Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 09 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:

Three top stories this week, apart from football of course. They include the future lifting of Covid restrictions – including for education settings; a big report on the economy, setting recovery costs in context; and the latest data on university applications for this year.

The easing of Covid restrictions for education first. These followed the Prime Minister’s press statement at the start of the week hailing the potential move to Step 4 of the roadmap, a 'now or never' moment as he saw it, and the transition to a five-point plan for living with Covid. Education details came a day later in a Statement to MPs by the Education Secretary and the release of a further batch of operational guidelines for schools, colleges and universities, who by now must be dreading the thud of another set of guidelines.

The thrust, as the Education Secretary explained, was to establish ‘a more proportionate set of controls.’ This means lifting such measures as bubbles and face masks and following simpler public health advice on testing and self-isolation in line with the rest of the country. Details were set out in the sector specific guidance.

The various announcements came as the latest figures showed a worrying rise in infection rates and the Prime Minister admitting things were ‘finely balanced.’ The Education Secretary defended the position for schools – where the latest figures revealed 561,000 pupils self-isolating, 34,000 pupils with a suspected case of coronavirus, and 28,000 with a confirmed case – by arguing that test and trace measures would remain in place and that things needed to get back to normal for kids. Unsurprisingly, Ipsos Mori’s latest monthly Index shows a rise in public concern about Covid.

Rising numbers apart, a few other points are worth noting about the announcement. First, not everyone has been enamoured by the timing. After all, it’s probably a bit late to organise an end of term event at this stage. Schools have discretion over whether to adopt the new arrangements for the final few days of term and the government claims the announcement will ease things for summer schools and for the start of the autumn term. But at the end of the day and with rising case numbers, it all appears rather awkward. Second, this isn’t just a case of schools and colleges throwing off the chains and running free. They will still be expected to operate control measures like ensuring good hygiene and cleaning, let alone have ‘outbreak management plans’ in place for if the worst happens, and of course provide on-site Covid tests for the start of the autumn term. Some of this remains under review but it’s still quite a burden. Third, what about exams and assessment next year? Many people want clarity on these. When questioned on the matter by MPs, the Education Secretary promised to ‘share information before the summer’ on mitigations at least, but as the Shadow Education Secretary said in a speech this week, schools need to know sooner rather than later, and detailed please. And fourth, what most people in education are yearning for is a clear, funded recovery plan. No sign of that yet.

Talking of recovery plans takes us into costs, and these were put sharply into perspective this week with a hefty report from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR.) The report was a sort of health check on the main risks facing the UK economy, an exercise that the OBR conducts every couple of years. This one focused on what it called ‘three large and potentially catastrophic sources of fiscal risk,’ namely the pandemic, the transition to net zero and government debt. 

And the one posing the biggest risk to the government’s fiscal plans according to the report is the legacy costs left by the pandemic. It calculates these at £10bn a year for three years comprising £7bn for the NHS, £2bn for rail and tube services and £1bn for catch-up schooling. And that’s before other listed demands such as for social care, the courts and overseas aid. It perhaps explains the Treasury’s response to the recent education recovery plans and rather puts the Spending Review in perspective. The FT has a good summary of the 240+ page report here.

Next, university applications, where this week UCAS released the latest data for this year as at the end of June. The press release in a nutshell is optimistic. ‘UCAS is predicting that increases in applications and offer-making will see a record number of students starting university or college in the autumn.’ 18-year-olds and for those from disadvantaged backgrounds are included, but there are nuances. Not every HE institution will benefit and EU numbers are down. Wonkhe has a useful summary of it all here.

