Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 16 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:

The end of term looms but things still keep coming.

The ‘things’ this week include a couple of important consultations on next year’s exams and assessment; a pile-on of other consultations for FE plus plans for pressing ahead with its level 3 qualification reforms; a sketchy speech by the PM on levelling up; a major new National Food Strategy with an expansion of free school meals one of its proposals; and a rash of reports on re-thinking government structures post-Covid, including plans for a National Resilience Strategy (it’s a thing apparently ...). 

Links as usual to all these below, but here’s some context on two of these, the level 3 qualification reforms and, first of all, plans for next year’s exams.

An update on next year’s exams was promised by the Education Secretary last week and duly arrived in the form of two joint (with Ofqual) consultations this week. Huge questions about the future of exams and assessment post-pandemic remain and at least six leading groups are on the case – from The Times Education Commission to the Rethinking Assessment Group. For the moment however, two questions stand out: when will formal exams return, assuming they do,  and how best to mitigate things for those who’ve had such disruption to their learning over the past year? 

On the former, the return of exams, the consultation was quite clear: ‘it is our firm intention that exams will return to normal in 2023.’

On the second question, that of providing mitigations for 2021/22 candidates, the School Standards Minister, Nick Gibb, spelt out the government’s line in a Statement to MPs. “The government has made clear its intention that exams and other assessments should go ahead in the academic year 2021/22. In order to ensure that they can go ahead fairly, however, we must recognise that students in the 2021/22 cohort have experienced significant disruption to their education, and we are proposing that exams and assessments in 2021/22 should be adapted to take this into account.” 

It was these ‘adaptions’ that formed the basis of the two consultations launched jointly by the DfE and Ofqual this week. One dealt with arrangements for vocational, technical and other general qualifications – essentially rolling forward this year’s arrangements of permitted flexibilities to assessments, but not teacher assessed grades – and the other covered GCSEs/A’ levels.

For GCSEs/A’ levels, the consultation is proposing a number of one-off measures including: providing students with advance information so they can focus their revision; providing formulae sheets in GCSE maths and some sciences; paring back some practical requirements; and providing some choice about the topics to be covered in such GCSEs as English Lit, history and geography. The aim is to have things confirmed early next term, although given further consultation on how best to grade next year’s exams, some aspects may take longer. 

The government claimed to be guided by the principles of ‘fairness, flexibility and certainty’ but not everybody’s happy. Many feel leaving things to the start of next term is too late. ‘This should have been put to bed weeks, if not months ago,’ reckoned the National Association of Headteachers. There’s also concern that some teachers have spent much of the year teaching topics that will now be optional. ‘The proposed changes leave us screwed,’ one geography teacher told the TES.

Next, a few words on the government’s plans for so-called level 3 qualifications, typically taken by a wide range 16–19-year-olds. It’s a part of the qualification system that governments have been fessing over for many years, citing the need to tidy it all up, drive up quality and strengthen routes for young people. The emergence of T-levels has hastened the imperative with the government now pushing for a tripartite route map of A-levels, apprenticeships, and T-levels, with only a few alternatives, notably some BTECs, eligible for funding. Not everyone agrees that such pruning of options is a good thing. The Sixth Form Colleges Association, for instance, argued “The proposals … have the potential to be hugely damaging to the prospects and life chances of young people in England.” Others have argued in a similar vein and it’s likely – given the current worries about skill needs and young people’s progression – that this debate will continue. The published responses to the consultation show where some of the deepest divisions lie, particularly over removing some funding and narrowing of options.

For the moment at least, the government’s plans, set out in a policy statement are for a phased introduction of reformed qualifications, starting with a Digital Pathfinder route from 2023 and scaling up to complete the system by 2025. The approval criteria for such qualifications have yet to be agreed but according to the Skills Minister, criteria ‘we can’t afford to wait any longer.’ Aside from learners, there will be significant implications for providers, who will have to adjust their provision and could lose enrolments, and for awarding organisations where a possible ten could see their publicly funded 16-19 L3 enrolments fall by 80% or more. Details are in the accompanying Impact Assessment.

In Westminster news this week, MPs debated the principles behind the HE Freedom of Speech Bill with strong views on all sides expressed. ‘A problem that exists largely in the mind of the Education Secretary’ according to the Shadow Education Secretary, ‘a culture war of our age … a battle for Britain,’ the view from a Conservative supporting MP; the Education Committee questioned the teacher unions about the impact of Covid on schools; the Public Accounts Committee took evidence on school funding; the Health and Social Care Committee published its report into the treatment of autistic people and those with learning difficulties calling for better facilities, training and resources all round; and the Treasury Committee looked at jobs, growth and productivity after coronavirus. Finally, the House of Lords debated the Early Years Foundation Stage with Lord Watson of Invegowrie calling for the introduction of the reception baseline assessment to be delayed.

