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

Budget week of course but not much to cheer about for education.

The Chancellor called it a Budget for the moment, the FT saw it as a tactical Budget, the TUC said the Chancellor was ‘gambling with the recovery,’ the IfS referred to it as ‘a tale of two Budgets,’ many others pointed to the future tax burden, while education leaders reckoned it had been a wasted opportunity. “This Budget was a missed opportunity to back up warm words with a concrete spending plan,” the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) described it. The University and College Union (UCU) spoke in a similar vein.

Part of the reason why education featured so little was that most of the announcements have already been made. Ever since the Prime Minister’s New Deal speech last June, we’ve been fed a steady diet of education and skill developments. Even last weekend, the headlines were full of announcements about apprenticeship funding and catch-up support. So we’ve not been short of excitement. 

There were however perhaps three takeaways from the Budget for education.

First, there were some new announcements, particularly around skills and training, suggesting the importance the government attaches to these in assisting economic recovery. They included additional funding for traineeships, apprenticeships, creative arts and sport, along with promised ‘new technologies to help people find jobs.’ There was also support for management and digital skill support schemes for small and medium businesses as well as a more flexible visa system to attract global talent. Two issues remain here. First, while welcome, many of these are time-constrained. And second, the question remains about how far a constant drip-feed of announcements, and in the case of visas, constantly repurposing the approach, helps generate efficient system planning.

Second, levelling up and local growth remain priorities and set an important context for much of education. The Budget announced for example the launching of the prospectus for the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund as well as for the £220m Community Renewal Fund, plus £1bn from the Towns Fund. These along with the UK Infrastructure Bank and new Community Ownership Fund potentially add weight to the importance of colleges and universities as key players in the community. It will be interesting to see how far issues like local skills planning and adult budgets play out in the local council and mayoral elections in May.  

And third, there may not have been much for education in this Budget but hang on to your hats, plenty more is on its way and that’s without recent announcements on catch-up activity and this summer’s exams. Details can be found in the accompanying Plan for Growth, a report bristling with plans for the economic future of the country. Lined up in the coming months according to the Plan are a major Spending Review, an Innovation Strategy, R/D People and Places Strategies, a Digital Strategy, a Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper, a Net Zero Strategy and, finally, a conclusion to the long-running review of post-18 funding and provision. It all comes with what the report calls ‘a relentless focus on delivery,’ driven by Sir Michael Barber’s efficiency review, the latest Outcome Delivery Plans and new performance reporting approach. It certainly suggests a ‘sleeves rolled up’ approach, but as ever, we wait to see the effects on the ground.

According to a YouGov poll taken soon after the Chancellor sat down, 46% of people polled supported the Budget proposals, although a high 42% were unsure. Subsequent expert analyses from bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) and the Resolution Foundation have exemplified some of the concerns. The IfS, for example, indicated that on his three challenges of supporting the economy over the next few months, fixing longer-term finances, and dealing with the longer-term consequences of the pandemic, the Chancellor had met the first, partially met the second, but failed on the third. The trick,” as the Centre for Economics and Business Research put it, “is knowing how to bring the party to an end before the furniture starts to get smashed.” A good point perhaps to move on to other stories this week.

In Westminster, the week began with education questions as DfE Ministers lined up to answer questions on schools reopening, face coverings, learning catch-up, sixth form funding, apprenticeships, and student support among other things. A couple of days later, the Education Committee delved into catch-up developments with the Education Recovery Commissioner, and heads of ASCL and the Education Endowment Foundation respectively, where the need for long-term investment, a comprehensive recovery plan, and a shift away from the rather loaded language of catch-up to the more positive one of recovery, were some of the main talking points. In other Committees, the Business Committee discussed Industrial Strategy with members of the (possibly late) Industrial Strategy Council; the Work and Pensions Committee looked into child poverty measurement and targets; and the DCMS Committee launched an important Inquiry into potential links between sport and long-term brain injury intending to hear from former players and sports bodies as part of this.

Elsewhere, the government introduced the Bill setting up the new, much-vaunted Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA,) due to be fully operational next year and intended to be a pioneer for the new high-tech, sovereign UK, funding ‘high-risk research, high-reward scientific research.’ It will be exempt from FoI but will be required to report annually.

Finally, in other education news this week, the new Children’s Commissioner for England moved into the hot seat, promising to listen and to deliver. Families were notified about which secondary school their children had been allocated for this September, with a deadline of 15 March for accepting the offers. The Education Policy Institute published an important report on the learning gap among 16–19-year-olds, an area not covered previously, National Careers Week drew to a close, and this year’s World Book Day was celebrated despite school closures, leaving parents continuing to value the importance of reading with their children, but relieved it didn’t involve a last-minute panic to stitch together another Gruffalo costume. 

