Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 13 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:

It's been pretty much all about exams this week.

The results have been widely covered across most media outlets. There’s also been some excellent analysis including from Ofqual, FFT Education Datalab, the Education Policy Institute, the Sutton Institute and Sam Freedman among others as well as the mainstream media like FE Week, Schools Week and the Times Ed.

So, what are the key takeaways?

Let’s start with the A’ level, BTEC and L3 results. Three main stories emerged here:

First, and most obviously, A- level grade inflation, a worry given the need for confidence in the exam system. The issue has ignited this year because of what the media described as ‘a soaring rise’ in top grades at A- level, nearly double that of 2019. There are caveats. For example, increases varied by subject, higher in music and PE, lower in maths and sciences. Nor were they uniform across the country, the highest increase was in London, the lowest in the North East, let alone across centre types, although independent schools did scoop up a lot of top grades. There’s also the point that different assessment systems this year and last make comparisons about grades with previous years 'meaningless' (in the words of the National Association of Head Teachers). 

The government has been keen this year to prioritise student progression – given the difficult circumstances many have faced – and favoured a system of teacher assessed grading (TAG). Teachers and students who worked within that system did all that was asked of them, but as former DfE adviser Sam Freedman explained, "it wasn’t ‘exams as we’ve known them, but a completely different system, with no clear rules". Many have thereby questioned the lack of uniformity. There’s talk of a return to streamlined exams next year with mitigations and of a numerical grading system to help alleviate the problem. Lots of Commissions, from The Times to the NEU, are currently looking at the future of exams and assessment, and the Institute for Government has published its own report this week. The worry is that not much in the way of vision is coming from government. It’s why conservativehome awarded the Education Secretary an 'F' exam grade this year.

By contrast, outcomes for technical and vocational qualifications, taken by increasing numbers of candidates, were relatively stable. According to Ofqual’s analysis, 'in most cases there have not been any substantial changes to the general shapes of the grade distributions, suggesting general stability across 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021'. This is perhaps surprising given the disruption to practical activities, assignments and placements that form the bedrock of much vocational learning. But as the Education Policy Institute – which is investigating differences in last year’s A’ level and vocational assessment for a new report – outlined, grade distributions tended to balance out. It rather raises questions about whether it’s wise to dismantle some of this system before another has gained confidence.

Second, disadvantage and attainment gaps, the sorts of things the Social Mobility Commission was highlighting in its State of the Nation report last month. Things don’t seem to be improving here, although as Ofqual acknowledged, it’s hard to determine whether this is due to the pandemic or to the different assessment arrangements. Its Equality Analysis report suggests ‘male candidates, candidates with SEND, candidates in secondary selective schools, sixth form and tertiary colleges, have seen, from 2019 to 2021, a small decrease in outcomes (small changes not exceeding 0.2 grade) relative to prior-attainment matched candidates of their respective comparator group.’ And has been widely reported, the gap between independent and comprehensive schools – let alone for different regions of the country in terms of top A’ level grades – notably widened this year. Broadly, existing attainment gaps, for disadvantaged and black students in particular, appear to have hardened, but on a more positive note, girls’ performance has continued to outstrip that of boys. 

Third, university entry. Has the increase in the number of top grades put a squeeze on the number of places available, especially among elite universities? And will disadvantaged applicants miss out? The Russell Group of universities said its members ‘would be working hard to accommodate as many students as possible’ but acknowledged that 'there has been unprecedented demand for places this year' and that ‘on some courses, universities may not be able to accept those who narrowly missed their offer grades.’ UCAS reckoned on results day that a record number of 18-year-olds in England had been accepted at their first-choice place, including a record number of disadvantaged students. And the Office for Students added a warning shot, reminding universities that they had a duty ‘to honour places to students who meet their offer’. It remains to be seen how Clearing plays out and whether options such as apprenticeships have any impact.

Next, GCSE and other L2 other results, where many of the same issues emerged. As with A-levels, the numbers gaining top grades (that’s 7 or above) increased, but not as dramatically, up just under 3% on last year but also variable by subject. Again, independent schools scooped up most of the top grades and girls outperformed boys notably in those. And equally large numbers of students, over 200,000, gained important L2 BTECs. Issues of curriculum choice, grade inflation and distribution, and of a widening attainment gap appear therefore entrenched throughout the education system. 

