Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 16 April 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 getting back to business with Parliament re-assembling, pupils and students returning in many parts of the UK and Step 2 of the easing of lockdown implemented, with a pint and/or a haircut the two main priorities according to a poll from YouGov.

For education, there have been some important developments over the Easter period likely to frame the agenda for the coming months. More on these in a minute but first a run through some of the main headlines from this week. 

Higher education first, where after considerable frustration from within the sector about appearing to be ignored – as highlighted in the open letter from Universities UK and others at the start of the week – the government finally confirmed a return to campus for university students, but not until the next stage of lockdown easing from 17 May. Yes, students in some subjects have been back for a few weeks; yes, the government is providing free testing kits; and yes, it’s topping up the hardship fund, but delaying the return when many bars and cafes are overflowing left a bitter taste for many. ‘Hugely disappointing for students,’ said Universities UK, ‘a major blow’ according to the Russell Group with many pointing fingers at the Treasury. The blog on the HEPI website by the VC of Portsmouth University, ‘University students are not second class citizens,’ captured the mood of many.

Next a report on the impact of lost learning on young and older adult learners alike from the Association of Colleges (AoC.) It’s based on a survey of 80 college responses, all suggesting an impact to varying degrees with worryingly, 75% indicating 16–18-year-olds were between one and four months behind compared with a normal academic year. A similar picture emerged for adult learners where those on practical courses, ESoL and with special needs seem to have been hardest hit. The AoC calls for a £1.5bn package of support to allow for up to an extra year for those due to leave this year and funded extra hours and support for those already in – or about to join –  college.

For schools, Ipsos Mori published an interesting poll undertaken during the first week of last month on home schooling. It highlighted the social divide, with parents in the most deprived areas indicating that it not been a great experience, while those with household incomes above £75,000 were more likely to be positive. On recovery plans, where the government is expected to say more shortly, there was no great support for longer school days or shorter half-terms. More popular was extra tutoring and wellbeing support, though even here there was a social divide with lower income families supporting the latter and better off families going for more tutorial support. 

Also for schools, debate on curriculum and assessment has continued, with two important reports out this week. One from policy adviser Tom Richmond followed up his earlier report on the early secondary years by proposing a three pathway Bacc model (Tomlinesque for those who remember) for the upper secondary stage. And the other from the high-profile group that has been looking at the future of assessment, setting out the case for change (‘assessment is out of sync with curriculum and pedagogy,’) and putting forward alternatives, ranging from ‘smart multiple choice’ to ‘extended investigations.’

Back in Westminster, the Universities Minister was peppered with questions about the delayed return of other students, broadly suggesting that concerns about a potential surge of travel and new household bubbles had been the issue. MPs also held a Westminster Hall debate on the Education Committee’s report into adult education. And, on Committees, the Lords' Science and Technology Committee questioned the Minister on R/D funding; the Work and Pensions Committee heard from experts about how best to measure child poverty and its impact; and the Education Committee hosted an evidence session with Regional School Commissioners. Schools Week has a helpful summary here of the key discussion points.

Finally a quick rundown of some of the main education stories from over the Easter break, where the Easter Conference tradition was maintained with the NASUWT, NEU and NUS all holding events (online of course) and where other education stories kept on coming.

For schools, safeguarding emerged as a big issue, with Ofsted called in to conduct an urgent review in light of concerns raised by pupils and teachers alike. Ofsted also confirmed that it was looking to start full inspections in the autumn term and would also be publishing a series of research reviews and subject reports at this critical juncture for the curriculum. Elsewhere for schools, the government published guidance for the operation of summer schools this year, largely targeted at Year 7 pupils, easing the transition from primary to secondary, and indicated that recommendations on wearing facemasks in classrooms are likely to be dropped at the next roadmap review on 17 May. And the Institute of Education highlighted the ‘pivotal’ role of Teaching Assistants in keeping schools functioning during the pandemic.

In FE, the landmark Lifetime Skills Guarantee programme got under way at the start of the month complete with a comms toolkit, but with Labour and others highlighting gaps in provision for some. Reports from the Prince’s Trust and the Learning and Work Institute, Social Mobility Commission and Institute for Education all highlighted the challenges facing young people currently seeking jobs and opportunities. Elsewhere, the AoC set up a group of T level pioneers ready to share experience as others come on board the T level boat; the sector gained a new Commissioner; and in an interesting blog, James Kirkup, Director of the Social Market Foundation, raised the flag for FE saying it had been given short shrift by the media for far too long. 

