Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 25 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:

Two important reports have topped the news this week, one on white working-class pupils and the other on university students.  

The one on white working-class pupils first. This came from the Education Select Committee, which over the past year has been investigating the problem of poor education performance by this group and issued its report this week. ‘Underperforming significantly compared to other ethnic groups,’ ‘let down and neglected,’ suffering from ‘muddled thinking from all governments and a lack of care and attention.’ These were some of the vivid descriptors used by Rob Halfon, the Chair of the Committee, when introducing the report – yet the report has stoked some strong feelings, and according to the Minutes at the back of the report, left the Committee divided.  

The contention appears to be not so much the recognition that there is a problem, but the extent to which this is recognised across other social groups, and the factors that lie behind it. The report suggests a number of reasons, which for disadvantaged white pupils boil down to two broad issues in particular. ‘Place-based disparities,’ so local factors like deprived communities, high unemployment and multi-generational poverty all coming together; and secondly, cultural factors such as a poor experience of education and disengagement from it. 

As to what to do about it, the report makes five major recommendations. These include: better data on disadvantage and a better targeted and weighted Pupil Premium; Family Hubs and adult community learning centres to encourage family learning;  a better-balanced school curriculum with a reformed EBacc that includes at least one technical, creative or vocational subject; better careers guidance and targets to improve access to higher ed; and finally, a more constructive conversation about racial disparities. 

The Committee heard from a multitude of witnesses, both written and remote, as part of its inquiry, and its report clearly touches a number of difficult issues, but equally makes some important calls, each of which could improve life chances for a wide range of pupils. These include: re-thinking the role of Opportunity Areas; investing in Family Hubs; incentivising teachers to work in challenging areas; linking the Baker careers Clause to inspection judgments; and committing the Office for Students to report on progress in achieving specific access targets. Quite a list.

The report on university students was the latest regular annual HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey, launched at this week’s HEPI (Higher Education Policy institute) Annual Conference. The survey, as Nick Hillman, HEPI director explained, has been going for 15 years, but given the upheaval of the last year for both students and universities, is arguably more important this year than ever before.

The key message coming out from the report, unsurprisingly given the year they’ve had, is a desire from students to return to some form of normality: more in-person teaching, and more in-person contact with other students. The media has headlined some of the concerns about value for money – up from 29% in 2019 to 44% – but the context is important and it’s worth noting that 58% of full-time undergraduates would have chosen the same course at the same pace whatever. The survey offers an important porthole on current attitudes to, and issues in, higher ed particularly as this year’s edition includes some ‘free text’ boxes. It’s an important read. 

Over In Westminster this week, a new National Science and Technology Council was announced with customary flourish by the Prime Minister, who described it as aiming ‘to breathe life into many more scientific and technological breakthroughs.’ Researchers, meanwhile, worried about any knock-on effect on other research. 

Parliamentary Education Questions were held at the start of the week with Education Ministers answering questions on attainment gaps, summer camps, mental health services, youth training and university admissions. The Education Secretary appeared before the Education Committee a couple of days later, where, along with accelerated inspections, next year’s exams and any further Covid wave, the Baker ‘careers’ Clause proved a big talking point. Apparently, consultation on beefing up observance of the Clause is set to follow later this year. Also, the Work and Pensions Committee continued its inquiry into the measurement of children in poverty and the Professional Qualifications Bill continued its line-by-line examination at the Committee Stage of the House of Lords. 

In other education news, this week’s now familiar data dump from the DfE and other bodies brought details on special education needs numbers; young people’s participation in learnin;  apprenticeship uptake; graduate earnings; predicted undergraduate numbers; and costs over the next five years. Some important facts and figures among this lot with the main headlines listed in this briefing. The government also published progress reports on EdTech in schools and FE in England, while announcing a new Ofsted and DfE-based accredited Online Education Accreditation Scheme for providers next year. 

Elsewhere, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) held its ‘Inspiring Leadership’ Conference with Lord Seb Coe as an opening speaker: ‘a teacher who inspired me was my head of year.’ The National Foundation for Educational Research announced a new Nuffield funded project looking into essential employment skills for the future. The Gatsby Charitable Foundation published a report on careers guidance for those considering progression into FE, HE apprenticeships – the seventh of the eight benchmarks of a quality careers guidance system endorsed by government, but not operating for all apparently. And arts bodies joined forces to call on the government to abandon any proposed grant cuts to arts subjects in higher education, arguing among other things that ‘the creative arts are the fifth most studied subject across the UK,’ let alone bringers-inners of a lot of income.

