Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 21 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 lot of looking to the future this week as the country continued its gradual easing out of lockdown.

It included the government firing off further levelling up initiatives, including funding for schools and publishing the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill setting out future parameters for post-16 provision. WorldSkills UK launched a new Skills Taskforce aiming to create a roadmap for a high-skilled economy, the Local Government Association created its new local learning and skills hub while the Social Market Foundation announced a new project led by two MPs to examine how best to close the Opportunity Gap. 

Elsewhere, Ofqual reflected on technology and future exam provision in its latest corporate plan, and the Sutton Trust laid out its education recovery plan. And in perhaps the biggest shout out of all, the Resolution Foundation and LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance launched a major new Nuffield Foundation funded Inquiry into the economic challenges facing the UK over the rest of the decade, ‘a decisive decade’ as they called it.  

Plenty of forward-thinking going on, so here’s a bit of detail behind two of the big ones, starting with that landmark Inquiry into the economic challenges facing the country.

‘The Economy 2030 Inquiry,’ as it’s called, has brought together an impressive Commission of leading thinkers, along with a projected mound of research to assess what the Chair of the Inquiry called ‘the scale of coming change.’ 

The scale of these coming changes is ‘seismic’ and was laid out in a report launching the Inquiry for which the title – ‘The UK’s Decisive Decade’ – said it all. Five changes are listed, including resetting life post-Covid and post-Brexit, moving to net zero, coping with a shifting demographic at the top and the tail end of the age range respectively, and of course the growing impact of technology. As the Inquiry contends, to cope with such challenges we need ‘to reshape our economic strategy’ and move beyond abstract visons on levelling up’ and ‘building back better’ to rebuilding our economic framework. The Inquiry’s final report, due in two years’ time, aims to set out how to do just that.

The importance of such Inquiries – and the Institute of Fiscal of Studies is already deep into its own Inquiry examining inequality in a range of scenarios – is that they provide a policy forum and framework for leading thinkers to sketch out a structured horizon for key areas of life, such education, health, employment and social cohesion, in a way that modern politics is less able to. These are two important pieces of work. 

Also looking to address some big challenges, particularly around skills, is the government’s Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which was published this week and began its journey through Parliament. The Education Secretary described it as ‘a significant milestone in our journey to transform skills and training and level up opportunities’ and marked the occasion by highlighting the value of FE provision and launching a new 16-19 Capacity Fund to support increased numbers of 16-19-year-olds.

Sector leaders have cautiously welcomed the Bill, but with a degree of wariness having seen the details in fine print. David Hughes, chief exec of the Association of Colleges (AoC) expressed concerns about ‘getting the balance right between accountability and intervention powers’ and intimated this could lead to some ‘fine tuning’, while Tom Bewick, chief exec of the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) argued that as it stands, ‘the Bill places too much power in the hands of the Secretary of State.’ The accompanying Impact Assessment of the Bill indicates some of the areas where debate may be sharpest. They include: the Secretary of State’s intervention powers; the potential regulatory listing of post-16 providers and what they offer; the duties on providers in meeting locally determined skills plans; and teacher training quality. HE equally has some concerns, notably about proposals for assessing quality and student outcomes. Wonkhe has a summary from its perspective here

The Bill goes for its Second Reading in the Lords on 15 June, when general principles will be discussed and concerns aired.

In other education news this week, we’ve had Learning at Work Week and National Numeracy Day, with a range of activities in each case. We’ve also had another batch of reports on the labour market, headed by the latest quarterly employment estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) pointing to ‘signs of recovery.’ Elsewhere, Ofqual looked into the issue of bias in assessments, and consultation closed on proposed reforms to GCSE modern foreign languages, with the British Academy calling for ‘a pause to explore different models.’ A group of employers published their proposed Skills Manifesto; the NUS called for more help for students facing financial difficulty; and debate spilled out about proposals from some universities to keep large lectures online. ‘Gives students greater choice’ said the NUS, ‘unacceptable' said students at Leeds as they launched a petition on the matter.

