Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 26 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:

The big story this week has been the pandemic one year on, marked not just by a number of national remembrances and personal recollections, many very moving, but also by a wide range of reports and analysis.

Leading the way on these has been a major piece of work from the British Academy. This looks into the long-term societal impacts of Covid, suggesting a long haul, ‘perhaps longer than a decade,’ to recover from all the effects of the pandemic, social, economic and cultural. The report, which has been widely praised, has a large chunk on education and skills, which also pops up in its landmark list of nine areas of long-term impact. Its conclusion is worth reading in full.

“The consequence of lost access to education at all levels, coupled with changes to assessments, has been to exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities in attainment and to highlight digital inequality. The pandemic has also highlighted issues in the sustainability of education and training institutions. This applies to both finance and practice, as the two are linked. In higher education, the financial impact of the pandemic, coupled with changing student demographics, challenges the sector’s ability to deliver benefits to students, communities and the economy.”

Other reports out this week with a bearing on how education shapes up post-pandemic, have come from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Institute for Employment Studies, the Learning and Work Institute, the Centre for Economics and Business Research, and King’s College with Ipsos Mori. 

There’s a lot to take in. And for education – as Jonathan Simons argued in a comment piece on ConservativeHome this week – the issue is how to build on existing strengths and resist the temptation to knock it all down and start all over again.  

The key message coming through from these reports is that the pandemic has exposed structural weaknesses in society and heightened the issue of inequality; and that these play out particularly in education. Indeed, the report from the IfS is entitled ‘Inequalities in education, skills and income in the UK.’ It highlights the impact of school closures on disadvantaged families and on those with special needs, noting differences between regional and school types. It also points to the squeeze on training and apprenticeships with young people particularly badly hit – an issue picked up by the Learning and Work Institute and reinforced by the latest employment statistics out this week. 

As the Prime Minister said in one of his many comments this week: 'It's been an absolutely unimaginable year for schoolchildren, for university students, for everybody in education. Our future as a country depends on us now repaying that generation, making sure they get the education they need.' 

Many of these reports recognise the importance of future action and more are coming on board. Just this week The Times became the latest body to add its voice in the form of a new Education Commission, due to start this summer and report in detail next summer, and already upping the ante with talk of ‘radical plans for schools and universities.’ Perhaps FE will get a look in later.

Collectively, these various reports set the context for education for many months, perhaps years, to come. But perhaps the final word on this topic should rest with UNESCO, which is set to publish its own ‘Futures of Education Initiative’ this November. ‘Today, two-thirds of the world’s student population is still affected by full or partial school closures.’ It’s a sobering starting point. 

Finally, here’s a reminder of what’s been happening in Westminster this week as MPs headed off for their Party Conferences and the Easter break.

The week began with a short Westminster Hall debate on improving the education system after Covid, which saw many familiar issues raised – including the recovery package, support for children with special needs, and laptop distribution. The Public Accounts Committee also took evidence, in this case from DfE officials about the impact of the pandemic on education, covering many of the same issues as well as, notably, procurement procedures. The Health and Social Care Committee heard from the Children’s Commissioner for England among others as part of its inquiry into children and young people’s mental health. The Education Committee investigated home education; the Youth Unemployment Committee heard witness evidence from leading youth support groups about many of the challenges facing young people; and the Science and Technology Committee wrote to the Prime Minister adding its voice to the concerns raised across the university sector recently about cuts to scientific research.

The Education Committee ended the week by writing to the Education Secretary and setting out a number of concerns about this summer’s exams, calling for a response by the first day back (April 12), which will keep some people busy over Easter.  

And, last but not least, back to the theme of the pandemic one year on. Mumsnet published an interesting calendar of the Covid year, where apparently the announcement of the lockdown last March prompted ‘the fourth biggest spike on its Swearometer. This hit volcanic proportions a second time when Boris Johnson announced school closures in January this year. Many know the feeling. 

