Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 07 May 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 lower-key week for education with Parliament prorogued until next Tuesday, media attention focused on the local council and mayoral elections, with a wet and windy Bank Holiday thrown in for good measure.

So a slight reduction in news stories this week, but plenty still to take in. Amongst this week’s batch has been an announcement from Ofqual on an autumn series of exams this year; an update from Ofsted about language provision in some primary schools; the results from the latest survey of Covid infections in schools; the publication of another skills report; some proposals for strengthening UK research; and a growing petition to halt ‘catastrophic’ funding cuts to high-cost arts courses at university. 

Here’s a few details starting with that Ofqual announcement about 2021 autumn exams.  

The decision to go ahead with a full series of GCSE and A level exams, plus a handful of ***** this autumn has not been welcomed by everybody. ‘It creates more problems than it solves’ according to ASCL’s Geoff Barton, ‘costly and disruptive’ according to the college sector. For many, it just adds more pressure and disruption as schools and colleges beaver away helping students catch up on learning. Having scrapped the summer exams, the government was keen to see students offered an alternative so it handed over to Ofqual to consult on arrangements.

Broadly, Ofqual has confirmed that entry will be restricted to those receiving a teacher-assessed grade this summer or whose exam has been cancelled (although GCSE English and maths will be available as normal). The exams will be in their ‘normal’ format, well over 80% of respondents to Ofqual’s recent consultation on the proposals supported this, with the AS/A’ level exams to be held in October and the GCSEs in November/December. And exam boards will need to issue replacement certificates ‘showing the higher of an autumn 2021 or summer grade 2021’ when requested. Vocational and technical qualification assessments will also be available in the same way this autumn and it remains to be seen now just how enthusiastically or not the offer is taken up as the autumn term gets underway.

Next, Ofsted’s little update on language provision in leading primary schools where one key line stood out: “it was disappointing to see how many schools were barely out of the starting block with their curriculum.” Four years in then, there was some evidence of quality provision, but to use that familiar inspection term, things were ‘variable.’ The article listed three typical models being used in such schools, that of using either a specialist teacher, a native speaker or a designated teacher, but the remaining impression was that any pull through to the EBacc remains some way off. 

Moving on, the message from the latest Schools Inspection Survey on Covid-19 – which sampled schools across 14 Authorities in the second half of March 2021 – received a more major welcome. Compared to previous testing rounds last November and December, the percentage of pupils and staff in secondary schools testing positive ‘fell significantly.’ Figures for primary were too low to report. The latest school attendance figures suggest that there are still pockets of concern and clearly there is still strong debate about how long face masks should continue to be used, as this week’s Dear Gavin letter showed, but the signs continue to look hopeful. 

And rounding off this week’s top stories, the latest skills report published this week came from an independent Commission set up just before the pandemic by the British Chambers of Commerce. Its recommendations will be familiar to many in the field: bite-sized learning, employer-driven, a focus on digital skills and so on, but its core message about employer engagement in skills planning at a local level continues to resonate. And finally this week, the Russell Group of Universities set out some proposals to strengthen and stabilise UK R/D. UK research has proved itself this last year, but remains dogged by continued uncertainty about future operations. The Group calls for greater contractual certainty for researchers, better career progression, block funding, and supportive work environments.  

That’s this week, what about next week when the State Opening of Parliament and Queen’s Speech herald a new Parliamentary programme, and according to the PM, a major policy reset? Some 25+ Bills have already been identified, including at least three of potential interest to education: on reform of the Mental Health Act; freedom of speech in universities; and Skills for Jobs. 

Other areas likely to see activity (if not legislation) in the coming months include an educational recovery plan; reform of the school system, as recently indicated by the Education Secretary; further opening out of the apprenticeship levy; additional incentives for jobs training; review of post-18 funding; and further consultation on the university admissions system, perhaps coupled with work on preferred courses. 

On top of all that we’ve already been promised a final response on the post-18 Augar Review; a Digital Strategy; a Social Care Strategy; and as announced this week, a White Paper on Levelling Up. The Prime Minister is known to be keen to flick the policy switch as the country and the economy recover. Education will be a major driver, but as ever it will not be an easy ride. 