In HE, universities continued to question why the government hadn’t set a date for campuses to reopen, and the government provided further funding to enable continued participation in the Horizon Europe research programme this year, although future funding remains uncertain. The Office for Students took new steps enabling it to intervene and protect student interests if a provider appeared to be struggling; HEPI and YouthSight reported on their latest survey of how students are coping with pandemic conditions with most not expecting to get any more face-to-face teaching this academic year; JISC started a series of conversations on future learning; and the THES reflected on the tenure of Sir Michael Barber as he relinquished the Chair of the Office for Students ,citing progress in access and participation as one of its main achievements.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘UK university students struggle with stress as uncertainty grows over return date.’ (Monday)
  • ‘’Staggering’ number of college students between 1 and 4 months behind, AoC survey warns. (Tuesday)
  • ‘Students feel like an afterthought after university return date.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘FE funding clawback could lead to staff and course cuts.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘A levels should be replaced with broader Baccalaureate, says think tank.’ (Friday)


  • Financial planning. The Commission for Smart Government published a discussion paper on ways of improving government financial planning suggesting that the current spending review model should be abandoned in favour of a more transparent, digital planning system.
  • All happening in Hartlepool. The Social Market Foundation reported on socio-economic conditions in Hartlepool ahead of next month’s by-election there showing that while life expectancy, earnings and employment were below average, the area had high numbers of pupils in ‘good’ primary schools and more school leavers going on to advanced apprenticeships than elsewhere, concluding that FE should be seen as a policy priority for levelling up.
  • The importance of numeracy. The charity Pro Bono Economics examined the importance of numeracy skills in a new report, arguing that they were an important factor in helping the country level-up and calling for government, businesses and individuals to work together on raising levels particularly in low-wage regions.
  • Furlough worries. YouGov reported on new survey evidence showing that many furloughed workers, particularly those aged 18-24, were increasingly anxious about their futures once furlough finishes at the end of September, with nearly 50% of younger furloughed workers looking to job hunt or retrain. 
  • Youth unemployment. The Resolution Foundation reported on changes in youth unemployment since the start of the pandemic suggesting that while government schemes had helped temper some of the worst scenarios, young people had been badly hit particularly those from Black and Asian backgrounds working in hard-hit sectors, calling on the government to ensure support was in place.
  • Living Wage. The Living Wage Foundation published evidence from two recent surveys showing many such workers facing last minute changes to shift patterns and working hours causing considerable stress and difficulty, urging employers to commit to the Living Hours Programme with its guaranteed principles on shifts and hours.
    • Top General stories from over the Easter break (with dates in brackets)

    • Online market. The government formally launched and outlined the terms of reference for the Digital Markets Unit which will sit within the Competition and Markets Authority and play a key role in overseeing the online market, working in the first instance to develop a code of practice for the use of digital platforms. (7/4/2021
    • Life Sciences. The government invited applications for its new £20m fund announced last year to support the manufacture of medicines and creation of jobs in life science manufacturing as part of its response to future pandemics. (7/4/2021)
    • Flexible working. The CIPD published a further update on future working practices suggesting that more and more employers were recognising the benefits of working from home and listing seven strategies, including building networks and enabling organisational belonging, for making hybrid working in the future a success. (1/4/2021
    • Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. The government published the report from its Commission, set up in the wake of last summer’s protests, to look into race and ethnic disparities in the UK, challenging some perceptions while highlighting continuing issues and coming up with a long list of recommendations including six directly for education including on the curriculum, careers guidance and apprenticeships. (31/3/2021)
    • Planning for Growth. The Chancellor and Business Secretary wrote to busines leaders ahead of the latest Build Back Better roundtable, setting out the government’s plans for rebuilding and recovery post-pandemic and post-Brexit, claiming to build on the former Industrial Strategy with three ‘pillars of investment’ (infrastructure, skills, and innovation.) (30/3/2021
    • Global education recovery. UNESCO published a further progress report on the work of its Global Education Coalition as it pursues its education global recovery programme which is already supporting 400m learners in 112 countries with a particular focus for the rest of the year on its three pillars of supporting specific countries, flagging up the role of teachers and digital connectivity, and developing data and advocacy. (30/3/2021)

    More specifically ...


