Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 10 September 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 week or so into the new academic year and there’s plenty going on.

Four stories stand out from this week. They include confirmation from the Chancellor of the eagerly awaited Autumn Budget and Spending Review. 27 October is the red-letter day for these. We’ve also had a new report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) on the impact of the pandemic on children’s learning, a busy week for HE and some prominent activity in Westminster. 

A word on each, starting with the Budget and Spending Review announcement. 

Details on these were announced by the Chancellor in the wake of the health and social care levy details announced by the PM. The levy means that a large chunk of revenue has already been committed, but the government is promising ‘a step change in capital investment (£600bn over 5 years as announced in Budget 2020) and an increase in day-to-day spending to £440bn by 2024/5'. 

The language is ‘of investing in the future/building back better’ although it’s hard to see how things all balance out. As it is, departments have been asked to look for 5% of savings, ‘trade-offs’ will be necessary and public sector pay must be ‘affordable.’ There are increasing worries about what this all may mean for education. The latest survey from headteachers suggests schools are increasingly having to make cuts, but the government is claiming schools at least won’t lose out from the increase in national insurance contributions although the AoC’s Julian Gravatt reckons it could cost colleges ‘c£50m.’ Meanwhile, the Resolution Foundation argued in its summary that funding for matters like education recovery will now come from ‘within existing spending envelopes rather than from any extra borrowing.’ The Treasury postbag will no doubt be filling up rapidly.

Next, that IfS report on children’s learning experiences during the various lockdowns. Their view was that ‘the pandemic had dealt a monumental blow’ to children’s education. Things had improved by the second lockdown this spring – unsurprising given the developments in resources, expertise and support – but even so it fell short for many, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Worryingly, some 7% of parents surveyed reckon their children will never catch up. This tallies with an Ipsos Mori survey of parents quoted at the end of this briefing. The IfS report calls for targeted recovery plans and follows last week’s call from the unions for an additional £5.8nm over the next three years to help with this.

Moving on to higher education, where it’s been another busy week. University leaders have been in conference where the incoming President urged government not to hold back support for universities as ’the stakes are high.’ And the Education Secretary ran through current government thinking on HE, including quality standards, skills provision and in-person teaching. ‘A collection of the government’s greatest hits,’ as Wonkhe put it. Also this week, UCAS published the latest set of figures for university entry this year, one month on from results day. These confirm record numbers of UK 18-year-olds including those from disadvantaged backgrounds preparing to take up a full-time undergraduate course this autumn. The stats also point to an increase in deferrals this year and a notable drop in confirmed places for EU applicants. There’s a useful summary of it all from UCAS’s Head of Data on the Wonkhe website here

Still in HE, the Student Futures Commission, set up by the UPP Foundation and partners to help plot a more positive post-pandemic future for students and the sector alike after a pretty difficult 18 months, published its interim findings this week. They point to three priority areas. Two concern support for learners, helping them rebuild confidence and engagement this year and beyond through study workshops, support groups and so on. The third concerns future learning and the role of online provision. The pandemic has clearly changed the nature of learning, but is everybody ready and how best to proceed? As the report notes: “The most popular option for how courses should be structured next year was one in which teaching was mostly in person – with some online recorded or streamed provision once or twice a week.” Getting the mix/blend right and communicating it effectively remain big challenges. The Commission will be publishing its final report early next year.

Finally, to Westminster, where MPs also returned this week. The start of the week saw Education Ministers take questions from MPs. Among those tackled were on exams: ‘Our intention is that exams will go ahead in 2022 … but changes to grading will be longer term’;  BTECs: ‘We are not scrapping BTEC funding; we are upgrading our level 3 qualification offer to make sure that it keeps in line with the needs of today’s economy’;  school Covid testing: ‘We will be reviewing the need for children to be doing home testing at the end of September’; and arts education: ‘We are very committed to the arts and to drama in our schools.’ The full set of questions and answers can be found here.

