Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 02 July 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:

Education recovery has featured as a strong theme again this week.

Much of the reason for this was Sir Kevan Collins’ appearance before the Education Committee where the former education recovery commissioner labelled the government’s response to his costed recovery plan as ‘a bit feeble.’ In other stories this week on the same theme, MPs debated some of the costs and issues of education recovery in an Estimates Day debate, the Centre for Social Justice highlighted the issue of absent pupils in a new report, and the government announced further easing of lockdown restrictions for schools under the next stage of the roadmap. 

Here’s a bit more detail behind some of these stories starting with Sir Kevan Collins’ appearance before the Education Committee.

Declaring himself ‘disappointed’ at having to resign, Sir Kevan sought to explain to the Committee just what his recovery plan was intended to achieve and just how important education recovery was, not just to children’s learning but to the country’s economy as well. A potential overall loss to the country of £100bn for a start. “If you don’t recover, it can impact not only your academic attainment, but your lifelong earnings. There is a long-term loss, not only to the individual, but to the economy.” 

His plans for recovery, he told the Committee, were largely built around enhancing the quality of teaching, extending the school day by about half-an-hour a day, extending the tutoring programme, collecting better data on school performance and providing pupils with ‘a rich and broad experience.’ As we now know, the bill for all this, estimated by Sir Kevan to be around £15bn, proved too much at this stage and we wait to see what may emerge from the Treasury spending review later this year. For instance, there’s already some talk of costings going on for extending the school day, but the issue of priorities remains critical. 

For many people in education the Education Secretary’s launch this week of a Call for Evidence on behaviour policies in schools was an example of misplaced priorities. Gavin Williamson has made this an area of priority for him for some time and is keen to have updated guidance on matters like ‘removal rooms’ and mobile phones in place later this year. No one would dispute the importance of such features in what the Education Secretary called ‘calm classrooms’, but with pupils and teachers facing the realities of disrupted teaching and learning and grappling with any number of concerns from exams to mental health, is this where the government should be putting its energies? Geoff Barton of the Association of School and College leaders (ASCL) thought not. “Frankly, school and college leaders would prefer the Education Secretary to be delivering an ambitious post-pandemic recovery plan and setting out how he intends to minimise educational disruption next term, rather than playing to backbenchers on the subject of behaviour.”

As for other priorities at the moment, many point to the issue of absent pupils and pupils having to self-isolate. Both have featured this week and represent two of the ‘four horsemen of the education apocalypse’ graphically identified by the Chair of the Education Committee as galloping towards our young people. The other two, by the way, were mental health damage and loss of lifetime earnings. 

The issue of absent pupils was highlighted in a report from the Centre for Social Justice this week. It examined data for last autumn term, the first term back after the initial lockdown, and found a big increase in the number of pupils ‘severely absent,’ – one in eight to be precise, including in special schools. Problems associated with school absence had been identified some years ago in the Timpson report, and have been exemplified in a further report from the Social Mobility Commission this week – and the lockdown appears to be exacerbating them.

And on self-isolation, the Education Secretary announced in a Statement to MPs that restrictions, including bubbles and sending groups home to self -isolate, would be lifted as part of the easing under Step 4 in July. Details came as the latest attendance figures showed a further increase in school absences as a result of Covid, with 279,000 pupils having to self-isolate because of a contact at school. There have been calls to have restrictions lifted and ‘Asymptomatic Test Sites’ (ATS) set up sooner, before the summer term ends perhaps, but the logistics, as unions have pointed out, may not be quite as simple as the government thinks.

In other Westminster news this week, the House of Commons published its report into the government’s Industrial Strategy now of course superseded by ‘The Plan for Growth.’ The Committee found the Strategy, developed during the Theresa May premiership, to be ‘complex and remote.’ “We would like the government to ensure that future industrial policy is easily understood at the grassroots of British industry and translatable to the everyday experiences of businesses in the UK,” it concluded. The MP Tulip Siddiq introduced a new Flexible Working Bill, requiring among other things, employers to include such arrangements in employment contracts. And a Lords Select Committee examined sport and recreation ahead of what the TV companies are calling ‘a great summer of sport.’