In Westminster news this week, the Education Secretary questioned Jo Saxton, the government’s preferred candidate for the role of chief regulator at Ofqual, who among other things reckoned she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and when it came to next summer’s exams, said she was keen to see them happen as far as possible. The Lords began ploughing through the Skills Bill as it reached the Committee Stage with a long list of education minded peers keen to speak. The Industry and Regulators Committee published an exchange of letters it had with the Exchequer Secretary about a lack of direction in the government’s ‘Plan for Growth.’ And one year on from the launch of the landmark Plan for Jobs, Ministers fanned out across the country to highlight how important it had been in helping support jobs and businesses.

In other education news listed below, the government launched consultations on the school funding formula and initial teacher training. The Headteachers Roundtable Group published their thoughts on education recovery with proposals on inspections, funding and accountability. The British Council published its latest annual report on language trends in schools, while the British Academy announced a new Committee on Languages in higher ed. Radio 4 has been running an interesting series of ‘Rethink’ programmes over the week focusing on education, with topics including the exam system, the curriculum of the future, and the role of technology in education. A link here. Pearson held its Annual Awards ceremony for BTEC learners – virtual this year but still special – while the week has also seen Celebration Day for Institutes of Technology, with some flag waving by the Minister. The think tank ResPublica held the first of its Lifelong Learning Commission evidence sessions looking at funding on this occasion, while another think tank, the SMF, looked into young people’s perceptions of the future. Not very positive in many cases, sadly.

The top headlines of the week:

  • Manchester University sparks backlash with plan to keep lectures online.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Huge surge in number of pupils sent home due to Covid.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Longer school days is the right thing to do, says PM. (Wednesday)
  • ‘Records set to tumble as 311,000 UK teenagers apply for university. (Thursday)
  • ‘Higher GCSE grades boost lifetime earnings, DfE finds.’ (Friday)


  • Easing Covid restrictions. The Prime Minister announced a potential lifting of Covid restrictions from the 19 July coupled with a 5-point Plan (vaccines, personal responsibility, limiting self-isolation, tougher border controls, and monitoring the data) to support living with the virus in the future.
  • Digital regulation. The government launched a new Plan for Digital Regulation based around three principles (promote innovation, achieve forward-looking outcomes, address international challenges) intended to simplify regulatory policy and red tape and position the UK as a digital leader for the future.
  • Plan for Jobs. The government marked the one-year anniversary of the launch of the Plan for Jobs by highlighting the number of people, jobs and businesses that had been helped by it and the schemes, like Kickstart, that formed part of it.
  • Fiscal Risks Report 2021. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) published its latest report on fiscal risks for the UK economy setting out three ‘potentially catastrophic risks’ including the ‘extraordinary shock’ to UK public finances caused by the pandemic, the challenge of meeting net zero and the cost of public debt.
  • Labour plans. Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor, outlined Labour plans for the future of the UK economy, proposing among other things favouring British business and buying British where possible, supporting local industries, and developing the skills and apprenticeships for the jobs of the future.
  • Labour market matters. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) offered further assessment of the impact of the pandemic on the labour market in a briefing funded by the Rowntree Foundation, suggesting that while government policies such as the furlough scheme had limited some of the worst effects, groups such as young people, single-adult households and some ethnic groups were likely to suffer longer-term effects.
  • Not yet out of the woods. The Resolution Foundation reported on the impact of the pandemic on young people looking to enter the job market, in a briefing funded by the Health Foundation, showing that many 18–24-year-olds were worried about future employment opportunities and how far poor mental health might affect their future job prospects.
  • Glass half full? The Social Market Foundation published a new report examining how young people (16-25 yr olds) felt about the future and their outlook on life generally, suggesting this had taken a knock following the Global Financial Crisis leaving many from less affluent backgrounds less positive about their futures, calling as a result for better peer support and access to extracurricular activities to help develop more confidence in their futures.
  • Levelling Up. The Institute for Community Studies reported on the importance of communities in helping levelling up, highlighting how deprived communities have tended to miss out in the past and calling for a new Levelling Up Commission along with new locally led partnerships to help redress the balance.
  • Food standards. The Food Foundation reported on progress made against its ten metrics for a healthier, more environmentally friendly diet including affordability, advertising and child obesity, finding cost and access to healthy foods still an issue with little improvement in closing diet ‘inequalities.’

