Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 30 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:

Lots about recovery planning this week, much of it centred around education. It included reports on children’s language skills; a new project looking at the impact of the pandemic on prospects for 15/16-year-olds; 10 principles for education recovery from the OECD; a National Prosperity Plan from the Covid Recovery Commission; and an FT series on challenges facing young people post-pandemic. ‘We’re drowning in insecurity’ as one contributor put it. Here’s some details.

The concerns around language and communication skills first, given wide coverage by much of the press this week. Details are to be found in a research project funded by the Education Endowment Foundation looking into how reception children in England adjusted to school last autumn. Lockdown meant that they’d been denied the normal build-up to school and although most seemed to have settled in well, the 58 schools surveyed reported three areas where children were struggling. These included communication and language development where most schools reported ‘concerns,’ personal, social and emotional development, and literacy.

As the report acknowledges, this was a small sample but it highlighted that a lack of social interaction resulting from the lockdown may have hindered some children’s language development. This was reinforced by a report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Oracy this week, suggesting that primary teachers in particular felt that the pandemic had ‘a negative effect’ on spoken language development, especially among those on free school meals. The Foundation is now scaling the OUP’s Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) programme of specialist language support, which has been found to be useful with previous groups. 

Before we leave the subject of language skills, it’s also worth noting a report out this week from GL Assessment which paints a more hopeful picture on what it called ‘reading resilience’ for primary and secondary pupils generally. Using the ‘standards age score’ system which benchmarks performance against peer groups, it found a slight drop among primary children on evidence gathered last autumn but overall concluded that ‘children’s reading ability does not appear to have been significantly affected by the pandemic.’

Next, that latest project looking into issues and prospects for young people post-pandemic. This came from the Sutton Trust and UCL and resides under the galactic title of COSMO (Covid Social Mobility and Opportunity Study.) 

It joins a growing list of work in this area. We already have projects underway from the Childhood Commission, the Student Futures Commission, The Times, ASCL and Pearson among others, each with their own perspectives. ASCL for instance is looking at a potential ‘Blueprint for a Fairer Education System’ aiming to publish recommendations this autumn. The Childhood Commission will be looking at barriers and solutions for children through its Big Ask with an interim report due this summer, while the Student Futures Commission is looking at how to improve the university experience for students from this September. 

This latest Study looks especially interesting as it will sample a group of Yr 11s, 15/16-year-olds in England, and study their progress over the next couple of years, looking at how the pandemic has affected their life chances, well-being and attainment generally. It’s looking to publish first findings early next year and ultimately align with other research across Great Britain. 

And just to round off those other recovery contributions this week, the OECD listed 10 fairly straightforward principles – such as targeting learner support and empowering teachers – for countries to adopt as part of educational recovery planning. The independent Covid Recovery Commission’s impressive blueprint set out a National Prosperity Plan for the next 10 years – covering infrastructure, green energy, collaborative working and skills – where it proposed raising skill levels through ‘an overhaul’ of the Apprenticeship Levy and the introduction of Lifelong Learning Accounts for the over 25s. And the FT has been running a fascinating series all week on challenges facing young people. On Wednesday it looked at jobs, suggesting young people needed three things: ‘more jobs, less insecurity and working cultures that are humane’ and on Thursday it tackled HE funding, calling for a set of fair principles.

Elsewhere it's been a big week for conferences, with the Annual Apprenticeship Conference, the Schools and Academies Conference and Confederation of School Trusts Conference all taking place. Many, such as leading speakers at the week-long Schools and Academies event, carried positive messages after what’s been a difficult year.

At the Apprenticeship event for instance, Jenny Coupland, chief executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships declared “We are still here and like the nation and our wider economy, we’re resilient and ready to bounce back” At the same event, the Chief Inspector welcomed a rise in apprenticeship starts though raised concerns about some new provision. And at the Confederation of School Trusts Conference, the Education Secretary underlined that improving outcomes for pupils post-pandemic was the government’s ‘number one priority’ before announcing termly behaviour surveys and more multi-academy trusts as vehicles for this. The Chair of Ofqual went through the awarding process for exams this summer at the same event. 

