Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 28 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:

The hunt for sunnier uplands goes on and runs as a theme through this week’s batch of reports.

They include the launch of two more Education Commissions, a Schools Manifesto; a Schools Education Recovery Blueprint; an education recovery plan from MPs for disadvantaged young people; a new report spelling out a potential major contribution from universities; and another landmark report on rebuilding the economy. Given the concern raised by the Public Accounts Committee in its report this week that the DfE had ‘little specific detail about how it will build the schools system back better,’ it’s perhaps just as well there’s no shortage of ideas for education generally coming in from elsewhere.

Looking at education recovery first, a number of broad priorities are clearly emerging. In its Education Recovery Blueprint the National Association of Head Teachers’ (NAHT) identified seven; the MPs’ recovery plan six; and the proposed Schools Manifesto, which comes from Teach First, nine. 

The essence of these is captured in the MPs’ recovery plan, which comes from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility and focuses on disadvantaged young people. Its list includes: a multi-year recovery plan, a focus on early years, targeted support for post-16 yr olds, funding for mental health and wellbeing, support with pupil transitions, and closing the digital divide. The NAHT and Teach First have included bits on teachers and the curriculum in their proposals, but few would disagree with the MPs’ listing. It’s now down to the government to present these in an agreed education recovery plan, something Sir Kevan Collins, the Education Recovery Commissioner, has been beavering away on and which is due shortly. 

MPs will no doubt also be keeping a beady eye on the various Education Commissions sprouting up at the moment. Two more were launched this week. 

One was the Commission set up by The Times which got real this week with a survey prompting a number of priorities, leaving the Commission with a pretty fundamental opening question about the purpose of education itself. The Commission goes on to list nine other issues that it will look at – from how children learn, to the role of AI and, squeezed in a bit at the end, FE and HE – before reporting next year.  

The other Commission launched this week, the Student Futures Commission, will look specifically at higher education, the challenges students have faced over the last year arising out of the pandemic, and what’s needed to get things back on track for them. For starters it lists 17 issues on which it will seek evidence, including from students themselves on anything from support arrangements to forms of learning and access, to the whole thing about the student experience. Tuition fees, admissions matters and other issues currently in the government’s policy grid are outside its terms of reference. Funded by UPP Foundation and working in partnership with Wonkhe and Public First, the Commission is promising to move fast, with evidence gathering over the coming months and a report with short and medium-term recommendations to help students pick up the pieces as soon as possible. It's due by the end of the year.  

This week’s landmark report on rebuilding the economy for a more prosperous future came from the employer’s organisation, the CBI, and arrived with the arresting sub title ‘if you read nothing more, read this.’ The CBI, like the Resolution Foundation and LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance in their report last week, believes the country faces a unique set of challenges, but equally, a unique moment to transform the UK economy and we should therefore, as the title of the report puts it: ‘Seize the Moment.’

The report goes on to suggest ‘six business-led opportunities’ such as an innovation economy, a regionally thriving economy, and a healthier nation, which if we could crack by 2030, could be worth around £700bn to the UK. Included in there was a chunk on skills, with the familiar refrain of scrapping the Apprenticeship Levy, in this case for a ‘Learning for Life’ skills levy, along with more Skills and Jobs Hubs, a big push on digital skills training, and reskilling to meet new occupation demands. 

Over in Westminster this week and away from that other Committee hearing, MPs discussed child food poverty in a Westminster Hall debate, with the government promising to consider recommendations from the national food strategy when its final report is published in the summer. The Education Committee took evidence on Prison Education with, among the suggestions, a call for prisoners to be able to take apprenticeships and modular GCSEs. The Health and Social Care Committee heard from witnesses about children and young people’s mental health. The Communications and Digital Committee called for some tightening of the proposed legislation in the daft Online Safety Bill. And the Public Accounts Committee argued in a report on the DfE’s handling of the pandemic that the Dept had been caught on the hop when Covid struck and ‘has much work to do to help children recover from the effects of the disruption caused by the pandemic.’

