Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 17 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 new Education Secretary and DfE team, news of jobs n’ jabs, and some big – in both senses of the word – reports. In otherwords, another full-on week.

It’s obviously too early to comment on the new Education Secretary’s priorities. But it’s worth noting that he has had some experience in this department having had responsibilities for apprenticeships and children’s matters in the past. And importantly (at the moment, obviously) he has a good understanding of vaccination issues. He also comes with a reputation for getting things done, and according to the Chair of the Education Committee is ‘a good and compassionate man.’ In addition, he arrives as few tears were shed for his predecessor, whose departure was certainly more expected than that of the experienced Nick Gibb. In summary therefore, we wait to see ...

On to those reports next, which interestingly provide further evidence of emergent thinking on how the education system might shape up post-pandemic, new Education Secretary or not. In fact, little of this is coming from government at present, rather its experts in the field taking a lead where there are at least ten Commissions/Inquiries – from The Times Education Commission to the Lifelong Learning Commission – presently beavering away at various aspects.

Last week it was the turn of the Student Futures Commission to publish its interim proposals for restoring stability and confidence to the higher education sector. This week we’ve had two more Commission reports. 

First, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) published its ‘Blueprint for a Fairer Education System.’ It put forward a range of proposals, 'eminently do-able’ according to ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton, and designed to make the education system work better for all. Eye-catching proposals included: looking at school admissions so as to ringfence places for disadvantaged children; changing the nature of SATs; bringing back some continuous assessment to scale back GCSE volumes; and looking at replacing performance tables with a more informative profile. The aim is to bring some of these ideas to fruition over the next five years.

The other future-facing report came from the Independent Assessment Commission, a group set up to consider the current system of secondary school assessment. Its interim report out this week set out a case for change – ‘The current high-stakes system encourages students to equate learning predominantly as a way to pass exams’ – and outlined five principles for what it called ‘a new era’ of assessment and qualifications. Fairly standard and based around supporting learning and progression rather than determined by test regimes. The principles will help inform a final report due out in November.

As ever, there have been plenty of other reports out this week. Chief among them an investigation into A’ level choices from the Education Policy institute; new research on measuring graduate success from the Bridge Group; and of course that annual majestic compilation 'Education at a Glance' from the OECD. The 2021 version, published this week, runs to 474 pages and ploughs through a mass of evidence, data and charts as it reports on the performance of different education systems in the context of the pandemic. The section on the UK highlights many familiar themes: including the disadvantage gap; trends in vocational learning; the costs of higher education; and variable teacher salaries and responsibilities.

On to jobs n’ jabs. 

Jobs first, where the latest official figures and the government’s Plan for Jobs Update both out this week painted a bullish picture. ‘Our plan is working,’ the Plan for Jobs Update claimed, pointing to continuing falls in unemployment and a ‘recovering’ economy. The upbeat mood was reinforced the day after with the latest labour market figures for the three months to August pointing to the number of employees back to work being back to pre-pandemic levels and record levels of job vacancies. The Institute for Employment Studies has a good summary of it all here

With the EU claiming this month to be ‘hitting the sweet spot’ in terms of economic recovery, is there a sense of global optimism? Not so say economists. Some sectors are talking about a ‘hiring crisis’, which is ‘acute’ according to the British Chambers of Commerce; supply chains are struggling; prospects for many young people are poor; the virus still lurks; and furlough schemes in the UK and Europe are drawing to a close with worries about whether this will tip more people into unemployment. In the words of the Resolution Foundation ’Get set for a bumpy ride this Autumn.’

As for jabs, these were announced for both 12-15-year-olds as well as older people as part of the government’s major winter plan for managing the pandemic. The decision to offer a single dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab to 12-15-year-olds was, according to Professor Chris Whitty England’s Chief Medical Officer, ‘a difficult’ one, but came amidst continuing high-level concerns about any further disruption to schooling. According to one scenario cited in Department of Health analysis, a worst case scenario could see 12m school days lost this winter if 12-15 year olds are not vaccinated. The decision hasn’t excited everyone and there have been concerns about evidence and about giving consent, but schools have been more assured by the latest guidance for administering the programme, which limits their responsibility to providing information, space and support. 

