Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 12 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:

A week of mixed emotions as schools and colleges started to reopen to all learners this week.

Anxiety for some, relief for many, logistical headaches for others. The Prime Minister hailed it ‘as a first step towards getting back to some sense of normality,’ the Education Secretary described it ‘as a moment of joy,’ ASCL as ‘a red-letter day’ and one school leader as ‘a ray of sunshine in a gloomy week.’ The Telegraph even suggested some parents were lining up their best outfits for a trip to the school gates, although this was before the Schools Minister urged parents not to hang around.  

All in all, most parents were relieved just to see their children back in school. A Nuffield-funded survey of parents published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on the eve of the big day found 90% happy to send their children back, although face coverings and testing have remained points of tension as the i newspaper reported

The opening up of schools and colleges has come as concerns have been growing about mental health. This week saw a battery of reports on the matter including from the Office for National Statistics (ONS,) the Public First agency, the Nuffield Foundation, and the Prince’s Trust. The ONS, for example reported that two-thirds of students felt that their mental health and wellbeing had worsened since the start of the academic year while at the other end of the age range, the Nuffield study reported that for primary age children, behavioural and emotional difficulties arising out of the 2020 lockdowns were up 14% on pre-pandemic levels. Public First even talked about ‘a genuine, wide and profound mental health crisis,’ with young people, along with women and the more disadvantaged, among the groups hardest hit.

This is clearly a disturbing picture and is being taken seriously in many quarters as the government and opposition taskforces below indicate. But it’s perhaps also worth making two other points. First the importance of building a positive climate to help young people recover. The Recovery Commissioner highlighted this in his evidence to the Education Committee recently and it was further articulated this week by Peter Hyman, former Number 10 adviser and co-founder of School 21, calling for ‘a bounce back’ rather than a lost generation. ‘We need to harness the experience of young people during lockdown; the grit they have shown, and help them to become powerful learners.”’ The work he and others are doing on rethinking assessment may be one of the more significant outcomes coming out of this period.

Second, while lockdown learning has exacerbated social and attainment gaps, some children have been able to benefit from homeschooling. A US study this week for instance reported on how it had helped autistic children. One wrote: "It's a lot easier to focus, I can be in my room and be a lot more comfortable doing stuff." As Sir Michael Barber’s recent report on digital teaching and learning in higher education concluded, ‘online learning has the potential to spark vast improvements in education worldwide and it’s important to grasp the opportunity.’ 

Moving on to happenings in Westminster this week, the government published the Finance Bill enacting proposals in last week’s Budget. The government also held the first meeting of its Mental Health in Action Group as Labour announced its own ‘Bright Future’ Recovery Taskforce to help young people overcome the challenges arising out of the pandemic. Labour also launched its campaign for the local elections in early May while Emma Hardy MP stepped down as Shadow Minister for FE and HE citing the pressure of constituency demands with Matt Western MP for Warwick and Leamington taking over. 

The Education Committee took evidence from Nick Gibb and Ofqual about this summer’s exams where quality checks, appeals, and future exams were all widely discussed. The Social Mobility Commission highlighted the importance of education in its Barometer of social attitudes, published ahead of the Commission’s move into the Cabinet Office. And, businesses expressed concern about the shelving of the Industrial Strategy, the 2017 blueprint for economic renewal for the more aspirational ‘Build Back Better Plan for Growth’ published alongside the Budget last week. ‘Goodbye Industrial Strategy. We hardly knew you,’ as Ed Miliband, Shadow Business Secretary tweeted.

To mark International Women’s Day at the start of the week, the government announced financial backing to support 40 female entrepreneurs tackle issues arising out Covid and climate change. Many other organisations issued supportive statements as part of International Women’s Day including the Prince’s Trust which launched #ChangeAGirlsLife, a campaign backed by a number of companies to help young women who are struggling to find a job. A more disturbing picture emerged from UNESCO’s assessment of girls’ education globally in light of the pandemic with suggestions that some 11m girls may not return to school, threatening the gains made in recent years.  

