Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 27 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 briefer briefing this week as attention switches to the new school/college year and on what lies ahead. 

Many of course are already back, others are busy preparing, and many others contemplating a staggered start. As the Chair of the Education Committee tweeted this week, the government is keen to see all schools and colleges get back to business as soon as possible and it has reinforced that this week with a ‘back to school’ campaign of leaflets, guidance, attendance advisers, remote learning and on-site Covid testing. The aim is to accentuate the positives. ‘A full return to sport, music, drama, science experiments and being with their friends,’ as the publicity puts it. Possibly, although the reissuing of the direction on remote learning as set out in the explanatory note, has not gone down well with school leaders.

Covid numbers and testing remain an issue and according to some headlines ‘is flying through’ schools in Scotland. As the NAHT explained “The government has once again asked secondary schools to effectively transform themselves into Covid testing centres ahead of the new school term,” so some phased starts may be likely. The government is expected to review Covid testing arrangements at the end of September. In the meantime, the promise of carbon monoxide monitors to improve site ventilation as well as weekly rather than daily absence returns have been welcomed. 

Nor should we forget universities, equally busily preparing for an important new academic year and facing difficult decisions over provision. The universities minister wrote a welcome letter to international students last week arguing that “HE teaching settings remain one of the safest and most Covid-secure environments.”  Numerous surveys over the summer have highlighted how much importance students attach to face-to-face teaching and university leaders will be watching infection rates carefully over the coming weeks as they seek to meet student needs.

But back to the new school/college year which commences with debate continuing about exams. This week, regular commentator Dennis Sherwood added his thoughts in a blog on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) site. He called for two things; a ‘fair’ appeals system to enable the validity of results to be confirmed and ‘a fully reliable and trustworthy system’ created perhaps by incorporating mark ranges on certificates. 

Some of this may come up when the Education Committee hosts Nick Gibb and Ofqual leaders on September 7 to discuss this year’s exams. A week later, the Institute for Government welcomes Amanda Spielman to an online conversation. And the momentum will continue, with the coming months punctuated by a series of reports from bodies which have been looking into the future, not just of exams and assessment, but also of catch-up, childhood, higher education and the future of work. Autumn may well be a time for deep reflection.

Other things to look out for this autumn and likely to shape future education and skills development include of course the much-anticipated Spending Review. There have been some suggestions this could be slimmed down to a single rather than multi-year review if Covid continues to cast uncertainty over the economy. Either way, the publication of a Levelling Up White Paper, Social Care Plan and Augar HE Response, all promised around the same time, make for an important policy moment. And as a taster, The Independent had a useful article on the Levelling Up fund this week, why it’s proving controversial and the legal challenge it’s currently facing over suggestions that money is being funnelled primarily to favoured constituencies.

Before all of that and from next month on, we have the annual Party Conferences in various formats. The Prime Minister is planning to use his speech to reset much of the domestic agenda starting with a promised winter coronavirus plan. Keir Starmer equally will be looking to establish Labour credentials following a summer of ‘national conversations’ with voters.

So much for what may lie ahead. 

For the moment these are some of the top education-related stories from this week. 

The Children’s Society published its latest major survey of childhood with school, friendships and appearance continuing to worry adolescents the most. Teach First published the latest version of its education manifesto listing eleven recommendations to help improve educational inequality. The government announced further capital funding for T level delivery and the Education and Training Foundation called for more support to enable FE to play a major role in areas like climate change. The Times Higher reported on a ‘quiet’ Clearing period this year and the government invited universities and colleges to bid for funding to develop new higher level short courses. Although as Nick Linford tweeted, £2m among 20 providers wasn’t going to get many jumping up and down with excitement.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Staggered school starts ‘inevitable’ say heads. (Monday)
  • ‘Exert calls for major inquiry into why boys continue to underperform in school.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘DfE hires ‘attendance advisers’ to cut school absence.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘NHS draws up plans to vaccinate 12-year-olds.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘GCSEs 2020: Heads expect a Plan B to be announced.’ (Friday)


