Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 06 August 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:

A three-parter this week with a quick look ahead to next week’s exam results days, a roundup of the top education stories from this week and a run through some of the top stories from last week when Education Eye was away.

Let’s start with next week and those important exam results days. 

The TAG (teacher assessed grading) system adopted for GCSEs and A’ levels this year means schools and colleges already know most of their results. The hope is that things will be less stressful this year as a result, especially for students as the TES outlined this week in its helpful explainer of the TAG system. Vocational assessments have largely followed procedures used last year.

That said, issues such as the attainment gap, grade inflation, parental pressure, disadvantaged pupils, and appeals, have all featured in the build-up. The Sutton Trust’s recent YouthSight survey on the impact of the pandemic on this year’s university admissions, underlined the extent of concern around some of these issues. The bottom line was that nearly half of those surveyed reckoned the pandemic was likely to have harmed their chances of getting into a university of choice. They may want to note the recent comments from the head of UCAS that when it comes to university entry, ‘a tsunami of appeals’ was unlikely as most applicants would get a place of choice or a suitable alternative. Many school leavers, as UCAS has also pointed out, are considering apprenticeships and of course there’s a range of other important L 2 and 3 results also being published next week. Fingers crossed for all. 

Next, some of the top stories from this week where three reports stand out. 

They include first a critical report from the Institute for Government on the government’s handling of school education during the pandemic. The UK was not alone in being unprepared for a crisis of this magnitude, but the report argues that the Westminster government failed to learn lessons from the start. ‘The fact remains,’ the report says, ‘that much could have been handled better.’  It points to confusing messaging, the failure to provide a 2021 contingency plan and a lack of involved decision making as examples. It felt like an ‘I told you so moment’ for many. It’s all rather compounded by a paper cited this week in which researchers at Cambridge and UCL looked at how much guidance and instructions schools were sent by government during the first lockdown. They found what they described as ‘an avalanche'. On one occasion, 12 separate documents were published in a single day, five of which called for immediate consideration. No wonder headteachers were bemused.

Second, a major new report from the student mental health charity, Student Minds, on student and staff mental health. It’s based on ‘listening’ evidence gathered over the last 14 months and provides another powerful set of data. It calls for better access to services, support funding and a flexible approach to learning provision. 

And third, a report from the Legatum Institute using evidence from its 2021 Prosperity Index to provide much-needed depth to the government’s concept of levelling up in ‘Red Wall’ areas. A couple of statistics make the point. A higher proportion of adults have no qualifications in these areas and life expectancy is lower.

In other education news this week, 16/17-year-olds have been invited to get the jab as it becomes available. Consultation closed on proposals for next summer’s exams with not everyone on board. Here for instance is a tweet from former D.G. at the DfE Jon Coles. “Exams 2022: doesn’t feel like the government consultation which closed yesterday addressed the three key issues at stake. Also not enough focus on A level. And proposed adaptations too modest.” Debate continued about exam fees as the last major exam body announced its rebates for this year. And the government confirmed grant funding for flexi-job apprenticeships following recent consultation.

Finally, on to some of the main education-related stories from last week.

At the start of the week, the PM co-hosted the latest meeting of the Global Partnership for Education with resources for much needed schooling in poorer countries a big challenge. The government published its Disability Strategy and Labour set out the principles of a new deal for working people, including quality jobs and security at work. The Education Committee called for a formal register of home educated children, and the DfE confirmed details of the National Tutoring Programme for 2021/22. Elsewhere, the creative industries highlighted the importance of the sector in a new report and the Onward thinktank examined community decline and its impact on young people in an interesting new report under the title ‘The Age of Alienation.’ 

 In higher education, plans for vaccine passport for university students were shelved, at least for the time being. According to the Foreign Secretary who was the duty sergeant for the day, the government would make a formal announcement next month. "We will certainly make sure university students have advance warning,” he declared, although September doesn’t give much time. Elsewhere in HE last week, the Office for Students divvied out the grant funding for providers for 2021/22,  the QAA, delved into the future of HE post-pandemic in its latest Quality Compass, and Cambridge University invited bids for a further 30 ‘Stormzy’ scholarships this year.