Education Ministers and Ofqual officials also appeared before the Education Committee to answer questions on this summer’s exam series. The main news was that a decision on exams grading won’t be made before October, and yes, the government is working on a contingency plan in the event that exams have to be cancelled. Schools Week has a useful summary of the session here. Also this week, a new Bill was proposed to enable Ofsted to inspect MAT governance and the Higher Ed Committee took further witness evidence on the current HE Freedom of Speech. The full transcript of what was at times quite an intense debate can be found here.

And before we finish, a quick run through some of the top stories from last week when Education Eye was away, in case any were missed. 

Ofsted posted the changes to its inspection handbooks which came into effect for the new academic year. The government outlined further development of the national tutoring programme and  listed the 21 areas covering many of the major cities in England where Alternative Provision Taskforces to help vulnerable young people would be rolled out. The NFER and Education Policy Institute had interesting reports out on education recovery and extending the school day respectively. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) published another telling report on school funding in England, suggesting that even with the latest increases, per pupil funding next year will still be 1-2% lower than it was a decade ago. 

Elsewhere, the University of West London broke ranks and promised no more online learning from the start of term. The Times Higher published its latest World University Rankings with Oxford still on top and Cambridge coming in joint fifth. The HE Policy institute published its regular, fascinating Soft-Power Index, the index of where current world leaders were educated. 57 were educated in the UK, second only to the US. They include two currently in the news: Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi (Oxford) and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani (Glasgow Caledonian.) 

And the FT announced its support for a new campaign on Financial Literacy and Inclusion (FLIC,) something we all might need after the financial numbers flying around the last week.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Millions of pupils return to school amid Covid spike concern.’ (Monday)
  • ‘2022 exams grading plan will be confirmed in October, says Ofqual.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘GCSEs 2022: ASCL calls for return to 2019 results.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Universities told to give students face-to-face teaching.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘WorldSkills finals to take place in venues across the country.’ (Friday)


  • Budget and Spending Review 2021. The Chancellor confirmed that the government would set an Autumn Budget and 3-year Spending Review on 27 October based around significant increases in capital and day-to-day spending but with departmental efficiencies expected of 5%.
  • Health and Social Care Levy impact. The Resolution Foundation reflected on the extra spending announced for health and social care with implications for education including that future Covid-related issues such as education catch-up, funding would have to come from within ‘existing planned spending’ while graduates with loans and incomes above the threshold could end up paying high levels of tax. 
  • Small businesses hit. The Federation of Small Businesses argued in a new briefing that the increases in national insurance and dividend taxation could result in up to 50,000 jobs being lost, as a result of the increased tax burden on small employers.
  • Covid impact on education. The International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) published a series of ‘Rapid Evidence Reviews’ into the impact of the pandemic on schools, FE, HE and parents, highlighting the negative impact on disadvantaged children in schools, on apprentices and vocational learning in FE and on learning and finances in HE with mental health a concern across all including for single parents and mothers who had picked up many of the home learning pressures.
  • Business forecast. The British Chambers of Commerce published its latest business forecast pointing to a predicted growth of 7.1% for UK GDP this year but a slow recovery with business investment low and unemployment rising post furlough.
  • Wealth gaps. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) published new commissioned research on wealth distribution in the UK concluding that ‘those with wealthier parents tend to be wealthier themselves’ with about half of this ‘accounted for by the intergenerational persistence of education and earnings.’
  • Two pandemics. The TUC published new commissioned research suggesting that the pandemic had led to a class divide with the lowest paid and most vulnerable hit hardest and high earners in line for pay rises, calling among other things for an increase in the minimum wage and zero-hour contracts to be banned.
  • Employment support. The Public Accounts Committee published a report into the effectiveness of DWP Employment Support during the pandemic, acknowledging many of the measures adopted by government particularly for the unemployed but concluding that some groups had been disproportionately hit and that the dept needed to monitor data and performance of support schemes better.
  • Labour shortages. The CBI reported on current shortages in the labour market noting that it was affecting not just HGV drivers but a number of sectors from scaffolders to butchery workers, suggesting it could take two years to sort out and calling for the government to look at measures such as temporary visas in shortage occupations, further flexing of the apprenticeship levy and increased investment in skills training.
  • Ending of furlough. The Resolution Foundation reflected on the jobs market as the furlough scheme draws to a close at the end of the month, suggesting that while the scheme has helped keep unemployment down during the pandemic, numbers are likely to rise once the scheme is withdrawn, urging the government to keep mechanisms like the increase in Universal Credit in place accordingly.
  • Science leaders. The government listed the 97 science and research leaders who’ll benefit from additional funding through UKRI’s Future Leaders Fellowship Scheme intended to help take innovative projects to market.
  • Online safety. The government launched a new Safety Tech Challenge Fund which will award five organisations from across the world up to £85,000 each to develop technologies that internet giants can use to ensure their platforms are safe for children.
  • National Citizen Service. The government published its commissioned report into the impact and benefits of the National Citizen Service based on the 2019 summer programme, pointing to improved wellbeing and social mobility as well value for money.

