Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 18 June 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:

More on planning for life post-Covid this week where, despite the recent extension of the roadmap, we’ve had a string of speeches and research activity, many featuring education and skills

The speeches first, where four have stood out this week. Heading the list was a characteristically expansive speech by Michael Gove launching a major report on the reforms needed by government as it emerges from the shadow of Covid-19. Details were set out in a formidable ‘Declaration of Government Reform’ and included a more diverse and geographically spread Civil Service, a big push on building public access to services online and a new Evaluation Task Force to improve project delivery. There was a sense of needing to learn from crisis management and plenty of references about the importance of data in helping run public services such as education.Labour, meanwhile, has launched its own major policy ‘roadmap’ targeting six great challenges including: better jobs and work, a green and digital future, safe and secure communities, and a future where families come first.

Next, Gavin Williamson who spoke at the Festival of Education, always an important platform. He confirmed that ‘a full programme of primary assessments’ would be held this year with details on the phonics screening check for this year following shorty after. As for exams, and indeed the wider school system as it moves towards full academisation, details would follow later this year. Earlier, Michelle Donelan, the Universities Minister, spoke about the importance of the Turing exchange scheme, the Graduate Immigration Route and the updated International Education Strategy when she addressed the British Council’s Going Global Conference where the theme was ‘re-imagining tertiary education’ for a post-pandemic world. And finally, Simon Lebus, interim Chief Regulator at Ofqual spoke at the Girls Schools Association on the theme of exams and assessment this year and next, suggesting that there’s a strong desire to see exams in some form return next year, but the elephant in the room continues to be the impact of technology of future assessment. “Longer term, however, I expect there to be developing interest, in particular in the use of AI both for purposes of adaptive assessment – potentially much less stressful for students – and even ultimately to support human judgment in marking.”

Further evidence of looking to the future can be seen in the activities of the various Commissions operating at present and in many cases filling the vacuum normally occupied by government. This week the Higher Education Commissionlooking into the role of universities in tackling regional inequality, held its latest witness session ahead of the evidence closing date today, while Pearson published the interim findings from its major review into the future of exams and assessment for 14–19-year-olds. 14-19 is of course a critical phase of learning for so many young people and Pearson’s Commission has been sifting through views from over 6,000 respondents to help build an evidence base. What it found on matters such as exams and curriculum pathways was both reassuring but equally challenging, especiallyon the issue of assessment. It will all help frame the next phase of the work. Pearson hopes to publish a final report by the end of this year.

Over in Westminster, members of the House of Lords discussed the principles behind the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill under its Second Reading with four previous Education Secretaries and two University Ministers among those contributing. Questions about the extent of the Lifelong Skills Guarantee; the involvement of metro-mayors; and the importance of careers education were all raised. The issue about the role of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education in signing off technical qualifications and how far this created a conflict of interests with Ofqual – a point highlighted by the Federation of Awarding Bodies – also provoked critical comment. The full range of issues arising out of the Bill have been usefully set out by the Association of Colleges here.

Elsewhere, the Lords discussed levelling up opportunities for children affected by the pandemic; the Education Committee questioned Ofsted about safeguarding in schools; the Youth Unemployment Committee heard from leading witnesses on policies affecting young people; MPs discussed children’s mental health provision in a Westminster Hall debate; and the School Standards Minister, Nick Gibb, confirmed the launch this autumn of the new ‘Apply service for postgrad initial teacher training. 

In other education news this week, there have been two important reports. One an independent review of council-run children’s social care, the other an Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission research report on the impact of the pandemic on those with special needs and disabilities – both pretty bleak and both highlighting significant system challenges. “I’m absolutely shattered. No respite. Increased stress,” as one parent carer put it in the Ofsted report.The launch of the government’s latest reviewhere can’t come soon enough.

Elsewhere, Ofqual published the results of its consultation on non-exam assessment and fieldwork requirements for exams next year, basically rolling forward a lot of the modifications like limiting requirements on geography fieldwork adopted this year. Leading organisations called for the so-called middle route between A’ levels and T levels to be protected, especially the popular BTEC qualifications, as the government continues to ponder reforms at this level.The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) raised the issue of a rebate on exam fees this year, given the shifting of much of the assessment burden on to schools and colleges. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) raised concerns about the impact of recent apprenticeship reforms on young people. And of course, we’ve had some important figures this week on the economy and the labour market where despite encouraging data on overall employment, the picture for young people continues to prove challenging.

