Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 14 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:

The Queen’s Speech has been the big story of the week. 

Critics saw it as thin gruel, but for education at least it included five related Bills, the promise of an Education Recovery Plan and five other associated items. There was plenty to get the teeth into.  

Pitch-in talk of education and skills being used to turbocharge the economy and provide rocket fuel for the levelling up agenda, and the importance of education in this latest government legislative programme becomes all too apparent. In fairness, much of what was included in the Speech on education had already been announced, often many times before, but for the under-appreciated and under-funded FE and skills sector in particular, a bit of rocket fuel was a welcome boost. It might even, according to James Kirkup the director of the Social Market Foundation, provide Gavin Williamson with a bit of a bounce as well, given his advocacy of FE particularly over the last year, 

So, what of the Speech and those stand-outs for education? Here’s a quick run through some of the details.

The five Bills included one on Freedom of Speech in higher education, published this week and legislating for the proposals published in February including the creation of a Free Speech Champion in the Office for Students (OfS), obligations on Student Unions, and powers for the OfS to impose fines. Wonkhe has a lively summary of the Bill here. Also of interest to HE was the (ARIA) Advanced Research and Agency Invention Bill, providing for the new high-profile research agency where legislation is currently going through Parliament. 

Two other Bills of wider interest included the Professional Qualifications Bill, setting up a mutual system of professional qualifications following Brexit; and the Draft Online Safety Bill granting Ofcom a key role in regulating safety, particularly around children, and according to the Culture Secretary, instigating ‘a new age of accountability for tech.’ The draft Online Safety Bill has also been published this week.

But the big Bill for education, variously described by the PM as ‘transformative’ and ‘revolutionary’ was the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. This will be published next week and put into legislation much of what was in the Skills for Jobs White Paper including the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, Loan Entitlement, and employer-led local skills planning, but also new accountability arrangements for providers. Issues at present include whether the Treasury will cough up the funding needed, the number of occupations excluded from the support, how responsive local skills planning might be and whether providers will be allowed/supported to get on and deliver. 

Next, the Education Recovery Plan, seen as a high priority by the PM and where the Speech confirmed that the government was working with the Education Recovery Commissioner “to develop an ambitious, long-term plan that builds back a better and fairer education system in England.”  No more details as yet, these are expected to be announced in a set-piece speech by the PM next month, but according to the i newspaper are likely to encompass three Ts: Time (extending the school day in secondary to allow for additional activities,) Tutoring, and Teaching quality. As with the Skills Bill, a lot will depend on how much investment is made available if this is to work.

Before we leave the Speech, there were five other items of interest for those in education. They included a commitment to deliver on the Early Years Healthy Development Review; a promised response to the consultation on reforming the Mental Health Act; backing for the Turing student exchange Scheme; further development of the Life Sciences sector; and a continuing promise on R/D: “My Ministers will oversee the fastest ever increase in public funding for research…” Many will want to see the colour of the money first.

Away from the Speech, in other education news this week, the government finally hit its target for free laptops; the DFE commissioned a major new study into modern childhood; Ofqual published a guide for students on this year’s exams; Ofsted reported on RE and geography in schools; government consultation on university admissions reform drew to a close; and Oxford University published its latest annual report on university admissions. Oh, and social media was awash with people declaring themselves unavailable for any potential hugging activity next week.

On a more serious note, it’s been Mental Health Awareness Week, and as Stephen Fry tweeted: ‘Those of us who’ve struggled, fought and sometimes come close to losing mental health battles know that the issue always needs to be at the forefront of any talk about national health. This week reminds us of that.’ 