But here again, there are some specific issues to note, three perhaps that stand out:

First, the core subjects of English and maths, vital staging posts for progression. The pass rate here, where grade 4 represents a standard pass, was 80.9% and 77.9% respectively. A relief for many, but still only a modest improvement overall. Colleges tend to have to pick up those who need to boost their grades in these subjects, but the resit requirement is challenging and many think, unfair. The numbers of 17+ students passing this year increased, but the chief executive of the Association of Colleges argued ‘it’s now time to rethink how we assess young people and adults who do not achieve grade 4 the first-time round’. 

Second, the challenges facing many of this year’s candidates and the evident widening attainment gap has prompted further calls for a detailed education recovery plan. The Education Policy Institute has already argued for a £13.5bn investment; the Social Mobility Commission called for a targeted extension of the pupil premium beyond 16; while the Labour Party called for a guarantee of ‘next steps’ support. When asked about it all in the day’s media round, Nick Gibb cited the proposed £3bn+ investment from government and national tutoring scheme. Calls for a visible investment recovery plan are unlikely to go away.

Third, thanks to the hard work of a lot of people – teachers, exams officers, parents and others – students have received their results as promised and on time. But the exercise has raised big questions about the future. What further arrangements are needed for exams next year? When will exams return to ‘normal’? Should teacher assessment continue to play a role? Should exams at age 16 even continue? Schools and colleges will be looking for answers to these questions very soon.

In other news this week, but still on exams, Sam Freedman outlined some interesting ideas on future exams in a report for the Institute for Government. His recommendations included a resilience strategy and clear baseline for next year and a full review of future options. The Labour Party and the HR body, the CIPD, both honed in on young people and how best to support their progression. Labour talked about a ‘Next Step’ Guarantee while the CIPD announced a campaign to work with employers and create more opportunities. Meanwhile, the government topped up the #iwill ‘volunteering’ fund for young people. 

Elsewhere, a major new ‘red alert’ report came out on climate change. And the debate about working from home continued with recruitment agency Reed among a number of agencies highlighting an increase in job adverts that include an element of working from home. On the other hand, some big employers are suggesting a loss of perks if you work from home. US Google is the latest in this camp. There’s some weighing up to be done. One question Google can’t answer.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘A’ level results: students have been treated fairly, watchdog.’ (Monday)
  • ‘A’ level results: top grades reach record high.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Record numbers of school leavers in England snap up university places.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘GCSE results 2021: Record passes and top grades. (Thursday)
  • ‘Don’t leave us out of A’ level reform debate, say universities.’ (Friday


  • Climate change. The government called for ‘urgent global action’ as it responded to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as it set out some ’sobering’ messages ahead of the COP 26 Conference in November.
  • Climate awareness. The British Chambers of Commerce and O2 launched a free online hub to help businesses get guidance and support on becoming net zero as it released new survey data showing that only 13% of surveyed businesses have set targets to reduce emissions and 22% don’t fully understand the term ‘net zero.’
  • Next Step Guarantee. The Labour Party called on the government to ensure that this year’s exam students, who have faced such disruption to their education, should be offered a ‘Next Step’ Guarantee of a place on their preferred path of choice.
  • Youth volunteering. The government added a further £2m to its #iwill Fund which, matched by National Lottery Funding, works with organisations to fund and support volunteering and community activity opportunities for young people.
  • Daughter of Furlough. The TUC published a new report calling on the government to build on the success of the furlough scheme and establish a permanent short-term scheme to support working people through future similar disruptions.
  • Uneven recovery. The Resolution Foundation looked into labour market recovery in Britain pointing to a pretty mixed picture with some regions bouncing back quicker than others but much depending on the nature of local business, so for example tourist spots picking up with summer visits but city centres remaining flat.
  • Piping in broadband. The government announced a new three-year project to test out whether fibre broadband could be fed through the existing network of water pipes to see if this could be a cheaper and quicker way of connecting fibre optic cables. 