And finally, elsewhere in education news this week, the Children’s Commissioner’s Big Ask survey drew to a close; Ofsted published its latest subject review, looking this time at maths; Ofqual published provisional data on exam entries for this summer; UCAS outlined plans to provide more help and guidance for those seeking apprenticeship routes; and the Office for Students highlighted the growing numbers of mature students looking to study. One suggestion is that the pandemic has forced/encouraged many people to rethink their futures, potentially for the better. If so, it’s perhaps another aspect of those hoped-for sunnier uplands.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘‘Horrific’ cuts in pipeline for English universities and students.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Extending the school day needs flexibility, say heads.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘DfE had no plan for dealing with a pandemic, says critical report by MPs.’ (Wed)
  • ‘Ministers urged to release data on Covid variants in English schools. (Thursday)
  • ‘GCSEs 2021: ‘Massive pressure’ on teachers over grades.’ (Friday)


  • The DfE and the pandemic. The Public Accounts Committee published the results of its Inquiry into the DfE’s handling of the pandemic suggesting it had been caught off guard and needed to look at what lessons could be learned and how education recovery should be best supported.
  • Immigration plans. The Home Office set out its immigration plans for 2021/22 which include the launch this summer of the new Graduate Route, a new Global Talent Route, an unsponsored points-based route for in-demand skilled applicants, and a new International Sportsperson Route, along with new digital border controls and tightening up all round.
  • Seize the moment. The CBI argued in a major new report that recent national challenges had created a unique opportunity for creating ‘a competitive, dynamic and future-focused’ economy over the coming decade, identifying six business-led opportunities including reform of the Apprenticeship Levy.
  • Government Reimagined. The think tank Policy Exchange published a comprehensive new report on how recent ‘seismic events’ had challenged the very structure of government setting out a range of recommendations for the future including the importance of digital skills and data management, greater decentralisation of parts of government, and more agile departmental structures. 
  • Jobs Outlook. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation published its latest data on the Jobs Outlook pointing to a sharp increase in levels of employer confidence with a concomitant surge in employer recruitment and investment. 
  • Health and safety. The TUC suggested that under-reporting of deaths and infections from the pandemic had exposed gaps in health and safety regulations at work calling for more training and better support for inspectors.
  • Public concerns. PwC reported the results of its latest survey of the public’s attitude towards risk conducted by Opinium Research in March 2021 showing unemployment and living costs as top concerns among the public with many also looking to cut down on going out, on using public transport and on foreign holidays. 
  • Child vulnerability. The House of Lords Public Services Committee announced that former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield had been appointed as specialist adviser to its Inquiry into Child Vulnerability. 
  • No longer managing. The IPPR think tank highlighted ‘a sharp rise in working poverty’ indicating it was being driven by four factors (low wages, rising house costs, childcare costs and gaps in social security) and calling in a new report for increased support for childcare, a cap on rent increases, and more flexible work.
  • JISC and MISP. JISC reported on the development of MISP (Malware Information Sharing Platform,) an intelligence-sharing system helping protect research and education organisations from cyber attacks. 
  • #GoodForYou. The Scouts announced a new drive to recruit more members and volunteers under the hashtag GoodForYou as it revealed a notable drop in both recruits and volunteers arising out of the pandemic.

More specifically ...


  • Covid and schools. Public sector unions, including those in education, called on the government to publish data about the number of Covid cases linked to schools and colleges and in particular any associated with the latest variant.
  • Exam entries 2021. Ofqual published provisional data on GCSE/GCE entries for this summer with both showing small increases although with English and some Language entries both down and with AS entries continuing to fall.
  • Blueprint for education recovery. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) set out its principles for education recovery built around what it called ‘seven pillars,’ including prioritising the early years, providing targeted support for pupils and investing in school technology.
  • Schools Manifesto. Teach First set out its proposals for a better future for schools setting out nine areas including access to technology, funding for disadvantaged communities, and tutoring support for disadvantaged pupils, for which it presented ideas and evidence and inviting comment.
  • All about the maths. Ofsted published its latest subject review, in this case for maths, pointing to the high levels of attainment achieved by many pupils but also the wide gap between highest and lowest achievers and listing a number of features including clear sequencing of concepts and methods, regular practising of knowledge and responsive assessment, that could help strengthen quality provision for all.
  • 2019/20 Exam Appeals. Ofqual published data on exam appeals for GCSEs and GCEs last summer indicating a rise in the number submitted and upheld largely due to centre error, but with different appeal arrangements applying last summer.
  • Interactive tool. Ofqual released a new data visualisation tool bringing together statistical data and trends on GCSEs, AS and A’ levels from over recent years along with a qualification explainer for this year’s exams.
  • Relationships and Health Education. The government published a commissioned report looking into how early adopter schools had tackled the PSHE curriculum as well as introducing the new RSHE (Relationships, Sex and Health Education) requirements, pointing to three areas of challenge (knowledge, resources and system.)
  • Summer borns. The government published new research about delayed entry to reception for summer-born children indicating that while this procedure was working well for some families there was variable practice, calling as a result for authorities to make the system as simple and consistent as possible.
  • Fire Safety for schools. The government launched further consultation on its Fire Safety Design for schools, asking for views on changes proposed in its 2019 technical consultation. 
  • Abuse in education. The NSPCC reported on its ‘Report Abuse in Education’ helpline, commissioned recently by the DfE, indicating it had received just over 350 calls as of last week.
  • The government announced that Amanda Spielman would continue as Chief Inspector for a further two years until the end of 2023.