In other education news, the Times Ed surveyed teachers about whether GCSEs should be scrapped following the pandemic, with 22% agreeing but 59% disagreeing. As one respondent put it, ‘they’re not perfect, but they’re better than this,’ the 'this' being the current teacher assessed grading system. Ofsted updated its inspection handbooks for the start of term to reflect recent concerns about sexual harassment; the National Audit Office reported on school funding in England; the Graduate Route finally launched – providing more flexibility for international students post-graduation; and Student Unions gave evidence to the Student Futures Commission. But for many school children, concerns about the supply of Haribo sweets ahead of end-of-term events left a bitter taste.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Minister set to end automatic isolation for pupils in England.’ (Monday)
  • ‘More pupils sent home as Covid disruption soars.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘In-person graduation returns at Cambridge University. (Wednesday)
  • ‘Covid: Heads slam cynical attempt to shift blame.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Funding shifting away from poorest schools, says NAO.’ (Friday)


  • Industrial Strategy. The House of Commons BEIS (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) Committee published its report into the government’s Industrial Strategy pointing to a lack of ‘a clear direction of travel’ and suggesting that its replacement, The Plan for Growth, was also likely to suffer from the same failings.
  • Business Support. The government introduced its Subsidy Control Bill, a Bill intended to free-up decisions on support for businesses across the UK and create a more agile system for business and growth subsidies post-Brexit.
  • Chancellor’s speech. The Chancellor gave the traditional Mansion House speech setting out a roadmap for ensuring the financial services remain competitive, and announcing among other things ‘a world-first green savings bond’ and plans to make access to cash service readily available. 
  • Gigabit take-up. The advisory group, set up by government last year to look into helping businesses shift to gigabit-capable networks to deliver more agile services issued its final report highlighting a lack of funding, awareness and digital skills as current barriers and setting out a number of time-limited recommendations to move things along.
  • Data Agreement. The government announced that an agreement had been reached with the EU for the free flow of personal data between the UK and EU under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) making personal data exchange for research, crime and other services easier to operate.
  • Social mobility and ethnicity. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) published a briefing paper as part of its work under the Deaton Review into Inequality, looking into what happens to different ethnic groups as they move into work, suggesting that while many second-generation ethnic groups perform well in the education system, this tends not to be carried through into employment rates. 
  • Emerging labour market. The Resolution Foundation published new survey evidence on the UK labour market, suggesting that for many, things were gradually returning to normal with four in five furloughed workers now back in work and vacancy rates high but on the flip side, hours worked were still low, wage growth was limited and some sectors like hospitality, were clearly struggling. 
  • Living Standards Audit. The Resolution Foundation published its latest major audit of living standards in the UK indicating that while the economy and labour market were picking up, there’s still a long way to go with many workers stuck on furlough, older workers less likely to find work and household debt, particularly among low-income households, high.
  • Winding furlough down. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) reflected on the next stage of the winding down of the furlough scheme which commenced this week suggesting that two groups, middle/high earners and those with savings/high earning spouse, were the most likely to notice the fall in government support if they become unemployed.
  • Small business concerns. The Federation of Small Businesses expressed concern about a funding gap for small businesses with furlough and other support measures winding down as of this week, calling on government to re-consider its ‘timeframe for support’ with potential lockdown easing still two weeks away.
  • EU travel. The EU formally launched its Digital Covid Certificate, implemented on a voluntary basis over the last month by a number of EU countries, but now available across the EU through national authorities in digital or paper form to enable free movement across member states. 

More specifically ...


