Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 23 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:

No let up this week where three main stories stand out: the costs of education recovery, skills system reform, and the job market.

The costs of education recovery first where the Education Policy Institute (EPI) published some modelling ahead of a more detailed report to follow next month. It sets out the scale of the challenge, which in pecuniary terms – for England at least – tot up to £10-£15bn, a modest £610 per pupil per year as the ASCL notes. To put things in perspective, the government’s current spending plans for catch-up hover at around £1.7bn. And of course there’s the whole gamut of mental health, support for early years and post-16, lost opportunities and so on to consider as well. 

Calculations on the impact of learning loss are still being refined and the EPI considers three different types of scenario, from the more optimistic in which pupils are about a month behind, to the pessimistic, which sees them five months behind. Recovery activities, such as after-school clubs, are all likely to help but ultimately, as the report notes, two factors stand out: the quality of teaching and cross-departmental support within government. Much now depends on the government’s recovery plan, due to be announced next month.

Next, skills system reform. The Skills for Jobs White Paper published earlier this year promised a burst of activity this spring, and during the week we saw evidence of this as the government launched its so-called Skills Accelerator, inviting Expressions of Interest (EoIs) in two aspects.  

The first was to become a LSIP or Local Skills Improvement Plan trailblazer. The government wants to pilot these planning bodies in 6-8 local areas and is looking to Employer Representative Bodies (ERBs) (there’s no shortage of jargon involved in the document) to set them up, offering £4m funding this year as an incentive. The intention behind LSIPs is to create a more responsive local skills system, responsive in the sense of meeting employer needs as defined in these new local plans. In that sense, LSIPs are not new in concept. There’s been no shortage of skills planning in the past, but articulating, funding and providing for it in a timely manner has proved trickier.

The second was to invite colleges and other providers to work collaboratively in response to local skill needs and innovation. The government is looking to run pilot models in 12-16 areas in this first year, with the aim of building capacity to meet locally agreed skills priorities and ‘act as a catalyst for change in local skills delivery’, as the document puts it, using Strategic Funding Development Fund money, £65m-worth, to pump prime things. College Business Centres are seen as key players here, but training providers, HE providers and sixth form colleges could also be part of the collaborative ventures envisaged.

It all sounds promising, but as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) has highlighted in a timely report this week, a lot of the detail, let alone the funding, has yet to be sorted out. ‘Unfortunately, many key details about the operation and details of these government commitments are left unstated or yet to be worked out, which makes it extremely hard to judge their overall significance,’ they write in their conclusion.

On to the third big story of the week, namely the job market, where the latest figures were released and described by commentators as ‘stable’ but ‘subdued.’ Younger people – particularly those aged under 35 who have been badly hit – would probably choose another s-word, given that most of the losses in payroll jobs last month were for that age group in sectors like retail and hospitality. As the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) which offered its usual helpful commentary pointed out, while the full impact on young people has been masked by higher numbers participating in education, there are worrying signs now of a feed through into higher long-term unemployment. 

The OBR had forecasted unemployment would peak at around 6.5% (2.2m) at the end of this year, nearly half what it had forecasted a year ago. This week’s figures did at least show overall unemployment had dipped slightly, to 4.9% in the period to February this year. 

Hopes are being pinned on a speedy economic recovery this year, but it is the prospects for young people that are causing the most worry. The Chancellor boosted incentives around apprenticeships and traineeships in his latest Budget, while others like the One Nation group of Tories, have favoured the US model of stimulus payments, suggested £500 payments for all 18–24-year-olds, something that would cost around £3bn. It’s clearly an issue that the government needs to tackle and we may see more in the Queen’s Speech next month.