The top headlines of the week:

  • Ofqual wanted to scrap last year’s A’ levels, says former Chair.’ (Monday)
  • Schools want 75% rebate on this summer’s exam fees.’ (Tuesday)
  • Parents of children with special needs tell Ofsted of Covid despair.’ (Wed)
  • 'School leaders in England reject catchup national tutoring programme.’ (Thursday)
  • Principals launch ‘Good for ME, Good for FE’ volunteering campaign.’ (Friday)


  • A Vision of reform.Ministers and civil servants outlined a new ‘vision for reform,’ picking up on lessons learned from the pandemic and aiming to build back better across a range of government activity by focusing on the 3 P’s of people, performance and partnerships.
  • Stronger Together. The Labour Party launched its own policy roadmap for ‘building a better future for Britain’ with a focus on ‘six big challenges’ including better jobs and work, and putting families first.
  • Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform. The Taskforce, commissioned by the Prime Minister to look into ways of exploiting the UK’s new ‘freedoms’ outside the EU, submitted its report setting out a series of principles that should govern a new framework of regulation that is proportionate and able to support growth in areas like science and technology, data and digital health.
  • Labour market latest. The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) published its regular assessment of the latest labour market figures pointing to an improving jobs market with growing numbers of new starts but lots of people not getting the hours they want, young people still some way behind, and long-term unemployment still rising.
  • Reaction to labour market figures. The Learning and Work Institute offered its perspective on the latest labour market figures noting that while things generally seemed to be improving with employment up, some sectors were still struggling and young people remained particularly badly hit.
  • Older workers. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported on the challenges arising out of the pandemic for older workers in a report funded by the Centre for Ageing Better, indicating that many in their 50s and 60s were likely to struggle to find new jobs after furlough and those who have continued to work would often benefit from more flexible hours, meaning future policy changes may be required.
  • Labour Market Outlook. The Resolution Foundation published its latest Labour Market Outlook focusing particularly on the impact on women and parentssuggesting thatmen have been hardest hit when it came to unemployment although women have been harder hit when it comes to pay and hours and as well as taking up most of the burden of home schooling.
  • Back to the workplace. The TUC reported on polling showing that many employers were ‘forcing’ employees back into the workplace, despite continuing health and safety concerns.
  • Self-harm. Researchers at Cambridge University reported on their latest study into adolescent self-harming, pointing to two potential groupings of sufferers, those with low self esteem whose condition could be predicted early on but also a group harder to predict but typically more impulsive and less secure as teenagerswho often self-harmed at different stages.
  • Centre for Early Childhood. The BBC reported that the Duchess of Cambridge had launched her own Centre for Early Childhood which will work with other organisations to help raise awareness and support around early years provision and development.

More specifically ...


  • Exams 2022. Ofqual published the results of its consultation intonon-exam assessment and fieldwork for 2022 with many of the modifications adopted for this year being carried forward to next year, including the removal of requirements for fieldwork in geography and for audio-visual recordings in GCSE English Language, as well as adjustments in subjects like dance, D/T, food and PE.
  • Impact on exam groupsOfqual published some initial findings from its research work into the impact of the pandemic on Years 11 and 13 pointing to a marked difference in experience with some, more fortunate, students coming through ‘unscathed’ but others facing numerous difficulties, with obvious concerns about a growing gap.
  • 14-19 Review. Pearson published the interim findings from its major new Commission looking into the future of qualifications and assessment for 14–19-year-olds, finding reassuring but also diverse views on exams, accountability and assessment and setting out four guiding principles for the next stage of research.
  • NAHT against the NTP. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) published the results of its survey of members on the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) with members generally unimpressed and pointing to school-based small group tutoring and support for pupil wellbeing as bigger priorities.
  • All about the geographyOfsted published the latest of its subject reviews usingrecent inspection and literature research, on this occasion looking into geography which has grown in secondary schools recently, pointing as in other reports to a number of features such as curriculum sequencing and enquiry-based work, that can help determine quality provision.
  • Should I stay or should I go? The Education Policy Institute reflected on how the pandemic was affecting the profession, noting an increase in the numbers of teachers saying they wanted to leave pointing to anxiety and burn-out, and calling for clarity on pay and support policies from government.
  • Exam fees. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) reported on its survey among a group of school and college leaders taken in May about whether there should be a rebate on exam fees this year given that much of the assessment burden has fallen on schools, with a majority supporting a figure of 75% or more.
  • Academy Trust Handbook. The Education and Skills Funding Agency published the latest version of the Academy Trust Handbook which along with a rebrand came with a few changes including encouraging Trusts to commission an external review of governance, to be aware of procedures for cyber-attacks,seeking prior approval for staff severance payments of £100k or more, and informing Regional Commissioners when senior leaders leave
  • First choice places. The government published stats on applications for school places at both primary and secondary in England for this year, showing more applicants for primary places getting their first-choice place but a 1.1pp drop in the numbers getting their first choice for secondary.
  • Good and Outstanding Schools. The government published data sources and listings for parts of the country which have some of the lowest numbers of pupils attending Ofsted-rated ‘Good’ and Outstanding’ schools as of last August.
  • SEND experiences. Ofsted published a research report based on a series of regional visits carried out last autumn with the Care Quality Commission looking into the effect of the pandemic on children with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND,) highlighting the struggles many faced gaining access to services and support needed, and setting out the bones of a new framework built around three features: strategic leadership, quality of practice and local outcomes.
  • Phonics screening check. The Standards and Testing Agency published details of the phonics screening check arrangements for Yr 2 pupils following the cancellation this term, with schools encouraged to undertake the check in the second half of the autumn term.
  • Early Years. The Early Years Alliance revealed at its Annual Conference that private government documents had shown that the government was funding the sector at less than the rate needed with dire financial implications for parents, providers and children alike.
  • EPRS terms of reference. Ofqual issued a brief consultation on some proposed changes to the terms of reference for the Exams Procedures Review Service (EPRS,) which deals with awarding body processes for determining results and which will need to reflect the different regulatory frameworks that will apply this summer. 
  • Last summer’s exams. Former Ofqual Chair Roger Taylor argued in an essay for the Centre for Progressive Policy that the problem with last summer’s exams was not the algorithm itself but expectations and the use of it, as he reflected on what lessons could be learned from last summer’s problems and what impact digital systems could have on qualifications in the future.
  • Mental health support. The government published further guidance and resource links for schools on matters like bullying, friendships and staying safe online for both primary and secondary schools as part of relationships, sex and health education curriculum planning.
  • Rashford effect. The government launched a new film featuring Marcus Rashford to encourage parents to sign up to its Holiday Activity and Food Programme which the government is funding for the rest of the year to provide access to ‘healthy food and enrichment activities’ for hard pressed families throughout the holidays.