  • School funding.The National Audit Office (NAO) reported on school funding in England five years on from a previous report, indicating that the national funding formula had made funding ‘more predictable and accurate’ but that any increase over the last five years had been taken up by rising pupil numbers, Covid costs had not been accounted for, and the funding gap between advantaged and disadvantaged regions had hardly improved.
  • Call for Evidence. The government launched a six-week Call for Evidence on a range of behavioural issues in schools including the use of mobile phones and so-called ‘managed moves,’ ahead of the issuing of proposed new guidelines.
  • Managing Covid. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) wrote a stiff letter to the Prime Minister responding to reports that the government was criticising schools over the way they were managing Covid and reportedly sending whole classes home when cases were identified. 
  • Inspection Update. Ofsted updated its inspection handbooks for schools for this September with inspectors now required to look at how schools deal with issues of sexual harassment and abuse, even if none is reported, as well as implementation of the Baker careers guidance clause, with inadequacies in either likely to lead to downgraded inspection judgements.
  • Inspection data. Ofsted published latest data on its round of school inspections carried out between September 2020 and March 2021 showing the number of ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools remaining high and importantly, 99% of monitoring inspections showing that schools were providing ‘effective education’ during the pandemic.
  • Missing Kids. The Centre for Social Justice reported on the issue of ‘missing pupils,’ pupils who were absent more than present when schools returned after the first lockdown last autumn, calling for specialist attendance monitors, more support home-support workers and greater focus on such pupils through the national tutoring programme to help tackle the problem.
  • Against the Odds. The Social Mobility Commission and Wolverhampton University’s Education Observatory reported on socio-economic disadvantage among secondary school pupils in England indicating that despite the pupil premium and school strategies, the progress gap was widening with absence rates a key factor, calling for a pupil premium primer to help school leaders make better use of data and context.
  • Assessment services. GL Assessment which works with FFT Education to provide assessment service support for schools confirmed it was offering its Year 7 Transition Service again this year as well as extending its target setting service to Years 8-11 as well.
  • Mental health concerns. The charity, Mind, reported on its survey of secondary school pupils in England showing that as many as 96% of those surveyed reported that mental health issues had affected their school work let alone triggered behavioural and other problems, calling among other things for Support Hubs and better access to services.
  • Lost schooling. The Economist examined the impact on pupils around the world of school closures during the pandemic, noting that in many global regions there already were great inequalities in provision and attainment which could now be heightened, calling on governments generally to invest in the future.
  • Central leadership teams. The National Governance Association (NGA) published a new briefing on creating central leadership teams in multi academy trusts (MATs) suggesting various trends in their evolution, noting how important such teams can be in driving forward wider collaboration but noting some weaknesses in governance recognition.
  • Widening participation in governance. The National Governance Association (NGA) highlighted evidence from its annual governance survey showing under representation by certain groups including ethnic minorities and young people, calling for changes to recruitment processes and for a more inclusive culture to help improve things.
  • Lit in Colour. Penguin Random House published new research as part of its ‘Lit in Colour’ campaign with the Runnymede Trust showing an extensive lack of representation of authors from ethnic backgrounds in the teaching of English Literature, with only 0.7% of GCSE English Lit students studying a book by an author of colour and only 7% studying one by a woman.


  • Restart guidance. The government published guidance for providers of the Restart scheme, announced as part of last year’s Spending Review and intended to provide tailored support for those looking for work, with an initial focus on those who have been on benefits for between 12 and 18 months.
  • Inspection Update. Ofsted updated its inspection handbook for colleges from this September with inspectors now required to look at how providers deal with issues of sexual harassment and abuse, even if none is reported, with inadequacies likely to lead to downgraded inspection judgements.
  • CareerTech Challenge. The Learning and Work Institute published a final report from its work on Nesta’s CareerTech Challenge which looked at developing digital solutions for those looking to navigate the labour market, citing among its conclusions the need for a central labour market data repository along with local level support.


  • Graduate route. The Home Secretary welcomed the formal launch from the 1stof July of the new Graduate Route which will allow eligible international graduates to remain in the UK for up to 2 years to work or look for work.
  • Graduate careers. JISC reported on the career prospects for young people using evidence from the national careers website hosted by Prospects and finding considerable career uncertainty among university and college students with many concerned that the pandemic year had left them with limited experiences, particularly work experience, and looking for post grad and/or further training as important options.
  • Tackling mental health. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) announced a series of funded projects to help understand and tackle mental health issues among young people, with eating disorders, the impact of childhood and adolescent resilience among the seven, university-based projects listed.
  • Understanding mental health issues. The government published a commissioned report looking into how the higher ed sector currently (prior pandemic) manages its support and provision for students with mental health and wellbeing concerns, finding most collecting data and feeding this into various forms of service provision but recognising that gaps persist and further strategies needed.
  • More on mental health. The government published a further commissioned study into mental health issues affecting young people, in this case using cohort evidence to compare disorders between those who went to higher ed and those who didn’t, suggesting a slightly higher level among the former group, often starting in the school years but disappearing by their mid-20s.
  • Strategic partner. The Student Loans Company launched a new procurement process to find a third strategic technology partner ‘to support and enhance a range of internal and external services and applications,’ with a 4thexercise due to go ahead later this year. 
  • Online learning. The education technology company 2U announced it had joined forces with edX, the online learning platform developed by Harvard and MIT, to create a global force in online learning, improve educational outcomes and ‘advance next generation learning experience platforms.’
  • New Chief. Million Plus announced that Rachel Hewitt, currently Director of Policy at the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) would take up post as its Chief Executive in August 2021.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “I was a little confused when the assistant in Waitrose was waiting for me at the self-service till because she 'knew I'd have alcohol!' She later explained that she saw my school lanyard and as it's Friday and I'm a teacher she knew I'd be buying alcohol! #shewasright” | @Mr_SmithEd
  • “Did you ever do a careers test thing at school? Mine said I should be a barrister... or a publican” | @guywalters
  • “It's very weird starting a new job in the same flat at the same desk where you were doing your old job” | @adebradley
  • “Today is my first day in my new school. I feel so nervous but excited to observe and get to know the staff and routines before having my own class in September” | @missbjones4
  • “Youngest son just after school pick up. ‘Hello, best mummy in the world, I've been saving this hug for you.' Eldest son at school bus pick up. ‘Don’t get out the car. Just drive. OMG why are you so embarrassing?' Nailing this #parentingthing” | @GeorgieR30
  • “Three Lions being played on loud speakers in the school playground for drop off. I’m totally here for this” | @DuncanWeldon
  • “90% of the computer help I offer is simply standing behind the person while they demonstrate the thing that wasn't working but suddenly it works now I'm standing there” | @scrapegroat