Over In Westminster this week, away from the reshuffle, MPs debated childcare, with a number of reports buzzing in their ears from the IfS, Mumsnet and others, about the costs of childcare. Lots of warm words were said and the Minister promised to add the idea of a review to the Treasury’s pile. Elsewhere, Dame Christine Ryan, Chair at Ofsted, appeared before the Education Committee; MPs considered the 'Levelling Up' agenda in the North; the collection of data on youth unemployment; and the HE Freedom of Information Bill; and an MP raised a question about additional funding at the next Spending Review for education recovery. This was the answer, given on 14 September 202:

HM Treasury Ministers regularly meet with other government departments, which includes discussions around education. The government is providing £1.4 billion over the next three academic years for education recovery, including £1 billion to support up to six million, 15-hour tutoring courses for disadvantaged school children. This is on top of £1.7 billion education recovery funding committed for academic years 20-21 and 21-22, as well as the 3-year school funding settlement announced at the 2019 Spending Review – delivering an increase of £7.1bn to core budgets in 22-23 compared to 19-20 funding levels, the biggest funding boost for schools in a decade.’

And here’s one final headline from this reshuffle week that may have left many with mixed emotions: ‘Gove given the job of saving Christmas.’ 

Apparently, It’s to do with supply chains and making sure there’s enough turkeys and mince pies on supermarket shelves in the weeks running up to Christmas. But perhaps check who’s coming down the chimney this year. 

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Covid: Vaccines should be given to 12-to-15-year-olds.’ (Monday
  • ‘A’ levels: Government targets 2024 for numerical A’ level grades.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Students flabbergasted after being placed in halls 50 miles away.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Online classes would not justify high university fees.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘UK university staff to vote on strike action in coming year.’ (Friday)


  • Winter Covid Plan. The Prime Minister set out the government’s plans to manage Covid over the coming autumn and winter, basically keeping arrangements as they are at present and relying heavily on an increased vaccination programme for both older and younger people but having a Plan B involving more stringent measures such as mandatory face coverings, possible Covid certification and working from home if numbers rise and the NHS becomes overwhelmed. 
  • Progress Report. The government argued that its Plan for Jobs programme launched last year was working and that schemes such as furlough, kickstart, restart and apprenticeship incentives were continuing to deliver as it published a Progress Report ahead of the winding down of the furlough component.
  • Latest labour market figures. The Learning and Work Institute provided a useful summary of the latest labour market data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) highlighting a continuing improvement but noting many people still remain on furlough with concerns about long-term unemployment, especially for p/t workers.
  • Youth unemployment. The House of Commons Library Service published a new briefing on youth (16-24) unemployment indicating that the unemployment rate was improving and returning to pre-pandemic levels but the employment rate was still below especially for young men.
  • Start Up Loans. The government published latest figures to show that its Start Up Loan Scheme which has been in place since 2012 and which provides loans and advice at a fixed rate to help early start businesses, had reached a new milestone of £600m in loans to businesses outside London.
  • Infrastructure and Projects Roadmap. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority outlined its activity taken since 2017 and set out a new ‘Roadmap to 2030’ covering pipeline activity, investment, metrics and skills development including construction, green skills and technical skills.
  • New Deal. Keir Starmer promised a New Deal for working people in an address to the TUC Annual Congress, promising to ban zero-hour contracts, strengthen flexible working and job security, and provide protections from day one.
  • Ethnicity Pay reporting. The professional body, CIPD, published a new guide to help employers collect and report ethnicity pay data and actions for change following research suggesting many companies still fall short on reporting full data. 
  • Turnaround. The Onward think tank published a new report looking at ways to help regenerate and level up regions that have fallen behind, recommending among other things capacity building and support through Community Deals as well as clearer metrics to evaluate interventions.
  • Covid effect. The professional body KPMG considered in a new report how far Covid is likely to affect the business landscape suggesting that many businesses may move to city/town locations to take up empty office space with some areas seeing a big increase in productivity, and local high streets profiting from those working from home but with regional differences. 
  • Poverty in early childhood. The Nuffield Foundation reported on the latest trends in early childhood in Britain where over 30% of all children in the UK are living in poverty and where the largest increases are in families with three or more children, calling for a better understanding and consensus on dealing with the problems faced by many families.
  • Childcare system. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) set out to explain how the childcare system in England operates and the pressures it faces, in research funded by the Nuffield Foundation, suggesting the system can be hard to navigate and is becoming increasingly expensive especially for middle-class families without subsidies.
  • Childcare costs. Mumsnet and parenting organisations published the results of a new survey revealing concerns about the growing costs of childcare with a third of those surveyed indicating the costs topped their rent or mortgage, calling among other things for subsidised childcare from when a child is 9 months old.
  • Climate anxiety. The University of Bath published the results of its global survey of young people about climate concerns with many of those, particularly in the southern hemisphere, reporting they were ‘afraid, sad, anxious, angry.’
  • Education at a Glance. The OECD published its latest mammoth annual survey of education systems and performance across OECD countries focusing in light of the pandemic on equality of opportunity, participation and progression and highlighting for the UK at least continuing issues about the disadvantage gap, gender inequalities, variable lifelong learning trends and teacher salary disparities.