Education Eye will be back with the next update after Easter.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Covid may leave 12m children unable to read.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Former Ofsted head to lead new charity set up by EEF to run flagship tutoring scheme.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Exams: Heads told to beware parent pressure over grades. (Wednesday)
  • ‘Fifth of students poorly prepared for university.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Schools must involve police in rape claims.’ (Friday)


  • 2021 Queen’s Speech. The government announced that a likely modified State Opening of Parliament and Queen’s Speech listing of forthcoming legislation has been scheduled for 11 May.
  • More jobcentres. The government announced the creation of a further 80 temporary jobcentres around the country with some already up and running and housing many of the promised new Work Coaches. 
  • Latest labour market figures. The Institute for Employment Studies provided a useful summary of the latest labour market figures from the ONS, showing on the plus side unemployment peaking at around 5% with furlough playing a large part but on the minus side, youth unemployment up and job insecurity high in many low-paid sectors.
  • Cyber security. The National Centre Cyber Security Centre issued a fresh alert to education institutions following an increase in ransomware attacks last autumn and reported incidents recently, urging schools, colleges and universities to follow its guidance on mitigating malware and ransomware.
  • Societal impacts of Covid. The British Academy published a major review of the impact of Covid on society one year on, listing nine areas of impact including widening social and geographic inequalities, distrust in national government and lost learning, and calling for a national and local policy drive to help resolve tensions, eliminate divides and strengthen local infrastructure.
  • Covid and inequality. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) provided further evidence of how Covid had heightened inequalities in society pointing to three in particular including: income inequalities, intergenerational inequalities, and educational inequalities, calling for a corralling of policies and funding to help address them.
  • One year on. The Director of the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) reflected on the pandemic one year on outlining three top line conclusions: the benefits of bold action early on, the importance of government action for containing massive unemployment, the range of challenges that still lie ahead.
  • Remote working post-pandemic. The think tank Demos published a new report in its series on life post-pandemic, looking here at remote working and calling on the government to support this through the creation of more local offices, improved local spaces, a legal right for flexi-working and tax incentives.
  • Be Prepared. The Reform think tank examined how governments could be better prepared in future for civil crises such as Covid 19, recommending among other things a dedicated Minister in each dept, a Civil Contingencies Select Committee and the creation of an independent Advisory Group of academics and professionals to advise and scrutinise where necessary.
  • Combating loneliness. The All-Party Parliamentary Group published the results of its inquiry into loneliness, highlighting case studies of all ages often worsened by the pandemic, recommending among special funding and support with Ministerial leadership to help long-term, and enhanced community action through housing, transport systems and digital skill development.
  • The best start in life. Andrea Leadsom MP, who had been commissioned by the PM to develop a vision for a child’s first 1001 days, published her report with a range of proposals built around six themes including Family Hubs, Start for Life services and support, and a developed leadership and workforce.
  • AI in the workplace. The TUC published a new commissioned report looking into the impact of AI at work, indicating that its growing use particularly since the start of the pandemic in for example interviews and appraisals risked leaving employees without protections, proposing a manifesto of principles that should be adopted as a result.
  • Lessons for industrial policy. The Industrial Strategy Council examined what lessons could be learned for any future industrial strategy from the development of the Oxford/AZ vaccine programme, suggesting that there were six including: focusing on a small number of clear, measurable missions, mapping the path to success, and harnessing public/private/voluntary sectors.
  • Digital matters. PwC published its report into digital harms and opportunities commissioned by the government, identifying characteristics, challenges and harms around four thematic clusters including: ownership of personal data, oversight of digital content, transparency of digital technologies, and digital reach, with action needed in each case.
  • Adult social care. The Economic Social Research Council and the Health Foundation announced the creation of a new IMPACT (Improving Adult Care Together) centre which will take a lead in developing the skills and support needed for those working in this area. 
  • Festival UK 2022. The government announced the ten teams selected to lead a series of major social, cultural and educational events and showcase UK creative and STEM skills as part of next year’s planned Festival UK 2022.

More specifically ...


