Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 20 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:

Desperate international news of course this week, but back home three education stories stand out. They include the follow-up to last week’s exam results; an important report on funding post-16 provision; and the latest battery of statistics on the jobs market.  

The follow-up to last week’s exam results first, where it has felt like the morning after with discussions moving on from the latest results to the future of exams generally, particularly at age 16. The debate about exams at age 16 is not new. Various present and ex-Ministers pitched in on the theme ahead of results week, but the issue has been sharpened by the pandemic and the need for catch-up. Do we really need so many high-stakes exams for 16-year-olds and does the current approach reflect the balance of knowledge and skills needed by young people? 

This week various contributions have added to the calls for GCSE reform. Big Education’s Peter Hyman argued for a more inter-disciplinary approach; former exams regulator Isabel Nisbet proposed a move away from formal end-of-year exams; while the chief exec of the Chartered College called for a formative assessment model. “There is no longer a valid reason for high stakes exams at age 16,” she wrote. Elsewhere, work goes on to develop a National Bacc. Exams at age 16 remains a fraught area.

Equally contentious is the issue of assessment. This is a hugely important area and takes in a number of different facets from the role of teacher assessment to the future use of AI. The Independent Assessment Commission is one of a number of bodies working on it. “We are not anti-exams. But we are against an approach that assesses all young people based only on exams.” The Commission was cited in the Sunday papers this week and is due to report in October. Pearson also currently has a Commission looking at assessment, particularly for 14-19 provision. It issued an interim report in June and is also aiming for a final report this autumn. And this week the awarding organisation NCFE entered the fray, announcing a £1m fund to look into ‘innovative approaches to assessment, including the use of technology.’ This all comes as the government is said to be considering moving to a numeric grading system for A-levels for 2023, something that former UCAS boss Mary Curnock Cook argued had considerable potential, in an article appearing in the Times Higher this week. 

Before we leave this subject, it’s worth noting that not everyone at the moment is excited by a further bout of exam reform. English teacher and commentator James Theo, for example, who is organising a petition against more exam upheaval until things have calmed down, argued ”these calls are untimely, opportunistic and wrong.” He’s had considerable support on social media.  

Second, that important report on funding for 16–18-year-old provision. This came from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) and highlights the financial pressure facing sixth forms and colleges as student numbers rise and demands – including catch-up and increased staying on rates – intensify. The headline message is that a cash injection of £570m is needed next year. “If student numbers grow by 6% between 2020 and 2022 (in line with ONS projections), then total funding to colleges and sixth forms for students aged 16–18 will need to grow by over 9% in cash terms to keep spending per pupil constant in real terms between the 2020–21 and 2022–23 academic years.”

The report follows similar recent messaging from the Association of Colleges (AoC) and points to three specific issues. First, yes the government did pitch in an extra £400m last year, but the funding formula remained as it was while student numbers increased. Second, yes again, the government has provided a bit of funding for catch-up which will run to 2023/24, but this is hardly likely to be enough for colleges which traditionally have to do a lot of the catch-up work. And third, the drop in apprenticeship take-up by young people as well as the uncertainty over some vocational provision has created instability over some core provision. The Chancellor has a growing in-tray ahead of the Spending Review. 16-18 provision deserves to be near the top.

Next, that latest burst of data on the labour market and jobs described by Ministers as ‘positive.’ ‘Employment is up, unemployment is down, and there are now more than a million vacancies in the economy for the first time on record,’ reported the Institute for Employment Studies as it studied the latest figures. 

In terms of actual data, the HR body the CIPD published its latest quarterly survey showing that 69% of employers surveyed planned to recruit in the next few months, including in the more depressed sectors. The ONS meanwhile in its latest quarterly survey pointed to a record number of vacancies May – July 2021 and a 180,000+ increase in payroll employees, albeit still below pre-pandemic levels, and where the increase in pay needs to be treated with caution given the low base line. 