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘School staff at no greater risk of Covid.’ (Monday)
  • ‘University to pay out £5k for ‘less valuable’ experience.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Pupils need ‘bold and ambitious’ recovery plan, says tsar.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Sunak delivers spend now tax later Budget to kickstart UK economy. (Thursday)
  • ‘Right and just for students to get Covid refunds.’ (Friday)


  • Budget 2021. The Treasury published the full March 2021 Budget report incorporating the current state of the public finances, details on the measures announced by the Chancellor and dept spending tables.
  • Budget speech. The Chancellor set out the details of his latest Budget in a one-hour speech structured around three aspects: supporting families and businesses now, beginning to fix long-term finances, and building a future economy.
  • Plan for Growth. The government published further details of its Plan for Growth alongside the Budget, focusing on ‘three pillars of investment’ including high-quality infrastructure, improved skill levels, and innovation, setting out key components in each as it seeks to level up, support the transition to Net Zero and develop Global Britain.
  • The big economic picture. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) published its full-scale report on the UK finances and economic outlook used to inform the Chancellor in his Budget deliberations and outlining various future scenarios for growth with the economy set to rebound to its pre-pandemic peak by mid-2022.
  • Budget assessment. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) provided its traditional post-Budget analysis indicating that the Chancellor had met at least one and a half of the three challenges set out for the Budget but saying concerns remain about social and educational gulfs that have opened up as a result of the pandemic and which will need future funds to fix.
  • Budget Analysis. The Resolution Foundation published a comprehensive analysis of the Budget suggesting that by continuing to spend fast and tax slow the Chancellor had largely got things right but pointing to a number of possible risk areas including focusing on firms rather than families, failing to invest further in public services, and relying on returns from future tax increases 
  • Into the hot seat. Dame Rachel de Souza took up the reins as Children’s Commissioner for England promising in an introductory blog to listen and deliver. 
  • The road ahead. The innovation foundation NESTA set out its strategy for the rest of the decade focusing on ‘three defining societal challenges’ (helping give every child a fairer start, helping people live healthier lives, helping build a more sustainable economy) and pledging to operate in three different ways (as an innovation partner, a venture builder and a system shaper). 

More specifically ...


  • Covid and schools. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported on its survey into infection rates and control measures in schools taken last December indicating school staff were at no greater risk than the wider working-age population in the local authority with data for pupils to come.
  • Sparsity funding. The government launched consultation on some changes to the national funding formula, such as better identification and increasing the maximum sparsity factor, to help support small, remote schools. 
  • Early Career Teachers. The government spelt out further details of the support available to new teachers under the ‘Early Careers Framework’ due to be fully rolled out from this September.
  • Working hours. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) published the results of a survey into working hours and conditions for school leaders showing that virtually all have been working in school since the start of term with two-thirds working an additional six hours a week coping with the pandemic.
  • Governors’ Update. The DfE published its latest brief Update for School and Trust governors with links to the guidance documents for the opening of schools next week along with a new wellbeing webinar.
  • National Tutoring. Jonathan Simons reported on the focus groups that Public First had recently held about the National Tutoring Programme, reflecting on some of the reasons why parents were unaware of the scheme, suggesting that government needed to better direct its communications to parents, particularly when it’s an important offer as in this case.
  • National Reference Test. Ofqual and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published arrangements for this year’s National Reference Test due to take place in schools between 19 April and 21 May and while not being used for GCSE standards this year will be gathered to help with future longitudinal data as well as understanding any lost learning.
  • Remote education and SEND learners. Ofsted published a discussion video on remote learning and SEND learners, based on best practice identified in the autumn interim visits and highlighting the importance of careful sequencing, structure and support. 
  • A level combinations. FFT Education Datalab looked into A level subject combinations including those taken with BTECs using data from 2019, the last full year of such exams, showing the most popular A level subject combinations involved science and STEM subjects while the most popular A level/BTEC combinations involved related disciplines such as BTEC Health Studies with A level Sociology.
  • Reading research. The World Book Day charity hosted the latest annual World Book Day event with the range of activities and dressing up reduced by the pandemic but with the value of reading with children reinforced by latest research despite a slight drop in reading this year reported by one publisher.


