believe that they were somehow falling behind and facing a long-term struggle. “The notion that children need to catch up or are ‘behind’ at school due to the pandemic reinforces the idea that children have ‘one shot’ at their education” it argued “and puts them under even more pressure to perform academically after what has been a challenging and unprecedented time for everyone.” It called instead for any catch-up activity to be seen in a positive light and building on work done during lockdown, whether academic or mindful. A link to the article is here.
  • Out of the mouths of children. So now that it’s confirmed that children will be going back to school from the 8 March what do they think about it? The Independent asked a few children and it seems that most are keen to get back. Some were worried that their friends might not recognise them, some, particularly younger ones, reckoned they’d really miss being with their family at home and some were not too sure about getting back to school diners. But generally most wanted to get back to classroom learning, to seeing friends and teachers again and to getting back into the old routine…even the one who said he’d be brave whatever. 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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