More specifically ...


  • Education Recovery funding. The government outlined arrangements for eligible schools to receive recovery premium funding this year, paid in four instalments, worth up to £290 per mainstream eligible school pupil, double for those in special units, and to be spent on targeted support and catch-up.
  • School funding. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) published the results of a survey among members on school funding suggesting that at least a third expect to have to make cuts this year.
  • Inspections 2021. Ofsted set out its latest guidance and advice to inspectors on matters including catch-up, KS3, reporting sexual abuse and reception baseline assessment as they prepare to undertake full inspections again.
  • MAT inspections. Jonathan Gullis MP presented a Bill with cross Party support to give Ofsted powers to inspect the governing bodies of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs,) with a Second Reading set for January 2022.
  • FFT Education Datalab investigated this summer’s exam results to see if the attainment gap at Key Stage 4 had changed suggesting, ahead of official reporting by government, that it had widened this year largely because disadvantaged pupils had tended to receive lower grade ratings.
  • Early Years. The government announced an extension of its Early Years Professional Development Programme which will see further funding ploughed into online training for practitioners and teachers to help two - to four-year-olds, especially in disadvantaged areas with language, numeracy and emotional skills.
  • Learning through a pandemic. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined the learning experience for pupils in England during the various lockdowns using survey evidence to show that home learning had worked better during the second lockdown albeit with learning time still below expectations and with great variation, calling for carefully targeted catch-up support for the future.
  • Start of term in-tray. Former DfE adviser Sam Freedman outlined in a comment piece for the New Statesman some of the issues facing schools as they embark on a new school year, issues that include Covid testing, learning loss, attainment gaps, 2022 exams, and mental health concerns to name but a few.
  • Reform agenda. The incoming President of the Girls’ Schools Association set out four priorities for the education system as she took up her new role, calling in particular for exam reform, enhanced digital learning, support for mental health and a post-qualifications application system for higher ed.
  • Ofsted at ResearchEd. Ofsted published Amanda Spielman’s presentation to last weekend’s ResearchEd event in which the Chief Inspector outlined the importance of Ofsted’s research and evaluation work, how it had helped develop the current inspection framework as well as recent subject and other reports, and pointing to further reports to come including for subjects like English and in areas like alternative provision.
  • Addressing Extremism. The Institute for Education published new research commissioned by the SINCE 9/11 education charity indicating that teachers needed time, resources and support to be able to tackle concerns about extremism and hate crime said to be growing in classrooms.
  • TIMSS 23. The government confirmed that Pearson and the Institute of Education had been awarded the contract to deliver the Trends in International Maths and Science (TIMSS) 2023 performance study for England.