  • FE staff development. The government launched a new pilot Professional Development Grant scheme, as promised in the Skills White Paper, with grants available for eligible providers to work together on areas such as technologycapability, subject specific development and supporting new staff.
  • Covid impact on Vocational training. The British Council in a report with the Association of Colleges (AoC) examined the impact of the pandemic on vocational education and training across five countries including the UK, suggesting changes made in response such as applying blending learning and assessment may need to be ‘solidified’ as practice returns.
  • How do people see voc/tech qualifications? Ofqual published its latest (Wave 4) survey undertaken by YouGov earlier this year into how people perceive the current voc/tech qualifications, showing continued broad support among providers, learners and employers, with learners keen to use them to improve job and wage prospects but with some concerns about a lack of awarenessstill among small employers.
  • Growing apprenticeships. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) reported on the impact of recent apprenticeship reforms with particular reference to young people and small businesses, where concerns have been growing about a decline in numbers especially among young and disadvantaged applicants, calling as a result for targeted funding and support ofsuch groups.
  • Problems with the Bill. Lord Watson of Invergowrie, Shadow Education Minister in the Lords argued in a blog ahead of the Second Reading of the Skills Bill that more funding, flexibility and urgency was needed around lifelong learning if skills levels and participation were to improve.
  • Protect student choice. Eleven leading education organisations called in a joint statement for the government to ‘protect student choice’ under its reforms of L3 qualifications by ensuring the continued provision of the so-called middle route for students through the use of applied general qualifications notably BTECs.
  • Subcontracting. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) reminded providers new to subcontracting that they needed to get written approval first including a report from an external auditor.


  • Student mental health. UCAS reported a significant increase in the number of applicants prepared to indicate a mental health condition as part of their application or discussion with their chosen institution, up to 3.7% of UK applicants last year, although nearly a half indicated they preferred not to share such information, with UCAS promising to make the process easier in future. 
  • Bounce back. The Institute of International Education (IIE) published the latest in its series of reports on the impact of the pandemic on US universities showing most (86%) now looking to offer ‘some form’ of in-person study this autumn, international student applications rising and growing optimism about studying abroad.
  • Internationalism at Home. Universities UK published case study evidence from higher ed institutions in the UK, US and Australia, whichdespite the current restrictions on travel have managed to recreate much of the international experience back home for students through virtual reality sessions, workshops and other programmes.
  • UK TNE Kitemark. QAA unveiled its new Quality Enhancement kitemark for degree awarding bodies participating in UK Transnational Higher Education and looking to benefit from the endorsement of the scheme and other aspects such as reports, toolkits and analysis. 
  • AI and data science courses. The Office for Students (OfSreported that the AI and data science postgrad conversion courses funded by the OfSwas well on track to achieving its target of enrolling 2,500 students by autumn 2023, with 1,315 enrolled so far, including high numbers of women, black and disabled students.
  • L4/5 returns. A group of contributors published a blog on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) website highlighting the benefits and importance of L4/5 qualifications, citing rates of return as well as potential progression opportunities. 
  • Pandemic experience. The Tab interviewed some first-year students to hear about their experiences of starting university during lockdown with many struggling with the uncertainty, lack of structure and restrictions on activities