  • Exam concerns. The Education Committee wrote to the Education Secretary listing a number of concerns it had about this summer’s exams raising five in particular (on grade inflation, sampling of assessments, standardisation of assessments, the impact on disadvantaged groups, what happens to the fees) and asking for a response by 12 April.
  • Submission of teacher assessed grades. Ofqual published information for exam centres on how teacher assessed grades should be submitted for this summer’s exams, confirming the types of evidence expected to be used, the importance of basing performance on what’s been taught either in class or remotely, the expectation that standards remain in line with previous years, the need to avoid parental pressure, and the importance of internal sign-off. 
  • Teacher guidance. Ofqual offered guidance for teachers on making objective decisions when determining final grades this summer, highlighting four features including the careful use of evidence, avoiding unconscious and other types of bias, and reviewing judgments with others. 
  • Children in need. The government published the latest data for children in need covering the year April 2019 to March 2020 showing 389,260 children falling into this category, a 2.6% drop on the previous year, with domestic violence at home identified as the most common factor.
  • Workforce matters. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published its latest Nuffield funded annual report on the teacher labour market noting the impact of the pandemic on teachers’ wellbeing, workloads and recruitment.
  • Multiplication Tables. The Standards and Testing Agency updated information for parents on this year’s Multiplication Tables Check (MTC) confirming that its use this year was voluntary and that while schools would be able to view the results, there would be no obligation for them to be published.
  • MAT governance. The National Governance Association published a new report exploring some of the key issues in multi-academy trust (MAT) governance over the last couple of years, setting out five core areas for debate including: too much power in the hands of too few people, and when is big too big?
  • Yr 11 absence data. FFT Education Datalab looked into school absences among Year 11 students last term suggesting an average of 16% of sessions missed but higher among disadvantaged students and with considerable regional variability. 
  • Starting early. The Education and Employers organisation published a new report on the importance of career-related education for primary children, citing survey evidence to show that early access to information and role models can help reduce stereotypes, enthuse children and raise attainment generally.
  • Early years. The Nuffield Foundation published the second in its series of reviews examining issues around the early years of childhood, in this case raising questions about protecting children at risk of neglect and abuse where upward trends are disturbing and pressures on services growing.


  • Delivery threshold. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) announced that the threshold for clawing back funding from ESFA funded providers, which had been lowered at the height of the lockdown, would be 90% for 2020/21, provoking concern at a time of continuing disruption.
  • Clawback explainer. The Association of Colleges (AoC) provided a helpful explainer about the potential impact of the ESFA’s clawback proposal indicating that some colleges could lose six-figure sums as a result, that activity data was not yet fully complete, and that it could leave government skill policies at risk.
  • Regulatory Framework. Ofqual published the outcomes from its recent consultation on a Voc and Tech Quals Contingency Regulatory Framework (VCRF,) basically adopting what had been proposed, enabling therefore the use of teacher assessed grades where appropriate and awarding body permutations. 
  • Reflecting on the White Paper. The FE Trust for Leadership (FETL) published a collection of essays from leading FE contributors on the recent FE White Paper variously highlighting both pluses (the lifetime learning guarantee) and minuses (little on funding or system coherence) but hoping it would all lead to positive future conversations.
  • Youth employment. Youth Employment UK and the National Youth Agency brought together recent thinking and survey evidence on the labour market challenges facing young people, calling for a ’Triple Lock’ of support comprising early identification and support, an Opportunity Guarantee, and a Youth Premium.
  • Apprenticeship flexibilities. The Institute for Apprenticeships launched a new consultation to test out views on how assessment flexibilities for apprenticeships put in place for the pandemic had been going and whether there were lessons to be learned for the future.
  • One year on. The Learning and Work Institute looked into the effect of the pandemic on the labour market one year on indicating that it had hit some groups, notably the young and disadvantaged, much harder than others, calling for greater income support for such groups along with a Youth Guarantee of a job or training for 16–18-year-olds this year. 
  • Digital skills gap. The Learning and Work Institute with Worldskills UK and Enginuity published a new report highlighting a growing digital skills gap with more learners and employers calling for such skills yet participation dropping, arguing for a much more ambitious approach generally to raising digital skills.
  • On the right step. City and Guilds launched its Step into Digital Technologies course, the latest in its series of courses designed to help especially young people get back into employment, and following its recent Step into Construction and last year’s Step into Social Care courses.
  • Supporting recovery. Dr. Sam Parrett, Chief Exec of London South East Colleges explained in a blog on the Collab Group website how the College Group was working with local employers, generating both skills successes and social value as part of the process. 
  • Construction news. The CITB confirmed that it was retaining its Construction Colleges in Norfolk and Glasgow which had been under review as part of its restructuring and modernising Vision 2020 plans, providing welcome stability and reassurance for training in the future. 