In other education news listed below, Ofsted published its Annual Report and Accounts and the last two of its series of subject reviews, the Education Policy Institute called for more support for teachers’ continuous professional development, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) threw a lifeline to providers over clawbacks to its adult education budget, and the Office for Students reported on the latest National Students Survey with students still upbeat in many cases, despite having endured such a grim year.

And for those yearning to understand just what the Dept for Education is up to, it has just released its 2021/22 Delivery Plan mapping out its four priority outcomes for the year – with listings of outcomes, metrics, projects and programmes in each case. It all comes together here.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Pupils in England to get advance notice of topics in GCSEs and A’ levels.’ (Monday.)
  • ‘Universities plan for post-pandemic life.’ (Tuesday.)
  • ‘1.5m pupils out of school in England last week.’ (Wednesday.)
  • ‘Student watchdog concerned about mental health help.’ (Thursday.)
  • ‘Creativity crisis looms for English schools due to arts cuts, says Labour.’ (Friday


  • Levelling Up. The Prime Minister set out the presumed context behind levelling up ahead of a major White Paper on the subject this autumn, highlighting the importance of transport, education and skills, connectivity, fighting crime, high streets, and devolved leadership as key elements but with few details as yet. 
  • Spending Review. The FT set out the context for the Chancellor’s much anticipated autumn Spending Review with a range of commentators pointing out areas where difficult decisions will be needed.
  • On the road. Keir Starmer launched the first of what’s intended to be a series of ‘national conversations’ with voters in meetings across the country this summer with jobs, children’s recovery plans and industrial strategy among the topics on the table.
  • Latest labour market figures. The Learning and Work Institute provided a useful summary of the latest labour market figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing continuing signs of improvement with employment up over the last quarter to May 2021 and hours worked almost back to normal but recovery remaining patchy and young people continuing to be vulnerable.
  • ‘Reform or fail.’The Commission for Smart Government, set up to consider the structure of government departments and the civil service needed post-Covid, published its report calling among other things for a single app giving the public simpler access to a range of services, government depts to be housed in one building, and the PM granted powers to bring in outside advisers.
  • Call for Evidence. The Cabinet Office launched a Call for Evidence on the creation of a National Resilience Strategy, seen as an important planning tool in a post pandemic world with views sought on six core themes: risk, responsibility, partnerships, community, investment, and resilience in an interconnected world.
  • Green Jobs. The independent Green Jobs Taskforce, set up last year to look into the skills needed to transition to net zero published its report, arguing that ‘every job has the potential to become green,’ and declaring ‘a call for arms for government, industry and education to work together’ to build education pathways and skills, support the transition of workers to the green economy, and develop a sustainable investment plan to support it all.
  • Industrial Strategy. The Tony Blair Institute launched a new report on Industrial Strategy calling for a more strategic approach with a series of five-year mission plans set by government and an independent Office for Industrial Strategy overseeing national and local development.
  • Financial Stability report. The Bank of England published its latest report on UK financial stability indicating that the economy was improving but risks, related to the spread of Covid remained but endorsing that the banking system was strong enough to support households and businesses as the economy recovers.
  • Wealth gap. In the second of its series of reports on wealth in the UK, the Resolution Foundation looked at the impact of the pandemic on wealth distribution in the UK finding that, unusually, household wealth had improved for many through savings and assets but not equally, with the wealth gap between haves and have-nots growing noticeably. 
  • Four-day week. The Social Market Foundation examined the case for shorter working hours including a four-day week, arguing that those who stood to benefit were likely to be the most socially disadvantaged so any moves towards more flexi working needed to recognise the impact on different occupations.
  • Future work-life balance. Aviva reported on a series of surveys undertaken before and during the pandemic looking into future working relations, finding mixed views about hybrid working, with over a third suggesting their work-life balance has improved during the pandemic but many, especially women, unable to switch off from work and worried about burnout.
  • The treatment of those with autism and learning difficulties.The House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee published its report into the treatment of those with autism and learning difficulties, highlighting the lack of adequate facilities and poor treatment suffered by many.
  • Youth Summit. Young people from across 22 Commonwealth countries discussed education and the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in the first of a series of interactive summits for young people hosted by the Prince’s Trust and partnership organisations.
  • Summer holiday childcare. The TUC published a new survey report on summer holiday childcare, highlighting the challenges facing many working mums, 63% of whom in the survey haven’t got the childcare they need for over the summer, and calling on government to strengthen flexible working arrangements and invest in childcare.