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘G7 nations to agree on global plan to help 40m girls into education.’ (Monday)
  • ‘GCSEs 2021: Autumn exams offered for all subjects.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Don’t ‘risk progress’ on Covid in schools, warn heads. (Wednesday)
  • ‘Plans for 50% cuts to arts subjects at universities ‘catastrophic.’’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Covid: poor pupils further behind in maths.’ (Friday)


  • Levelling Up. The government pledged to produce a White Paper later this year setting out challenges, proposals and opportunities for levelling up across the country, much of which likely to be led by Neil O’Brien MP, the PM’s new Levelling Up Adviser.
  • Global Talent. The government simplified the immigration rules for its so-called Global Talent route meaning those who win prestigious awards in areas such as science, the arts, humanities, engineering and digital technology would only need a single visa application.
  • Shock absorbers. The Resolution Foundation examined how some European countries were emerging from the economic shock of the pandemic suggesting that France and Germany had survived relatively unscathed while for the UK low levels of household income in some areas meant a struggle to meet costs, calling for digital systems and support initiatives to help build resilience.
  • Share ownership. The Social Market Foundation reported on employee share ownership schemes suggesting that even for those on low incomes such schemes can strengthen household incomes as well as encourage productivity.
  • Homeworking not flexi working. The CIPD reported on changes to working practices using data from last autumn’s Labour Force Survey to highlight that although homeworking had increased over the course of the pandemic, flexi and part-time working had not, with a downward trend evident in both.
  • Young adults. The Bright Blue think tank reported on the pressures that young adults have faced under the pandemic suggesting that 18–34-year-olds have been particularly badly hit with 50%+ having to dip into savings and others reporting instances of poor mental health and increased domestic abuse. 
  • Cyber resilience. The Manufacturer’s Organisation, Make UK, highlighted the issue of cybersecurity in a new report indicating that half of manufacturers, notably in the auto industry, had been the victims of such crime over the last year, urging companies to invest in cybersecurity as a priority.
  • Nurseries under pressure. Leading education and union bodies reported on a survey of Maintained Nursery Schools suggesting many were under long-term financial risk with over a third cutting staff and services as a result. 

More specifically ...


  • Schools Covid Survey. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest survey figures for Covid-19 infection across schools in England, gathered during the 2ndhalf of March 2021 showing infection rates lower among secondary staff and pupils than for the previous surveys in November and December 2020.  
  • Leading health officials, unions and parents wrote to the Education Secretary calling on him to retain the use of facemask in schools until at least a further review at the next stage of the roadmap in June.
  • And another letter. The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition wrote to the Education Secretary expressing concern about the ‘punitive’ approach being adopted by government towards behaviour management, calling for whole school approaches to be adopted as well as a moratorium on school exclusions.
  • Maths gaps. The Education Endowment Foundation published interim results from work conducted by FFT Education Datalab looking into the impact of the pandemic on maths and reading performance among primary school pupils suggesting little change for reading but disadvantaged pupils falling one month behind their peers in maths.
  • Autumn 2021 Exams. Ofqual confirmed following consultation that a full offer of GCSEs and A’ levels along with a few AS levels, set and marked in the ‘normal’ way, would be made available to eligible (those who received a teacher-assessed grade or had an exam cancelled) students this autumn with students able to claim the higher of either a summer 2021 or autumn 2021 grade certificate.
  • Benchmarking GCSE results. FFT Education Datalab launched its 2021 GCSE benchmarking service and reported on the correlation in GCSE exam results in 2019 with those of the previous couple of years given current guidance for incorporating such benchmarking as part of school’s quality assurance processes this year. 
  • Baseline Assessment. The government published an Equality Impact Assessment on the Reception Baseline Assessment due to become statutory from this September, pointing to the way the Assessment had been designed to ensure it did not discriminate in any way.
  • Ofsted on languages. Ofsted reported on its inspection evidence last year into language provision in outstanding primary schools concluding that there was still a long way to go citing variable quality, limited assessment and frequent staff changes.
  • Literacy skills. The OECD examined the development of literacy skills among 15-year-olds, building on data from the 2018 PISA assessments to reflect on their use in a digital age and in particular how such skills can help learners navigate their way through the more ‘disruptive’ features such as bias and untruths..
  • Practical KS3.Jonathan Gullis, MP for Stole-on-Trent North argued on the ConservativeHome site for a revamped Key Stage 3 with greater emphasis on developing practical skills such as everyday maths, cookery, and creative arts as a necessary platform for the future. 


  • Autumn assessments. Ofqual confirmed, following consultation, that awarding organisations would, as last year, be required to offer standard autumn/winter assessment opportunities for students who received a teacher assessed grade for a vocational and technical qualification this summer. 
  • Workforce training, The Commission set up by the British Chambers of Commerce to look into how best to create a skilled workforce, highlighted the importance of giving businesses a greater say on what skills training was needed and in helping businesses generate high-quality learning cultures, as they published their final report.
  • T levels. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) updated its enquiry form for providers looking to register to deliver T levels from 2023/24.
  • Youth employment Roundtable. UK Ambassadors for Youth Employment UK discussed routes into employment, work experience and the impact of Covid-19 on young people at a recent Roundtable.
  • Make it in the media. Celebrity presenters Ant and Dec joined forces with the Prince’s Trust to launch a new, free two-week course, due to start in July in London before moving round the country, to help unemployed 16-25 yr olds gain an insight and some experience of working in the media.
  • FE funding. The House of Commons Library Service published a useful primer on FE funding covering how it operates, current figures, and latest issues, up to and including the debate around reconciliation funding.