The DfE in its contribution to mental health awareness week, put more money into staff training and resources, particularly as part of its education recovery programme, and made a number of commitments – nine in all – including integrating staff wellbeing as a policy test ‘where appropriate’ when looking at workload matters as its contribution to a staff wellbeing charter. While all of this is welcome, many will perhaps agree with ASCL’s Geoff Barton that there needs to be a greater focus on the factors which cause poor mental health, something Labour’s Wes Streeting will surely focus on in his new Shadow Cabinet post for child poverty.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Face masks no longer required in classrooms.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Boris Johnson promises post-Covid skills overhaul.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Universities could face fines over free speech breaches.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Ofqual: University admissions shake-up could harm A’ level marking.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘£13.5bn needed to help pupils catch-up, report says.’ (Friday)


  • Queen’s Speech. The government set out its legislative programme for the coming year via the traditional format of the Queen’s Speech listing 31 Bills built around five ‘Building Back’ themes (better, stronger, safer, fairer, and greener) with levelling up a core theme and education and skills having a prominent role.
  • Wellbeing Charter. The DfE published a Staff Wellbeing Charter drawn up by leading bodies in education, incorporating public commitments on supporting staff welfare from both the DfE and Ofsted and an 11-point charter providing a set of objectives for education providers generally.
  • Government report card. The Institute or Government reported on what progress the government had made so far on its 2019 Manifesto commitments ahead of the new legislative programme, suggesting it had completed or was on track to complete, 137 of its 287 commitments, generally the most straightforward, with ‘varying progress’ on a further 75 including all of its school pledges with one for FE (on apprenticeships working on government projects ) and one for HE (on student loan rates) yet to start. 
  • Levelling Up Index. The Legatum Institute published its UK Prosperity Index showing the UK remaining as ‘one of the most prosperous nations in the world’ but with some deep underlying weaknesses in matters like community safety and labour market flexibility, pointing to the Index as a useful metric for monitoring levelling up.
  • Levelling up. Forner government adviser Rachel Wolf argued in an important comment piece on ConservativeHome that levelling needed ‘to get real,’ listing a number of benchmarks and levers around local communities, crime, skills and jobs, and schools that could be used to substantiate progress.
  • Public sector pay. The TUC took what it called ‘an unprecedented step’ and wrote to the Chairs of Pay Review Bodies including those for teachers, the police, prison staff and the NHS, calling on them to recognise and reward with ‘significant pay rises where affordable and necessary, the efforts of such key workers in keeping things going during the pandemic.
  • Double trouble. The Resolution Foundation as part of a longer-term project funded by the Health Foundation, looked at the impact of the pandemic on young people suggesting they’d been hit by a double whammy of a decrease in employment opportunities but an increase in mental health conditions, calling for their needs to be prioritised in the recovery programme.
  • Regional Scorecards. The CBI followed up its 2020 report on Reviving the Regions by publishing nine regional scorecards each with their own local priorities, context and contacts and covering most of the country. 
  • Cyber security. The National Cyber Security Centre launched its Early Warning notification service, an online service offering specialised alerts of malicious activity for organisations so that they can take necessary steps to protect themselves.
  • Examining inequality. Pearson launched a new project, to be chaired by former Skills Minister Anne Milton, to examine inequalities in areas like education and employment thrown up by Covid and how far learning and skills can help overcome them, with a report set for this November. 
  • Childhood Study. The DfE announced the funding and commissioning of a major new study of ‘Children of the 2020s,’ led by researchers from UCL, Ipsos Mori, Anna Freud Centre, Oxford University and Birkbeck to examine the experiences of children and families growing up at a time of great change in the 2020s.

More specifically ...