Inside Westminster this week, education questions took place at the start of the week, with Education Ministers answering questions on lost learning, special needs, mobile phones, adult skills, and university students. Talking of university students, the Universities Minister appeared before the Education Committee this week where she was questioned on students’ return to campus, student support, and remote learning. She was followed a couple of days later by Nick Gibb who fielded questions on mobile phones in school, pupil premium funding and catch-up plans. And finally, the School Uniforms Bill, a Private Members Bill which provides for guidance on the costs of school uniform, passed on to the statute book this week.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Vaccine success makes UK attractive to international students, poll finds,’ (Monday)
  • ‘Lockdowns hurt child speech and language skills, report. (Tuesday)
  • ‘Gavin Williamson wants to turn more state schools into Academies.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Students want sexual consent test in university.’ (Thursday
  • ‘Student university complaints reach highest level.’ (Friday)


  • Digital commitment. G7 Digital and Technology Ministers agreed a new Declaration on online safety ahead of the June G7 Leaders Summit committing to work together on technical standards, data flow and regulation, with the UK also agreeing to host a Future Tech Forum this September.
  • National Prosperity Plan. The Covid Recovery Commission, an independent group of prominent business and policy experts, published its final report, proposing a collaborative National Prosperity Plan to help drive better ‘economic, social and environmental outcomes’ for families and communities incorporating among other things, a big push on raising skill levels through introducing Individual Learner Accounts and reforming the Apprenticeship Levy.
  • Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. The Public Accounts Committee reported on its inquiry into the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund suggesting that it needs to be clearer about what it’s trying to achieve and to spread out participation in the Fund across the UK as it looks to support UK economic recovery.
  • New Deal for the young. The FT ran a week-long series of articles and discussion on issues facing young people post-pandemic covering housing, pensions, education, jobs and climate change, calling ultimately for a New Deal for young people. 
  • Safety at Work. The Labour Party reinforced calls from the TUC for Covid-19 to be recategorised as ‘serious’ workplace risk, a move which would ensure greater attention would be paid to protecting and supporting employees.
  • Older workers. The Resolution Foundation reported on the impact of the pandemic on older workers for whom the pandemic has brought ‘a sharp halt’ to their recent growth in numbers leaving many finding it difficult to return to work and often facing lower wage levels, proposing more flexible and supportive Restart schemes to help.
  • Post-pandemic workforce The British Chambers of Commerce and Barclays LifeSkills reported on their recent work looking into workforce skills, needs and opportunities post-pandemic, coming up with a blueprint for future-proofing the workforce through more flexible, more supportive and more digital forms of working.
  • Inheritances and social mobility. The Institute for Fiscal Studies looked at inheritances, particularly how they’ve grown for those born in the 1980s and what impact these have on living standards and wealth with the potential to increase the gap between different groups, arguing for better income support for young people without access to such benefits.
  • Always on call. The CIPD reported on its latest ‘Health and Wellbeing at Work’ survey showing that despite flexible and homeworking, employees increasingly log on, answer calls and make themselves accessible when ill, often because they feel pressurised, calling as a result for more support and understanding from employers.
  • AI in tertiary education. JISC examined how AI was shaping up in tertiary education citing case study evidence to show the progress being made through chatbots, adaptive learning and AI-assisted marking and feedback and highlighting potential future developments in for eg collaborative learning as it launched its new National AI Centre.

More specifically ...


  • School system. The Education Secretary confirmed the government’s vision for a school system built around multi-academy trusts (MATs,) announcing ‘a try before you buy’ scheme for schools to work within a MAT for a while before committing, among other measures intended to make the transition to an MAT as simple as possible.
  • Behaviour Surveys. The Education Secretary also announced termly behaviour surveys to provide a clearer picture on standards of pupil behaviour, including aspects like bullying, and due to start from next academic year. 
  • Exams 2021. Ofqual confirmed arrangements for the submission of teacher-assessed grades for general qualifications this summer which will need to be sent to exam boards between 26 May and 18 June so that sampling can follow the week after.
  • Views on Qualifications. Ofqual published its latest annual survey of how users perceive qualifications looking here at general qualifications over the last year where confidence has remained high in traditional qualifications but with some unease expressed about the ‘extraordinary’ developments of last summer.
  • Summer schools. The government invited eligible schools to register interest in running or taking part in a summer school this year with funding based on numbers of Yr 7 pupils.
  • Pupil premium funding. The Sutton Trust published survey evidence conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) showing that while more schools were using research evidence to assess how to use such funding, they were also, especially in the primary sector, having to use it to plug gaps elsewhere.
  • Pausing SATs. The campaigning group ‘More Than a Score,’ published new survey evidence showing that many parents felt that preparing for SATs should not be part of any catch-up programme this year, calling on the government to pause the reception baseline assessment due for this September and to set up a profession-led review into primary assessment generally.
  • 10 Principles for Recovery. The OECD and Education International set out a framework for educational recovery with ten principles including aligning resources with need and supporting teachers, that could be adopted by countries as they respond to the pandemic.
  • Introducing COSMO. The Sutton Trust and UCL announced a major new research study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation under the title of COSMO (Covid Social Mobility and Opportunity Study,) to examine the effect of the pandemic on Yr 11s by following their progress over the next couple of years, with an initial report due early next year.
  • Bacc on? The National Baccalaureate Trust launched consultation on the concept of National Baccalaureate for England as the idea re-gained momentum with the Trust hosting a Forum next month and set to publish a report early next year.
  • Teacher CPD. The Education Policy Institute reported on the cost-benefits of teacher continuous professional development (CPD) arguing that secondary teachers in England spend well below the OECD average time in CPD, calling for a government-led entitlement on the basis that this would improve pupil attainment and teacher retention. 
  • Science under the microscope. Ofsted published the first of its promised subject reviews, looking here at science and what makes for high-quality provision highlighting such measures as structured learning, focusing on concepts and understanding, and ensuring access to regular CPD for staff. 
  • Language matters. The Education Endowment Foundation announced the scaling up of the Nuffield Early Language Intervention programme of specialist language support following early research showing concerns about a decline in language and communication skills by 4/5 yr olds following the first lockdown.
  • APPG on Oracy. The All-Party Parliamentary Group which has been looking into oracy education in schools, published its final report pointing to the importance but also some of the barriers in developing speaking skills in schools and calling for a much stronger emphasis on this area within the national curriculum and for it to be valued in inspections and assessments.
  • Reading Resilience. GL Assessment examined reading scores among primary and secondary pupils taken during the autumn term, reporting that while there had been a slight dip among primary pupils, overall the pandemic had ‘not significantly affected’ children’s reading ability.
  • Looking to the Future. FED (the federation for education development) reported on its work over last year and its plans for the year ahead with education seen as a major driver in recovery supported by a 10-year vision and plan that could create sustainable systems, funding and planning.
  • Cyber security training. JISC reported on the new, free training resources for staff in schools and colleges designed to help secure procedures following a growing wave of ransomware attacks with the pack providing case studies, good practice guides and other materials to be used in staff training events. 
  • Language Assistants. The FT highlighted issues around hiring Language Assistants post-Brexit with new rules meaning recruits either have to apply through new visas or sponsored routes, in both cases more expensive and bureaucratic according to schools.