    • The teaching profession. The House of Commons Library Service reported on the teaching profession noting that the recent increase in initial teacher training applications and other initiatives like the Recruitment and Retention Strategy were likely to reverse shortages while acknowledging workload remains an issue.
    • Teachers’ CPD. The Chartered College along with the Teacher Development Trust and Sheffield Hallam and Institute of Education set out a proposed blueprint for quality assuring teachers’ continuing professional development (CPD,) based on case study evidence and built around a number of principles, leading to a moderated accreditation process for providers. 
    • 2020 exam grades.Cambridge Assessment published a research paper looking into last summer’s exam grades and based on an analysis of grade boundaries to suggest that the assessment of grades by teachers was as ‘rational and justifiable’ as could be under the circumstances.
    • Rethinking Assessment. The high-profile group that has been looking at issues around assessment and future possibilities, published a new report by Bill Lucas looking at the case for change, suggesting that current methods fail to capture skills and aptitudes needed, are out of sync with learning and are too high stakes, and calling instead for a major rethink to take on board methods used elsewhere such as psychometric testing, extended investigations and online potential.
    • The secondary curriculum Policy adviser Tom Richmond continued his investigation into the secondary school curriculum, following up his recent report on the early secondary stage to suggest reforms for the upper secondary stage built around the creation of a three route Bacc model.
    • Mass testing costs. The Education and Skills Funding Agency published details on the Spring 2021 funding allocations for schools and colleges carrying out mass testing. 
    • How’s it been for you? Ipsos Mori reported on its latest survey into home schooling, undertaken in early March and showing that while it went well for two-thirds of parents, it was less positive for the other third especially in more deprived areas and that generally when it came to catch-up, parents preferred tutoring and wellbeing support rather than an extended school day. 
    • Life-changing Libraries. The Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell, called in an open letter, for the government to back the rebuilding of school libraries as part of the Life-changing Libraries project starting with six primary schools which are due to open with new space, resources and community involvement this summer.

    Top Schools stories from over the Easter break (with dates in brackets)

    • Safeguarding review. Ofsted outlined how it will tackle the review commissioned by government into safeguarding policies and procedures in schools and colleges, indicating that it will talk to students as well as institutional leaders in an attempt to gather evidence needed to tackle a number of key questions. (7/4/2021)
    • Running a summer school. The government published guidance with case study examples for schools planning to offer summer schools this year, indicating that these would typically be for one or two weeks in length, for pupils moving up from primary, and staffing would be costed and voluntary. (30/3/2021)
    • Ofsted R and R. Ofsted announced that it intended to publish a series of Research Reviews and Subject Reports during the second half of this year, much of it emanating from its curriculum unit and all intended to develop and support thinking around the nature of the curriculum in schools at an important moment. (30/3/2021)
    • Inspections. Ofsted confirmed it would continue its current schedule of ‘monitoring’ inspections for the summer term returning to full graded inspections complete with an updated Inspection Framework for the autumn term. (29/3/2021)
    • NEU roadmap. The National Education Union (NEU) published its own roadmap for education recovery at its Annual Conference based on a survey of members and calling for smaller classes, flexibility in the curriculum, changes to testing and inspections and further controlled use of technology. (7/4/2021)
    • Unsung Heroes. The Institute of Education, in a report commissioned by Unison, highlighted the role played by Teaching Assistants who had been ‘pivotal’ in keeping learning going in schools and families during the pandemic and who, the report recommends, deserve better recognition. (1/4/2021)


    • Clawback effect. The Association of Colleges (AoC) called in open letters to both the PM and Education Secretary for the government to re-consider the proposed clawback of adult funding from colleges unable to deliver over the last year, using case study evidence from three colleges of the damaging effect it would have on skills provision.
    • Student recovery support. The AoC published the results of its survey into recovery support for learners showing that many, particularly in practical subjects, were now struggling and calling for a £1.5bn package to allow for up to an extra year’s teaching for those leaving this year and extra hours and support for those in college or about to join.
    • Transition programme. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) outlined further details on the development of the T level Transition Programme indicating further consultation this autumn and a new Delivery Framework aligned to the first three waves of T levels for use from September 2022.
    • Learning from the past. The Edge Foundation published the latest in its series looking at policy lessons from the past, in this case the Young Apprenticeship Programme which ran between 2004 and 2012 giving 14–16-year-olds a taste of work-based training, concluding that while the Programme helped develop important partnerships, it failed to cut through for many young people.
    • Mass testing costs. The Education and Skills Funding Agency published details on the Spring 2021 funding allocations for schools and colleges carrying out mass testing. 