More specifically ...


  • Exam results analysis. Ofqual published its report into this summer’s A’ level exam results for students in England incorporating a number of charts and analysis showing performance by region, subject and centre type.
  • Equality analysis. Ofqual published an accompanying equality analysis for this summer’s A’ level results suggesting that existing attainment gaps for some groups, notably free school meal and black students, have widened but that the reasons for this were hard to ‘disentangle’ from the pandemic or the change in assessment arrangements.
  • A’ level results analysis. The Education Policy Institute offered its analysis of this summer’s A’ level exam results highlighting among other things the ‘significant’ increase in top grades, the fall in AS entries, the increase in performance by girls, and the grade differential with vocational subjects.
  • Subject trends. The Joint Council for Qualifications reported on subject trends for A’/AS levels for summer 2021 showing maths, psychology and biology once again as the top three subjects in terms of entry numbers. 
  • Main A’ level exam trends. FFT Education Database provided its regular analysis of subject entry and grading trends for A’/AS for summer 2021 including a helpful chart of grades by subject over the last three years.
  • GCSE picture. The Joint Council for Qualifications outlined overall trends and data for this summer’s GCSE results in an accompanying press release.
  • GCSE analysis. The Education Policy Institute published its summary analysis of this summer’s GCSE results pointing to a smaller increase in top grades than at A’ level, wider distribution for ‘standard C/4 grades and continuing high performance by girls.
  • More GCSE analysis. FFT Education Datalab provided its analysis of this summer’s GCSE results providing data behind grade increases, subject trends and attainment gaps.
  • Thanks are in order. The Education Secretary wrote to teachers as part of exam results week to thank them publicly for their work on delivering this year’s exam results. 
  • Exams of the future. The Institute for Government published a new report written by Sam Freedman looking at how exams should shape up in the future as we come out of the pandemic, calling for a comprehensive resilience strategy to be drawn up for next year’s exams, 2022 exams to be based on the 2020 baseline and DfE and Ofqual to conduct a full review of secondary assessment.
  • Digital Poverty. The Digital Poverty Alliance and Dixons Carphone released new survey data claiming that nearly half of teachers surveyed (47%) lacked adequate tech facilities at home suggesting that this was hampering remote learning provision, calling in response for a stronger national digital poverty strategy. 


  • Vocational qualification results. Ofqual published its report into this summer’s technical and vocational qualification results pointing to a continuing increase in numbers and only small increases to the distribution of grades.
  • Youth employment. The CIPD launched a new ‘One million chances’ campaign encouraging employers to create one million opportunities, from apprenticeships to internships for young people aged 16-30 as they emerge from a difficult 18 months of the pandemic and face a challenging labour market.
  • Press coverage. David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC) called on the TES to review its recent decision to abandon its coverage of FE news, particularly with it being such a pivotal moment for the sector
  • Inspections. Ofsted confirmed some changes to its inspection handbook for this September bringing expectations on sexual harassment and online abuse for independent providers and 16-19 academies in line with the rest of FE. 


  • Regulator reminder. The Office for Students (OfS) congratulated A’ level/BTEC students on their results but used the occasion to remind universities of their obligations to accept those students who have been offered a place and have met requirements as well as to provide the forms of learning promised.
  • Grade inflation and access. Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the OfS argued in a comment piece for Wonkhe that there were many positives from the rise in top A’ level grades, not least the opportunity for more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to progress to university, calling on institutions to deliver their commitments accordingly.
  • Student loans interest rates. The Student Loans Company set out the latest interest rates and loan thresholds as announced by government recently for undergrad and postgrad loans for the coming year.
  • What do we want from university? Emma Tomkin, marketing manager at the social enterprise Unifrog, highlighted some of the messages from their recent research into the views of those looking to go to university, suggesting that demand will continue to remain high but that prospective students were looking for in-person teaching and high levels of support.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “The rubbishing of existing vocational quals to promote untried T-Levels will go down as one the crassest political tactics in education of all time” | @TomBewick 
  •  A worrying results day development as students are refusing to jump in the air for the photograph. Apparently it’s a bit naff “ | @Framheadteacher
  • “Does anyone know how Jeremy Clarkson did in his A-Levels?” | @nickhillman
  • “My husband and I have entered the stage in the pandemic of "I can't get the wifi to work" ... "Well what do you expect me to do about it?" | @faraghrobertson
  • “There really is nothing worse than listening to other people’s work calls. A powerful reminder of the amount of absolute guff that powers the corporate world” | @hannahfearn
  • “Billion dollar idea: an app that sends you a text after hanging out with people that just says, "No, you weren't weird, and no one is ruminating on that thing you said that you think was super awkward" | @everywherist
  • “What do you call a nervous javelin thrower? Shakespeare.” | @Dadsayjokes