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “The furlough was an exceptional policy for extreme times, unprecedented times” – the Business Secretary on the winding down of the furlough scheme.
  • “We’re committed to offering you the flexibility for hybrid working (a mix of working from the office and from home) where role, tasks and location allow” – UBS becomes the latest big employer to go for hybrid working in future.
  • “I want to put an end to this, making the school day mobile-free” – the Education Secretary launches a Call for Evidence on mobile phones in school.
  • “Feeble” – Sir Kevan Collins gives the Education Committee his view on the money allocated for catch-up.
  • “If your family food budget is going down to the last penny each week, then having children at home snacking all day can drive you over the edge” – @ the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights the pressures on some families as more school children are having to self-isolate.
  • “So, even when there are no specific reports, schools and colleges must assume that it is taking place and plan to address it accordingly” – Ofsted sets out its new approach for inspecting sexual harassment in schools and colleges.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 115. How many days of learning pupils have lost on average as a result of the pandemic, according to Sir Kevan Collins.
  • £500m. How much universities lost last year in income from additional sources like accommodation and catering due to Covid, according to data from the HE Statistics Agency summarised by the Times Higher.
  • 932. The number of ‘contract cheating websites’ offering students essay writing services, an increase year on year according to the QAA.
  • 40. The number of applications received by the DfE to lead a Local Skills Improvement Plan Trailblazer as part of the Skills Accelerator programme, according to an answer in Parliament by the Skills Minister.
  • 86%. The number of schools judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ in latest inspections, as of 31 March 2021, the same figure as the previous year according to latest data from Ofsted.
  • 59%. How many teachers rejected scrapping GCSEs following the pandemic, according to a poll by the TES.
  • 93,514. The number of pupils ‘severely absent’ from school last autumn during the first term back after the pandemic, according to the Centre for Social Justice.
  • 87.4%. The attendance rate for pupils in state schools in England as of last Thursday, down from 89.7% the week before according to latest government figures.
  • 33%. The number of state schools in England running a school sports day this year albeit reduced in scope, according to Teacher Tapp.
  • 53% and 42%. The number of secondary school parents and primary school parents respectively who would ‘definitely’ want their child to be vaccinated if offered it, according to the Office for National Statistics.
  • 6.4%. The number of young people, largely males, who had carried or used a weapon in the last year, according to evidence taken as part of the Millennium Cohort Study by the Institute of Education.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • AoC Learning Week. (5-9 Jul).
  • Education Committee pre-appointment hearing for the Chief Regulator of Ofqual. (6 July).

Other stories

  • Taking the pulse on university fees. The cost of going to university remains a major source of debate in this country and there are continuing rumours that the government is preparing to look at different funding approaches. This week, the polling company YouGov tested out public opinion on the matter, finding that compared to many other European countries where fees are either lower or non-existent, Brits feel that higher education is expensive, in some cases too expensive. Most respondents favoured a system of funding partially by taxpayer and partially by students. Compared to some of our European competitors, 40%, also think that too many people go to university, similar to numbers in Germany but higher than those in France. A link to the survey is here. And here
  • To boldly go. They don’t make for easy reading and there’s plenty of corporate language to contend with but the five main technology trends for 2021 set out in Accenture’s Tech Vision report, make for interesting reading. They include: ‘architecting the future,’ using data to create ‘a mirrored world,’ democratising technology, bringing your own environment, and developing multi-party systems. As the report says, ‘Leaders don’t wait for a new normal, they build it.’ And it’s around these five trends, that the building should take place, apparently. A link to the report is here.
  • Office space. An interesting article in the FT this week by Sarah O’Connor on the need to re-design the office to enable those who can work there to do so. This comes of course as big companies and governments consider the case for new working arrangements. The article suggests that the rush to open plan has not necessarily been good for productivity or employee welfare. Constant social interaction can lead to some people wanting to withdraw or feel an outsider. And when it comes to office design, colours like blue and green help stimulate yet most offices have fairly sterile primary colours. Quiet corners, collaboration spaces, these are what’s needed in the future, apparently. A link to the article 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