It has also been British Science Week, where the same two issues, Covid and climate change, featured prominently in a survey of young people’s career ambitions. And we end the week with the union conference season beckoning as ASCL kicks of what looks like a very strong Annual Conference with a line-up that includes both the Education Secretary and the Chief Inspector, and the steadying presence of general secretary Geoff Barton of course.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Millions back to school in first step to normality.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Parents urged not to pressure teachers over exam grades.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘False Covid tests ruining return to school.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Ofsted chief Spielman wants more time in job.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Ex-Skills minister criticises lack of T level targets.’ (Friday)


  • Levelling up Fund. The government set out the metrics to be used for the priority of places under the Levelling Up Fund with a focus on local economic recovery (incorporating skill levels and unemployment rates,) improved transport connectivity and regeneration.
  • New Action Group. The government’s Mental Health Action Group, a group of leading education, health and charity figures including the Youth Mental Health Ambassador and chaired by Ministers, met for the first time to look at the training and support needed for young people post-pandemic.
  • Bright Futures. The Labour Party announced a new Taskforce, entitled Bright Future, to work with children and key players in the education system and develop a national strategy to help all children and young people recover from the challenges of the pandemic.
  • The Covid effect. The research agency Public First reported on its detailed survey into the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives indicating how tough it has been for many people, with children, women and the poorest facing some of the biggest challenges, and fears emerging of an overwhelming mental health crisis.
  • Social Mobility. The Social Mobility Commission published the results from its latest Barometer suggesting that the pandemic had greatly exacerbated social division in the country with the young and disadvantaged suffering the most, calling for the government to address job opportunities, access to education, and mental health issues in its recovery plans.
  • Renew Normal. The thinktank Demos published the final report from its extensive project seeking out views via a People’s Commission on how to Build Back Better post-Covid, suggesting five lessons for the future including levelling up people (a well as places) through jobs and skills, promoting flexible including home working, and strengthening communities.
  • A view from the Governor. The Governor of the Bank of England argued in a speech to the Resolution Foundation that while Covid has been a shock to the economy, the longer-term damage could well be less than in the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s partly because structural employment changes had already occurred.
  • Levelling-Up Devo. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Devolution published a new report setting out a number of ways in which greater devolution including localised funding settlements, locally integrated employment and skills offers, and local sector-led improvement metrics, could help with levelling up, calling for such measures to be in the forthcoming Devolution White Paper.
  • Local Authority costs. The National Audit Office (NAO) reported on how local authorities were weathering the pandemic, noting that many had provided vital services and been helped by government funds but were facing ‘serious financial pressures’ in the years ahead with a £2.8bn income gap forecast for the current year. 
  • London Revival Plan. The CBI set out its proposals for London ahead of the Mayoral election in May calling among other things for measures to stimulate job creation, develop skills, supercharge connectivity, reduce emissions, and develop the capital’s high streets.

More specifically ...


  • Back to school. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) reported on its recent parental survey into schools reopening and catch-up arrangements, showing the vast majority keen to see their children back in school and supportive of catch-up policies but concerned about how quickly lost learning could be made up.
  • Lessons from Lockdown The All-Party Parliamentary Group published its report on EdTech and lessons to be learned from the lockdown coming up with 14, including the importance of curriculum design, the case for wider support from media channels, how best to use EdTech to help with pupil development, and setting a strategy for the future. 
  • Primary concerns. University researchers reported on Nuffield-funded research into the effects of the lockdown last year on primary-aged children, with parents reporting an increase in children displaying emotional and behavioural problems resulting from being out of school. 
  • Careers guidance The Gatsby Foundation and Opinium Research published a new report based on survey evidence completed last autumn, looking into the involvement of parents in the careers guidance of their children, finding parents keen to be involved and work with schools but increasingly worried about their children’s futures. 
  • GCSE MFL. The government and Ofqual published a new consultation on some proposed changes to the subject content and assessment arrangements for GCSEs in French, German and Spanish (for first teaching in Sept 2023) including revisions to the weighting of assessment objectives and rationalisation of tiering.