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “The Secretary of State is definitely on a journey to realising fees don’t work. We’d love to chat with him about how we could get towards our vision of funded, accessible and lifelong education – but he’s been too busy to meet us the past few times we’ve asked” -the NUS respond to the Education Secretary’s comments about tuition fees.
  • “You have my deepest gratitude for continuing to step up to this challenge with such dedication and determination” – Gavin Williamson thanks teachers ahead of this year’s exam results.
  • “Exams are a bit like a snapshot, a photograph - you capture an instant," -the interim boss at Ofqual seeks to reassure that teacher assessed grades are just as good.
  • “Seldom in life, beyond education, are we locked in a room and then required to recall information or create a coherent narrative in a time-limited period, without access to information or permission to speak with others” – the V.C. of the University of the West of Scotland challenges the traditional concept of exams.
  • “If you just brand it 1-9 it doesn’t solve that problem” – Keir Starmer on using numerical grades for A’ levels.
  • “It is therefore invidious to make direct comparisons with other years and vital that we celebrate the achievements of this year’s cohort who have had to endure so much over the past 18 months” – ASCL’s Geoff Barton on reading this year’s L3 results.
  • “I wonder though, whether stepping away from editorial and news risks long term damage to the Tes brand” – the AoC calls on the TES to re-consider its decision to scrap reporting on FE matters.
  • “New analysis of government figures that we have published today shows that there are kids in classrooms of more than 40, 50, 60, even 70 pupils in a single class” – Labour reports on class sizes.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 4.8%. The growth in the UK economy between April and June 2021, slightly below predictions according to the latest official figures.
  • 44.8%. The number of A*/A grades awarded for this year’s A’ levels, up from 25% in 2019 according to latest official figures. 
  • 34.7%. The number of 18 yr olds in England accepted for degree courses this year, up from 30.4% last year according to UCAS.
  • 340,000+. The number of certificates issued for technical and vocational qualifications this year, according to the DfE.
  • 29.1%. The number of female students who gained an A* in A’ level maths compared to 28.5% of male students, overtaking boys for the first time according to the Joint Council for Qualifications.
  • 79.1%. The percentage of entries achieving the traditional C/4 and above benchmark in this year’s GCSEs, up 0.3% on last year, according to latest official figures.
  • 30.2%. The percentage of entries gaining a top grade of 7 or above, up just under 3% on last year according to official figures.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Parliamentary recess. (22 July – 6 September.)

Other stories

  • We’ve had Book Lovers Day this week, Monday to be precise, a day when people across the country are invited to share the joy of books. To mark the occasion, YouGov reported on a topic that often causes considerable debate, namely how we organise our bookshelves: by size, colour, author or? It’s all taken on added importance with Zoom sessions regularly honing in on bookshelves which are often carefully positioned to display personality. According to the survey, the average Brit owns over 50 books and when it comes to organising them, prefers to line them up in any old order, with men apparently preferring a more ‘anarchic’ bookshelf than women. A link to the survey is here.
  • How we used to live. Many people have been fascinated by the new report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) which has managed to pull together census data from between 1961 and 2011. It paints an interesting picture of how much life changed during those 50 years. The population has obviously increased but it has also proportionately become much older. That said people were more cramped in homes in 1961, 7% of households didn’t have an inside loo and many didn’t have a fixed bath. Home ownership has notably increased over the years and that appears to have helped improve living conditions. A link to the report is 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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