  • Data plans. The government followed up last year’s National Data Strategy by setting out a number of measures including a new Mission Statement, consultation and initial global partnerships to help ensure the UK plays a leading global role in the speedy but safe use of data that can drive trade, investment, research and public services.
  • Online safety. The Information Commissioner’s Office blogged about the Children’s Code, introduced last year but which comes into force from next week, providing an Age-Appropriate Design Code for online services likely to be accessed by children.
  • Jobs market. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) published its latest quarterly survey of the jobs market showing employer intentions on recruitment remaining high, business confidence remaining positive but growing concerns about labour shortages in some sectors.
  • Older workers. The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) highlighted the number of older workers (65+) who have dropped out of the labour market as a result of the pandemic and unlikely to return, suggesting that employers should consider support and training to ensure their talents are not lost for good.
  • Health, Wealth and Happiness. The CEBR published their latest Health, Wealth and Happiness Index suggesting a notable improvement in each area since the start of the pandemic, with levels of happiness rising as restrictions have been lifted but concerns remaining for example about health inequality. 
  • Childhood report. The Children’s Society published its latest, the tenth, report into childhood suggesting children (aged 10-17) remained largely happy about their health, family and home but unhappy about school, friendships and their appearance yet having coped well with many of the restrictions brought about by the pandemic.
  • The Impact of Covid-19 on Education. The Edge Foundation published the second in its series looking into the impact of Covid on education with a collection of essays and comment pieces from leading contributors highlighting different perspectives.

More specifically ...


  • Back to school.The government welcomed the start of the school year with a reminder of the restrictions lifted in July and a ‘Back to School’ campaign of leaflets, guidance, attendance advisers and onsite Covid testing as it looked to encourage a full return to school as soon as possible.
  • More A’ level analysis. Former UCAS chief, Mary Curnock Cook offered further analysis of this year’s A’ level results in a blog on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) site, pointing especially to the latest trends in subject entries and to differences in teacher assessed grades between boys and girls this year. 
  • Exams. The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) published the key dates for the autumn 2021 and spring 2022 GCE and GCSE exam series.
  • School ventilation.The government confirmed that it was providing funding for CO2 monitors to made available for schools from September, starting with special schools and alternative provision given they house many vulnerable pupils before moving on to schools and colleges throughout the rest of the term. 
  • iQTS. The government published its response to its earlier consultation on developing ‘a new, UK government-backed qualification called International Qualified Teacher Status (iQTS,)’ confirming it was putting in place an Expert Working Group to come up with recommendations leading to a limited pilot due next autumn.
  • Blended delivery. The government published a pack of case studies showing how various schools had developed blended learning, highlighting the context, approach and impact in each case, as a way of promoting good practice for others.
  • Education manifesto.Teach First published a further version of its manifesto for improving educational inequality, building on latest research and feedback and listing eleven policy proposals that might help, such as targeted funding, mechanisms for curriculum review, and reduced timetables for teachers in disadvantaged secondary schools.


  • Malpractice. Ofqual published details on malpractice in vocational technical qualifications reported by awarding organisations in 2019/20 showing that the majority of the 1,381 penalties reported were for students largely for plagiarism and tending to result in a warning, but with the total volume notably down on the previous year although a reduction in assessment caused by the pandemic may have been a factor.
  • Funding withdrawal.The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) published its final list of qualifications with low or no publicly funded enrolments which will see funding withdrawn for new starts from 1 August 2022 as per government plans.
  • T level funding. The government announced a further £65m to help schools and colleges beef up facilities for the delivery of T levels with 65 projects listed and further funding expected to follow later in the year.
  • Sustainable development.The Education and Training Foundation published a new survey report suggesting that FE has a key role to play in helping support sustainable development in areas like climate change given its wide skills reach, but that more could be done to support staff help educate learners on such matters.