  • Created at College. The Collab Group published a series of case studies showing how colleges work with communities, employers and individuals helping to develop the skills needed for work particularly those for key workers and others seeking to develop their skills.
  • Evaluation Toolkit. The Learning and Work Institute published a new evaluation toolkit designed to help organisations consider the best ways to evaluate the online interventions needed to help individuals build their skills and develop their career options.
  • Inspection reporting. Ofsted reported on its recent consultation on some changes to statistical releases on FE inspections and outcomes, confirming it would remove historical inspection information where providers have had a break in funding, would look further at reporting the quality of provision but would limit proposed changes to the classification of provider types.
  • FE staff wellbeing. The Education and Training Foundation announced that the University of Portsmouth would follow-up its own research on FE staff wellbeing, by looking at the impact of the pandemic on the FE workforce.
  • Digital Experience. JISC published the results of its ‘pulse’ survey of FE students’ digital experience undertaken at the end of last year showing most students satisfied with the support and quality of online learning but with some concerns about access and learning space.
  • 14-19 learning. The Edge Foundation published its response to the Pearson consultation looking into the future of qualifications and assessment for young people, calling among other things for a better focus on employability skills and the recreation of a Bacc style award to signal achievement at the end of the 14-19 stage. 


  • Graduate labour market. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported on the early impact of the pandemic on graduate employment with data based on the first three quarters of last year, showing that while graduates tend to fare better when it comes to jobs, more recent graduates are facing a tougher time with unemployment reaching a peak of 12% in Q.3 last year (from an historical average of 3%.) 
  • Student mental health. The ONS published further experimental statistics on student mental health in England with many continuing to express feelings of loneliness, anxiety and dissatisfaction. 
  • Loan withdrawals. The Student Loans Company published an ad hoc briefing on student loan withdrawal notifications including up to this year given the current interest in the effects of the pandemic, but reported no notable increase in student loan withdrawals this year compared to the last two years.
  • Turing open. The government announced that the £110m Turing scheme, the replacement for Erasmus+, was now open for applications this year, with Education Ministers fanning out to spread the word to schools and colleges.
  • Global activity. UK Research and Innovation confirmed the reduction in the ODA (Official Development Assistance) budget following government statements leaving many universities concerned about future global collaborative research and activity.
  • Access and Participation Plans. The Office for Students (OfS) published its response to the commissioned independent review of its access and participation regulatory requirements, acknowledging many of the issues raised by providers and aiming to modify where necessary as the overall picture revealed the extent of some participation issues.
  • Research and Innovation. University Alliance issued a new report, timed to coincide with Science Week and designed to highlight some of the leading research work being undertaken by Alliance Universities and the benefits being brought both locally and globally as a result.
  • Digital experience. JISC published the results of its ‘pulse’ survey of students’ digital experience finding strong support for the quality and support received but with some issues about access and responsiveness.
  • China question. Kings College London and Harvard Kennedy School published a new report showing the growing collaboration in research between China and the UK as well as of student enrolments, calling as a result for more robust management of the relationship as a result.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • "University students in England can return home over Easter - but are urged not to" | @jim_dickinson
  • “Day 2, the 9yo, in tears: “I don’t want to go to school. I’m too tired” | @susiemesure
  • “Child 1 - “Miss, have we all grown or have you shrunk?” Child 2 - “My grandma’s like that you know miss, she gets smaller every year. Maybe you’re at that age already?” WELCOME BACK YEAR 6” | @MissDaviesy6
  • “Also... managed to send 12 year old to school this morning, after not reading the letter (they come thick and fast) that said his year not back in till Thursday” | @louisetickle
  • “My husband just said: "If working from home becomes normal then our children might leave home, go to uni, then come home and WORK FROM HOME NEXT TO US" | @FelicityHannah
  • “My Microsoft Outlook email is almost full, mostly of emails that arrive every single day saying: "Your mailbox is almost full." Stands for a lot of things in life” | @seanjcoughlan