More specifically ...


  • Latest Covid guidance. The government issued updated operational guidance on the easing of restrictions from Step 4 for schools, with masks, bubble groups and social distancing no longer required, appropriate health and hygiene procedures maintained, testing as required and contact tracing through NHS Test and Trace where necessary.
  • Making the case. The government published an Evidence Report setting out the thinking and evidence behind its proposals to ease Covid restrictions in schools, colleges and early years settings suggesting that the risks were lower and benefits greater than for many other relative groups.
  • Fair funding. The government launched consultation on the further development of the National Funding Formula (NFF) that would see all NFF funding factors included as part of a gradual, non-time constrained transition to a new ‘hard’ formula which could leave some schools better off than others.
  • Summer exams 2021. The Joint Council for Qualifications set out in a little reminder where we are in the exam process so far this summer with a useful listing of what happens next.
  • Exams 2022. The Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green, called on the government to set out its plans for exams and assessments for next year by the at least the start of the school year in September to help schools and pupils with their planning.
  • GCSE returns. The government published new commissioned research using Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data to examine the financial returns on those who took GCSE exams between 2001 and 2004, showing an uplift in lifetime learning for those who achieve an additional grade, albeit varying by subject.
  • Learning loss. The LSE and Exeter University published a new report looking at learning loss for school pupils across the UK suggesting on average that pupils had lost about a third of their learning time since the pandemic started with those in Wales losing the highest (66) number of days and those in England and Northern Ireland the least (61.)
  • Missing school. FFT Education Datalab looked into the issue of school absences in state funded schools for Year 11 pupils for 2020/21 so far, a particularly important issue given this year’s exams results, concluding that the absence rate was around double that of 2018/19, with disadvantaged and special needs pupils disproportionately affected.
  • Performance across the nations.The Education Policy Institute examined the development of children in terms of cognitive skills across the four UK nations since devolution as part of a wider Nuffield funded research project, throwing up regional differences but needing more evidence to confirm the reasons behind.
  • Keeping Children Safe. The government published its latest hefty statutory guidance for schools and colleges on keeping children safe in education, due to take effect for Sept 2021 with a number of ‘substantive’ changes to the 2020 version, including on sexual abuse, online safety, bullying, and system procedures.
  • SEND matters. The Local Government Association (LGA) called, as part of its virtual conference, for the government to get on and publish its promised review into the SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) system, arguing that demand for such services had soared making it one of its main challenges.
  • Language Trends. The British Council published its latest annual report on language teaching and learning in schools in England indicating that Covid had made the last year particularly difficult with a drop in international activities and even in some cases, languages provision in primary schools but with language teachers now more proficient at online delivery and Spanish growing in popularity.
  • ITT Consultation. The government launched a summer consultation on potential changes to Initial Teacher Training (ITT) as proposed by the recent Expert Group market review of ITT setting out a new set of quality requirements and a ‘robust’ accreditation process for ITT providers along with more intensive school placements and quality mentoring, intended to be in place over the next year.
  • Rethinking assessment. The Edge Foundation reported on its latest panel event as part of the move towards rethinking assessment with Kate Green, Shadow Education Secretary, and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Psychology Professor, offering their thoughts.
  • Education Paper. The Headteachers’ Roundtable think tank published (at the end of last week) its own version of an education recovery plan in the form of an alternative White Paper built around proposals for accountability (eg suspending Ofsted grading,) resources (eg 3-yr guaranteed per pupil funding levels) and assessment (eg establishing subject grade criteria in exam subjects.)
  • Early career teachers. The Institute of Education launched a new, free online course, hosted on FutureLearn, intended to help participants plan and support early career teacher development via the Early Career Framework (ECF.)
  • Teaching about sex and gender issues. Ofsted reported on its discussions with schools about teaching, sex, sexual orientation and gender reassignment matters using case study evidence to highlight some of the challenges schools have faced and how many have overcome them with the need for continuing guidance and support evident.
  • Big Careers Conversation. DMH Associates, which specialises in the area of careers guidance, launched a major new research survey into careers provision in England which will remain open for views from Yr 7,9, and 11 pupils as well as from head teachers and employers.