In FE, discussion continued about the future funding and provision of qualifications like BTECs  following the government’s recent pronouncement on prioritising T levels and pulling funding from many applied general qualifications such as BTECs. Leading education bodies wrote to the government condemning the move as ‘reckless’ and likely to close off opportunities for young people. Former Education Secretary Lord Baker also entered the fray, describing the proposals as ‘an act of educational vandalism.’ As many have said, the move sits badly with other government proposals to level up and comes of course just as young people need all the help they can get to progress into employment or further training. The House of Commons Library Service published a useful summary last week of the whole issue with particular reference to BTECs. And there’s also a petition to Parliament which can be found here.

As for schools, Ofqual published two research reports into last summer’s grading processes indicating that while the centre assessed grading system did lead to some adjustments being made, there was no evidence of ‘any substantial bias or differences in patterns of grades.’ 

But the story that attracted most comment last week was about Latin. This followed the government’s proposal to launch a £4m scheme to encourage take up of the subject along with heritage visits for some of England’s state schools from next year. Mary Beard described its as ‘good news,’ others were a bit more ‘What have the Romans ever done for us? As this tweeter put it: “I have an '0’ level in Latin. Its sum use was shouting “ECCE!” when a teacher was coming down the corridor.” Not sure if it did the trick.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Why schools face a Covid ‘culture shock’ next term.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Bidding opens up for flexible apprenticeship funding. (Tuesday
  • ‘Vaccines to be offered to 16- and 17-year-olds within weeks.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘DfE swamped teachers with new rules at Covid outbreak, study finds. (Thursday
  • ‘A’ levels: Bumper year for top grades predicted.’ (Friday


  • Vaccines for 16/17-year-olds. The government confirmed that it would make a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine available for 16/17-year-olds in the UK
  • with future advice on other age groups to follow after the summer.
  • Investment Big Bang. The PM and Chancellor wrote an open letter to UK institutional investors calling on them to open up investment in the UK and create a ‘Big Bang’ in investment to help drive UK growth.
  • Furlough concerns. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) suggested that thousands of jobs (anything between half a million to over a million) could be at risk as the furlough scheme ends next month, calling on the government to reframe the scheme to be able to respond to future health emergencies and other economic shocks.
  • UK economic outlook. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) published its latest economic outlook for the UK pointing to GDP growth up slightly to 6.8% over the year with unemployment peaking at 5.4% and inflation hitting 3.9% by the start of next year before falling. 
  • SME manufacturing. The CBI reported on its latest quarterly SME (Small and Medium Enterprises) Trends Survey showing a big increase in employment and manufacturing output but concerns about the future availability of skilled labour.
  • Levelling up issues. The Legatum Institute published further data from its latest UK Prosperity Index showing that compared to the rest of the country, ‘Red Wall’ areas suffered from poorer levels of adult skills and a lack of access to business loans, making levelling up an even greater challenge.
  • Circular economy. The Green Alliance thinktank reinforced its call for the government to do more to stimulate the circular economy of repairing, remanufacturing and reusing products rather than throwing them away, arguing this would not only be environmentally friendly but would stimulate jobs and skills.

More specifically ...


  • Schools and Coronavirus. The Institute for Government reported on the government’s handling of education during the pandemic giving it some credit for measures like the laptop scheme but pointing to a range of significant failings including failing to develop contingency plans for this year, failing to work with officials and local authorities and failing to learn lessons from the first lockdown.
  • Contingency plans. The National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) called, in its response on next year’s exam arrangements, for the government to confirm in September, the contingency arrangements for the exams, arguing that details came out far too late this year.
  • Summer exams. Professor Smithers published his annual review of the summer exams suggesting it will be ‘a bumper year for top grades in A’ levels’ and raising concerns about grade inflation and the future nature of exams generally.
  • Exam fees. Pearson confirmed it would be returning 33% of its exam fees for GCSEs, AS/A’ levels this year explaining how, despite the cancellation of exams this year, other costs needed to be accommodated.
  • Fee rebates. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) called for Ofqual to undertake a review of exam fees this summer following the different levels of discount offered by exam boards this year, suggesting a level playing field needed to be applied.