The British Chambers of Commerce, while welcoming the news, suggested unemployment could still ‘drift higher’ and called for training programmes like Kickstart to be extended. Much depends now on how the shift from furlough plays out, and for some groups, such as the over 50s as well as some disadvantaged groups, things remain precarious. There’s also the big question of reskilling in many industries. 

But it seems a long way from some of the dire predictions last year. Even this year the Bank of England and the OECD had both forecast rates of around 6%+. The latest figures from the ONS for the most recent quarter were 4.7%. And as the IES noted, for young people outside full-time education, things appear to be stabilising. A point reinforced by the House of Commons Library Service in its useful explainer on youth unemployment published this week. 

In other education news this week, there’s been a lot on early years funding with both the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Sutton Trust publishing reports. The government dropped its ‘Fire It Up’ apprenticeship awareness campaign; universities were surveyed about any requirements they might have about masks (yes and no was the answer); and schools and colleges were encouraged to hold classes outside next term if a handful of staff or pupils in a group tested positive for Covid.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’16 and 17-year-olds in England to be offered jab by 23 August.’ (Monday)
  • ‘A’ levels: No 10 discussing numerical grades for 2023.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Cambridge to end teacher training if government enacts overhaul.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Visa delay hits UK students heading to Spain to study.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘A billion children at ‘extreme risk’ from climate impacts -Unicef.’ (Friday)


  • Labour market Overview. The Office for National Statistics published its quarterly (May – July 2021) figures for the UK labour market, pointing to ‘continued recovery’ with the number of payroll employees, the economic activity rate and most notably the number of estimated job vacancies, all up.
  • Labour market analysis. The Institute for Employment Studies provided its regular helpful summary of the latest labour market figures confirming the sense of ‘continued recovery’ largely through recent record hires but with employment rate ‘gaps’ for disadvantaged people still evident.
  • Labour Market Outlook. The CIPD reported on its latest quarterly review of the labour market based on responses from 2,000+ employers, showing a big increase in the number looking to recruit and upskill as well as considering wage increases.
  • Sure Start. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined the health impact of the Sure Start programme for children and families showing that while the benefits are not evenly spread, they have helped reduce hospitalisation among adolescents and associated medical and social care costs, as well as provide a potential model for early years support generally. 

More specifically ...


  • Not really grade inflation. Former head of UCAS Mary Curnock Cook reflected on the debate around this year’s A’ level grade inflation, arguing that what lay behind it was the use of criterion referencing, and making the case for adopting a numerical scale in future which would allow for single-level tests as possible options.
  • More analysis of this year’s results. @teacherhead Tom Sherrington provided an excellent comment piece on this summer’s exam results, pointing to the need to understand what grade inflation actually means and why it’s important to talk about it, as well as the need to establish future baselines.
  • Attainment gaps. FFT Education Datalab looked a bit deeper into some of the exam results data this summer to try and understand the extent of the attainment gap and what lay behind it, concluding that while the gap had widened, clearer data was needed to prove convincingly why.
  • Modern language trends. Languages expert Teresa Tinsley blogged about modern language trends following the latest round of exam results, pointing to continued pressure on some, such as Polish and Italian, but with Spanish, Chinese and Arabic as the big beneficiaries over the last decade. 
  • Exam reform. English teacher and commentator James Theo organised a petition against further ‘agitation for exam reform,’ arguing that it’s inappropriate until things have settled down a bit more in schools.
  • Covid contingencies. The government published an updated Covid contingency framework for education settings, building on existing arrangements and setting out a range of thresholds such as if five or more closely mixing staff and students test positive within a 10-day period then contingency measures such as working outdoors or reinstating facemasks, should be adopted.
  • Admissions appeals. The government published data on the number of appeals for places in both primary and secondary schools last year following rejections, showing both the number and rate down in both cases.
  • High Needs funding. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) outlined the funding arrangements for high needs provision in schools and colleges for 2022/23, incorporating the previously announced £780m increase and some small clarifications to the operational guidance.
  • Early Years. The Sutton Trust published a new funded report on early years provision suggesting that many poorer families were missing out on childcare support and calling for a universal entitlement to 30 hours of early years education and childcare for three- and four-year olds costing around £250m a year.
  • AI in the classroom. The FT argued in an editorial for greater use of AI in the classroom, ‘not as a replacement for teachers but as a tool or an assistant,’ in areas like tracking student progression, diagnosing learning weaknesses, and undertaking routine admin.
  • Behaviour management. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) published its response to the government’s consultation on behaviour management which closed last week, arguing that generally schools already had well-established policies in place including for mobile phones, that most worked hard to build relationships post-pandemic, and that a summer holiday consultation was perhaps not the best way to deal with things.
  • Classroom ventilation. Unions wrote to the government calling for more support to help with Covid-safe ventilation in classrooms, such as the recent trial of air purifiers, as schools prepare for the start of term.
  • Disadvantage gaps. The Education Policy Institute announced a new Nuffield Foundation funded project looking into the impact of the pandemic on disadvantaged gaps in England for different groups of students including 16-19 yr olds with a report due in January 2022.