More specifically ...


  • Next summer’s GCSE/A’ level exams. The government and Ofqual published a consultation on proposed modifications for next summer’s GCSE and A’ level exams including providing advance notice about the content in some subjects, with a choice of topics in some GCSEs and the provision of support materials in some GCSE maths and sciences.
  • Resit fees. The government confirmed that it was prepared to reimburse schools for exam fees for eligible resit candidates this autumn or those who missed last autumn’s series due to Covid, but expected that exam fee rebates would cover the costs in most cases.
  • Learning during the pandemic. Ofqual brought together its series of reports and literature reviews looking at learning during the pandemic particularly for exam pupils in England, arguing that it’s not so much a lack of learning as a lack of learning effectively that needs to be recognised as a factor in understanding this summer’s exam results.
  • More on school absences. FFT Education Database followed up its analysis last week of Year 11 pupil absences over the last couple of terms by doing the same for Years 7-10, pointing to a recent upward trend, varying by region but with the North East noticeably hit hard.
  • CPD for teachers. The Education Policy Institute reported on continuous professional development (CPD) for teachers in England noting there’s no formal CPD entitlement for teachers and many schools spend only a fraction of their budget (3%) on teacher CPD, arguing that a small increase in government funding a year (£210m) would generate significant return in pupil attainment.
  • Annual report and accounts. Ofsted published its Annual Report and Accounts for 2020/21 providing latest annual data on staffing, costs and governance arrangements for the organisation and showing how through lockdown year it had continued, either remotely or occasionally in person, its role of monitoring and inspecting provision, providing narrative and subject reports.
  • History matters. Ofsted published the last in its series of subject reviews, in this case looking at history provision and what makes for a high-quality approach, pointing to the importance of developing ‘layers of knowledge,’ the use of context and narratives, and working on knowledge and analysis simultaneously.
  • Fine tuning. Ofsted published another in its series of subject reviews, on this occasion looking at music in schools, highlighting how it can enrich both pupils and schools and listing a number of features, such as affording pupils space and time to develop awareness that can help determine high-quality provision.
  • Role models. The Education and Employers charity reported on the pilot under the Primary Future programme which saw leading professionals from all walks of life, link up with primary school pupils to talk about their jobs and encourage young people to think about their futures, inspiring many to focus increasingly on their attainment in school as a result.
  • Mental health concerns. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published two initial reports, with final reports due later in the year, looking into the impact of Covid on teaching/learning and pupils’ mental health and on special schools, with calls to provide more support and recognition that young people need wellbeing as well as catch-up provision.
  • Early Years Staff Wellbeing. The Anna Freud Centre and partner authorities reported on a lack of support for staff wellbeing in early years provision, launching a new, free resource pack, already used in a number of authorities, to help those looking for suitable help. 


  • Next year’s VQ exams and assessments. The government and Ofqual published a rapid turnaround consultation to enable next summer’s vocational and technical exams/assessments to go ahead using approved adapted assessments from awarding bodies as this year, but not teacher assessed grades, and some small changes to the Contingency Regulatory Framework.
  • Post-16 qualifications. The government confirmed it intended to press ahead from 2023 with its reform of post-16 L3 qualifications following recent consultations, acknowledging the place of some alternative qualifications like particular BTECs but confirming future provision and funding around ‘a streamlined system’ of A’ levels, T levels and apprenticeships.
  • Impact assessment. The government revised its Impact Assessment for its post-16 L3 qualification reform programme suggesting that providers as well as awarding organisations could face considerable disruption if not loss of enrolments as a result of the reforms, with some student groups also ‘disproportionately affected.’. 
  • Qualification reform. The Association of Colleges (AoC) called on the government to re-consider existing plans to drop funding for many L3 qualifications at a time when both individuals and the country needed a range of skills and training opportunities, and proposed T levels needed time to bed in.
  • FE Funding and Accountability. The government launched consultation on its plans, first set out in its Skills White Paper, for reform of FE funding and accountability, proposing a simpler system for adult skills funding through a new direct Skills Fund as part of a multi-year package and a new Performance Dashboard incorporating skills metrics as part of an institutional Accountability Agreement with particular roles for Ofsted and the FE Commissioner.
  • National Skills Fund. The government launched a consultation on the operation of the National Skills Fund and in particular how it can best meet the needs of learners, how far Skills Bootcamps meet requirements, what skills priorities people have, how far the qualifications on offer meet the needs of employers and what more could be done to promote the whole thing, with responses expected by 17 September 2021.
  • Skills Accelerator. The government published a list of successful applicants for Local Skills Improvement Plan trailblazers and Development Fund pilots.
  • Skills Bootcamps. The government published a listing of latest Skills Bootcamps offering free courses in Construction, Digital, Engineering/Manufacturing, Green Skills, and Rail. 
  • AEB clawback. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) moderated its approach on funding clawbacks for this year’s adult education budget (AEB,) sticking with the 90% threshold but allowing providers to submit business cases to avoid large-scale losses.
  • Making a Comeback. The Onward thinktank published a new report highlighting the demise in UK manufacturing over the last few decades despite its importance to many regions, calling for a National Plan with investment and incentives that could revive manufacturing and in turn help level up parts of the country.
  • ESOL after Brexit. The Learning and Work Institute examined the current status of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) with changes to both immigration and adult funding on the horizon, using research and case study evidence to consider the case for more flexible yet enhanced local provision as possible options for the future.