More specifically ...


  • Vaccinations in schools. The government set out guidance for schools on the administration of the vaccination programme for 12 – 15-year-olds, confirming that they will be administered by healthcare staff as part of standard school-based immunisation programmes, consent forms and leaflets will be provided, and schools will only be expected to provide support, space and information.
  • Careers guidance. The House of Commons Library Service provided a helpful summary of the Education (Careers Guidance in Schools) Bill which is currently going through Parliament and would require schools to provide careers guidance to Yr 7s.
  • Education Blueprint. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) published its ‘Blueprint for a Fairer Education System,’ built around five building blocks including a better-balanced curriculum, simpler and more flexible assessment regimes especially at KS2 and KS4, ringfenced places for poorer pupils and an ‘accountability dashboard’ in place of performance tables.
  • Five principles for assessment. The Independent Assessment Commission published its interim report setting out five principles for future secondary school assessment and exams including supporting progression, serving future needs and being more inclusive.
  • A’/AS level choices. The Education Policy Institute published a new report, commissioned by the Royal Society looking into subject choices at A’/AS level which they conclude are narrowing, leaving many students poorly served, calling as a result for a review of 16 -19 funding to prevent restricted subject take-up.
  • A’ level grades. The i newspaper reported that the government was considering 2024 as a possible date for adopting of a new numerical scale for grading A’ levels and could couple this with releasing results earlier and in the same week as GCSEs which would enable reform of university admissions to take place.
  • Teachers’ pay. Teacher unions jointly wrote to the government calling for it to drop plans for a pay freeze and focus instead on developing a fair pay structure, reducing workloads and supporting teachers better generally. 
  • MAT evaluations. Ofsted updated its guidance and arrangements for summary evaluations of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) so that it aligns more closely with the new inspection framework and offers clearer evidence of the role MATs play in the education system.
  • Free maths packs. National Numeracy announced that with the support of its Partner TP ICAP, it was making available free maths packs with a range of over 230 activities targeted at primary children and families, no doubt particularly welcome for those nearly 60% of parents who said they had found maths home schooling the hardest.
  • Careers project. The Careers and Enterprise Company reported on a new project with Pinewood Studies and the Academies Enterprise Trust which will see students across the Trust offered maths lessons and an insight into creative arts all put together by teachers working with staff at the Studio.