  • IfATE workplan. The government set out the 2021/22 work plan for the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) with the Skills for Life White Paper a focal point and other priorities involving developing employer-led standards, increasing apprenticeship flexibility and developing technical provision, including T levels.
  • Apprenticeship Strategy. The Cabinet Office published a rest of the Civil Service Apprenticeship Strategy for 2021/22 intended to review and where necessary improve the quality of systems and training and extend its target ‘to deliver apprenticeship starts equal to 2.3% of its current workforce in England.’ 
  • The Chief Inspector on apprenticeships. Amanda Spielman addressed the Annual Apprenticeship Conference where she acknowledged the challenges that the pandemic had posed for many providers and apprentices and highlighted evidence emerging from monitoring visits which showed a mix of ‘impressive’ but also below par training. 
  • Restart scheme. The government confirmed the list of contract providers in 12 areas across England and Wales that from the end of June will provide support under the Restart scheme for Universal Credit recipients who’ve been out of work for 12-18 months.
  • Mayoral election. College leaders in London wrote to Mayoral candidates calling on them to support steps to restore the adult education budget, increase funding for 16-18 yr olds, support training for low-paid workers and encourage the take-up of digital skills. 


  • Student complaints. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator published its Annual Report reflecting in its words ‘a uniquely challenging year’ which saw a 10% increase in the number of complaints received, many about service issues such as teaching and facilities with business and admin courses, social studies and medicine courses receiving the most complaints.
  • F2F teaching. The Times Higher reported on the results of the latest survey from YouGov on face-to-face teaching in universities showing most young people (51%) wanting this to return from 17 May but with the general population, notably those older, more split. 
  • Making PQA work. The University and College Union (UCU) and National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) added their thoughts to the debate on post-qualifications admissions (PQA,) calling for a student-centred model with greater support for students from Yr 10, applications/decisions in August/Sept, and entry in October.
  • Business and Management Studies. The British Academy reported on the importance of Business and Management Studies courses in HE, popular among international and ethnic students in particular and currently embracing wider issue such as sustainability and diversity but also facing concerns about future funding and foreign competition.
  • Horizon Europe. The Russell Group along with other research-intensive groups across Europe called on the EU not to restrict access to aspects of the Horizon Europe programme for countries including the UK and instead to commit to work collaboratively.
  • Future funding. The FT looked into the funding of higher ed as part of its week-long series on a New Deal for Young People calling for a clear set of future principles including that costs should be shared and funding available for a wide range of provision.
  • International Study. Navitas published a further study on international student destinations based on evidence from nearly 900 agents working in 73 countries showing that such students prioritised ease of travel and access as key factors, with Canada followed by the UK seen as the most attractive options currently.
  • Getting personal. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) and YouthSight reported on their research into student attitudes towards sex and relationships carried out last August, challenging many preconceptions with most more concerned about making friends than finding sexual partners and over half supporting the idea of a compulsory sexual consent assessment before moving into HE.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “praying to the job gods that local PE teacher posts start appearing soon ... really starting to stress that I’m not going to find a job come September” | @MissReynoldsPE
  • “The drama of trying to navigate a mask, headphones, scarf, earrings and glasses is the under-discussed issue of our generation” | @sirenabergman
  • “I’m graduating on Zoom today and I’m really hoping my boyfriend puts some actual trousers on” | @sewdarngood
  • “Today was the first of my flexible working Wednesday mornings. I have walked round a rainy park with dog and whinging 4 y/o and taken a screamy baby to the supermarket. Can I come up to campus now? Please?” | @revhannaha
  • “Not so much working from home as living at work’ - good line” | @ianmulheirn

