Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 19 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 year on from the start of the lockdowns, moves are under way to build a more hopeful future for children, schools and families.

This week we’ve had two notable developments, each looking to tap into the spirit of recovery shown by previous generations after the two World Wars. 

In the first, the newly installed Children’s Commissioner for England announced plans ‘to reset’ the future for children, offering a distinct nod to the famous Beveridge welfare reforms from the Second World War as she did so. ‘I want it to have the spirit and the ambition of the Beveridge Report.’ 

The ‘it’ in this case referred to the Childhood Commission which will be tasked with crafting a 10-year plan to rebuild lives and opportunities for children in the wake of the pandemic. It will start with a ‘Big Ask,’ gathering the views of children in what’s claimed to be the biggest consultation with children in England so far. This will take place online in April and ask such questions as what aspirations you have and what barriers you face in attaining these. The intention is to use the responses to produce an interim report before the summer highlighting the hopes, fears and other issues raised, with a major battle plan, complete with measures, costs and expectations sometime later. It’s an ambitious project that aims, as the title of the plan says ‘to reset the social contract between the generations.’ 

In the second, Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, confirmed this week that the Association intends to publish a new ‘Blueprint for a Fairer Education System’ also this summer. The aim will be to use expert evidence to help develop a better, and fairer, working system. As such it will offer practical responses to some of the most fundamental questions for schools such as the balance of the curriculum, the nature of accountability and assessment, and teacher support. With Pearson among others engaged in a similarly ambitious project for 14–19-year-olds, the NAHT also holding a Summit this week on ‘A Brighter Future for Education.’ this could be, as Geoff Barton indicated, ‘a moment of moments’ for education. 

Away from plans for the future and back with more immediate things, three education stories have stood out this week; one that made the headlines and two that didn’t but should have.

The two one that did make the headlines was a report from the National Audit Office on the DfE’s handling of the pandemic and subsequent disruption to education during the first lockdown. The report acknowledged that the Department had faced an unprecedented situation when the pandemic first struck, but suggested that the lack of official guidance led to considerable divergence in provision and support, which in turn exacerbated attainment gaps. The report called on the Department to examine the longer-term impact of disrupted schooling on pupils to ensure that the mentoring and tutoring schemes reach the more disadvantaged pupils.

Next, the two stories that were less widely reported. 

The first concerns university fees, where the Times Higher reported that the government was considering student number controls and minimum entry requirements as part of a wider consultation on university costs this spring. Further action has been on the cards since the government issued its response to the Augar review a couple of months back and it seems that student numbers controls, at least for certain courses, may be back on the agenda. This looks like an important space to watch. 

And second, a thought-provoking piece by Professor John Jerrim about the value of the traditional GCSE C grade or level 4 benchmark. His research piece for FFT Education Datalab posed the question ‘Has a GCSE grade C/4 lost its value?’ to which the answer appears to be yes. ‘There has been a clear and sustained fall in the value of England’s GCSE standard pass (grade C/4) over time.’ The reason appears to be partly because it wasn’t made very clear what constituted the new benchmark pass when the system changed from letters to numbers, and partly because of the confusion arising out of last summer’s results. It’s an important reflection on what happens to exam systems when excessive policy shifts happen.

Finally, back in Westminster this week, things have also been busy with the government starting the process of consulting on the use of vaccination passports.

Elsewhere, the Education Committee took evidence from mental health experts on the impact of the pandemic, return to school and mental health issues generally. The Committee also launched a call for evidence on the education outcomes, access and support for children in care homes. The Public Accounts Committee hosted a witness session on local government finances where, as the NAO reported last week, deep worries remain about future capacity. The Youth Unemployment Committee held its first witness session with representatives from both the DfE and DWP. The All-Party Parliamentary University Group published a useful briefing ahead of its discussion this week on universities’ role in the economic recovery. And, of course, Dominic Cummings was back in the news appearing before the Science and Technology Committee as part of its inquiry into the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) where he offered some teasers of what might come out of his long-awaited appearance before the Health and Science Committee later this year.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Calls for funded ‘education recovery year’ for students.’ (Monday)
  • ‘New Children’s Commissioner pledges to ‘rebuild’ childhood.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Universities told not to swamp courses with students.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘GCSEs 2021: No ‘Weimar’ grade inflation, says Ofqual.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Families facing special educational needs postcode lottery.’ (Friday)‘


  • VAWG Strategy. The government reopened its consultation on Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) which closed last month, to enable recent views to be taken on board, ahead of the release of an updated Strategy set for next year. 
  • Budget reflection. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) offered further thoughts on the Budget suggesting that funding for public services is likely to be very tight in the future with unprotected depts, meaning those outside schools, the NHS, and defence, facing potential cuts of around 3%.
  • The cost of Covid. The Resolution Foundation started the process of assessing the government’s track record in dealing with the pandemic pointing to two successes (vaccines and support schemes for firms and employees) but suggesting delayed lockdowns had been ‘a disaster,’ individually, socially and economically.
  • The Big Ask. The Children’s Commissioner for England announced a major new survey of children in England, to be launched in April with an interim report in the summer that will inform the development of the 10-year plan for children being drawn up by the Children’s Commission.
  • Keeping Mum. The TUC called on the government to use the recent Mothers’ Day to do more to help working mums by introducing a right to genuine flexible work, introducing statutory sick pay and increased funding for childcare.
  • Improving connectivity.  The government launched a new consultation aimed at improving broadband connectivity in hard-to-reach areas citing consumers, businesses, representative organisations and market participants whose views it keen to hear.