  • Short courses. The Office for Students (OfS) invited applications from providers for funding trials to develop HE L4-6 short courses that are ‘innovative, responsive to employer needs and provide for upskilling or retraining’ in government priority areas, as part of moves to provide more flexible learning in line with the government’s Lifelong Learning Entitlement. 
  • Quiet Clearing. The Times Higher reported on this year’s Clearing programme for university students pointing to it being much quieter than normal with an increase in deferrals and a notable drop in students being placed through the system this year particularly in some universities.
  • Student Living Index. NatWest published its latest Student Living Index with Sheffield emerging with the best/lowest cost of living index and students at the most prestigious universities relying the most heavily on the bank of mum and dad.
  • Jumpstart University. The OU and the Russell Group published details of their free resources on aspects like student life and wellbeing for those preparing to start life at university or college this autumn.
  • University access. The Access Project announced it was joining forces with the upReach charity so that they could work together to help disadvantaged young people get into university and thence on to successful jobs.
  • Saving Archaeology. The Times Higher reported on the fight back to save Archaeology provision, as Sheffield University became the latest university to threaten to close its programme.
  • Language tests. Pearson announced it was partnering with China’s international education industry association to provide English Language tests for Chinese students looking to study in the US and UK.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • "The pandemic showed us that while we need highly trained and skilled researchers to design vaccines, we also need people to nurse and care, deliver food and keep the IT working" | @AoCDavidH” via @tesfenews
  • “Dear Students – I am sorry to report that our first class meeting is cancelled. My work pants, which I have not worn since March 2020, no longer fit. Best wishes, BH” | @brian_hochman
  • “I went to work today. Actually into the office. While I was there I had a series of Teams calls with people who were working from home. What a waste of 30 miles of driving. I even wore trousers” | @kingstrato
  • “I just ate breakfast and am now quite ready for lunch! This is a perk of working from home, lunch is truly whenever you want. Sometimes it feels like being in school tho when lunch was at 10am for some of us” | @deray
  • “Now I have 3 primary school age children I would quite like to build a time machine to go back in time and punch myself in the face for all the ridiculous holiday ‘projects’ I set for my new classes. To all parents of many of my former pupils, please accept my sincere apologies” | @Emma_Turner75
  • “Knew someone who when returning to their computer post-holiday simply deleted all emails that had accumulated and messaged his entire address book saying "if it's still important email me again". Never quite had the nerve to do this” | @Samfr.

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Manufacturers also reported that stock adequacy worsened to its weakest on record” – the CBI’s latest Industrial Trends Survey.
  • “There will be particular pressures in logistics, food manufacturing and hospitality as we gear up for Christmas, and hiring for this period has already started” – the Recruitment and Employment Confederation on the latest jobs figures.
  • “The Aussies love Beefy and he knows the country and the business community as well as anyone” – a government official on the appointment of Ian Botham to the UK trade team for Australia.
  • “The trial will test the interest of both students and employers in shorter courses aimed at developing skills needed by employers and the economy” – the Office for Students launches the HE short course trial.
  • “It is the point when our focus can shift away from the disruption of covid and on to learning, enrichment and recovery” – Gavin Williamson on the ‘Back to School’ campaign.
  • “I think for the parents, we have been really waiting for this day” – the BBC asks parents for their reactions as the new school year gets underway again. 

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 20%. The number of 18–34-year-olds who said they’d consider leaving a job if their employer didn’t offer a ‘desired’ working set up, according to a survey from the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR.)
  • £3.09bn. The budget deficit facing councils in England, Wales and Scotland next year, according to UNISON, the public service union.
  • 27,620. The number of university students deferring entry this year, the highest number for 10 years particularly among domestic 18-year-olds according to UCAS figures reported by the Times Higher.
  • 7%. The rise in the cost of student living over the past year, according to NatWest’s Student Living Index.
  • 6.9%. The drop in apprenticeships starts for the first three quarters of the 2020/21 academic year compared to the same period for 2019/20, according to latest government figures.
  • 68%. The number of respondents who feel that post-16 education doesn’t do enough to educate learners about sustainability issues, according to a survey from the Education and Training Foundation.
  • 12%. The number of children unhappy with their school life, up 3% over the last decade according to the latest survey from the Children’s Society.
  • 59 years. When the next pandemic will come along, according to scientists quoted in The Daily Telegraph.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

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

Other stories

  • Student living. NatWest’s latest annual Student Living Index offers a wealth of useful information particularly for those students preparing for university/college for the first time. Based on survey evidence from over 2.000 students across the UK, it provides helpful info on which cities are the most affordable for students (Sheffield, Glasgow, Cambridge,) how to manage the money (59% of students attempt to budget) and where support is best for mental health and wellbeing (Oxford, Cardiff and Leeds.) There’s plenty more besides. For example, 43% of students find studying stressful, so you wouldn’t be alone. A link to the report is here.
  • Ten by ten. Wes Streeting. Labour’s Shadow Secretary for Child Poverty has an interesting take on helping children participate in activities like sport and music which are sometimes the preserve of the better-off but which can help all children develop. He’s keen to see opportunities available to all children and has devised a new strategy to promote this. Known as 10 x 10, it entails offering all children the chance to undertake ten activities by the time they are aged ten. The ten activities include: learning to swim and ride a bike, playing an instrument and taking part in camping trips. The full list can be seen here.

Education Eye will be back with its next roundup in two weeks’ time on Friday September 10.

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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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