  • Erasmus+ Welsh style. The Welsh government announced it was investing £65m into a new International Learning Exchange Programme for Wales that would take the places of Erasmus+, be open to both staff and students from diverse backgrounds, be led by Cardiff University and run from 2022/3 to 2027.
  • Red tape review. The government announced a new review of bureaucracy involved in UK research, originally promised in last year’s R/D Roadmap, to be led by Sussex V.C. Adam Tickell with an interim report set for this autumn and a final report early next year.
  • Choices, choices.UCAS examined how students make choices about university choices and courses, citing survey evidence showing that many start thinking about HE while at primary school but worryingly later fail to study the required subjects for entry, leading UCAS to recommend stronger and embedded careers guidance in schools and continued development of its own information systems.
  • University admissions. Sander Kristel, Chief Operating Officer at UCAS, set out in a blog on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) website five key questions around this year’s admissions cycle, indicating that universities were prepared for another hectic summer.
  • Student Futures. Mary Curnock Cook, the newly appointed Chair of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission outlined in a blog on Wonkhe the work that the Commission will do to help ‘things get back on track’ for university students in terms of learning, progression, future jobs, mental health, as quickly as possible and hopefully from this September. 
  • Graduate returns. The government and IfS published a new report looking at returns to undergraduate degrees by socio-economic group and ethnicity indicating they remain positive across all groups at age 30 although with considerable variability across groups with, for example, higher returns for South Asian students but lower returns for Black women.
  • Powering UKHE. JISC outlined plans to help universities move towards ‘a technologically-empowered future’ with the launch of a 3-year strategic plan built around the 4 themes of reimagining teaching, learning and assessment, reframing the student experience, transforming infrastructure, and empowering culture and leadership.
  • Fair Access. The Fair Access Coalition outlined in a blog on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) website, ten principles for a fair admission process as debate continued about possible admissions reform with the Coalition urging caution.
  • Collaborative projects. The QAA announced the list of 13 Collaborative Enhancement Projects agreed to run this year with QAA funding and leadership and covering such topics as mental health, assessments and social induction.
  • New partnership. The British Council announced a new strategic partnership with the Greek Ministry for Education to support UK universities develop further collaborative relationships, notably with the state university sector in Greece, around transnational education.
  • Free speech. The House of Commons Library Service published a briefing paper on the issue of free speech in universities, outlining such issues as platforming and safe spaces, in light of the government’s recent policy paper on the matter.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “So a staggering 88.3% of the employee job losses from February 2020-February 2021 were among 18–35-year-olds.” | @lewis_goodall
  • “Why Are Teachers So Tired All The Time? Research shows we make about 1,500 decisions a day! The constant requirement to ‘be on’ becomes DRAINING to our brains and bodies. It is called ‘Decision Fatigue’. This explains a lot!” | @FixingEducation
  • “Key advice for students: do you planning and research, don't spray and pray, self-reflection is a key skill to develop” | @isherwood_ise
  • “Nobody has hoped this finds me well in these strange times in an email for about 9 months now and I kinda miss it” | @twlldun
  • “Two buses go from right outside my house directly to the school I’m teaching at. One takes 15 mins. The other takes 45 minutes. Guess which one I got on by accident this morning...?” | @SophiePetkar
  • “A man passed me earlier on a tractor shouting 'It’s the end of the world.' I think it was farmer Gedden”| @MikeArmiger