  • Latest student survey. The Office for Students (OfS) published the results from this year’s National Student Survey showing, unsurprisingly given the impact of lockdown, satisfaction ratings with course provision down particularly in some courses but students overall remaining fairly upbeat and positive about some of the experiences including the teaching.
  • And the future is? The Guardian reflected on options facing universities as they considered life post-pandemic with digital models a major consideration but alongside more familiar and socially-based activities that so often form the bedrock of a university student’s experience.
  • Covid and graduates. Warwick’s Institute for Employment Research published the latest in its Futuretrack study, looking here at those who graduated around the time of the financial crash in 2009 and who are now facing the effects of the pandemic as they move further into their careers with many, especially women, becoming more anxious about their careers particularly as they feared working from home created new potential for discrimination. 
  • HE Freedom of Speech Bill. Dean Machin, Head of Policy at the University of Portsmouth outlined in a blog on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) website two amendments (on academic freedom protections and on academics’ field of expertise) for the Freedom of Speech Bill as it underwent its Second Reading in the House of Commons.
  • Hands across the water. Russell Group leaders and their peers from research-intensive universities in Germany agreed to work together to protect free speech and academic freedom.
  • Sorting out the finances. The Student Loans Company published its annual update for students on applying for fee loan and maintenance loan support, with guidance on how to update finance applications. 
  • Uni Connect. The Office for Students (OfS) reported on the UniConnect programme, the programme that provides guidance and outreach support for underrepresented groups for university or college, highlighting the successes of the last year and setting out the proposed actions for the coming year. 
  • Universities UK and British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) launched a new campaign designed to highlight the role universities play in improving lives through sports and physical activity and vowing to help fill gaps in facilities left by the closure of some leisure facilities as the country emerges from the pandemic.
  • De-carbonise and de-colonise. The University and College Union (UCU) along with the NUS, Teach the Future and SOS-UK launched a campaign to encourage colleges and universities to set in place systems to de-carbonise and de-colonise by 2030.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Let’s stop pretending there are different jobs. There’s only one job and it’s emails” | @katehelendowney
  • “You have to either pay or pray,' a friend of mine once said of guaranteeing a decent education" | @Telegraph
  • “When I ask students of cohort-based courses what they want more of they rarely say “I want more lectures.” Instead they say “I wish there were more chances to meet other students, get feedback, do role playing exercises.” When in doubt, add more interactivity. Not more content” | @wes_kao
  • “Government needs to support the universities. Both of them” | @YesSir Humphrey
  • “On school timetabling: "As a senior leader, writing a timetable is one of the most important things you will ever do...Expect no thanks, but consider it a success if, after a couple of months, staff are still talking to you..." John Rutter, @invernesshigh in @tes. Pass it on?” | @jillberry102
  • “17th century musicians used to love having a big breakfast, sausage, bacon, egg, tomatoes, black pudding, beans, toast with tomato and brown sauce. The breakfast was called the Full Monteverdi” | @MichaelRosenYes
  • “Can someone please put my 6-year-old to bed?” | @juliasreading
  • “It's been so long since I used my digi-recorder I just tried to plug my mini-jack into my ear” | @AbiRankThomas