  • SAPs Grants. The government confirmed the 2020/21 £75,000 funding grants available for the various Skills Advisory Panels (SAPs) around the country to support their work in supporting local leadership with skills needs analysis.
  • Disadvantage gap. The Education Policy Institute highlighted the extent and regional variability of the attainment gap among 16–19-year-olds in a new Nuffield funded report, indicating that this could be as much as ‘around three A level grades’ for disadvantaged, particularly while and traveller, students with prior attainment, economic disadvantage and qualification type all factors. 
  • Subcontracting Update. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) published a progress report on changes to subcontracting, announced following consultation last year, with provider data declarations due in shortly and provider requests for continuing existing arrangements due in by the end of May 2021, and the provision of a 25% cap coming next year.
  • Blueprint for change. Stephen Evans, Chief Exec of the Learning and Work Institute set out in a blog some of the key measures that have emerged from the work of their Youth Commission on measures to help young people transition into work including a Youth Allowance, apprenticeships and local investment.
  • Levy blues. The CIPD reported on the Apprenticeships Levy, four years on from its inception, condemning it for failing to raise numbers, performance or investment and calling for it to be replaced by a more flexible training levy.
  • Remote learning. The government published ‘a good practice’ report on remote and blended learning, using case studies from seven different colleges and covering such features as staff support, working with SEND learners, and curriculum re-design.
  • Skills for Life. The FE Trust for Leadership (FETL) reflected on the Skills for Life Strategy which helped so many adults improve their literacy and numeracy skills between 2001 and 2011, concluding with a set of 15 recommendations including a new strategy, delivery plan and phased funding, for a similar burst of success over the next decade to 2031. 
  • T level CPD.The government published a new report on the initial phase of CPD for T level staff, led by the Education and Training Foundation and undertaken prior to the first lockdown so limited in scope but showing support for the extent of the offer although with recommendations for improvement around the Knowledge Hubs and Industry Insights elements.


  • ARIA Bill. The government introduced the legislation to set up the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA,) announced last month, due to be fully operative next year, described everywhere as ‘bold’ and intended to fund ‘high-risk, high-reward’ research. 
  • Covid compensation. The Office for the Independent Adjudicator (OiA) published outcomes from its latest set of complainant cases arising out of the pandemic with accommodation, disruption to services, and lack of particular provision the main beefs. 
  • Pension matters. Trustees of the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) outlined the challenges facing the scheme in a new report outlining an increase in contributions needed to maintain benefits which university employers and staff condemned as unaffordable.
  • Turing scheme. The government published a guideline to the arrangements for the Turing scheme for 2021/22 spelling out application procedures, eligibility, award criteria and other details for HE providers this year.
  • Graduate route. The government confirmed that the new Graduate route for international students who’ve completed an eligible gradate and above course and wish to stay to work in the UK for two years (three years for doctoral students,) will open for applications on 1 July this year.
  • A Social Mobility Index. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published a new paper examining the case for using the contributions made by universities towards social mobility, particularly in helping those from poorer backgrounds, and arguing this offered a better model for measuring social mobility than the current focus on graduate earnings.
  • Student finance. The Student Loans Company published its guidance to financial support access and arrangements for English domiciled students taking up or continuing higher ed courses in the UK in 2021/22.
  • Student recruitment. JISC and Emerge Education published a new briefing looking at student recruitment and how far technology might be able to help through case study evidence and the potential for a more automated future. 
  • Chinese partners. The think tank Civitas raised concerns about the extent to which UK universities were involved in research contracts with China, often backed by military interests, calling for a more regulated system using something like the US Committee on Foreign Investment as a possible model. 
  • Discovery days. UCAS announced that it had teamed up with Dr Alex George, the youth mental health ambassador, to help prospective students with live Q/A events as part of its Discovery Days programme during March and April helping students think about key issues and choices as they consider their options. 
  • UKRI. Applications closed this week for the post of Chair of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI,) an average one day a week role on £29,000 for ‘an outstanding individual’ who could help shape a leading role for the UK in this important area.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Parents: Have you checked if your children still fit in their school uniforms? (I have not) | @colinmcgerty
  • “We are in danger of creating mask anarchy because of the confusion about the guidance on masks in schools” | @halfon4harlowMP
  • “It's official. 14 years and 6 universities later, I have no new passwords left in me” | @hannahallenphd
  • “I'm worried my child is watching far too much TV. Way more than the 12-hour average mentioned on #r4today. It means he has barely any time for YouTube” | @Imran_1
  • “When this madness is over I'm going to open a bakery in Oxford called Corpus Crusty” | @JonathanFoyle