  • Levy transfers. The government made further easing of the apprenticeship levy transfer process simpler, setting up a new online page for larger employers to commit levy funds to other companies in their sector or region as appropriate.
  • Apprenticeship guidance. The Institute of Apprentices’ Panel of Apprentices followed up last year’s survey of members by publishing a new guide covering aspects like preparation for end-point assessment and apprentice welfare and wellbeing, most of which had been raised in the survey.
  • Valuing outcomes. The Learning and Work Institute, in a report supported by the Association of Colleges (AoC,) called for a wider recognition of the outcomes of learning including a new Skills Measure and other essential economic and social outcomes as currently adopted by some other counties.
  • Assessment in technical education. The Gatsby Foundation examined the issue of assessment in technical education in a new report, suggesting it was an area that received limited attention compared to academic assessment, hence the sub-title ‘a world without maps,’ using international examples to highlight the importance of periodic, synoptic and quality assured assessment and of standardisation.
  • Covid impact on FE. Researchers at UCL’s Institute of Education and the EPPI Centre examined the impact of Covid on the FE sector, highlighting six major harmful impacts including changes to modes of learning and assessment, mental health and sector stress, with various potential mitigations in each case.
  • T Levels. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for T levels held an online event with speakers to celebrate the first anniversary of T levels.


  • Graduate success. The consultancy and charity, the Bridge Group, reported on its research among graduates across four universities looking at how best to measure graduate outcomes, concluding that meaningful careers, staying local and advancing wellbeing were just as important measures for many graduates and should be considered in future metrics.
  • Impact of living costs. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined living costs for graduates at the age of 27 finding that while these clearly vary and can have an impact on income returns, they do not change institutional rankings or subject choices, rather they reflect individual life choices. 
  • Loan payments. The Student Loans Company announced the first loan payments for the new academic year, processing maintenance loan payments to roughly 170,000 new and returning students and confirming arrangements for the coming weeks.
  • Health and wellbeing. The Times Higher reported on the different amounts being spent by UK universities on the health and wellbeing of their staff with most appearing to reduce such spending during the pandemic according to data derived from a Freedom of Information (FoI) request.
  • Pandemic Institute. Liverpool announced the launching of a new Pandemic Institute, embracing the city’s universities, the council and local hospital and funded by the Innova Medical Group to bring together global expertise in tackling pandemics.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “I don’t understand reshuffles. Imagine if schools did this. Just imagining myself as head of PE” | @MrHmflpshe
  • “It has been a privilege to serve as Education Secretary since 2019. Despite the challenges of the global pandemic, I’m particularly proud of the transformational reforms I’ve led in Post 16 education: in further education colleges, our Skills agenda, apprenticeships and more” | @GavinWilliamson
  • “Replying to @GavinWilliamson. But who will have the best hair in the cabinet now?” | @Trad_Joseph
  • “The students who graduated from university this summer were starting Reception when @NickGibbUK was first appointed to a front bench education job” | @Ed_Dorrell
  • “I want to make it clear that I am absolutely fine with my kids not being brilliant at sport; modelling for Vogue or speaking Mandarin. I love them for who they are. They better bloody get A* in maths A-level though” | @Samfr
  • “My greatest achievement the summer after I did my A-Levels was not getting sunburnt in Malia” | @HannahAlOthman
  • "A great teacher is one who is willing to do what it takes to be more effective next year than this" @ProfCoe” | @EvidenceInEdu
  • “Two kids off sick and juggling work. Send gin. Actually just send a housekeeper, a chef and a couple of million quid. That should do it” | @lfnand
  • “German reporters ran an experiment to see what's faster: Sending 10GB of photos via the (painfully slow) internet in the region. Or sending two horses with a DVD. The horses won” | @JanoschDelcker