In Westminster this week, the Skills Minister appeared before the Education Committee, tackling issues around L2 and degree apprenticeships. The Committee also heard from members of the Race and Ethnic Disparities Commission as part of its enquiries into left-behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. And the Recovery Commissioner appeared before the House of Lords Youth Unemployment Committee, talking about extending the school day, catch-up funding, Zoom parents’ evenings and future options for exams – ‘online because I think that is the future,’ he suggested.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Second national college officially dissolves.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Universities keeping lectures online into autumn term.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Parents’ Evenings to stay on Zoom after pandemic.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Government urged to fund extra year of study for college leavers.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Schools set to lose £118m funding for poor pupils. (Friday)


  • Levelling up. The Prime Minister announced a series of initiatives as part of the emerging levelling up strategy with funding promised for school improvement in four authorities, an expansion of the Opportunity Areas programme helping children in disadvantaged areas, further rolling out of civil service jobs and some beefing up of some high streets.
  • Covid related spending on education. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) set out the context on Covid related spending for education in England ahead of the government’s expected recovery plans, indicating that while the government is making available £4.3bn of additional funding for 2020/21, 2021/2022, some 30% or £1.3bn of this will come from existing budgets or underspends, leaving questions about how much money will actually be available and whether that will be enough.
  • A decisive decade. The Resolution Foundation and LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance marked the launch of their landmark new Nuffield funded Inquiry into ‘The Economy 2030,’ by publishing a report setting out a range of ‘seismic’ challenges facing the UK economy over the next decade, proposing as a result the rebuilding of UK economic strategy to help the country prosper in future. 
  • Latest labour market figures. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest quarterly (Jan – March 2021) labour market figures pointing to an improving picture, with an increase in the employment rate and a decrease in reported redundancies.
  • Labour market analysis. The institute for Employment Studies (IES) provided its regular analysis of the latest labour market figures, acknowledging that the picture was improving but pointing to three concerns: that young people are continuing to be hit hardest, long-term unemployment is continuing to rise, and involuntary temporary employment is also rising.
  • Labour market outlook. The CIPD and Adecco published their Labour Market Outlook covering for Spring 2021, showing a sharp rise in employment intentions driven largely by the private sector with admin and support jobs climbing over the quarter and an overall net employment balance (no of employers expecting to recruit v the number expecting to shed staff) of +27.
  • Data skills gap. The government reported on its commissioned research into the UK’s data skills gap, undertaken last summer suggesting that nearly 50% of businesses were recruiting for roles that required data skills and virtually the same number struggling to fill them with training, often inhouse or online, seen as crucial to meet demand.
  • Online safety. The New Economics Foundation (NEF,) in a report commissioned by the charity Global Action Plan, called on government to ban surveillance advertising which results in personal data, including that of children, being sold on and exposed at an alarming rate. 
  • Corporate Plan. Ofqual published its 2021/22 Corporate Plan, shaped as it acknowledged by the response to Covid-19 with a ‘primary focus’ on two objectives (ensuring the fairest possible system of assessment arrangements this year and supporting government reforms of voc/tech qualifications) and with four overall priorities including qualification/exam regulation, securing quality standards and managing people, resources and systems.
  • Mental health concerns. Barnardo’s published the results of its recent Big Conversation poll with young people (16-24 yr olds) undertaken by YouGov and showing most keen to be back in school, college or university but reporting higher levels of stress, loneliness and worry since the last poll a year ago.

More specifically ...