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Today we set out a plan to protect the jobs and livelihoods of the British people, but the promises that underpin that plan, remain unchanged from those we pledged ourselves to twelve long months ago” – the Chancellor makes the case for his latest Budget.
  • “One day we will able to take our masks off and so will the chancellor” – the Leader of the Opposition responds on the Budget.
  • “Take account of the cuts to planned spending announced in the Autumn and Santa Sunak, purveyor of billions today looks more like Scrooge Sunak cutting spending and raising taxes to the tune of nearly £50 billion relative to his pre-pandemic plans of March 2020” the IfS assesses the Budget.
  • “This Budget was a missed opportunity to back up warm words with a concrete spending plan”- ASCL responds to the Budget.
  • “Using our provisional methodology, we find that the attainment of disadvantaged students is the equivalent of almost three A-level grades below that of their better-off peers, or over four grades if academic qualifications are given a greater weighting. This gap appears to have fallen only very slightly in recent years “– the Education Policy Institute reports on the attainment gap among 16–19-year-olds.
  • “We know much more now about what works best: evidence-backed, traditional teacher-led lessons with children seated facing the expert at the front of the class are powerful tools for enabling a structured learning environment where everyone flourishes” – the Education Secretary tells a Conference about what works best in teaching.
  • “There is no longer any need for a leaving certificate at 16” – Lord Baker questions the future of GCSEs.
  • “Catch-up is not the language I’m using. It’s much more about recovery over time” – the Education Recovery Commissioner on being careful with language 
  • “In its guidance over face coverings, the government says in one breath only that they are recommended, and in another that they must be implemented” – ASCL grapples with the issue of face coverings ahead of school re-opening. 
  • “We are discussing the form and timing of inspections in the summer term and beyond with government and stakeholders” – a message from Ofsted.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 4%. Projected annual growth figure for the UK this year, rising to 7.3% next year according to the latest Budget figures.
  • 700,000. The number of people who have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic, according to the Chancellor in his Budget speech.
  • 27%. The number of students and graduates who changed their career plans as a result of the pandemic, according to research from Prospects.
  • 797,000. The number of young people classified as NEET (not in education, employment or training) in the last quarter to December 2020, up by 39,000 on the previous quarter, according to latest official figures.
  • 18.3%. Attendance by pupils in England in state schools as of last Thursday, up from 16% on the last full week before half-term according to latest figures. 
  • 1.2m. The number of laptops and tablets sent out from government since the start of the scheme to help disadvantaged children, according to latest figures.
  • 82%. The number of teachers who have found ways of reading out loud to their class during the pandemic, according to the charity World Book Day.
  • 126.The number of emails the ‘average’ worker sends and receives each day, according to a new book by a US academic cited by the FT.
  • $671.5m. The profit accrued by Zoom last year, up from $21.7m the year before according to the latest results from the company.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • UNESCO and World Economic Forum virtual panel on women’s leadership in AI. (Monday)
  • Education Committee session with Nick Gibb on exam grading. (Tuesday)
  • EMC webinar on adult learning with speakers including Rob Halfon MP and Alison Wolf. (Wednesday)
  • Consultation closes on Ofqual’s consultation on proposed guidance for generating summer 2021 student exam grades. (23.45 Thursday) 

Other stories

  • Making schools Covid safe.As schools prepare to open more widely next week, the Office for National Statistics and partners published an interesting report this week on how schools in England have been adopting infection control measures so far. The evidence comes from the second Schools Infection Survey undertaken in December and is based on a fairly small-scale survey. It shows pretty much all primary schools have implemented government recommendations and many secondary schools most of them. The biggest problem appears to have been keeping pupils within bubbles apart, while things like opening windows, having hand sanitizer routines and not operating big gatherings like assemblies, have been easier to implement. A link to the report is 
  • You’ve got a friend. An interesting survey from YouGov last week looking at the lockdown effect on relationships with family and friends. In a word, we seem to have got closer to our immediate family and/or partner but less close to our friends. The data is likely to mask a lot of different scenarios, families unable to see aged relatives, parenting tensions and so on but the most notable statistic is the number of people reporting they’ve lost lose contact with friends. Unsurprisingly this was mainly among younger people, a quarter of 18–24-year-olds for instance but it suggests the opening of bars and restaurants can’t come soon enough. A link to the survey results is here
  • Household chores. A different perspective on catch-up emerged this week in a survey from Theirworld, the global children’s charity. This indicated that one effect of the lockdown was that historical household roles were being reinforced with girls and young women doing more of the household chores, leaving less time for learning. 66% of girls and young women for example were cooking for their families compared to 31% of boys. The charity, whose President is Sarah Brown, is calling for children to be prioritised in any pandemic response. A link to the article 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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