More specifically ...


  • Autumn exams. Ofqual launched consultation on proposed arrangements for running an exam series this autumn covering GCSEs, AS, A levels, the AEA and Project qualifications with the papers and grades in their traditional form and students able to chose the better of either the summer or autumn grade.
  • Managing the lockdown. The National Audit Office published a new report looking into how the DfE had handled the early stages of the lockdown for schools last year which, while recognising some of the challenges it faced, argued the DfE had been slow to develop an overall plan and initial guidance, resulting in concerns about long-term damaging effects on some children.
  • Future Blueprint. ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton addressed the organisation’s Annual Conference where he promised the launch this summer of a major new Blueprint for a Fairer Education System, one that would aim to tackle five key questions such as on the curriculum, teacher support, funding and accountability.
  • View from the Chair. Ian Bauckham, interim Chair of Ofqual, gave a detailed presentation to ASCL’s Annual Conference about the current development of exam arrangements for this summer covering teacher assessments, for which exam board guidance will be available shortly, quality assurance processes being applied and future options for exams.
  • SEND report. The Education Policy Institute published a major new Nuffield funded report into children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) highlighting huge regional, social and school type disparities in the way in which they are identified and supported, calling among other things for a national framework to set minimum standards.
  • Wiped out. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) published the results of its survey into the impact of moving the pupil premium census date back from January to October, which would leave many schools having their additional premium money ‘wiped out.’
  • Grade devaluation. FFT Education Datalab looked at how far GCSE Grade C/4 had lost its important benchmark value, suggesting that it had and that confusion over the positioning of the new numerical grade that replaced the old A-E system as well as last summer’s grading problems were to blame. 
  • School accountability and teacher stress. Researchers at UCL’s Institute of Education examined the relationship between school accountability systems and teacher stress using data from the latest international TALIS report which indicated high levels of school accountability in England and of related stress but with cause and effect difficult to quantify and tending to be clustered in specific schools.
  • SATs effect. The Institute of Education highlighted some of the potentially damaging strategies used by schools as part of the preparation for SATs, including the use of separate groupings and intervention sessions. 
  • Good Career Guidance. The University of Derby published its report into the use of the Gatsby benchmarks of good career guidance trialled in 16 schools and colleges in the North East, concluding that their use had led to improved student outcomes and clearer career aspirations.
  • The cost of learning in lockdown. The Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East published the results of a new survey taken during this third lockdown and showing many families struggling with a lack of income, resources and space for learning.
  • Mental health support. The Anna Freud Centre reported that more young people wanted to be able to discuss such issues as depression and anxiety in class, as it launched its extended information and resource hub offering free support for those working with young people with mental health concerns in secondary schools and colleges. 


  • Strategic conversation. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) confirmed that the annual strategic conversations between a college, the agency and the local FE commissioner recommended in the Ney review and underlined in the FE White Paper, will commence at the start of the summer term with the first cycle due to complete by next May.
  • At the sharp end. The Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) published a new report by Stuart Rimmer, CEO of East Coast College, looking into the pressures facing college leaders today and finding considerable evidence of what he termed ‘distress’ among leaders, calling as a result for better help, support and peer networks in the future.
  • Teacher recruitment. The Education and Training Foundation launched Round 4 of the DfE funded ‘Taking Teacher Further’ programme intended to recruit, train and develop industry professionals in technical subjects to work in FE. 
  • Kickstart deadline. The President of the CBI, Lord Bilimoria called on the government to extend the application deadline for the Kickstart scheme to June 2022, arguing that this would help young people transitioning to work at a difficult time, in an address to the ASCL Annual Conference.
  • Hair and Beauty EPAs. The Institute for apprenticeships updated the end point assessment (EPA) arrangements for Hair and Beauty apprentices so that they could complete their programmes while still under social distancing requirements. 