  • Levelling up good schools. The government promised up to £10m for four local authorities as part of a levelling up initiative to improve the number of schools rated good/outstanding in each area and/or to join ‘strong trusts.’
  • Bit more levelling up. The government also pledged £18m to support its Opportunity Areas programme in 12 areas around the country which matches disadvantaged areas with improving areas helping them level up school standards, enhance teacher recruitment and support family learning. 
  • AP support. The government announced funding (£8m) to support Yr 11 pupils in Alternative Provision (AP) with mentoring and guidance as they consider the next stages of their career in education, work or training. 
  • Recovery Plan. The Sutton Trust set out its thinking behind an educational recovery plan arguing it should be based on ‘fairness first’ with early years at the heart, tutoring and premium funding extended to 16–19-year-olds, and sustained investment targeted at those most in need. 
  • Centre judgements. Ofqual reported on its research into how staff had coped providing centre assessment grades for exams last summer, where although formal guidance was followed and in the end the system worked as well as could be in the circumstances, it left many staff feeling quite stressed as they sought to ensure that students got the grades they deserved. 
  • Teacher supply. The Education Policy Institute examined some of the issues around teacher recruitment and retention in a report sponsored by the Gatsby Foundation, suggesting that pay gaps with competing local jobs was an issue and calling on the government to consider how to make pay more reflective of local demand as well as reinstating top-up payments where possible. 
  • Bias in teacher assessment. Ofqual examined the issue of bias in teacher assessment in a new blog and report, listing evidence of various forms of bias including it being slightly towards girls, against those with special needs and mixed for ethnic groups, and pointing to revised guidance this year intended to minimise the potential for any such bias to appear.
  • Teacher training during Covid. Ofsted published a report into how initial teacher training had been responding to Covid-19 based on remote research visits carried out this spring, indicating that despite the move to remote working much good work had continued but the lack of opportunity for classroom-based activity meant many trainees might need more support once their full teaching begins.
  • Parents’ view. Ofsted published the results from its Annual Parents’ Survey conducted by YouGov during March 2021 and showing awareness of Ofsted among parents continuing to remain fairly high at 59% with 71% finding their inspection reports ‘a reliable source of information,’ although with some feeling that schools behave differently when an inspection is on.
  • Test and trace pressure. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) called on the government to release schools from running the test and trace system in their schools claiming that it added to their burdens and came with no extra resources to help deliver the service. 
  • Building Academy Trusts. The government published updated guidance for academy trusts and schools considering converting, on procedures, issues and criteria that they may find helpful as the government pushes ahead with its programme of encouraging schools to ‘be part of strong academy trusts.’ 
  • MAT Assurance. The government published an updated Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) Assurance Framework setting out a template for school improvement built around six themes including vision/culture/ethos, teaching and learning, and quality assurance and accountability, with a set of diagnostic questions for each. 
  • MFL GCSE. The British Academy submitted its response to the consultation on GCSE Modern Foreign Languages (MFL,) calling for a pause to consider other models including developing what it called ‘a portfolio of cultural learning resources,’ both visual and text, would help provide a wider experience for pupils.
  • EdTech support. The government reported on the latest stage of its EdTech support programme which will run until next March and provide technical support at various levels for schools to help with areas like catch-up, teacher workloads, resource managements and curriculum access.
  • Contract provider. The National Governance Association (NGA) was confirmed as contract provider for the reformed National Leaders of Governance programme which will kick off in October 2021.
  • Oak support. The Oak Academy set out its programme of support for over the summer with a dedicated Summer Classroom and Summer Teaching Hub, some new quizzes and a focus on helping pupils prepare for transition through their core subjects.


  • Skills Bill. The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill had its First Reading in the House of Lords as it started its progress through Parliament.
  • More on the Skills Bill. The government published the Impact Assessment that accompanies the Bill setting out the rationale and evidence behind the Bill’s proposals and their likely costs, benefits and impact.
  • The value of FE. The government highlighted the value of 2018/19 FE qualifications in an updated Paper published alongside the Skills Bill looking at net returns for below L2, L2 and L3 qualifications and Apprenticeships, and suggesting ‘strong returns’ on average across the board but particularly for L3 qualifications.
  • Capacity Fund. The government launched the Post-16 Capacity Fund, announced at last year’s Spending Review to help eligible providers meet the accommodation costs of providing for extra numbers of 16–19-year-olds, inviting bids to the £83m fund by 14 June 2021 which will be assessed against project need, planning and costs.
  • Summer 2021 assessments. Ofqual summarised what to expect for the awarding of this year’s voc/tech qualifications complete with key dates, assessment approaches, appeals system and results, along with an explainer tool giving more detail for individual qualifications.
  • Recovery planning. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on FE called on the government to support those in FE who may need help to catch up from lost learning, in particular by funding an extra year where necessary, bringing in a 16-19 funding premium and reversing the clawback on this year’s adult ed budget.
  • Local employment and skills. The Local Government Association (LGA) highlighted the role of its new Employment and Skills Learning Hub which offers a useful website for local learning and skill activity with for example a range of briefings developed by the Learning and Work Institute and case study activity listed by Rocket Science.
  • Apprenticeship data. The government provided the latest data on apprenticeships with starts at 161,900 still considerably down on pre-pandemic figures.
  • Skills Manifesto. The 5% Club, a group of employers committed to supporting at least 5% of their employees earning and learning, published a Skills Manifesto build around the ‘Earn and Learn’ concept listing five policy interventions including a more targeted Apprenticeship Levy, lifetime learning and a Unified National Approach for Skills. 
  • Skills Taskforce. WorldSkills UK launched a new Skills Taskforce for Global Britain with the aim of creating ‘a roadmap’ to help the country come out of the pandemic, develop world-class skills and raise investment and productivity over the coming decade.
  • Helping new and low-skilled workers. The Learning and Work Institute with the Chartered Management Institute reported on the importance of supporting new and low-skilled workers in the workforce, suggesting this needs to be prioritised within senior roles and become a recognised part of skills policy. 
  • Research Group. The Research College Group, a group of ten colleges across England and Wales, formally came together to take a lead in supporting and promoting practitioner-led research in the sector with membership to be available from this September.
  • Marvel support. Marvel, one of the Walt Disney companies, announced it was teaming up with the Prince’s Trust to offer funding and mentorship programmes for young people (16-30 yrs old) keen to get into fashion and product design.