Finally, a phrase to remember: ‘mitigating measures.’ This is what the Education Secretary told the Education Committee this week will be needed for exams next year.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘GCSEs 2021: Poor students think grades will not be fair.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Poorer white pupils let down and neglected – MPs.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Exams altered next year after pandemic disruption.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘GCSEs 2021: All exam boards in England to offer rebates. (Thursday)
  • ‘Science schools and R/D spending at forefront of UK innovation plans.’ (Friday)


  • Science superpower. The Prime Minister announced the creation of a new National Science and Technology Council, which he will chair and use to drive forward the UK’s role as a global science superpower, working closely with Sir Patrick Vallance who will lead as National Technology Adviser as well as head up an Office for Science and Technology Strategy.
  • Boom(erang) Time? The Resolution Foundation reported on the numbers of young (18-34) non-students living with their parents, suggesting there had been no great increase despite the pandemic largely because those who might have been hit employment-wise were already living at home anyway because of existing weak employment conditions.
  • National Writing Day. The National Literacy Trust revealed in a survey timed to coincide with this year’s National Writing Day, that the number of children and young people who said they enjoyed writing had fallen at 34.5% to its lowest level in a decade although there had been an increase in those writing in other formats such as texts, song lyrics and poems.

More specifically ...


  • Disadvantaged pupils. The Education Committee published its report into white working-class pupils highlighting perceived reasons as to why many perform so poorly in the English education system and calling for changes to aspects like the pupil premium, the EBacc and careers guidance to help improve things. 
  • Reform in Scotland. The government in Scotland announced it was accepting all of the recommendations from the recent OECD report into its education system which would mean replacing both the Qualifications Authority and the current inspections body, and carrying out ’a systematic curriculum review cycle.’ 
  • Lost learning. The Onward Group of MPs and policy thinkers published a new report on ‘Lost Learning,’ pointing to the fact that weak local economies often housed under performing schools and calling among other things for expanded academy trusts, incentivised teachers and new Phoenix schools.
  • NQT support.The government announced a one-offer to provide for 5% off timetable for the next academic year for newly qualifying teachers (NQTs) to provide additional development support given the difficulties many have faced in getting full access this year.
  • SEN data. The government published latest data as of January 2021, on numbers with Special Education Needs (SEN) in schools showing a further increase in the numbers with either a Statement of SEN or an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan, up to 3.7% from 3.3% last year, with Autistic spectrum disorder the most common need for an EHC and language and communication needs the most common need for SEN support.
  • Pupil Premium. The government set out further details on the Pupil Premium for the coming year claiming that more money is available although this has been disputed and confirming that schools in receipt will need to show how their spending decisions have been informed by research evidence.
  • Licensed to provide. The government announced that it intends to launch an Online Education Accreditation Scheme (OEAS) next year to ensure online provision meets high standards, with applicants facing (fee-based) due diligence checks and accreditation visits by Ofsted, before being authorised. 
  • EdTech progress. The government published the results of its commissioned survey into the use of EdTech in schools which has obviously become an increasing feature over the past year, showing increased understanding of the benefits and of adoption during the lockdowns, though not to all groups, and some issues about storage and systems, but with more research needed to assess the impact of the switch during lockdowns on pupil attainment and teacher workloads.
  • Monitoring visits. The Standards and Testing Agency issued guidance on the arrangements for quality monitoring visits of schools used for observing the admin for the Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA.)
  • Governance professionals. The National Governance Association (NGA) published the results of its latest survey of governance professionals and, in particular, clerks who often work over and above, pledging to continue fighting for improved pay and employment conditions.
  • Celebrating PTAs. Parentkind highlighted the value of Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) as part of the first ever National PTA Week, pointing especially to the work of parent volunteers who according to recent PTA data provided over 2m volunteer hours last year, supporting schools and keeping things running. 