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “While the government is no longer instructing people to work from home, a return to the workplace should be gradual and businesses should follow the published guidance” – the PM on work arrangements for Step 4.
  • “We don’t want to decapitate the tall poppies, we don’t think you can make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer” – the PM has a go at explaining levelling up.
  • “Evidence from our survey suggests that the enduring legacy of the pandemic is likely to be widening wealth gaps” – the Resolution Foundation reports on the impact of Covid on household wealth in the UK.
  • “If we have, as I believe this legislation does, a law that allows people actually to come on campus as Holocaust deniers, to spread hate speech, anti-vaxxers – I don’t think that’s in the public interest” -Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green on the HE Freedom of Speech Bill.
  • “A completely useless way to describe what’s happening” -Sheffield Hallam Vice Chancellor, Chris Husbands, takes issue with term ‘blended learning.’
  • “'The government talks about levelling up. But scrapping BTECs would shut down a key entry route into higher education for those that don't take A levels” -the UCU responds to the government announcement on L3 qualification reforms.
  • “It’s a ridiculous deadline” – College Principals react to government’s plans to push ahead with L3 qualification reforms.
  • “In reality, all of this should have been put to bed weeks, if not months, ago” – the National Association of Headteachers reacts to the latest consultation on exams 2022. 
  • “To deal with the problem of ‘the forgotten third’ we could require all pupils to take online tests of basic literacy and numeracy when they are ready to do so” – former head and chair of the Independent Schools Council, Barnaby Lenon, tells Cambridge Assessment he favours online core tests for the ‘forgotten third’ of pupils.
  • “These days I’m taking it more in my stride, and though I am still too scatty and careless to be the great teacher I want to be, I am good enough to be able to answer honestly when people ask: “Do you love teaching?” The answer is yes” – former journalist Lucy Kellaway on her new midlife career as a teacher.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • £2.2bn a month. The potential boost to the UK economy of lifting restrictions from 19 July, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR.)
  • 2.5%. The UK inflation rate for June, up from 2.1% in May according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics.
  • 76%. The number of Chief Finance Officers expecting increases in hiring in the year ahead, according to the latest quarterly CFO survey by Deloitte.
  • 7,340. The number of full-time equivalent employees working in the DfE, according to its latest corporate details.
  • 11.2%. The number of pupils in state funded schools in England absent last week for Covid-related reasons, up 8.5% from the week before according to latest official figures.
  • 24m. The number of meals children could miss out on this summer, according to new data provided by the Labour Party.
  • 1m+. The number of children of key workers living in poverty, according to research commissioned by the TUC.
  • 1.35m. The number of laptops and tablets provided to schools, colleges and local authorities by the government since the scheme started, according to latest official figures.
  • £325m. The fall in overall spending on children’s services over the last decade, according to a report from leading children’s charities.
  • 70%. How many people in Britain expect to return to their pre-pandemic commute, according to a survey from PwC.
  • 47%. How many employees surveyed indicated that they had become less career focused as a result of the pandemic, according to a survey from Aviva.
  • 2. How many domestic holidays the average Brit is hoping to take this year, according to The Guardian.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Skills Commission report on Careers published (20 July.)
  • SMF panel event with Nick Gibb on school standards (21 July.)
  • Parliamentary recess (22 July – 6 September.)
  • Opening ceremony of the Olympic Games (23 July.)

Other stories

  • School catch-ups. How are schools around the world coping with catch-up programmes? Not particularly well according to the latest international survey. The survey, which comes from the combined forces of UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and OECD suggests that “Around one in three countries where schools are or have been closed are not yet implementing remedial programmes post-COVID-19 school closures.” 142 countries responded to the survey which was carried out between February ad May this year and while many countries are adopting some form of outreach to reach out to families and school children, low-income countries, for instance, appear to be struggling to provide effective hygiene conditions for pupils to return. A link to the survey is here.
  • The case for heading back to the office.  “Here comes a period of extraordinary innovation and change, in which millions of people are very attached to the idea of not coming to the office very much. It does not take the ruthless mind many minutes to work out what to do, once allowed: to turn up physically all day and every day, to be present to get the coffees and still there to turn off the lights, to be willing, cheerful and sociable. Soon, this hypothetical 25-year-old will be invited to join that office brainstorming, and then to write a report, and shortly to present it to the boss, and before long, despite the best will in the world to be fair on the part of the management, the omnipresent young worker will be promoted ahead of contemporaries who elected to work mainly from home." William Hague sets out the case for returning to work in an article in The Times and covered here on the conservative home page.

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.

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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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