  • Post-16 funding. The Institute for Fiscal Services (IfS) published a new report on funding for school sixth forms and colleges highlighting the pressure on resources they were facing with participation, numbers and needs all up but funding levels failing to keep up.
  • Apprenticeship campaign. The government announced it was scrapping from next month, its ‘Fire It Up’ campaign promoting apprenticeships, suggesting it would focus on wider option choices for young people instead. 
  • ESF activity.The government reported on activity carried out under the European Social Fund (ESF) over the last few years and due to complete next year, and which has been used among other things in 38 LEP areas to help with skills and training.
  • Vocational education.The Edge Foundation reflected on its work so far on the first principles of vocational education, which has been brought together into a full report and which will see a further round of informed debates taking place in the autumn.
  • Financial Services bursaries.The Sutton Trust invited applications for its new bursary scheme which is backed by JPMorgan Chase and which offers bursaries of up to £5,000 each for young people who need to gain experience for working in financial services. 


  • Learning offer. The Russell Group of universities outlined the forms of learning that their students can expect from this autumn, arguing that many of the changes to mixed forms of learning were already happening pre-pandemic, while recognising students’ wishes for in-person learning to continue and using case study evidence to show how some universities were adopting this. 
  • University boom. The Economist looked at the boom in university entry suggesting many in government were unenthusiastic while parents (and young people) were keener but concluding that future financing was a major issue.
  • Masking up. The Times Higher reported on its recent survey showing that most universities responding would continue to ‘encourage,’ in places ‘request,’ students to wear a mask on campus and in some cases, classrooms as well.
  • Mental Health Challenge Competition. The Office for Students (OfS) published its commissioned interim report looking into how the initial stage of the mental health challenge competition, which ran from June 2019 to Feb 2021, had gone, with the various funded intervention projects all showing signs of positive impact and helping increase awareness and understanding of the issues.
  • Late applications. The Student Loans Company published procedures for students applying late for their loans this year, urging them to register as soon as possible and to complete eligibility checks to ensure initial funding availability.
  • Open book assessment. Professor Philip Young, Director of Undergraduate Studies at Warwick University, blogged about the new ‘open book’ assessment model (completing research-based essays within four weeks instead of final exams) adopted successfully by one School at the university this year.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “A consistent rule in education: The stronger the call for radical change, the more clichéd and utilitarian the proposed solution” | @C­_Hendrick
  • “When I was at Uni, very few students got a First. Not that many got a 2;1 .The vast majority a 2;2 which became known as a Bishop (as in Bishop TUTU) and you always had a smattering of Thirds and Pass Degrees bringing up the rear” | @pwatsonmontrose
  • “Frosty reception from unions as Government suggests teachers should hold classes outside to prevent spread of Covid” | @schoolsontap
  • “The first day back is getting closer and closer and I’m already having sleepless nights. When does the ECT stress end?” | @MissFs Corner
  • “Whoever told me nursery would make my kid sleep through the night owes me about 15 hours sleep” | @Terri_White
  • “The number of streaming service subscribers aged 65-75 has surged from 36% in 2020 to 57% this year according to @Deloitte” | @TelegraphTech
  • “Can someone tell me who to write to? This August weather isn't meeting expectations and I'd like a refund” | @HelloFromMarcus