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Don’t sack fewer than three people, or you will be labelled weak. Don’t fire more than five, or you’ll be said to have panicked” – the classic law of reshuffles according to conhome.
  • “While some might disagree with some of his views… he’ll be a significant loss from the department” – one of the reactions to the departure of Nick Gibb as School Standards Minister after nearly a decade in the job.
  • “Things are flattish at the moment – if they go up quickly then you’ve got to go early in terms of getting on top of it” – the government’s chief scientific adviser helps launch the government’s winter Covid plan.
  • “Deeply worried” – the CBI expresses concern about tax rises for businesses.
  • “We are getting more mending work because the moths have been at prey when the suits are hung up for a while. They look like Swiss cheese, some of them” – Dry Cleaners suggest business is picking up as more people return to work.
  • “When your child first leaves home, it is important to give them space to adjust to their new life, so try to avoid smothering them by constantly monitoring their social media or calling them too often” – advice for parents left at home as their children head off to university.
  • “If children are able to decide for themselves, my fear is that it will depend on what TikTok tells her” – parents respond to the news that 12–15-year-olds will be offered Covid vaccinations.
  • “Frankly, however, it is a sorry state of affairs if any individuals or groups think it is helpful in any way to stage a protest outside a school over a vaccine programme which is designed to help reduce educational disruption and which seems to us to be in the best interests of children and young people” – ASCL reacts to the latest official guidance on vaccinations for 12-15-year-olds.
  • “We would be very surprised” – DfE officials suggest they’d be very surprised if the changed date for exam results adopted this year were not carried forward to future years.
  • “Whether you're just starting out, or an experienced professional, we have what you are looking for. Jobs include administration, policy advisers, digital, finance, commercial specialists and many more” – the DfE looks to recruit.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 785. The number of days Gavin Williamson served as Education Secretary, just short of the average according to Schools Week.
  • 60%. The proportion of the new cabinet who were privately educated against 33% who were educated at a comprehensive, according to the Sutton Trust.
  • 3.2%. The CPI inflation rate for August 2021, one of the largest month-on-month increases driven by higher petrol and restaurant/pub prices according to the latest official figures.
  • 1.03m. Job vacancies in the UK, the highest on record according to the latest labour market figures from the ONS.
  • 11.6m. The number of people whose wages have been supported by furlough since its inception at a cost of £68.5bn, according to the government’s Progress Report.
  • 70%. The number of people in a survey who reckon working from home will remain a feature for years to come, according to a survey from the BBC.
  • 7,000 The number of temporary Christmas jobs John Lewis looking to create this year, according to the JL Partnership.
  • 51%. The number of graduates who stay local to their university after graduation, according to research from the Bridge Group.
  • 933,000. The number of certificates for vocational and related learning issued April – June this year, the first increase since 2019 according to Ofqual.
  • 77m.The number of children still missing out on education because their school remains closed due to the pandemic, according to UNICEF.
  • 59%. The number of young people around the world who in a survey by the University of Bath were said to be very or extremely worried about climate change.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Lib Dem Conference (Friday Sept 17 – Monday Sept 20).
  • SMF launch of a Paper by the Leader of the House of Lords on ‘Uni or not’ (Tues 21 Sept).
  • Education Committee witness session with the Chief Medical Officer (Wed 22 Sept).
  • The AI Summit (Wed 22 Sept – Thurs 23 Sept). 
  • Launch of IPPR report on Prosperity and Justice after Covid (Wed 22 Sept).
  • Launch of British Academy Report on corporate purpose in business (Wed 22 Sept).
  • OECD webinars as part of Youth Week including what Generation Z thinks about school (Thursday 23 Sept).

Other stories

  • What to pack for university? It’s that time of year again when new university students are busy packing, unpacking and packing again all that they might need for the new university term. There’s no shortage of advice out there. This week, the BBC stepped in with five suggestions. They include a bright lamp (many rooms are small and dark,) a houseplant (calming,) a doorstop (open door for friends,) some stock cubes (make any pasta more exciting) and something to remind you of home (obvious.)But avoid kitchen gadgets, they rarely get used. A link to the full article is here
  • Which school did you go to? The Sutton Trust provided its regular summary, whenever there are ministerial changes, of which school and university Cabinet ministers attended. Looks like ten went to a comprehensive. Full listing 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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