  • UK Research. The Russell Group set out a range of proposals and principles, based on extensive interviews, for supporting and strengthening UK research calling for ‘a more stable, long-term funding system’ with contractual security, career progression and respectful working environments. 
  • UK-India partnership. The UK and India pledged to continue working together on education, science and research and to promote a youth mobility scheme enabling up to 3.000 UK/Indian graduates a year to work in each other’s country for two years, as part of a 2030 Roadmap for the two countries agreed by the respective PMs in a virtual Summit.
  • Arts Petition. The Public Campaign for the Arts called on the government to drop its proposed 50% cut to high-cost arts subjects and to provide long-term funding and access to the arts in future, given their importance both to individuals and the economy.
  • Funding the arts. The Office for Students put out an explainer about future arts funding explaining that rather than putting forward a 50% cut for arts courses, it is looking at a small reduction in the subsidy for some high-cost courses and is also increasing funding for specialist institutions. 

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Kids would be a lot better off if they didn't keep hearing on the news that they had missed so much education, they had forgotten how to eat with a knife & fork (eh? - most kids don't have time for a proper meal at school and eat sandwiches). That they have no prospects or future” | @Chris_cakes01
  • “Just constructed a stinging letter to my son's school re: the withdrawal of music as a GCSE option. I'm furious & gutted for him. Finished it off by saying "after all, what was it that kept us sane during lockdown after lockdown, it wasn't physics & algebra that's for sure" | @Thespianlover12
  • “There's a fine line between a numerator and a denominator... Only a fraction of people will get this” | @DadJokeMan
  • “After years of hard-won experience and perhaps counterintuitively, I would argue that the most painful LEGO to step on is the single square” | @EnswellJones
  • “Why is it so cold. It's a sign, isn't it. Even the weather is telling us to open the pubs” -@CharlotteCGill
  • “Realised my top few shirt buttons were undone on teams and I therefore had a ‘Bernard Henry-Levi who slept under a hedge last night’ vibe” | @danwaterfield

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “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 an independent Chair of the Skills Reform Board.
  • “Astounding” – Jarvis Cocker reacts to proposed funding cuts to some arts courses in university.
  • “We are extremely concerned at reports that the government plans to stop requiring children to wear face coverings in secondary school classrooms from 17th May in England” -leading health, professional and parent groups call on the government to continue the use of face masks in schools.
  • “The decision to run an autumn exam series owes more to public relations than it does to common sense” – ASCL gen-sec Geoff Barton responds to Ofqual’s decision to offer a full autumn series of A’ level and GCSE exams.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 25+. The number of Bills being lined up for the Queen’s Speech next week.
  • 7.25%. The forecast for the growth of the UK economy this year, the fastest growth rate since WW11 according to the Bank of England.
  • 9%. The number of NHS workers considering leaving the sector, up slightly from 7% a year ago according to YouGov.
  • 0.34%. The number of secondary school pupils in England that tested positive for Covid-19 in the latest sample taken in March compared to 1.42% and 1.22% of Rounds 1 and 2, according to Public Health England.
  • 92.9%. The attendance rate for pupils in state-funded schools in England last week, down 1% according to latest government figures.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Mental Health Awareness Week. (All week)
  • Public First report and event on modern technical education. (Monday 10May)
  • CBI hosts Global Business Summit. (Monday 10May–Wednesday 12May)
  • State Opening of Parliament. (Tuesday 11 May)
  • Access to HE Conference. (Wed 12 May)

Other stories

  • A window on how we’re coping. The Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) latest Insights picture on the pandemic, brings together some interesting glimpses on how society is starting to pick up the pieces. Increasing numbers have ventured outside, 95% of adults apparently in late April largely to shop, meet people in a public place or take children to school. On a positive note, levels of wellbeing and happiness among adults have stabilised with levels of life satisfaction improving a little. On the downside, women have been reporting higher levels of anxiety and depression as have students, and places with younger populations have seen higher levels of loneliness. A link to the report can be found here.
  • Weakest link?In a perhaps surprising find this week, researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute reported that they could find little evidence of a link between young people’s use of tech appliances and a rise in mental health problems. Admittedly researchers reckoned that a longer and more detailed study would help but for the moment concluded that: ‘the suggestion that technologies we worry the most about now (such as smartphones) are becoming more harmful was not consistently supported in the data analysed by the research team.’ The study, which covered just over 400,000 young people in the US and UK, found a small relationship between the use of social media and emotional problems but not with wider problems. A link to the study is A summary can also be found on the BBC site 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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