  • Proceed data. The Office for Students (OfS) reported on the latest developments for measuring graduate outcomes now known as Proceed (Projected completion and employment from entrant data) basically multiplying completions by those in employment or professional study 15 months later, pointing to notable differences thrown up between providers and disciplines but inviting further feedback on the development of the methodology.
  • Uni Connect. The Office for Students also published a range of evaluative reports on Phase 2 of the Uni Connect programme which uses partnership approaches to help young people considering higher education and which despite the pandemic has helped provide structured support. 
  • Keeping lectures online. BBC Education Correspondent Sean Coughlan reported that universities were looking at their teaching plans for next term and in some cases keeping large lectures online as part of ‘a hybrid learning’ experience, provoking mixed views about costs, experience and value.
  • Cambridge online. Cambridge University announced the development of its Cambridge Advance Online brand which will see the University work with Cambridge Assessment and Cambridge University Press to build a strong online presence with the first four courses available from this July and 50 planned over the next five years covering professional skills ‘designed to meet the needs of today’s professional learners.’
  • Admissions stats. Cambridge University published its latest annual admissions report showing an increase in the numbers coming from disadvantaged areas, as well as minority ethnic and state school entrants but also a 13%+ increase in admissions overall due to changes in last summer’s A’ level grading.
  • Free speech. The UPP Foundation and HE Policy Institute (HEPI) offered an early insight into their survey work of public attitudes towards aspects of HE undertaken by Public First, looking on this occasion at freedom of speech and finding broad support for the principles of free speech on campus but equally no free rein either although with differences among voter types and topics.
  • Future Research Assessment. The UK’s four HE funding bodies announced the launch of a new piece of work, initiated by government, to look at possible approaches for assessing UK HE research performance, which will report later next year and be guided by an international advisory group chaired by Sir Peter Gluckman.
  • Call for evidence. The HE Commission, which is looking into university research and innovation and what role this can play in helping level up local economies, launched a call for evidence which will remain open until 18 June 2021.
  • Rates of interest. Former Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore heralded news of a tuition fee review by highlighting the issue of the loan interest rate, suggesting it was ‘one of the greatest perceived injustices in the student finance system’ and in need of urgent review.
  • TNE scheme. The QAA invited UK degree-awarding bodies looking to enhance their international provision to sign up to their ‘Quality Evaluation and Enhancement of UK Transnational HE’ scheme, with a number of countries already signed up and ready to benefit from quality enhancement through the QE-TNE kitemark.
  • Here’s to the Foundation Year. Professor Chris Husbands, V.C. at Sheffield Hallam, set out the case for the Foundation Year in a comment piece for the HE Policy Institute (HEPI), suggesting it served a unique purpose, opening up pathways and opportunities and serving a vital need for many.
  • Measuring disadvantage. The Sutton Trust published a new briefing paper written by Professor John Jerrim arguing that when it comes to identifying disadvantage, the current POLAR metric was a poor determinator and universities would be better using free school meal eligibility, which should be made available to them. 
  • Student Support. The NUS published its latest Student Survey taken during March suggesting that 70% of students sampled were worried about how they’ll manage financially with rising accommodation costs and limited job opportunities, calling as a result for a student support package to be put in place.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “I am a senior civil servant at the Department for Education. I did a history degree” | @GarethConyard
  • “On inflation figures, there should be a separate category for 'pints in pubs' inflation. The £6 pint trying to normalise itself. And have heard of £7. If you spill beer on your shirt, it's going to be cheaper to buy a new shirt than a round of drinks” | @seanjcoughlan.
  • “When you go for an interview, and you introduce yourself as the best teacher the school will have, that may not go down too well with the governors in the panel - must say that was a new one for me” | @balleter6
  • “I spent the best part of two years in school trying to figure out how to measure triangles. Left school and I have never, ever thought about triangles again” | @sianharries_
  • “Always judge yourself by the bottom 5 kids in the class, not the top 5" | @rpondiscio
  • “Today’s team Zoom thingy. “Levers to achieve the One-Quality transformational objectives” | @MarcherLord1