  • Latest Covid guidance. The government issued updated operational guidance for the easing of restrictions from Step 4 for FE providers, broadly covering the same ground as for elsewhere in education with masks and bubble groups no longer required, appropriate health and hygiene procedures maintained, testing to continue and NHS Test and Trace overseeing contact tracing where necessary.
  • Skills Bill. The Association of Colleges listed the amendments to the Skills and post-16 Education Bill that it was hoping peers would support as the Lords Committee stage of the Bill began..
  • Professional qualifications. The FT highlighted gaps in the Professional Qualifications Bill currently going through the House of Lords but where a number of sectors appeared to be missing from the original listing of foreign professional qualifications seeking recognition in the UK post-Brexit.
  • Institutes of Technology. The government updated its information on Institutes of Technology with a latest listing of local Institutes and confirmation that an announcement about successful wave 2 applications would be made this autumn.
  • NEET stats. The House of Commons Library Service published a briefing on young people (16-24) not in education, employment or training (NEET) where numbers had been falling prior to the pandemic but which have since risen particularly for those with few qualifications, with disabilities or from certain ethnic groups, some of whom have been untouched by policies intended to help.
  • Employer investment in skills. The Learning and Work Institute with NOCN examined employer investment in skills suggesting that this was already unequal and falling before the pandemic, let alone falling sharply during it with government funding tending to reinforce existing inequalities, proposing as a result a follow-up report to look at remedies. 
  • Russian partnership. WorldSkills UK followed up its recent partnership agreements with WorldSkills Korea and WorldSkills Japan by signing an agreement with WorldSkills Russia.


  • Latest Covid guidance. The government issued updated operational guidance for the easing of restrictions from Step 4 for higher ed providers, broadly covering the same ground as for elsewhere in education with masks no longer required, appropriate health and hygiene procedures maintained, testing to continue, NHS Test and Trace overseeing contact tracing, and traffic light arrangements for international students.
  • Freedom of Speech Bill. Universities UK published a briefing on the Freedom of Speech Bill which is due its Second Reading next week, outlining three areas (how it fits in with existing duties and legislation, safeguards against vexatious claims, role clarification) where it was seeking greater clarification.
  • 2021 applications. UCAS reported on the latest set of figures for this year’s applications and offers as of the end of June deadline showing a continuing rise in applications and offers, including for UK 18 yr olds but a drop in EU applications.
  • Paying the price. The Office for Students (OfS) followed up recent consultation by setting out how it would seek fines from providers that breach registration conditions, proposing these would be based on a provider’s ‘qualifying income,’ mitigating factors would be considered and a settlement discount entertained.
  • Postgrad student survey. The Office for Students outlined the progress being made on developing a survey of taught postgrads with further work to develop a questionnaire due to take place over the summer.
  • Trends in modern languages. The British Academy and University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) announced the creation of a new Strategic Committee for Languages in HE to monitor and support the uptake of modern languages at university following their report showing a mixed picture with a decline in French but an upturn in some other languages and provision.
  • Student fees. Nick Hillman, director at the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) provided a useful summary of current options for the student fee loan system including examples from other countries, presented as part of a recent event.
  • Student Futures. Meg Price, President at Worcester SU, reported back on the Wonkhe site about last week’s session for the Student Futures Commission which heard from various Student Unions about needing to be listened to, the challenges of adapting to blended learning, and the importance of getting things back to ‘normal.’
  • Membership offer. The QAA launched its membership offer for 2021/22 with a range of activities and events built around five themes including ‘Beyond Covid,’ ‘Global Engagement’ and ‘Securing Academic Standards and Quality.’