  • This year’s admissions. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, outlined in a blog some ground rules for universities to observe for this year’s admissions process, including complying with the ban on the use of conditional unconditional offers, ensuring website data was accurate and timely, and observing equality of opportunity while recruiting with integrity. 
  • Where next for university admissions? The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published an interesting collection of essays on the theme of the university admissions system, broadly arguing that while reform sounded attractive it could lead to unforeseen consequences and that adopting changes to the current system such as an agreed Code of Practice and expanding the Clearance system, could be viewed as alternatives.
  • Measuring graduate value. The Times Higher published a detailed comment piece by former Universities Minister David Willetts warning against relying on too crude a set of outcome metrics to measure graduate value, arguing instead for a wider recognition of value ‘that goes beyond economic terms.’
  • Science and Research cuts. The Russell Group and other universities wrote to the Prime Minister asking for continued financial commitment to science and research with additional investment for Horizon Europe in the wake of reductions to UKRI’s budget and other reported funding shortfalls for research.
  • Recruiting here. The Student Loans Company announced that it was looking to recruit 40 permanent digital and technology posts as it seeks to transform its operations ahead of expanded demand following the extension of the loans system into adult learning.
  • Hunger gamesThe Social Market Foundation examined the relationship between FE and HE in a new report, arguing that competitive pressures tended to lead to a turf war between the two sectors, calling instead for collaborative incentives and clearer roles to avoid future tensions.
  • How was it for you? Wonkhe and the learning platform Aula reported ahead of a symposium next week, on how staff had found the shift to online learning, noting like many reports that it has proved to be both an enabler but also a challenge, calling for greater support for staff and wider recognition of learning communities within online learning as a result.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Just got reminded that when my kid’s teacher retired he made them a card saying BEST TEACHER YET! When they asked if he meant ‘best teacher ever’ He said no, and said because he was only in year 4 and he hadn’t met all of his teachers yet, he couldn’t make that decision” | @DrJessTaylor
  • “I am on a zoom meeting and two out of six people are walking on treadmills and bobbing up and down A LOT and it is impossible to watch. PEOPLE. DO NOT DO THIS” | @hshierholz
  • “The loveliest new sound I can hear in my top-floor bedoffice [boffice?] is that particular cacophony of children playing outside at the two schools v near our house” | @IsabelBerwick
  • “Nobody supports you more than a social media friend you’ve never met” | @katejones_teach
  • “Just seen a witch and a lion trying to carry a huge wardrobe into the house next door – I asked what they were up to, they said "Narnia business" | @OFalafel

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • "The economy will actually get back at the end of this year to where it was at the end of 2019,"– the governor of the Bank of England talks economic build back
  • “This global scheme will have levelling-up at heart so that this life-changing educational opportunity is opened up to more students and pupils across the country” – the Universities Minister talks up the Turing scheme.
  • “This is a rushed and unnecessary White Paper, intellectually flimsy, badly thought out and poorly argued with little evidence to support its conclusions” – President of the HE Policy Institute Bahram Bekhradnia takes the government’s White Paper on free speech to task.
  • “Cases have been drawn to our attention where large numbers of unconditional offers are being made or where offers are based solely on predicted grades – rather than the grades students go on to achieve” – the Office for Students confirms it will investigate malpractice in the use of conditional unconditional HE offers this year.
  • “We want to see a community learning centre in every town” – the Chair of the Education Committee on his hopes for adult education.
  • “With no pre-existing plan for dealing with disruption on this scale, the Department’s approach was largely reactive” the NAO reports on the DfE’s handling of the first lockdown.
  • “At the moment, for too many children and their families, their educational trajectory feels like some arcane board game played by other people who know the rules better than they do, something beyond their immediate control” – ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton promises a fairer education system for the future.
  • “So please: don’t run mocksteds, don’t bring in inspection consultants, don’t ask your staff to document their activity over the last few months, on the off-chance the inspector will call” – the Chief Inspector tells the ASCL Conference that teachers should concentrate on teaching not inspections in the coming weeks
  • “We should stop exclusions for now because they can really impact on certain disadvantaged groups" - the government’s youth mental health ambassador alarms some with a call to ban pupil exclusions.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 94% and 89%. The number of pupils back in state-funded primary and secondary schools in England respectively this week, according to latest government figures.
  • 840m. The number of actual school days that have been lost since the start of the pandemic, according to the Children’s Commissioner.
  • £200. How much recognised schools in England will be able to claim to cover the costs of assessment for eligible private candidates this summer on a per-entry basis, according to the government. 
  • 4227. The number of schools currently enrolled with Tuition Partners under the National Tutoring Programme, according to a Parliamentary Answer from Nick Gibb.
  • The number of additional school building projects due to be confirmed in the coming months, according to the government
  • 55%. The number of people in a poll who said they would be looking to work a hybrid model of some days at home and some in the office once lockdown ends, according to a survey from Survation.
  • 2.1bn. The fall in the number of pints of beer sold since the start of the pandemic, according to the British Beer and Pub Association.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • World Education Summit. (Monday-Thursday)
  • Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee witness session on land-based education provision in England. (Tuesday)
  • WorldskillsUK and LWI launch Digital Skills report. (Wednesday)
  • Teach First panel discussion on EdTech. (Thursday)
  • Conservative Party (online) Spring Conference. (Friday/Saturday)

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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