  • Operational guidance. The government confirmed relaxing the rules for face coverings, except for localised outbreaks, as it issued further extensive guidance for schools as part of the next stage for easing the lockdown. 
  • Exams 2021. Ofqual published a brief guide for students to explain how the exams system is intended to operate this year, outlining how grades will be determined, and quality assurance and appeals processes will operate, with a list of important dates both for general as well as technical/ vocational qualifications.
  • Autumn 2021 exams. Ofqual confirmed that the autumn series of exams will assess students in the same way as had originally been planned for the summer 2021 series, meaning a reduced number of topics in many subjects.
  • Recovery Plan.The Education Policy Institute outlined a comprehensive recovery plan for education, listing some ten key measures including small group tuition, extended school hours and an increase in the pupil premium, to help pupils catch up and likely to cost £13.5bn over a three-year period.
  • Mental health support. The government confirmed that funding would be available as part of Mental Health Awareness Week to help train up more senior staff in schools and colleges as well provides further resources and support for those working on the Wellbeing for Education Recovery programme. 
  • School Admissions Code. The government confirmed that following consultation, its proposals for clarifying arrangements on in-year admissions for vulnerable children with set timescales and more effective Fair Access Protocols, would come into force as part of the Admissions Code from this September. 
  • Primary attendance. FFT Education Datalab examined attendance rates in primary schools last autumn using its now launched Aspire Attendance Tracker showing that along with some regional variations, Year 1 pupils and some from disadvantaged areas displayed the lowest attendance figures.
  • Independent Schools. The Independent Schools Council published its latest Census and Annual Report based on data recorded in January indicating that while it’s been a ‘challenging’ year with a drop in the number of boarders and pupils generally, this was against a pre-pandemic high with international schools remaining popular. 
  • University admissions. Ofqual published its response to the government’s consultation on university post-qualification admissions (PQA) indicating that any squeezing of the time needed for marking of exams could compromise the quality of marking and capacity to deliver, calling instead for a range of other aspects, such as bringing the exam timetable forward and having a fixed results day, to be considered in any reform of the university admissions system. 
  • SEND support. Ofsted reported on its survey of special educational needs in schools in England noting a mix of approaches but the importance of working collaboratively and of a strong understanding of individual needs and learning development, given the difficult decisions staff often have to make.
  • RE Research Review. Ofsted published the latest in its subject reviews reflecting on evidence gathered from inspections, in this case featuring RE identifying three different types of knowledge (substantive, ways of knowing, personal) and listing features, such as depth and sequencing, that help determine a high-quality curriculum.
  • Geography lessons. Ofsted followed up its commentary on languages in outstanding primary schools by looking into geography finding it ‘universally strong’ in most primary schools visited although few teachers had actually been trained in the subject. 
  • Academy Trusts. The National Governance Association (NGA) published an updated version of its guidance for members of Academy Trusts setting out their remit as ‘guardians of the governance of the trust.’


  • Skills Bill. The government promised in the Queen’s Speech to publish a Skills and Post-16 Education Bill next week, legislating for most of the proposals in the earlier Skills for Jobs White Paper and pledging to build momentum around skills training as part of future recovery. 
  • Operational guidance. The government issued its latest extensive guidance for providers for the next stage of the easing of the lockdown with rules relaxed on face coverings and extra-curricular activity and sports. 
  • Recovery Plan.The Education Policy Institute outlined a comprehensive, £13.5bn recovery plan for education with a number of costed measures for 16–19-year-olds including funding an additional year where needed, implementing a 16-19 Student Premium and supporting younger apprentices.
  • Institutes of Technology. The government listed the 13 successful bids from Wave 2 applications for Institutes of Technology which now go through to a further stage of stress testing of proposals.
  • Apprenticeship matters. The CIPD highlighted continuing concerns about the operation of the apprenticeship levy, pointing to employers losing nearly £2bn in levy funds over the last couple of years because they were unable to spend it and using what they had spent on concentrated management courses rather than programmes for younger people.
  • Mental health tool. The Association of Colleges (AoC) announced the launch of a free-to-use app, the College Mental Health Self-Evaluation Tool (C-MET,) which can be used to ‘health check’ capacity on mental health and wellbeing as well as provide tips and guidance for a provider.