  • Supporting Growth. LEP leaders listed five ‘core future values’ including skills, innovation, business support, private investment, and net zero that would help stimulate local growth as they drew up proposals ahead of the Spending Review.
  • Apprenticeship levy. The Edge and Gatsby Foundations published their report into the impact of the apprenticeship levy with research undertaken by the Warwick Institute for Employment Research indicating that while the levy may have encouraged employers to undertake more training, it has largely been skewed towards the higher-level skills end leaving questions about provision at other levels.
  • The benefits of apprenticeships. The St Martin’s Group along with City and Guilds and NCFE argued that after a difficult year or so, the context for apprenticeships was starting to improve with obvious benefits to individuals and employers, calling for greater financial and system support to enhance this. 
  • Adult education and training. Eurydice, the European Education and Culture Executive Agency, examined adult education and training across Europe in a hefty report highlighting many familiar problems about access, support and participation but with some useful policies and proposals including dedicated subsidies and awareness and outreach, being adopted across various countries
  • Construction Levy. The CITB confirmed it had secured industry agreement for the operation of the Levy for the next three years which would now be taken to government for sign-off. 
  • Leadership in a pandemic. College Principal Andy Forbes reflected on leadership during a pandemic in an essay for the Collab Group, pointing to three takeaways including the changing nature of learning, skills for interactive communication, and college leadership and values at a time of change. 


  • Government thinking. The Education Secretary spelt out some of the government’s current thinking on HE in an address to the UUK Conference, citing support for admissions reform, quality and minimum standards, entry thresholds, higher-level skills provision and in-person teaching as key factors. 
  • Presidential address. Steve West, the incoming President of Universities UK, outlined the important role universities can play in post-pandemic recovery as he addressed the UUK Conference, recognising that this was a moment for the sector to be both ambitious and responsive and calling on the government to support them in their endeavours.
  • 2021 university entry. UCAS published the latest set of figures for university entry this year, one month on from results day, showing record numbers of UK 18-year-olds accepted, including from disadvantaged areas, a slight drop in overall numbers notably from within the EU, and an increase in deferrals generally.
  • Student Futures. The Student Futures Commission, set up to help students and higher ed institutions rebuild from the pandemic, published its interim report highlighting three priority areas including clarifying future forms of learning, supporting students through the year(s) ahead, and rebuilding student confidence.
  • Cost/benefits. Universities UK and London Economics examined the costs/benefits of international students to the UK in a report commissioned by the HE Policy Institute (HEPI,) suggesting that just one cohort can generate £28.8bn to the UK economy, based on fee income and indirect expenditure.
  • International students. Universities UK International and IDP Connect published an additional report on international student recruitment where the UK remains in 2ndplace in terms of global popularity, calling for a reduction on financial barriers, a strengthening of the Graduate Route and support for English language provision to help cement this.
  • Loan rates. The Universities Minister announced a temporary (1 October – 31 December 2021) reduction in the maximum student loan interest rate to 4.1% to reflect the drop in the current market rate.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • Here is your regular reminder that there are about 630,000 teachers teaching in the UK. A fraction are on Twitter. On Twitter, a fraction have big platforms. We are kidding ourselves as a community if we think this conversation is representative of the wider world of education” | @HeyMissSmith.
  • “There's a book in which the teacher reads the register and calls out the name "Fisher", and a child responds, "German Bight" | @TimHarford.
  • “I hate being told I’m seeing the Headmistress later this week when there is no indication what it is about. The way my mind works means that I will dread this and catastrophise. Humph” | @cegreenwood