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “We are drowning in insecurity with no help in sight” – the FT hears the views of twentysomethings post-pandemic.
  • “And by the way, we have our own apprenticeship programme at Ofsted, of which I am very proud” – the Chief Inspector acknowledges the value of apprenticeships in a speech to the Annual Conference.
  • “Perhaps most dispiriting, as we emerge from a national crisis that has further widened the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children, is that the Secretary of State for Education thinks that tinkering with structures, issuing surveys and fixating on mobile phones represents any part of the solution” – ASCL’s Geoff Barton reflects on the Education Secretary’s latest speech.
  • “We are very conscious of teacher workload. The sample is relatively small and should not take too long for exams officers to submit” – Ofqual confirms arrangements for submitting teacher-assessed grades this summer.
  • “Anyone who thinks that exams are a bad thing has never taught a class of teenage boys.  Exams work because they make pupils work” – Barnaby Lenon, Chair of the Independent Schools Council, on keeping exams.
  • “We will use the summer period to build a new beginning” – the Italian government plans to keep schools open throughout the summer for catch-up activities.
  • “Running summer schools can help children make progress, but they don’t appear to be as effective at supporting children’s academic learning as other measures, such as small group tuition” – NFER offers its thoughts on summer schools.
  • “Whilst the Government has a policy on flying the Union Flag above government buildings, this does not extend to schools” – Nick Gibb responds to a question in Parliament about schools having to fly the flag.
  • “I’ve never been considered cool” – Jonathan Gibson on being the youngest winner of Mastermind, aged 24.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 5.4% -7.8%. The uprated forecasts for UK economic growth this year, up from the earlier 4.2% of recent forecasts, according to leading economic forecasters. 
  • 40%. The percentage of surveyed firms looking to recruit staff during Q.1 this year, up slightly but variable by sector according to the British Chambers of Commerce.
  • The number of winners announced for this year’s Queen’s Award for Enterprise, according to the government.
  • 76,546. The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases reported through HE providers in England over the autumn and spring terms, according to latest government figures.
  • 18%. The number of students in long-distance relationships before entering higher ed, according to a survey from HEPI and YouthSight.
  • 94%. Pupil attendance in state-funded schools in England as of last week’s data point of 22 April, the highest during the pandemic according to government figures.
  • 76%. The number of schools in a survey who reported that reception children starting last autumn needed more support than previous years, according to research from the Education Endowment Foundation.
  • £1.8bn. The amount of money the government is making available for school buildings this financial year, up 20% according to the government.
  • 43. The number of hours a year on average that secondary teachers in England spend on CPD compared to an OECD average of 62, according to a report from the Education Policy Institute.
  • 30%. The number of primary school teachers surveyed who reported more criticism from parents when teaching online during lockdown compared to 53% who reported no change, according to a poll from YouGov.
  • £6.4bn. The ‘invoiced’ value of the UK publishing market last year, up 2% with fiction and audiobooks notably up but education publishing down, according to the Publishers Association.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • OECD webinar ‘Developing Literacy Skills in a Digital World.’ (Tuesday, 4 May)
  • Edge and envision interactive seminar on ‘Rethinking Employability.’ (Tuesday, 4 May)
  • Local Council and Mayoral Elections. (Thursday, 6 May)

Other stories

  • Digital Divide. Ofcom’s latest annual report on media literacy published this week shows that while increasing numbers of (often older) people turned to digital devices during lockdown to keep them informed, entertained or both, those without access are in danger of falling further behind. 6% of UK homes don’t have access to the internet although this is a near 50% drop on the previous year. The report has an interesting section on usage by children. Apparently, for instance, 14% of 5–7-year-olds have their own smartphones largely for games and video sharing with this rising to 91% for 12–15-year-olds. Just over half of 12–15-year-olds have had a negative experience online but awareness of dangers appears high. Parents often relaxed rules about screen time usage during lockdown as they felt it helped children keep in touch with friends as well as with gaming and learning. A link to the full report 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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