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “We have reached another milestone in our road map out of lockdown, but we must take this next step with a heavy dose of caution’ – the PM welcomes the latest easing of lockdown with a degree of caution.
  • “My daughter has had an awful year stuck in her room… Get a grip please" – the BBC reports mixed views as universities consider models of blended learning for next year. 
  • “Two or three years at least I would think” – the Chief Inspector of Ofsted tells the i newspaper how long it could take schools to deal with the educational fallout of Covid-19.
  • “Sadly, the effects of COVID-19 will not be restricted to 2021 and work is well underway to look ahead to 2022 and beyond” – the Interim Chair of Ofqual outlines issues in his introduction to the organisation’s latest corporate plan.
  • “A lot of parents hate that six-week break because it’s so long, kids get bored and some of them get into trouble” – Sir Michael Wilshaw adds his support to shortening the school summer holiday.
  • “It was being taught well that made all the difference” – William Hague on schools levelling up.
  • “It’s no good just learning the names of the fish in the rivers if you aren’t also taught how to fish” – the Chair of the Education Committee on the importance of knowledge and skills.
  • “I just can't believe how much I'm spending, I spent like £100 sat outside one bar," – one young person finds that going to the pub again after lockdown has become a whole lot more expensive.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 64. The number of MPs able to sit in the House of Commons as of this week as lockdown continues to ease.
  • 4.8%. The UK unemployment rate for the latest quarter, 0.3 percentage points lower than the previous quarter according to latest ONS figures. 
  • 1.5%. The UK’s CPI inflation rate for April, double that of the month before driven largely by rises in energy and clothing costs according to the latest ONS figures.
  • 48%. The number of businesses recruiting for roles that required data skills, according to research undertaken by Opinium Research for the government.
  • £50,000. The grant awarded to the Civic University Network by the UPP Foundation to enable the Network to continue its development particularly around green issues, according to the UPP Foundation.
  • 70.6%. The numbers of students admitted to Cambridge University from state schools last year, up from 68.7% the year before according to the latest admissions report from the University.
  • 26. The number of Clauses in the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill.
  • £25m. Core funding for Ofqual for this year, according to its latest corporate plan.
  • 92%. Attendance rates by pupils at English state schools as of last Wednesday, the same as the week before according to latest government figures.
  • 7. The number of extra school days that schools have spent on average managing test and trace since last September, according to the NAHT.
  • 59%. How many parents said maths was the hardest lesson to teach their kids during lockdown, according to National Numeracy.
  • 59%. The number of Brits surveyed who don’t know what ‘woke’ means, according to a poll from YouGov.
  • 1,352. The number of coffees Brits drink a year on average, according to a poll conducted by a coffee company.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Education Committee witness session on Prison Education. (Tuesday 25 May)
  • Launch of the UPP Student Futures Commission. (Tuesday 25 May)
  • Westminster Hall debate on support for children entitled to free school meals. (Wed 26 May)
  • QAA launch new edition of credit framework for England. (Wednesday 26 May) 

Other stories

  • The Keen, the Concerned and the Content. Some interesting research this week from Kings College and Bristol University about the return to ‘normal’ life post-Covid. They identify three categories of people. The largest group, the Keen, was mainly male, Leavers rather than Remainers and with an average age of 45, and relaxed about resuming things like going to the pub and going on holiday. The second largest group, the Concerned was mainly female, a third having a degree and with an average age of 48, concerned about the lifting of restrictions, less happy about resuming previous activities but equally dissatisfied with their social life during the pandemic. While the Content, the smallest of the three groups was more middle class with higher household incomes, reasonably happy with their life under lockdown and not too bothered about returning to normal life. A link to the research is here.
  • Lockdown regrets. Also on the theme of lockdown easing, YouGov this week asked people what they wished they’d done differently while under lockdown restrictions. A quarter of respondents said they had some regrets, mostly about not using the time as wisely as they might have done. The most common regret was about not spending more time getting into shape. Other regrets in order included not learning a language, not undertaking more DIY and not getting involved in more creative activities. Not writing that great novel that they’d often talked about also featured. A link to the survey 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. And if you'd also like to receive a copy straight to your inbox on publication, leave your details here. If there's enough interest in an email version, we'll get it organised.

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