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Is it possible that the best (perhaps only) reason for going back into the office is to have access to a working printer? Asking for humanity” | @stefanstern
  • “Seen on a message today - 'Thank you for your time and patients.' Oops!” | @WirralGov
  • “Who will be the first person misheard on telly or radio saying Mask Debate? It’s only a matter of time” | @That AlexWoman
  • “Isn't coffee part of the teacher standards or the Nolan principles or something ?” | @tractorcop
  • “As it happens I have read Marx's Capital but I don't like to boast about it" seems to be Twitter's new "As it happens I went to Oxford/Cambridge but I don't like to boast about it" | @sarahoconnor

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “It will no longer be necessary for government to instruct people to work from home, so employers will be able to start planning a safe return to the workplace” – the PM plans for the easing of lockdown restrictions from 19 July.
  • “I would love to be able to travel but at this point I just want to travel to the office” – young professionals tell the FT they want to get back to normal.
  • “I do feel that for various reasons now we are moving into a different age. We are moving out of the age of the 50 per cent and perhaps into the age of everyone” – Sir Philip Augar, author of a major report on post-18 learning, on adult learning for all.
  • “That, my Lords, is a grammar school curriculum” – former Education Secretary Lord Baker derides the ‘Gove’ curriculum reforms in a debate on the Skills Bill.
  • “We estimate that in the second half of the autumn term the gap in education loss between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers remains at around half a month” – the School Standards Minister responds to a Question in Parliament about the attainment gap in schools.
  • “Schools that were last inspected before the start of the pandemic can expect their first routine inspection to be up to 6 terms later than they would have been inspected” – Ofsted sets out a reminder on school inspections.
  • “Teaching responsibility is really important, but I don’t think that needs to go with mobile phones in school” – the Children’s Commissioner on mobile phones in schools in England.
  • “Can we honestly say that a rushed consultation about the future of ITT over the summer break will ensure that any changes will be properly debated and scrutinised?” – the Chartered College reacts wearily to the government’s latest ITT consultation.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 87. The number of risks to the UK finances listed in a new risk register by the Office for Budget Responsibility.
  • Nearly £80 bn. How much the government provided in the form of emergency loans to business during the pandemic, according to the Treasury.
  • 682,010. The number of applicants for university courses this year, up 4% on the previous year according to latest figures from UCAS.
  • 43%. The number of teachers surveyed who agreed with the scrapping of bubbles in schools, according to Teacher Tapp.
  • 630,000+. How many pupils were absent from state funded schools in England last week due to Covid-related issues, according to the latest government figures.
  • 5% - 20%. The average absence rates for Year 11 pupils in state funded schools in England for 2020/21, the highest of any Year Group according to FFT Education Datalab. 
  • 20%. How many state schools currently have a language assistant, dropping to 10% in less advantaged areas according to a new report from the British Council.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • 2ndReading of the HE Freedom of Speech Bill (12 July)
  • Big Education’s ‘Lockdown Stories’ virtual event. (14 July)
  • Wonkhe @home event with IDP Connect on ‘international HE. (15 July)
  • Pearson Maths Festival. (16 July)

Other stories

  • What’s keeping us awake at night? This week the polling company Ipsos Mori published its latest monthly Index of the sorts of things that people have concerns about. The research was undertaken before the recent announcement of easing lockdown restrictions and the reported rise in cases, yet show coronavirus and the pandemic remaining, and slightly increasing, as the major concern for the majority of the British public at 56%. The economy, NHS and Brexit constitute the next three concerns, all in the 20+% range and interestingly and perhaps because of the debacle over the recovery plans at the time, education has risen up the list, emerging as the fifth highest concern at 21% among those surveyed. A link to the survey report can be found 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