In other education news this week, the Children’s Commissioner called on Marcus Rashford to help launch ‘the biggest ever consultation with children in England as part of a report into post-Covid childhood.’ Ofsted updated its inspection handbook for schools and colleges to reflect the impact of the pandemic, and Ofqual blogged about quality assurance processes for this summer’s GCSE and A’ level exams. Along with those skills system reforms, the government launched a consultation on flexing up some sector apprenticeships and the Social Market Foundation published an interesting report on public attitudes towards vocational education. And in HE, two stories have dominated: freedom of speech and university admissions reform, where both UCAS and the exam board AQA have published proposals. Links to all these stories are below.

Finally, back in Westminster, the Treasury Committee took evidence on the economic impact of coronavirus and the Youth Unemployment Committee heard from employers about apprenticeships and training opportunities for young people. Elsewhere, Nick Gibb answered a question in Parliament about the guidance provided for determining exam grades for young carers, and MPs discussed the scope of the Turing scheme as well as support for children with special needs  – both in Westminster Hall debates.

As he relinquished the Chair of the Office for Students, Sir Michael Barber cited progress in access and participation as one of its main achievements.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Rise in students asking to repeat year after campus shutdowns.’ (Monday
  • ‘A’ level exams could be sat earlier, says biggest exam board.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘GCSEs 20021. Schools have no ‘discretion’ over appeals.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘GCSEs 2022: Ofqual undecided on ‘full fat exams’ return.’ (Thursday
  • ‘Few schools and colleges will rely solely on exam results to set grades.’ (Friday)


  • 2021 Queen’s Speech. The House of Commons Library Service looked at which Bills might be included in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech pointing to at least three (freedom of speech in universities, lifelong learning, mental health reform) of direct relevance to education.
  • The Big Ask. The Children’s Commissioner for England called in the support of Marcus Rashford to help launch the Big Ask, ‘the biggest consultation with children ever undertaken in this country,’ that will provide evidence for the Childhood Commission’s report into barriers and opportunities for children. 
  • Pandemic Preparedness. The government launched a new Pandemic Preparedness Partnership (PPP,) a public-private partnership with £16m investment for R/D, vaccine manufacture and diagnostics, chaired by Sir Patrick Vallance to advise the PM and G7 nations at its June Summit on how best to respond to future pandemics.
  • Brexit so far .The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) rounded up data and developments on the economy post-Brexit so far indicating that it’s still early days and many things are harder than anticipated but there are deregulatory opportunities emerging and the creative/digital sectors are proving strong but dependent on a sound skills pipeline. 
  • Labour market figures. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest data on the UK labour market showing a decrease in the unemployment rate for the latest quarter up to February 2021 as well as in redundancies but also a drop in numbers on the payroll, especially young people. 
  • Latest labour market figures. The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) published its regular helpful analysis of the latest labour market data suggesting that while unemployment may have peaked for now at least and furlough continues to protect jobs, young people continue to be badly hit, hiring is variable and some regions and industry sectors remain vulnerable. 
  • Green shoots. The Centre for Cities think tank examined job vacancies in over 60 cities and large towns, concluding that things were picking up particularly in cities and towns in the North and Midlands with London and parts of the South currently lagging.
  • Local connectivity. The government followed up its recent consultation on improving mobile connectivity by launching further proposals and changes to planning laws including strengthening existing masts and deploying them near main roads to help extend mobile coverage and speed up 5G delivery.
  • Urban Revival. The CBI called for skills-driven regional clusters to help drive local economies as it hosted a new event on Urban Revival ahead of the publication of a major economic strategy for the UK due next month.

More specifically ...