  • Freedom of Speech. The government published its Bill on Freedom of Speech in HE as promised in the Queen’s Speech, strengthening the current requirements under the 1986 Education (No 2) Act and creating new duties such as requirements on registration for providers as indicated in the February policy paper along with a new statutory tort for breach of duties enabling an individual to sue for compensation if they’ve suffered loss.
  • Return to campus. The government confirmed that remaining students could return to university and to face-to-face teaching next week as part of the latest easing of lockdown, albeit within a flow testing regime. 
  • Welcome back. The Universities Minister wrote an open letter to welcome back remaining students, acknowledging the ‘challenging time’ they’d faced and highlighting some extra funding and support the government had provided.
  • Support for the Class of 2021. The government and Office for Students published a guidance toolkit to help those graduating this year plot the next stage of their careers with general tips and guidance on identifying skills, opportunities and helping with job applications.
  • University admissions. The EDSK think tank posted its response to the government’s consultation on post-qualification admissions (PQA) building on its report in this area last year and arguing for a PQO system (post-qualification offer) based on students choosing universities rather than the other way round. 
  • Russell Group response. The Russell Group of Universities threw its weight behind a PQO system in its response to the government’s consultation on admissions reform but with a number of caveats including proceeding with caution and ensuring that a number of factors such as the sequencing of exams, offers, and start dates was resolved. 
  • Bigger picture on admissions systems. The Sutton Trust published its response to the government’s consultation on admissions reform favouring a PQA model while also looking at how other countries do it, pointing to the fact that of the 31 OECD countries considered, 20 have PQO systems and 11 PQA systems leaving the English system as ‘an international outlier.’ 
  • Admissions Report. Oxford University presented its latest annual Admission Report for a year which has seen the University develop Virtual Open Days, welcome its first students under its new Opportunity Programme and continue the upward trend of recruits from disadvantaged and ethnic backgrounds. 
  • Modern Technical Education. Public First in conjunction with Aston and South Bank Universities examined the potential for Universities of Technology suggesting that after decades of false policy starts, these could help transform higher technical education and support levelling up but only with investment, local industrial strategies and some re-thinking around learning provision. 
  • Wider participation. Universities UK International looked at the participation of disadvantaged groups in studying and training abroad suggesting that many were missing out, calling for better targeted marketing and support with more flexible offers and access to bursaries and grants to help improve things
  • Membership offer. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) launched its membership offer for 2021/22 built around five ‘interconnected themes’ including: delivery post-Covid, securing standards, and data-based decision making.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “I’m guessing leaders who kept asking to cancel exams might be looking at their staff now and thinking maybe it wasn’t such a great shout. Teachers and middle leaders keep going but let’s never be in this situation again. Let’s never cancel exams again” | @MrBenParnell
  • “Heard an awful story of an interview today. In the observed lesson: No TA Time changed Left on own for a period of the lesson Also: Asked to wait in the car park Told, after three hours, on the pavement, that they hadn't been successful. This is *not* how you treat people” | @mrlockyer
  • “Wasp in my year 7 class.... Panic ensued. Just to reassure less experienced teachers that it happens to headteachers as well” | @Simon_Warburton
  • “I’m pretty sure teachers lounges single handedly keep the prepackaged, frozen meal industry in business” | @MrDanielBuck
  • “I lost some learning once - still missing it but not quite sure what it was” | @CMallaband
  • “If hugging is coming back, can someone run a webinar to give the clarity we all need about whether you're supposed to hug, do 1 kisses or 2 when you meet people you *sort of* know at conferences?” | @TomRees_77>
  • “I wonder if we can get an exemption lanyard from hugs” | @michael_merrick