  • Apprenticeship data. The government published its latest data on apprenticeships showing that for the first eight months of 2020/21 starts at 161,900 were down 18.5% on the previous year.
  • Latest inspection data. Ofsted published provisional data based on interim and monitoring inspections for the FE sector for the year up to the end of February 2021 showing many new providers needing additional work but an increase in existing providers judged ‘good’ or outstanding’ albeit based on changes in provider numbers.
  • EdTech in FE. The government published a literature review report into the use of online and blended learning in FE which has obviously become a feature over the past year, pointing to implications for both learners and teachers who need to adapt in different ways with perhaps the biggest potential being for assessment though in turn needing to overcome barriers such as organisational culture, infrastructure and security. 
  • Careers support.The Association of Colleges (AoC) and the Careers and Enterprise Company announced they would work together to help colleges provide careers support for young people hit by restrictions in the labour market arising out of the pandemic.
  • Career guidance. The Gatsby Foundation published a new commissioned report looking at careers guidance around FE, HE and apprenticeships, one of its key benchmarks, suggesting a mixed picture with students receiving some information about A’ levels and BTECs but not much about apprenticeships and other technical routes, with many frustrated as a result.
  • Skills for tomorrow. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) announced an interesting new Nuffield Foundation funded project, looking into future essential employment skills needs, including the supply and demand of these skills for 2035 and what role the education system might play in helping develop them.
  • The Future of Work and Wellbeing. In another Nuffield funded project, the Institute for the Future of Work announced a 3-year project, headed by Nobel Laureate Sir Christopher Pissarides, to examine the impact of technological disruption across the UK, looking at how far staff wellbeing and ‘good work’ might be affected by such disruption. 
  • Skills partnership. WorldSkills UK signed a new partnership with WorldSkills Japan to share expertise and experience on skills development, as it looks to generate eleven such global partnerships by year end. 
  • A Month of Learning. The Association of Colleges (AoC,) Education and Training Foundation, and WorldSkills UK announced plans for a dedicated ‘Month of Learning’ this November with practical workshops, speakers and much, much more.


  • Student Survey. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) and Advance HE published their latest annual Student Academic Experience Survey providing a valuable insight into the experience of undergraduates and universities over a difficult year which has seen value for money challenged and a growing clamour for a return to in-person teaching and peer contact.
  • Education Secretary presentation. Gavin Williamson spoke at HEPI’s Annual Conference keen to lay out some of the opportunities (partnerships, flexible learning, high-tech provision) as well as challenges (life post Augar and Covid, course returns, quality, access) facing higher ed.
  • Student loan forecasts. The government published latest data on student loans in England including forecasts on numbers and outlays for the next five years showing a projected 5.9% increase in student numbers over the period, largely due to rising numbers of 18-year-olds, but equally an increase in total student loan outlay from £19.1bn to £22.1bn.
  • Graduate outcomes. The government published the latest set of employment and earnings outcomes for first-degree graduates, one, three and five years after graduation with important details by institution, subject and region but broadly showing over half of providers displaying a 10% increase in graduate median earnings between 2014/15 and 2018/19.
  • Student withdrawals. The Student Loans Company published an update on student withdrawals as of May 2021 showing a small (+1%) increase over the year compared with last year.
  • Provisional TEF awards. The Office for Students invited applications from eligible institutions for a provisional Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) award for the coming year.
  • Postgraduates, prices and participation.The Sutton Trust published a new report on postgrad study raising issues about costs and access for some groups and calling for a clearer application process and an improved system of financial support.
  • More on tuition fees. The Times Higher examined what might happen if tuition fees were cut for non-science courses and funding directed to so-called high-value courses as has been rumoured, suggesting that a quarter of institutions would lose 7% of their overall income with arts institutions in particular, badly hit.
  • Stop the arts cuts. Leading education and arts organisations wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister calling for the government to re-consider funding cuts to arts subjects proposed under the 2021/22 HE Teaching Grant. 
  • Getting into SHAPE. The British Academy presented a series of case studies highlighting the importance of SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities, and the Arts for People and the Economy) in products, services, and ideas and emerging as outcomes from its Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF.)
  • International students. The DfE published a brief Q/A for international students looking to come to study in England basically saying vaccinations are not compulsory but are encouraged.
  • Facing the music. Sir Chris Husbands, V.C. at Sheffield Hallam, outlined in a comment piece for the Times Higher, how universities need to demonstrate that they are part of future policy solution(s) in the face of continuing government scrutiny.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • 2Why do teachers hate textbooks but love bullet-pointed Microsoft Word tables that sit on the share drive and which nobody reads (unless desperate)? | @ASBOTeacher
  • “Just helped my daughter with her geography. V pleased with myself that I was able to enliven filling in a map of Europe by saying Rita Ora and Dua Lipa both have Kosovo Albanian heritage. Until it turned out she hadn't heard of either of them” | @phil_tinline
  • “Doing an online assembly for a bunch of year 4, 5 and 6 kids this morning. Aiming to tell them how wonderful journalism is, and why they should always query news they read on social media. Obviously am bricking it. Kids are scary” | @Toryscott
  • “Student emails to ask for extension due to being unable to work after being hit in the face by a cricket ball. Poland is changing” | @BDStanley
  • “We’ve renamed the 12-year-old ‘Google’ because he’s got an answer for everything” | @LeeDonaghy
  • “If we're gonna make kids sing a song of national unity on June 25, I cannot see why it should not be Freedom, by George Michael. It was his birthday. And it's a total banger” | @Sathnam
  • “If the salary is so competitive, why won't you tell me what it is?” | @jo_bazz