  • Recovery costs. The Education Policy Institute set out some modelling on learning loss and recovery plan costs ahead of a more detailed report next month, suggesting a 3-year recovery package of £10-£15bn would be needed to help children catch up.
  • MTC. The Standards and Testing Agency published the latest guidance for schools choosing to operate the Multiplication Tables Check (MTC) for their Yr 4 pupils in June before it becomes statutory next year.
  • Exams 2021 (Survey.)The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) reported on its snap survey on how schools were approaching the grading of GCSEs and A’ levels this summer finding most opting to use exam-style papers with some non-exam evidence where appropriate.
  • Exams 2021 (QA.) Ofqual outlined in a new blog, the Quality Assurance (QA) processes for this summer’s GCSE and A/AS exams which start with a centre policy statement due in at the end of this month, followed by virtual visits and sampling, typically of the work of 5 students, once grades have been submitted.
  • Exams 2021 (Appeals.) Ofqual launched a brief consultation on awarding organisation arrangements for appeals and reviews for GQ qualifications this summer covering grounds for appeal, learner’s rights, procedural errors, and corrections.
  • PISA poser. John Jerrim of UCL reported on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) for 2018 suggesting that a lack of participation and underrepresentation by lower-achieving pupils may have led to an inflated ranking for pupils in England and Wales and potentially generated ‘flawed’ readings for other tests and other countries.
  • Help with buying. The government confirmed that following consultation it intended to launch its ‘Get Help Buying’ scheme for schools this autumn as a voluntary and free service, with online support, to help schools seek out the best deals for goods and services.
  • Spring term monitoring. Ofsted reported on its spring term (remote) monitoring visits indicating that most schools had worked hard to keep learning going, but that foundation subjects and reading in secondary schools were in danger of lagging, some SEND children had struggled with remote education and keeping children motivated during the lockdown had proved hard work. 
  • Ofsted inspections. Ofsted updated its inspection handbook for schools to reflect changes wrought by the pandemic to include for example that a school wouldn’t be judged inadequate if that was solely down to Covid and teacher-assessed grades would not be used when it came to judgments on the quality of education. 
  • PSHE Matters. The National Governance Association and the PSHE Association published new guidance to support discussions between school governing bodies and school leaders on issues around pupil personal, social, health and economic matters and the importance of having agreed and clear approaches.
  • Distance Learning. The Nuffield Foundation published a new briefing on distance learning suggesting that while it’s challenging and much depends on the quality and support provided, it could help improve inclusion and accessibility.
  • Child’s play. The University of Reading reported on its recent research into what age children are allowed to play outside on their own, concluding that while for the parent’s generation it was age nine, for today’s children it’s more like age eleven.
  • Arts Festival. Leading school and college bodies announced the launch of a School and College Festival of Arts, to be held on Friday 28 May to celebrate and inspire learners, many of whom have missed out on creative and cultural activities during the pandemic.


  • Skills system. The government invited expressions of interest as trailblazers in developing Local Skills Improvement Plans and in piloting partnership activity funded through the Strategic Development Fund, as originally envisaged in the Skills for Jobs White Paper, now brought together as part of a Skills Accelerator programme.
  • Flexi-job apprenticeships. The government launched consultation on proposals, first announced in the Budget, for a more flexible approach to apprenticeships in sectors like agriculture, construction and creative industries to enable apprentices, from the start of next year to work with different employers and with more flexible approaches to training.
  • Adult skills funding. The Institute for Fiscal Studies considered the current position on funding and providing adult skills in England in a Paper sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation, concluding that while the proposals set out in the recent White Paper appeared attractive, a lot of the detail has still to be worked out and future investment secured. 
  • Attitudes to Vocational Education. The Social Market Foundation along with the FE Trust for Leadership published a new report looking at public attitudes towards vocational education which while conducted a couple of years ago shows that many, including among the middle classes, regard a vocational qualification as important as going to university although this proves less true for younger (18-24) people.
  • Adult ed funding. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) published a further version of its guidance around the adult ed budget picking up on a few changes since its previous version in January including to the much-publicised reconciliation threshold and to the funding eligibility date for particular new qualifications.
  • Ofsted inspections. Ofsted updated its inspection handbook for FE to include for example that a provider wouldn’t be judged inadequate if that was solely down to Covid and to cover inspections of apprenticeship provision at L6 and above.
  • Working with The Times. News UK invited applications for 28 new 2-year apprenticeships being created across The Times, Sun and News UK brands as part of a drive to open out training and opportunities in its media outlets.
  • Building the Future. The Chartered Institute for FE along with St Modwen Homes presented a new report on construction skills for the future, launched by the Skills Minister at London South East Colleges’ training site and highlighting the key role of training and planning as the industry seeks to generate 170,000 new jobs in the next 2 years. 
  • New apprenticeships. The retail journal, Retail Week, and training organisation, Lifetime Training, announced a new scheme to support 5,000 new apprentices over the next year particularly from underprivileged backgrounds, to work largely in digital support.
  • Skills competition.WorldSkills UK invited applications (closing date 14 May) for its latest National Qualifying competitions with the winners going through to the prestigious National Finals in November.
  • Arts Festival. Leading school and college bodies announced the launch of a School and College Festival of Arts, to be held on Friday 28 May to celebrate and inspire learners, many of whom have missed out on creative and cultural activities during the pandemic.