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “For the entire British people it has been an epic of endurance and privation” – the Prime Minister on the pandemic one year on.
  • “The past twelve months have been a period of extraordinary uncertainty, searing anxiety and emotional trauma, and we have only just begun to grapple with the economic, social and psychological consequences of COVID-19, which will remain with us long after the virus will, we hope, have been brought under control” – the British Academy publishes a major report on the wider impact of Covid 19 one year on.
  • “We asked 500 of the best creative minds in the UK to tell us what a festival of creativity could be” – the Chief Creative Officer on the planning for next year’s promised UK Festival 2022.
  • “If ‘no algorithm’ is taken to mean ‘no use of past data’ and ‘no exams by the back door’ to mean ‘no common assessment taken under standard conditions’, then we really are lost” – the Education Committee raise some concerns about this summer’s exams.
  • “Far more urgent than making sweeping statements based on flimsy assumptions about seating plans is to publish arrangements for this year’s qualifications, and to fund a proper learning recovery plan” - ASCL calls on the Education Secretary to focus on the real issues.
  • “More predictable still is the endless resurgence of the Cult of 21st-Century Skills, as reliable as death and taxes and unlovelier than either” Tom Bennett reflects on Radio 4’s programme this week on Futureproofing our Schools.
  • “I’ve also learnt about split digraphs, the bus stop method, The Iron Man by Ted Hughes and more, as a result of helping with home schooling” -one parent’s reflections on some fairly highbrow home schooling over the year.
  • “Like anybody, we would want them to not be required as soon as the science says so” – the National Education Union on masks in school.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 0.4%. The headline figure for CPI inflation last month, down from 0.7% the month before, according to latest official figures.
  • 5%. The estimated unemployment rate for the UK for the three months to January 2021, better than expected but up on a year earlier with under 25s hard hit, according to latest figures from the ONS.
  • 39%. The number of businesses reporting having had a cybersecurity breach or attack over the past year, down on the previous year according to the latest Cyber Security Breaches Survey. 
  • £251bn. How much Covid with its lockdowns and business interruptions have cost the UK economy over the past year, according to the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR.) 
  • 29. The number of countries worldwide where schools remain fully closed, according to UNESCO. 
  • 21.1. The average Attainment 8 score in March 2020 for children in need, according to latest government figures.
  • 89% and 93%. The pupil attendance rate in state-funded secondary and primary schools in England respectively last week, up in secondary but down in primary on the previous week, according to latest government figures.
  • 31.1%. The number of UK children living in poverty, according to the latest 2019-2020 annual poverty statistics cited by the Child Poverty Action Group.
  • £100m. How much the government is making available to help publicly owned gyms and leisure centres get going again, according to the DCMS.
  • 54%. The number of people in a survey who said they’d miss at least some aspects of lockdown once it’s over, according to Kings College and Ipsos Mori.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Conservative Party (online) Spring Conference. (Friday/Saturday)
  • UNESCO Symposium on the risks facing education and strategies ‘to leave no learner behind.’ (Monday) 
  • NEU (virtual) Annual Conference.(7-9 April)
  • Parliament in recess until 13 April. 

Other stories

  • ‘Cos I’m happy. Finland came top (again,) Afghanistan bottom, the UK dropped from 13thto 17thplace, China moved up 10 places to 84th and only one non-European country appeared in the top ten and that was New Zealand. Those were the headline details from the latest World Happiness Report published by the UN this week. Measures used included personal freedom, social support, gross domestic support and levels of corruption, and interestingly, while there was an increase in emotional unease, there doesn’t appear to have been any great drop in well-being generally despite the global pandemic. The top five ‘happiest’ countries in order were Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland and the Netherlands. A link to the report, 200+ pages, is here.
  • Reading out loud. It’s been around for a while but #BookTok has become quite a thing recently. If understood correctly, it’s an app that generally younger readers use to show themselves starting to read a book, experience various sounds and emotions as they plough through the book and ends with an outpouring of emotion, perhaps tears if it’s a love story with a happy ending for instance or whoops if it’s a villain who gets his comeuppance in a thriller, as the book finishes. The app was developed by two English sisters and has been credited for a surge in reading among teenagers. A link to a recent article on the app can be found 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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