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “I am not suggesting that government should try to exercise scientific judgment, or impose some dogma on the scientific world – like the deranged genetic theories of Stalinist Russia” – the PM announces the creation of a new Science and Technology Council.
  • “While a hybrid system may work well, the wider economic evidence we have suggests that entirely home working is, in most circumstances, less productive than office working” – Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) on working from home.
  • “So far, the Department for Education has been reluctant to recognise the specific challenges faced by the White working class, let alone do anything to tackle this chronic social injustice. This must stop now” – the Chair of the Education Committee introduces his Committee’s report on ‘forgotten white working-class pupils.’
  • “This is a great opportunity to use your skills and experience to make a difference to the skills reform delivery programme” – the government invites applications for the (12 days a year) post of Independent Chair of the Skills Reform Board.
  • “Stem subjects are vitally important, but the humanities are, if not the actual heart of a serious university, at least one of its ventricles” – leading literary figures defend arts subjects in universities as stories grow of their demise.
  • “We are considering the feedback to the consultation carefully and will publish a full response later this year” – the Skills Minister responds to an MP’s question about BTECs and other applied qualifications.
  • “Are there two more miserable and exasperating words for children and parents right now than ‘self-isolate’? – journalist Isabel Oakeshott on the challenges of self-isolation for parents and pupils alike.
  • “I cannot see the justification of trying to help annual season commuters by saving them peanuts” – commuters don’t think the new flexi rail tickets will help them rush back to work.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • £24.3bn. The figure for government borrowing in May this year, a considerable drop on May last year but still high according to latest official figures. 
  • £322m. How much big cities could lose a month if offices shift to hybrid working and city employees are not around to buy lunch, drinks and other items, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR.) 
  • 23%. The number of (non-student) 18–34-year-olds living with their parents this month, slightly lower than last year according to a survey from the Resolution Foundation.
  • 430,000. Forecast student entrant numbers for HE in England by 2025/6, up 5.9% over period largely due to rising numbers of 18-year-olds, according to latest forecast figures.
  • £495. How much additional money some students in Northern Ireland will be getting to compensate for disruption caused by the pandemic this year, according to the BBC.
  • £4.3m. How much the Nuffield Foundation is providing to fund two research projects looking into the future of work and skills over the next few years, according to an announcement from Nuffield.
  • 82.3%. The participation rate in education and training for 16–18-year-olds at the end of last year, up 1pp according to latest government figures.
  • 17.7%. How many eligible white working-class pupils on free school meals obtained GCSEs grade 5 or above in English and maths in 2018/19 compared with 22.5% of all eligible free school meal pupils, according to a report from the Education Committee.
  • 3.3%. The percentage of Covid-related pupil absences in state funded schools in England last week, up noticeably from 1.2% the week before, according to latest government figures.
  • £483m. How much the government is providing this year in capital funding for some schools and colleges.
  • 15.2%. the number of children and young people surveyed who wrote something each day whether for pleasure or anything else, the lowest rate for a decade according to the National Literacy Trust.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Education Committee witness session on the government’s education recovery plans with Sir Kevan Collins among the witnesses. (Tuesday 29 June).
  • Estimates Day debate on education recovery spending. (Tuesday 29 June).
  • Learning and Work Institute ‘Employment and Skills Convention’ online. (Thursday 1 July).
  • Education and Employers/Edge Foundation virtual International Conference on ‘Preparing Young People for the Future.’ (Thursday 1 July -Friday 2 July). 

Other stories

  • A framework for WFH. It’s not just the UK and the US that are grappling with the nature of work in the future and in particular working from home (WFH,) it’s a big talking point in Europe as well where a new framework for ‘a hybrid model of the future’ is under consideration. Drafting a model that could work across countries in the EU single market is quite a challenge. Some countries, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, are more advanced when it comes to hybrid working and the uptake has been quite high for teachers and ICT professionals but less for others. The framework being proposed is defined by 4 Bs (bricks, bytes, behaviour and blueprint) so everything from re-building the office space (the bricks) to reworking work culture (behaviour.) A link to the framework is here.
  • Annoying little words. You only have to read social media comments and letters to the press to know that people can get really riled by words being mispronounced in public. This week the Daily Telegraph reported on a survey conducted by a specialist talent agency listing some of the most commonly mispronounced words that cause upset. The top two examples were ‘pacifically’ rather than ‘specifically’ and ‘probly’ rather than ‘probably.’ 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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