  • Statement of expectations. The Office for Students set out expectations, along with a framework of recommendations, to help HE providers develop and apply consistent policies and procedures when addressing issues of harassment and misconduct affecting students in HE. 
  • Freedom of speech. The Russell Group of universities set out its position on freedom of speech ahead of possible government legislation on the matter, reinforcing that it’s ‘central to the culture of its institutions’ and both protected and restricted by law, ensuring ‘a culture of mutual toleration.’ 
  • University Admissions (1.) UCAS published its thoughts on the university admissions system as government consultation on the matter draws to a close, coming out against trying to squeeze everything into a compressed summer and proposing instead that students would apply as now but with offers only made after results are known (PQO) and with 3 caveats (aligning things for international students, supporting applicants in the summer, and maintaining UK wide systems.)
  • University admissions (2.) The exam board AQA outlined its support for a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system for university applicants, arguing that a broader look at the whole of Year 13 should be included with exams brought forward within the summer term, allowing students to receive offers after their grades and university first year teaching to begin in October.
  • SBS Groups. The QAA announced the membership of the Subject Benchmark Statement (SBS) review advisory groups which this year will scrutinise the benchmark statements of what graduates should be expected ‘to know, do and understand’ in 14 different subject areas ranging from Computing to Theology. 
  • Campus return. Professor Sir Chris Husbands, V.C. at Sheffield Hallam, argued in a new blog that delaying the return to campus for the remainder of university students until mid-May was wrong and denying students many of the other benefits of the university experience, with universities now doing what they could to put this right.
  • Apply now. The Student Loans Co urged new and returning students in England to apply for finance support now even if they’re unsure about their course or university, given the likelihood of an upsurge in student numbers this year. 

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Universities ‘strongly encouraged’ to hold graduations this year by universities minister" | @jim_dickinson
  • “Going into the office for the first time tomorrow and I have packed and repacked my bag three times and tried on five different outfits. First day of school all over again” | @RMCunliffe
  • “Anyone else feel it would have just been easier to let year 11 and 13 sit exams?” | @Sarah_1610
  • “Just marked a paragraph, thinking ‘blimey, this is excellent!’ ... realised it was my model answer, which I’ve now ticked and annotated” | @cegreenwood
  • “There's a special place in heaven for writers who include a copy and paste-able 'how to cite this paper' reference in their reports” | @KarenWespieser
  • “Rage Against the Machine never specified what type of machine they were furious with but I reckon it was probably a printer” | @JohnMoynes