  • JETS scheme. The government highlighted its scheme known as the JETS (Job Entry Targeted Support) scheme that helps people who have been out of work for three months claiming that it’s helped nearly 13,000 people back into work.
  • Learning and Skills at work. The CIPD and Accenture reported on their latest survey on learning and skills at work showing while some companies have had to reduce budgets and resources, most have switched towards digital and online activity although with limited use of more sophisticated forms of learning technology. 
  • Disability Employment. The learning and Work Institute reported on the work of the Black Stork Charity which works to support those who are disabled or facing other challenges access employment, showing that the pandemic had had a disproportionate effect on such people looking for work and calling for continued government support where needed.
  • Supporting apprenticeships. UCAS set out plans to strengthen its service to those interested in apprenticeships by bringing information and guidance together in one easy-to-find place, promising further details to follow this autumn.
  • What’s distinctive about English apprenticeships? FE News published an interesting commentary by Tom Bewick, chief exec of the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB,) explaining to an international audience what was distinctive about the apprenticeship system in England with a run-through of some of the latest reforms.
  • Industry placements. The government published a guide and an incentive payment scheme for employers taking on T level students for industry placements between now and next July.
  • Staff changes. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) announced they’d recruited two members of staff from the Cabinet Office as they looked to boost their capacity to be able to respond to the skills agenda as set out in the recent Skills Bill.


  • Student Futures Commission. The independent Student Futures Commission set out its terms of reference as part of its formal launch listing a range of issues it will look at, though not fees, as it aims to get students ‘back on track’ after the pandemic, with a report set for the end of the year.
  • Student Survey. The UPP Foundation published the results of its student survey taken in mid-May to coincide with the launch of its new Futures Commission, showing 63% worried about being below where they should be at this stage in their academic lives and keen to get back to face-to-face teaching from this September.
  • R/D budget. The BEIS Dept outlined how it will allocate its R/D budget for 2021/22, claiming ‘more money than ever in core research,’ with increased investment in UK Research and Innovation and major investment in the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, net zero priorities, and medical research charities.
  • Golden opportunities. The Office for Students (OfS) highlighted an increase in the numbers of mature students looking to study, suggesting some may have been spurred on by pandemic pursuits and others by government proposals for supporting lifetime learning but collectively providing a major opportunity for higher ed institutions to respond with a range of flexible alternatives.
  • Supporting the recovery. Universities UK published a new report pointing to the impact universities could have on economic growth over the next five years through jobs, research, company upskilling, business partnerships, and supporting local economies generally, announcing a new Economic and Social Taskforce to lead much of this work.
  • Deferred entry. The Universities Minister called on medical and dental schools to accommodate students with deferred take-up from last year but within existing resources and where possible within current institutions as well. 
  • Protecting researchers. The government unveiled a new team, the Research Collaboration Advice Team (RCAT,) that will work from within the BEIS dept providing advice to researchers on how to protect their work from hostile activity and ensure UK research and collaboration remains safe and secure.
  • Looking at credit. The QAA published latest guidance on the application of an HE Credit Framework for England with accompanying advice for providers, that may prove valuable as providers look to offer flexible routes as outlined in the recent Skills Bill.
  • Annual Statements. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) published its collection of Annual Statements for listed HE providers, indicating their record in dealing with complaints and appeals over what was obviously a difficult year last year. 
  • The importance of mentoring. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) published two reports looking at the issues facing students from disadvantaged backgrounds, noting that while many benefit from going to university, they are still less likely to attend than their better-off peers, making the case for much better mentoring, networking and support systems to help alleviate the problem. 
  • Engineering Opportunity. The Engineering Professors Council reported on how engineering supports social mobility with jobs, opportunities and returns but not for all, recommending as a result greater use of contextual admissions, conversion courses and better monitoring, to help disadvantaged students.
  • 2021 applicants.SMRS research reported on its recent survey among this year’s university applicants conducted with the Universities Marketing Forum highlighting three clear themes: a desire for face-to-face events, the importance of regular communication, and limited enthusiasm for virtual events. 
  • Pension principles. The Russell Group responded to the consultation on pension reform by setting out a number of principles for discussion including the need to avoid further rises in contribution rates and support for the call for a governance review of USS.
  • Studying History. The Royal Historical Society condemned recent moves by some Universities to abandon the teaching of History degrees pointing to the fact that the discipline develops vital skills, attracts students of all types, and provides just as good career returns as most other subjects.
  • Not just boffins. The Chief Exec of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) outlined the organisation’s ‘101 jobs campaign’ designed to highlight the array of jobs and roles in research and innovation and thereby do away with the image of the researcher as a lab-based boffin.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Remote teaching is, for the most part, an ‘emergency: smash glass’ option, not a default outside of a crisis. We learned a lot from it: mostly ‘we can’t wait until we’re face to face again’ | @tombennett71
  • “Me: how was school today 14yo: we had Sex Ed and three people fainted” | @gabyhinsliff
  • “Letter to The Times after #apprenticeshipscoverage: "As a chartered accountant, chartered tax adviser and a trust and estate practitioner, but with no degree, I found no place on the recent Census form to record my qualifications — an omission that says it all" | @AELPUK
  • “Coffee has been found to reverse liver damage caused by alcohol” | @Fact
  • “Marketers. Please no emails saying 'Hope you're staying healthy'. I am not a racehorse” | @caitmellow
  • “There's no real difference between a latte, flat white and cappuccino, is there? We're just humouring them” | @Sathnam
  • “Lockdown whisky nightcap habit. Lockdown over. Go to pub: genuine shock at how small a single measure is. Thought had been having singles. May have been on triples since November. Oh” | @lib_thinks