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “The Government is eagerly filling sporting arenas, music festivals and nightclubs; now it must take the less popular decision and unequivocally lead people back to offices and workplaces too” – James Dyson. 
  • “We had the chance to meet the Chancellor and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury who were both friendly” – students report on their recent work experience week in the Treasury. 
  • “Ten grades are probably more than needed” – Mary Curnock Cook on moving to a numerical grading system for A’ level.
  • “Pupils obtaining their A’ levels this year were aged seven and beginning to study for Key Stage 2 when Nick Gibb became schools minister” – former Universities Minister Chris Skidmore argues that improved standards have helped generate a drive for higher education.
  • “The shift to blended learning is not about saving money, but about enhancing the learning experience and making the teaching provision better” – the Russell Group spells it out.
  • “We note that the IFS report shows BTECs remain very popular with students” – the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) reflects on the IfS report on post -16 funding.
  • “In their current form, the proposals risk extensive and damaging disruption to the ITE system, putting the quality and supply of provision at risk and eroding capacity for improvement” – UCL’s Institute of Education responds to the Initial Teacher Training Review consultation.
  • “This is a generation of children who don’t need a dissection of the past but our serious focus on their future as they take further steps in their education” – the Children’s Commissioner calls for a focus on the future.
  • “The last thing we need is an overhaul to exams and the additional workload that brings” – a petition is launched against further exam upheaval.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 2%. The CPI inflation rate last month, better than expected according to latest official figures.
  • 953,000. The number of UK job vacancies May-July 2021, a record high according to latest figures from the Office for National Statistics.
  • 69%. The number of employers surveyed who plan to recruit over the next few months, according to a survey from the CIPD.
  • £6m. The amount of money being provided to support 18 mental health projects in HE over the next 18 months, according to the Office for Students. 
  • 23.The number of new digital skill Bootcamps added to the government list, according to the latest listing.
  • £570m. The amount of extra money needed to provide for the increased numbers of 16-18 yr olds in education and training, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
  • £20m. The amount of funding put in to help extend the Family Hubs programme, according to a government announcement.
  • £232m. How much the government is providing to support GB athletes for the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

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

Other stories

  • Who should be the next Education Secretary? “The most important quality for the next Secretary of State, I would have thought, is as a problem-solver/fire fighter.” So wrote former Minister David Gauke in an article for Conhome this week. He also went on to say that the person should also be able quickly to master the brief, be a good communicator and have sufficient power. Perhaps suggesting these are qualities the present incumbent lacks. Either way traditional summer speculation about Cabinet reshuffles have centred on whether Gavin Williamson will survive and if not, who should take over. There have been plenty of suggestions, although Liz Truss seems a bit wide of the mark. As to the qualities needed for the post, a link to the article by David Gauke is here.
  • Management speak. Couple up the abstract nouns and embellish with ‘intensifying adjectives such as impactful,’ stick to just a few connective verbs like ‘facilitate,’ and apply plenty of prepositions. That’s the way to write management speak according to Joe Moran, professor of English at Liverpool John Moores University whose article in the Times Higher this week has generated a lot of ‘likes.’ It came in a week in which the new working strictures for Labour Party workers and their use of ‘agile ceremonies’has also raised a few quizzical eyebrows.For those who want to know how to write proper management speak, a link to the Times Higher piece 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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