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “There is no doubt teachers have joined the ranks of the heroes of this pandemic" – Nick Gibb offers his support at the Education Committee
  • “Just like a war, it is when the fighting stops that the impact on the survivors starts to become most visible, and the full impact may not reveal itself for some time” – Public First reports on the scarring effects of Covid.
  • “It's all very much aspirational” – businesses suggest the government’s recent Plan for Growth is no substitute for the previous Industrial Strategy.
  • “A “bounce back” generation with fighting spirit, know-how and resilience, prepared not just for the next exam but to thrive and make their mark on the post-Covid world” – Big Education’s Peter Hyman crafts a more positive perspective around young people.
  • “Plans will be thrown into chaos if pupils are permitted to challenge not only the decisions themselves but also the basis on which they have been made” – an HMC headteacher comes out fighting about this summer’s proposed exam appeals system.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 5.1%. The growth prediction for the UK economy, up but slightly below the global prediction of 5.6%, according to latest figures from the OECD.
  • £1,386. How much people working from home have saved on average since last March by not having to travel into work, according to MoneySuperMarket
  • £6.9bn. The additional costs that local authorities have faced this year in providing services during the pandemic, according to a report from the NAO.
  • 26%. How many higher education students in England have reported feeling lonely in recent weeks, compared to 8% of the adult population according to latest data from the ONS.
  • 55. The number of students at Brampton Manor School in Newham offered places at Oxbridge this year, seven more than Eton according to local media.
  • 52%. The number of students in a poll who reckoned the exam grades this year won’t be fair, according to a survey from The Student Room Group.
  • 1 year+. How long some concerned parents think it will take children to recover lost learning, according to a survey from the IfS.
  • 18.7%. Official pupil attendance rate in state schools in England as of last Thursday, the final week before the reopening of schools.
  • 105.4. The consumer confidence level last month, the highest since February 2020 according to CEBR and YouGov.
  • 950,000. How many babies might be born each year in the two years after lockdown, an increase of 300,000 a year if projections are to be believed. 
  • 48%. How many people regard themselves as working class as against 36% as middle class and 0% as upper class, according to the Social Mobility Commission’s latest Barometer. 

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Education Committee witness session with the government’s Youth Mental Health Ambassador. (Tuesday) 
  • Westminster Hall debate on R/D spending. (Wednesday)
  • Big Education’s webinar on ‘Bounce Back Generation not Lost Generation.’ (Wednesday)

Other stories

  • Young and WFH. Working from Home (WFH) continues to attract considerable discussion and debate with mixed views about the benefits and how long it’ll continue, at least in its present form. This week Ipsos Mori and Nationwide published the results of their survey on the matter conducted in January this year and looking in particular at the views of younger groups. Like many, they want a return to blended working. 62 percent of Gen Z and 56 percent of Millennials, for instance, want to work from home at least three days a week after the pandemic has passed. Time in the workplace and with work colleagues was valued by both groups, 58% by Gen Z and 49% by Millennials. A link to the survey is 
  • Will education ever return to normal? Aside from the question of what is normal, a big debate opening up in education at present is whether and how far the pandemic will have transformed education for the future. For some, it provides a transformational opportunity to reform anything from the school day to exams, for others, it’s a moment to recognise the importance of traditional values and rhythms. Professor Jonathan Clark has written an interesting blog for Politeia making the case for transformational change through AI. Not everyone will agree with his conclusions as this sentence might suggest: “Students will visit physical schools sometimes, on some occasions, for some purposes; but daily attendance will be a thing of the past.” A link to the article is here.
  • The generation game. Some fascinating data in the Social Mobility Commission’s Barometer of social attitudes released this week. For example, most people surveyed thought Generation Z (those born since 2000) have had the highest standard of living, although Generation X (those born in the 60’s and 70’s) ran them close. Generation X is also thought to have had the best financial situation followed by Generation Y (those born in the 1980’s and 1990’s) followed by Baby Boomers (those born in the 1940’s and 50’s.) Those born before WW2 seem to have had it hardest. A link to the Barometer 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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