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “The calibration of uncertainty – as represented in the width of the fan charts for GDP in particular – reflects the unprecedented level of uncertainty” – the governor of the Bank of England indicates plenty of uncertainty in his Annual Report to the Treasury Select Committee.
  • “Seize the moment: If you read nothing more, read this” – the CBI pitches its new report on creating a future economic strategy.
  • “This is how we are going to put an end to our productivity problem” – the Education Secretary talks up the reforms in the Skills Bill in a speech to ResPublica.
  • “How we use our offices in the future will change with a greater emphasis on collaboration rather than as a place for individual working” – the Chair of the accountancy company EY reports on future office arrangements.
  • “A lot of it is going to depend on who gets appointed” – the Chair of the Office for Students on the appointment of a free speech champion for HE.
  • “We have every confidence that she is the right person to ensure that QAA continues to reflect the sector’s shared commitment to quality and standards and adapts to the challenges ahead” – the QAA welcomes Vicki Stott as its new Chief Executive.
  • “The Department has worthy aspirations but little specific detail about how it will build the school system back better” – the Public Accounts Committee reports on the DfE’s handling of the pandemic.
  • “Variation in the quality of mathematics education in England is likely to be the result of the absence of systems and systems thinking, as well as possible gaps in content, instruction, rehearsal, assessment and the plans for their evolution over time” – Ofsted concludes its review of maths in schools in England.
  • “It’s got a whole set of wonderful ingredients” – Michael Rosen adds his tribute ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar.’

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • £300.3bn. The reported figure for UK borrowing for the year to March 2021, according to the ONS.
  • £14.9bn. Government spend on R/D for 2021/2022, its highest level for four decades according to the government.
  • 59%. How many university students would like to get back to face-to-face teaching as soon as possible, according to a survey from the UPP Foundation.
  • 92.1%. The retention rate for last year’s A’ levels, the first increase since the measure was introduced according to new government data.
  • 1.5%. How much school support staff such as Teaching Assistants have been offered in a pay rise for this year, according to public sector unions. 
  • 91.0%. Attendance figures for state school pupils last week, with some of the drop attributed to differing forms of provision for exam classes according to latest government figures.
  • 3,625. The number of GCSE/GCE exam appeals last year, according to Ofqual, with an increased number upheld although with a different set of appeal criteria last summer.
  • 142. The number of children in secure children’s homes this year, down from 184 last year according to latest government figures.
  • 28%. The number of people surveyed who said they’d 'definitely' continue to wear a facemask in crowded areas, especially public transport, with 36% saying they 'probably' would, according to a poll from YouGov.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Parliamentary recess for the Whitsun break. 

Other stories

  • What should the new normal look like? An interesting report this week from Queen Mary’s Mile End Institute looking at what people want from life post-pandemic: a return to normal, a new normal, something completely different or what? For example, on the question of ‘would you prefer it for life to go back to how it was pre-pandemic or do you want things to be different?’ 35% wanted things to return to normal, 43% wanted things to be different and 8% weren’t sure. In terms of policy priorities post-pandemic, the NHS was way out ahead followed by jobs, mental health and poverty. And the top priority for schools was pupils’ mental health and wellbeing. There were also questions about how the government had handled the pandemic but that was before this week’s revelations. A link to the report is here 

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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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