  • Financing growing numbers of 16-18 learners. The Association of Colleges (AoC) highlighted the growth in number of 16–18-year-olds over the coming years, potentially up 90,000 by 2024/5 with many likely to be seeking learning and training, calling on the government to adjust the funding formula to allow for such training to be supported.
  • ESFA review. The government announced that a review would be undertaken into the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) as part of the standard review cycle of arm’s length bodies, with the review to be led by Sir David Bell and to complete by early next year. 
  • Flexible apprenticeships. The government invited bids to a new £7m grant fund, developed following consultation to support flexi-job apprenticeships that offer a range of roles and placements in sectors like construction, adult social care and digital.
  • Current flexibilities. The Institute for Apprenticeships confirmed that some of the flexibilities adopted to support apprenticeships throughout the pandemic will start to be removed from the end of the year but with seven, such as remote assessment and simulated environments, being retained as good practice.
  • Interest in apprenticeships.UCAS examined the options facing UK 18 yr olds currently without a confirmed university/college place this year, indicating that many were interested in apprenticeships, hoping to continue to learn and earn at the same time but in many cases short of adequate careers advice.
  • Apprenticeship needs. The New Statesman reported in a new comment piece on the current state of apprenticeships, reflecting current concerns about how the levy was being appropriated for higher level training and reinforcing calls for a greater focus on younger people, small firms and low skilled workers. 
  • Skills training. The British Chambers of Commerce reported on its recent research showing many employers were likely to release staff, especially older staff, as furlough drew to a close, calling on the government to extend skills training support to avoid largescale redundancies.
  • Digital skills. The Local Government Association (LGA) outlined how local councils were supporting tech industries as well as skills training in their respective areas, highlighting future growth hotspots and likely local interventions needed as numbers grew.


  • Studying abroad. The government confirmed the numbers of students, including some from schools and colleges, entitled to work and study abroad this year under the Turing scheme, claiming that for university students it exceeds the number under the previous Erasmus scheme.
  • Lifting the cap. The government announced that it would provide additional funding for increased numbers of eligible candidates to take medical and dentistry courses this year to help support the NHS.
  • Life in a pandemic. The student mental health charity, Student Minds, published the results from its latest major listening survey into staff/student mental health during the pandemic with ¾ of students saying their mental health had been negatively impacted and calling, among other things, for direct student support funding.
  • Student Voice. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) and EvaSys published a collection of essays on the role of the student voice, how it can best be captured and acted on. 
  • External examining. Universities UK and Guild HE announced they were working with the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) to help strengthen external examining systems, looking at such issues as sector recognised standards, external examiner criteria, and transparency and consistency generally.
  • EU staff and students. The British Academy examined the latest picture on EU staff and students in UK HE based on HESA data, highlighting their importance to UK research, communities and higher education generally, and calling on the government to do what it can it can to ensure they can continue to participate and contribute as widely as possible.
  • Cyber security. QAA and JISC joined forces to issue guidance and advice to HE institutions on protections against cyberattacks, highlighting the importance of back-up measures, multi-factor authentication and recovery systems. 
  • Fixing lifelong learning. The Times Higher reported on Jo Johnson’s recent speech to the House of Lords in which the former Universities Minister highlighted the flaws in the ELQ (Equivalent or Lower Qualification) rule and urged the government to resist further funding restrictions for L 4-6 courses, arguing their importance to lifelong learning.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “What’s Latin for ‘the DfE still don’t have a plan for schools reopening in 5 weeks’ time?’ | @ShuaibKhan26
  • “I learned Latin at school but it was useless" is the new "I went to Oxbridge but hated every moment" | @youanyi_z
  • “Can’t wait for the 13yo to wake up so I can ask him why he’s not winning Olympic medals” | @horrocks_simon
  • “My children go to secondary school this year. They are ready for this. I still want to cuddle on the couch and watch Peppa Pig and Jake and the Never Land Pirates. I may be less ready for this” | @chrismcd53
  • “Greggs has returned to profitability, reports the BBC. Back on a roll” | @OliBarrett