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “This unlocking amounts to a very considerable step on the road back to normality and I am confident we will be able to go further” – the Prime Minister confirms that the four tests for easing Stage 3 of the lockdown have been met.
  • “Growth rates will continue to vary across the EU, but all Member States should see their economies return to pre-crisis levels by the end of 2022” – the EU Commission publishes its 2021 Spring Economic Forecast.
  • “It’s right that the golden thread in this legislative agenda is levelling-up the country. We haven’t got a moment to lose” – the CBI responds to the measures in the Queen’s Speech.
  • “Truth be told, levelling up is a poor slogan” – Rachel Wolf offers some thoughts on what levelling up should really be about.
  • “I am fully aware of the stress and frustration you may have felt this year at being unable to return to your university for in-person teaching due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic” – the Universities Minister welcomes remaining university students back on campus.
  • “'This bill should be seen for what it is: the government using freedom of speech as a Trojan horse for increasing its power and control over staff and students' – the University and College Union (UCU) respond to the HE Freedom of Speech Bill.
  • “An evolutionary survivor” – the principal of St Andrews University on the enduring importance of lectures.
  • “For what it’s worth my dad’s hugely supportive of apprenticeships” – Euan Blair in an interview about skills and apprenticeships.
  • “We’re all marking through weekends and late at night” – teachers tell The Guardian about the pressures of teacher-assessed marking for this year’s exams.
  • “It is really important that you and your parents or carers don’t try to put your teachers under pressure to submit grades higher than the evidence supports” – Ofqual issues guidance for students on this year’s exams procedures.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 31. The number of draft and proposed Bills listed in the Queen’s Speech.
  • 1.5%. The contraction in the UK economy in the first quarter of the year, better than expected and followed by a 2.1% bounce in March according to latest data.
  • 6.5%. The forecast high in unemployment by the end of this year, down from an earlier forecast of 7.5% according to the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR.)
  • 68.6%. The proportion of students entering Oxford University from state schools in 2020, according to the latest report from the University. 
  • £80,000. The amount Mary Beard is giving as a ‘retirement present,’ to help two disadvantaged students study classics at Cambridge University.
  • £17m+. The money announced by government as part of Mental Health Awareness Week to help schools and colleges with training and resources.
  • 92.3%. The pupil attendance rate in state schools in England as of last Thursday, slightly down from 93% the week before according to latest government figures.
  • 430,700. The number of children and young people in England with Education, Health and Care Plans as of January 2021, up 10% on the previous year according to latest government figures.
  • 532,237. The number of pupils in Independent School Council schools, down from a high last year of 537,315 according to the Council’s latest Census. 
  • 1.31m. The number of laptops and tablets now delivered or dispatched for schools and colleges since the start of the scheme and thereby meeting its original stated target, according to latest government figures.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • ASCL Primary Conference. (Monday 17 May – Thursday 20 May)
  • New Skills and post-16 Education Bill to be introduced. (Tuesday 18 May)
  • Education Committee witness session with the Skills Minister. (Tuesday 18 May)
  • National Numeracy Day. (Wednesday 19 May)
  • WorldSkills UK International Skills Summit. (Wednesday 19 May) 

Other stories

  • Time with Dad. There’s been a lot of discussion about how far the lockdowns have changed aspects of family life. In many cases, Mums have picked up a lot of the burden of schooling, parenting and supporting children but new research for the charity, the Fatherhood Institute, has also pointed to the growing involvement of Dads as well. Apparently, 68% spent more time on helping with school work and 59% did more housework, although starting points may have differed. Either way, many fathers are now reporting a better relationship with their children and feeling better about helping with their homework. The Fatherhood Institute has now called for employment policies to change to give more ‘Time with Dad.’ A link to the story can be found here.
  • One of the perils of working from home has been that you never completely shut down, you’re always on tap for the quick call, zoom or message. According to an article in Prospect magazine this week, it’s given rise to a new disturbing trend: workcation or combining work and a vacation in one. Some may welcome this, being able to zoom work colleagues from the Tuscan hills or Portuguese pool but for others, including the author of the article, it’s an alarming trend. “The dubious concept of a workcation is really another way of describing the permawork that has been inflicted on so many people during the pandemic,” he writes. A link to the article can be found here. 
  • On the same page. There’s been an interesting debate on social media this week about which book would make or break a first date. For example, some reckoned mentioning Harry Potter books would put you in a good light, others said they would leave you looking a bit stuck in childhood. There were some obvious no-no books but apparently the most favoured in the sample was Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ A link to the article 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.

If you find my policy updates useful, please consider donating to help support its publication. EdCentral is a not-for-profit social enterprise company and relies on donations to continue its work.

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.



EdCentral Logo