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “The UK currently has a Covid employment gap of 6.2 million people who need to get back to work” – the Resolution Foundation responds to the latest unemployment figures.
  • “It’s the first time in my life really where I’m out of education without planning on going back, and the first time it feels like I can’t get a job for some reason” – young people tell The Guardian about the challenges of job hunting.
  • “This is a great opportunity to use your skills and experience to make a difference to the Skills Reform delivery portfolio” – the government advertises for a part-time independent Chair of the Skills Reform Board.
  • “So, I want all institutions, staff, and students to know that I will be taking action to incentivise more flexible and modular provision” – the Universities Minister prioritises modular provision in a speech to the TASO conference. 
  • “If Government feels it is necessary to enhance protections further, we will work with them to find proportionate solutions” – the Russell Group of universities takes a stance on freedom of speech.
  • “As our labour market thunders towards the digital age, we must urgently reconsider how our education system can support the skills of the future” – the Chair of the Education Committee reflects on the curriculum needs of the future.
  • “We want to know how schools have adapted and prioritised the curriculum throughout this period” – Sean Harford, Ofsted National Director for Education, blogs about some of the changes made to inspections in light of the pandemic.
  • “I’m joining you today from our actual office in London. Where the broadband runs free. The office furniture glistens like the stars. And the stationery cupboard overflows with treats galore” – the Director-General of the CBI welcomes the joys of hosting a live event.
  • “To be Earth’s best employer and Earth’s safest place to work” – Amazon boss Jeff Bezos pledges the Earth for Amazon workers.
  • “We want to fill Twitter with paintings, drawings, poems, music, dance, and drama” – Schools and Colleges launch a Festival of Arts for 28 May.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 0.7%. The CPI inflation figure for March, up from 0.4% from the previous month, driven largely by increases in fuel and clothing costs according to the ONS.
  • 56,000. The fall in the number of workers on payrolls last month, largely among those aged under 25 according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS.)
  • 100,000. The number of business start-ups promised by the Labour leader in the first term of a new Labour government.
  • 2024.The proposed start date for a new post qualification offer system for university applications as suggested in reform proposals by UCAS.
  • £10-£15bn. The amount of funding needed to support education recovery in schools in England, according to the Education Policy Institute.
  • 94%. Pupil attendance figures for state schools in England that had gone back last week, according to latest government figures.
  • 4m. The number of pints drunk each day last week, according to The Sun.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • 7thAnnual Apprenticeship Conference online. (Monday 26 – Saturday 30 April)
  • Pearson ‘Digital Live: Evolving Education’ Event. (Monday 26 – Friday 29 April)
  • Education Committee question the Universities Minister. (Tues 27 April.)
  • Schools and Academies Show. (Tues 27-Wed 28 April.)
  • Wonkhe/Kortext event on the ‘Future of Learning Resources.’ (Wed 28 April.)
  • OECD webinar on ‘Rethinking the classroom after Covid.’ (Wed 28 April.)

Other stories

  • Spelling Bee. There’s been a lot of media stories recently about spelling and how important or not it is, depending on your point of view, that you should be able to spell words correctly. It provoked quite a heated debate on Breakfast TV last week and the deliberate misspelling of the word ‘definitely’ in this week’s ‘Line of Duty’ was seen as a cryptic clue. English has more than its fair share of words that are difficult to spell so here’s a link to what’s considered the top 20 most difficult words to spell in the English Language. They start with onomatopoeia as the most difficult, followed by paraphernalia and conscientious. The list is here
  • Hybrid working. Are you an anchored operator, a creative collaborator, focused contributor, or pattern specialist? According to Boston Consulting, these are the four main types of future worker, based around how much you work from home and how much you need to be in the office. An anchored operator for instance needs to be in the office most of the time while a pattern specialist can work 50%-80% remotely. This categorisation is one of the gems in an article in the FT this week looking at how different companies are planning on managing hybrid working in the future. Aviva for instance will be using an app to enable teams to book space and come in and work together when need be. Lloyds is setting up hub spaces as it reduces desk capacity. A link to the full article is here

That's it for this week. Watch this space and/or check-in with my Twitter stream @stevebesley to make sure you don't miss out on the next issue of Education Eye.

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Steve Besley

Disclaimer: Education Eye is intended to help colleagues keep up to date with national developments in the education sector. Information is correct at the time of writing and is offered in good faith. No liability is accepted by Steve Besley or EdCentral for decisions made on the basis of any information provided.



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