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “It was really beneficial to me when I was starting out in my career” – the Chancellor highlights the benefits of being back in the office.
  • “The biggest threat to office working isn't feckless members of Generation Z who don't know what's good for them: it is the large number of businesses opting to make a permanent saving by freeing themselves of the cost of their office estates, and outsourcing the costs of everything from heating to the office supplies to home workers” – the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush on office working.
  • “It is essential that the board has the range of skills, knowledge and experience required to be the independent regulator of a sector which is of such strategic importance to the UK, including representation of the diversity of the higher education sector” – the Office for Students (OfS) invites applications as non-executive directors.
  • “A university that treats its students primarily as customers is merely an institution; one that listens to its students is a community” – HEPI director Nick Hillman on the value of student voice.
  • “There is still a very good chance that this particular can will be kicked further down the road” - Professor Andy Westwood on Augar. 
  • “A welcome step” – the chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC) on news that 16 and 17 yr olds will be offered the vaccine.
  • “The students will arrive to collect their results to be greeted by an ice cream van, barbecue and congratulatory banners” – schools tell the TES how they’re handling socially distanced but valued results days.
  • “You have not tasted adulthood – freedom, regret, mortality – until you’ve sat down in the “dentist’s chair” and felt the Rushkinoff Caramel Liqueur hit the back of your throat” – Sarah Carson tells the i newspaper about the post-exam bender, a rite of passage for young people but in danger of being squeezed out by the pandemic. 

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 20-25%. The number of civil servants back in the office at the DfE, according to the Skills Minister in an interview with Times Radio.
  • 19. The number of EU states not requiring a visa or work permit from UK musicians for short-term tours, according to the government.
  • 18%. The number of businesses who said they may have to make redundancies as furlough tapers off, according to a survey from the British Chambers of Commerce.
  • 660,000. The number of jobs likely to need the furlough scheme when it ends next month, according to the New Economics Foundation.
  • 10.4%. The proportion of adults in ‘Red Wall’ seats with no qualifications, a third higher than in the rest of the country, according to the Legatum Institute.
  • 40,000. The number of students projected to benefit from working and studying abroad over the coming year under the Turing scheme, according to government figures.
  • 201. The number of policy updates sent out to schools by the DfE between March and June last year, according to researchers from Cambridge and UCL.
  • 23. The number of hours a week the average executive spends in meetings, according to a commentary from The Economist.
  • £10.7bn. The drop in spending by international tourists compared to pre-pandemic times, largely in London, if current travel restrictions are not lifted according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR.)
  • 61%. How many people would support a law protecting them from not having to respond to emails and other communication outside core office hours, according to research by Savanta ComRes for the Labour Party.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • A’ level and other L3 results published. (10 August.)
  • GCSE and other L2 results published. (12 August.)
  • Parliamentary recess. (22 July – 6 September.)

Other stories

  • Glued to the screen. Apparently, adults in the UK spent a third of last year glued to a screen of some sort. A daily diet of 5 hours, 40 minutes to be precise. The details appear in the latest of those reports from Ofcom which regularly report on viewing habits. The core factor last year of course was the pandemic which left people locked down for long stretches. The big winner appears to be subscription streaming services especially Netflix. There’s also been a slight increase in time spent watching traditional broadcasting though largely by the over 45s and largely on live sport and programmes like Line of Duty. A link to the report can be found here.
  • Olympic spinoff. Have the Olympics galvanised us into action, perhaps encouraged us to take up sport or a fitness regime? According to Ipsos Mori who conducted a global survey among 29 countries although admittedly before the Olympics, people in the Netherlands are the most physically active, spending on average 12.8 hours a week per person on exercise. GB came out as half that on 6.3 hours a week, the same as the US and Australia but well ahead that of the least active country, Brazil, with 3 hours a week. A lack of time, money and poor weather, were cited as the top barriers that prevent people from participating. A link to the survey 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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