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • As things stand – and on the basis of the evidence I can see right now – I am confident we will not need any more than 4 weeks and we won’t need to go beyond July 19th” – the PM extends the roadmap.
  • “A big upside surprise” – an economist responds to the latest CPI inflation figures for the UK.
  • I am very concerned that the Bill could lead to the separation of technical education from academic education” – Lord Baker voices concerns about the Skills Bill in a debate in the House of Lords. 
  • What’s their banana bread moment? A lot of them aren’t confident, but as soon as you talk to them, they’ve made some extraordinary contributions” – Prospects magazine urges employers to encourage graduates to talk about their contribution during lockdown.
  • Scrapping applied generals will pull the rug from under the feet of the 200,000 young people who benefit each year from taking these proven and established qualifications” -leading education bodies come together to protect BTECs and other applied qualifications.
  • “Interestingly, the experience of being without exams seems to have stimulated a strong desire to return to using them in 2022” – Simon Lebus, interim Chief Regulator at Ofqual reflects on the future for exams. 
  • No school should be graded outstanding unless they have shown they are improving the progress of pupils from all backgrounds in their local area” – the Chair of the Education Committee on one form of levelling up.
  • It is given significant weight, but it is not set up as a limiting judgement” – MPs and Ofsted discuss the strength of the Baker Clause in inspections.
  • Damn it all, they are mostly pure fantasy. Have you read the latest one, Matilda?” – Roald Dahl highlights the importance of fiction in a letter to a fan sold at an auction this week

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 4.7%. The UK unemployment rate for the latest quarter, slightly down on the previous quarter but up 0.8 ppts on year according to latest government figures.
  • 2.1%. The UK CPI inflation figure for May 2021, higher than many economists had forecast according to latest official figures.
  • £1,960. The average per learner Advanced Learning Loan paid to FE providers last year, according to the Student Loans Company.
  • 21%. The number of teachers surveyed saying they wanted to leave the profession this year, up 9pp over the last 6 months according to research from the Education Policy Institute.
  • 8.9m. The number of pupils attending 24,400 schools in England in 2020/21, an increase of just over 21,000 but with the numbers in primary schools set to decline until 2030 according to latest government figures.
  • 963,000. The number of full-time equivalent staff working in state-funded schools in England in 2020/21, nearly half of whom were teachers according to latest government figures.
  • 92.4%. The pupil attendance rate for state schools in England as of last week’s census day excluding Yr 11-13 ‘exam’ students, according to latest government figures.
  • 420,000, The increase, since the first lockdown in March 2020, in the number of pupils in England eligible for free school meals, according to latest figures
  • £320m. How much the government is making available under the PE and Sports Premium for primary schools next year, according to a new government statement.
  • £16m. How much is being provided to ensure children in every local authority have the support of a social worker, according to the government.
  • £3.4m. How much the government is promising to help extend the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme to disadvantaged young people, according to the DfE.
  • 2.5. The age at which our child memories start to develop, according to scientistsquoted in the Mail Online.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Institute for Government online event: ‘What does levelling up really mean?’ (Monday 21 June.)
  • Institute for Employment Studies webinar on the future of work after lockdown. (Tuesday 22 June.)
  • Thank a Teacher Day. (Wed 23 June)
  • HEPI Annual Conference via Zoom. (Thursday 24 June.)

Other stories

  • A downside to WFH? Working from Home (WFH) has brought benefits to many people, particularly professionals, who’ve been able to continue working from all sorts of locations but it has a potential downside too according to the Tony Blair Institute. In a new Paper out this week, they argue that the fact that many such jobs can be carried out anywhere – they call them ‘Anywhere Jobs’- means that they can readily be outsourced to other countries. They suggest that one in five jobs in the UK, typically in ICT, financial and professional services, could be vulnerable as a result unless the government develops a more flexible employment strategy and supports new skills training. A link to the Paper is here.
  • Parenting slang. They probably wouldn’t be approved in ‘Motherland,’ the BBC’s comedy series that starts at the school gates, but the Economist has an interesting article this week on some of the forms of parent slang used around the world. Many are familiar perhaps with ‘helicopter parent’ (hovering over their kids,) but what about ‘lawnmower parent’ (swishing away problems in front of their children?) A bit similar it seems to curling parents, who like broom sweepers at the Winter Olympics, smooth the path ahead of their children. ‘Crunchy mum,’ (organic food for baby and environmentally friendly clothes) is another term apparently used in some places. A link to the article can be found 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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