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “National Insurance increase will directly hurt a business's ability to hire staff, at a time when businesses have faced a torrid 18 months and are now fighting crippling labour shortages” – the CBI responds to the government’s plans for funding the NHS and social care.
  • “And the shortages are at multiple skill levels, from entry level front of house workers, through scaffolders and carpenters, through to skilled workers in butchery and electrical engineering” – the CBI highlights skills shortages.
  • “Imagine trying to make sense of the subtleties of interpreting Chekov for the stage or carrying out complex molecular biology techniques over Zoom” – the Education Secretary encourages universities to restore in-person teaching.
  • “Student engagement has long been a challenge for universities but the crisis appears to have crystallised the concept of “belonging” as a more inclusive and affiliative framing of the idea” – the Student Future Commission reflects on initial findings in its interim report.
  • “The offer does sound good, but compared to amounts that other unis are giving out, it's not as good" – Durham University students react to a £5000 offer to defer for a year.
  • “I can assure him that there will be no change to the grading system for 2022 but we are looking at the longer-term issue about grading in GCSEs and A-levels” – Nick Gibb responds to MP’s questions about exam grading next year.
  • “You know, I'm not a kind of "throw everything out", it's a baby and bathwater here, but GCSE does seem to me kind of to be accepted, beyond its obvious utility' – Mary Beard on GCSEs.
  • “While we welcome today’s news that the government will start confirmation “very shortly” on contingency plans, we had hoped that ministers would have completed this by now” – the NHT react to government plans to release contingency plans for next year’s exams ‘very shortly.’
  • “Less than half of Britons (44%) expect to see exams such as GCSEs and A-Levels run as normal in 2022”– Ipsos Mori takes the pulse on next summer’s exams.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • £1,094bn. The amount of money the government spent in 2020/21, the highest amount on record and increasingly on social protection, health and education as well as Covid according to a report from the House of Commons Library Service.
  • 12,687. The number of planned job cuts by employers last month, the lowest figure for seven years according to the Insolvency Service.
  • 47%. The number of people aged 50 and over predicted to remain part of the UK workforce, a significant increase with pension changes among the factors behind it, according to new research from L/G and CEBR.
  • 50%. The tax rate that graduates with student loans and incomes above the new tax/insurance threshold may have to pay, according to the FT.
  • 37.9%. The number of UK 18 years due to start a full-time undergraduate course so far this year, a new high according to latest figures from UCAS.
  • 99%. The number of teachers who have had at least one coronavirus vaccination ahead of the new term, according to Teacher Tapp.
  • 5%. The pay increase for Costa Coffee workers as the company looks to boost staff numbers ahead of the winter season, according to The Guardian.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Annual (virtual) TUC Congress with debate on learning and skills on the Monday. (Sunday Sept 12 -Tuesday Sept 14).
  • Institute for Government in conversation with Amanda Spielman, Ofsted Chief Inspector. (Tuesday Sept 14).
  • Lib Dem Conference. (Friday Sept 17 – Monday Sept 20).

Other stories

  • Back to school worries. The polling company Ipsos Mori surveyed parents to find out what worries/expectations they had as the new school year got under way. Most (71%) suspected that infection numbers would rise and there were concerns about whether secondary school pupils would take the twice weekly lateral flow tests. 43% of those surveyed reckoned the government would have to close schools again at some point and nearly a half (47%) didn’t think pupils would be able to catch up by the end of the school year. And interestingly, there were mixed views about whether exams would run as normal next summer, 51% of parents surveyed were said to be hopeful. A link to the survey can be found here.
  • Girl power. Girlguiding has just published its latest annual survey of how things have been for girls and young women aged 7-21 over the past year. Obviously the pandemic has shaped many emotions and views but there are some positive perspectives as well. For instance, 65% of responders have felt so inspired by teachers and key workers during the pandemic that they to want to take up a job in health and/or science. On the downside, many feel they’ve lost out on personal and skill development as a result of the pandemic and 67% report feeling more sad, worried or anxious also as a result of the pandemic. A link to the survey is here.
  • University Challenge. Peterhouse Cambridge may have had a team of 75% women this week when it took on Edinburgh in the latest round of University Challenge but as The Independent has pointed out, there’s been a dearth of women on the show in recent weeks. According to The Times, only 17 out of 64 competitors in the current series have been women. The producers say they’re doing what they can to encourage more diversity but there have been suggestions that online abuse has put women off in the past. A link to the story 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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