    Top FE/Skills stories from over the Easter break (with dates in brackets)

    • Autumn 2021 exams. The Association of Colleges (AoC) published its response to Ofqual’s proposals on an autumn series of exams this year indicating that in their view they were unnecessary and a poor use of resources. (9/4/2021)
    • Leading T levels. The Association of Colleges (AoC) announced the creation of a strategic leadership group made up from those already implementing T levels to develop and share experience for others joining the programme. (8/4/2021)
    • Capital transformation. The government announced the 16 colleges to receive funding for upgrading their facilities from stage three of the FE Capital Transformation Fund with a further listing to follow from stage two this autumn. (8/4/2021)
    • Youth support. The government announced the creation of a further 150 specialist Youth Employability Coaches who will work alongside Work Coaches in Job Centres providing dedicated support and access to training for young people (8/4/2021)
    • Functional Skills. The Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) set out its thoughts on assessing Functional Skills this year, calling for live assessments as far as possible with teacher assessed grades only as ‘a last resort.’ (4/4/2021)
    • Skills training. The Lifetime Skills Guarantee formally got under way, offering free access to some 400 qualifications and/skills bootcamps for eligible adults without a L3, and funded through the National Skills Fund. (1/4/2021)
    • Youth futures. The Prince’s Trust and Learning and Work Institute published an important new report on job opportunities for young people indicating that young people are likely to suffer long-term impact, potentially for some time, with the scarring effect forecast to be in the region of £14+bn over the next seven years. (30/3/2021)
    • Choices at 16. The Social Mobility Commission examined how young people made course choices at age 16 underlining how many, notably the disadvantaged, received limited support and ended up choosing low-earning courses, calling as a result for better guidance especially with regards to technical courses where income returns can be highly variable.(30/3/2021)
    • FE counts. James Kirkup, Director of the Social Market Foundation, examined in an essay supported by the FE Trust for Leadership, why FE gets such short shrift from the media, arguing that many journalists were graduates who saw FE as distant and complex but that in so doing they were missing an important section of policy and people’s lives. (31/3/2021)


    • Campus return. The government confirmed that students could return to campus and to in-person teaching as part of stage 3 of the easing of the lockdown from 17 May.
    • Campus return guidelines. The government issued an amended version of its guidance for HE providers following the announcement about a return to business from 17 May with updated information on travel arrangements, testing kits and face coverings.
    • In need of an explanation. Universities UK, Student Minds and the NUS called for an explanation as to why university students had not been mentioned in the latest (Stage 2) easing of the roadmap and what steps the government intended to take to help students with future progression and employment opportunities.
    • London Calling. Diana Beech, CEO of London Higher, highlighted in a blog on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) website the damage that could be done to London HE institutions if the government went ahead with plans to cut the London Weighting, suggesting for instance, that at least seven institutions could be destabilised.
    • Degree classification in 2019/20. Universities UK with Guild HE published a report into degree awards for 2019/20 recognising that while there had been an increase in higher awards, universities had deployed a number of ‘emergency regulatory’ policies to ensure that students did not miss out while protecting standards.

    Top HE stories from over the Easter break (with dates in brackets)

    • Student survey.The NUS published its latest student survey completed last month and showing rental costs and accommodation matters as a big concern to many with 28% surveyed saying they couldn’t pay their bills. (8/4/2021)
    • Clearer Horizon. The government confirmed that an additional £250m would be made available to enable the UK to participate in the Horizon Europe research programme for 2021/22, which has been welcomed but left concerns about future funding. (1/4/2021)
    • The view from here. The HE Policy Institute and YouthSight published their latest (11-18 March 2021) survey of how students are coping during this pandemic year showing that 63% say their mental health is a little or lot worse, 66% are still in their usual term-time accommodation and 56% aren’t expecting to get any more face-to-face teaching for the rest of this academic year. (1/4/2021)
    • Student protection. The Office for Students confirmed, despite a negative consultation last autumn, that it would introduce an ongoing new condition of registration, C.4, to enable it to intervene more quickly and protect student interests if it appeared that a provider was likely to go out of business. (1/4/2021
    • Student satisfaction. The Office for Students reported on its initial consultation on the National Student Survey (NSS) which concluded that ‘radical overhaul of the questions’ was needed including finding an alternative to the use of the word ‘satisfaction,’ with new questions to be trialled next year. (30/3/2021)
    • Quality assuring alternative providers. QAA published a new report outlining its experience of quality assuring alternative providers over the last ten years following government concerns at the time which saw some alternative providers disappear but which, the report notes, saw 90% of providers remaining emerging with positive outcomes. (30/3/2021

    Stand-out tweets

    Memorable tweets and posts this week:

    • “If you want to know what behaviour is like in your school, ask a supply teacher” | @OliverRMills
    • “My daughter aged 7 has been learning about different careers in school today. When I asked her if she had any ideas of what she wanted to be, her response was “Myself.” There’s a lesson in that response for us all. Be you!” | @Stephen_Logan
    • "If summer term is going to insist on existing right now, at least it could have the decency to feel a bit less like January. I made the mistake of putting my warm work coat away in the cupboard at the start of the Easter holiday" | @MrMountstevens
    • “Giving kids phones in schools and expecting them to use them productively is like taking them to McDonald's and expecting them to eat the salad” | @C_Hendrick
    • “You know that advice you get at gyms about restarting weight training at about half your pre-lockdown level? Just realised the same applies about pints at the pub!” | @ipryce
    • “Managed to get a table for lunch but food was average and service very poor. Definitely leaving home tomorrow instead” | @henrymance
    • “Petition after ice cream and custard dropped from school menu” | @bbc/uknews
    • “Sorry I was late for geometry class, I got on the rhombus” | @craiguito

    Stand-out quotes

    A selection of quotes that merit attention:

    • “Students can now buy a book on British history in Waterstones and discuss it with a tattoo artist while they have their body decorated, but they cannot do the same thing in a COVID-secure environment with their university lecturer” – the V.C at the University of Portsmouth responds to the government’s announcement on when students can return to campus.
    • “The department is currently considering the consultation responses received and will publish a final policy response later this year” – the Skills Minister responds to a question about the L3 and below consultation.
    • “The proposed clawback of adult education funding threatens to undermine the progress made by colleges on financial stability” – the Northern Chamber and Colleges call on the government to rethink the proposed clawback for adult funding.
    • “It is an abiding failure of our system of governance that, with an average tenure of less than two years, secretaries of state barely have time to understand the problems, let alone put in place lasting and effective reform” – Paul Johnson, director at the IfS reflects on where things go wrong in our education system.
    • “We don’t get praised enough you know” – global teacher winner Andria Zafirakou in her new book on the importance of teachers.
    • “A boost of £28m could enable the one in eight primary schools without a library to develop space, buy stock, develop expertise and access a school library service” – the Children’s Laureate calls on the government to support school libraries.
    • “For 250 years, it too has served society with distinction, combining the very best of public service, commercial innovation and civic participation” – Chief Economist Andy Haldane praises the RSA following his appointment as its next CEO. 

    Stand-out numbers

    The important numbers of the week:

    • 0.4%. The growth in UK GDP for February 2021, 7.8% below the figure for the same month last year according to the Office for National Statistics.
    • 5.3%. The growth forecast for the UK economy this year, according to the IMF.
    • £75bn. The budget for the US Education Dept put forward by President Biden, up 40% with a large chunk aimed at disadvantaged higher ed students, according to The Washington Post.
    • 58%. The number of small businesses expecting an improvement in performance in the next quarter, according to the Federation of Small Businesses. 
    • 560,000. The number of jobs lost during the pandemic for those with low numeracy skills, according to a new report from Pro Bono Economics.
    • 77%. The number of 16–18-year-olds performing below standard expectations, 69% for older learners, following the pandemic according to a survey from the AoC. 
    • £280m. The money promised to support the provision of high needs places needed by September 2022, according to the DfE.
    • 55%. The number of young people surveyed who would like to see gaming on the curriculum, according to a survey carried out by a gaming accessories firm.
    • £314m. An estimate of how much is likely to be spent on eating and drinking out during this first post lockdown week, based on data from last summer’s experience according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research. 
    • 12%. The number of people surveyed not looking forward to lockdown restrictions easing this week, according to YouGov.

    Everything else you need to know ...

    What to look out for:

    • Learning and Work Institute/Prince’s Trust online event discussing their recent report on employment prospects for young people. (Tuesday 20 April)
    • AoC Zoom on Managing the grading process for this summer’s general qualifications. (Tuesday 20 April)
    • PIE webinar: ‘How will students deal with the transition from online to campus?’ (Wednesday 21 April)
    • 7thAnnual Apprenticeship Conference online. (26-30 April)
    • Pearson ‘Digital Live: Evolving Education’ Event. (26 -29 April)

    Other stories

    • Meal Deals. In his quest to tackle food poverty. Marcus Rashford has teamed up with the chef Tom Kerridge, who also grew on free school meals, to launch a series of 5-minute, easy-to-follow cooking videos. Under the title ‘Full Time,’ these videos will be released on a Sunday morning on Instagram over the next year and will run through easy to prepare and cheap but wholesome meals that should help equip low-income families with kitchen skills. A link to the story is here
    • Operating from a third space. Lots of surveys have been done about how far people who are able to, will work from home or the workspace in future but apparently there’s a third option that’s proving popular as well. ‘Third space,’ as it’s known, refers to cafes, bars and other dedicated spaces. According to Accenture whose latest global survey into how the pandemic has changed people’s lives and work highlighted the issue, 79% of people surveyed were keen to work from such a space. It poses an interesting design challenge for shops, bars and high streets as they contemplate future changing lifestyles. A link to the press release 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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