Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 24 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:

Children and university students lead the news this week. 

Children, because the Children’s Commissioner for England published the results of the ‘Big Ask’ survey of children launched earlier this year. Over half-a-million children responded apparently, putting forward ‘their hopes, their fears, their dreams, their lockdown stories’ as we emerge from the pandemic and painting an important picture. And university students because this week has seen the ‘Big Trek’ back to university with plenty of related stories around higher ed to accompany them. 

In other education news this week, an exam board added Marcus Rashford’s social media approach as a case study for its GCSE media studies programme. The government called on Ofsted to lead reviews of two key catch-up areas, namely the quality and impact of tutoring for schools and 16-19-year-olds, and teacher professional development. WorldSkills and partners looked into how a number of other countries have been going about developing technical skills. High quality, responsive qualifications, trained and up-to-date teachers and that old favourite ‘esteem,’ were among the recommendations. And as the government grapples with the issue of student financing (see later) the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) bluntly concluded that ‘there are no easy options.’

But back to those two top stories, starting with that big survey of children and young people from the Children’s Commissioner for England. 

The ‘Big Answer,’ as the report summarising the responses is called, provides what the Commissioner called ‘a landmark set of data.’ On the positive side, it points to ‘an heroic generation’ who have faced not just a pandemic, but currently also a world of problems, and who remain generally happy, balanced and keen to create a better world. “They are not a snowflake generation – they are a ‘sleeves‑up’ heroic generation.” Many spoke positively about both their school and family life. On the downside, 20%, mainly girls, had mental health concerns, many were unhappy with a lack of local community facilities, and most were worried about whether they’d be able to get a good job in the future.

The issue now is how to turn this wealth of feeling and data into a positive movement of change for young people. The report offers a number of recommendations, fairly standard, but ultimately it's pitching for ‘a new deal for England’s children.’ It poses a number of questions about what might be needed – in areas like mental health, schooling, and work – to deliver this new deal, but arguably the most important question it poses, and leaves hanging, is ‘are we being ambitious enough? The Commissioner has put a team together to work on further developments, but It is on how far that ambition is realised, that children may ultimately judge this report.    

With students humping great bags into cars and heading off to university there’s been plenty of interest in higher education this week. Three stories have stood out: 

First, vaccinations, where universities have been working hard to ensure easy access facilities for jabs, such as pop-up sites, are available. Some, like Sussex, have used financial incentives, others have relied on social media, student ambassadors and so on, but the drive is being taken seriously. Wonkhe, for instance, has an interesting article this week on how the University of York is approaching it.

Second, teaching, and what students might expect this year?  Media headlines suggesting that only a handful of universities intend to offer full in-person teaching – The Times listed just three in its survey – set a tone that many in the sector found unhelpful. ‘To almost anyone who works in a university, these headlines are extraordinarily irritating,’ tutted Sir Chris Husbands, V.C. at Sheffield Hallam. Irritating because as he went on to say they ignore the wider blend of teaching that most offer. In his regular VC's blog this week, Sir Chris outlined the five elements that Sheffield Hallam had devised. These included, yes, some remotely provided materials, but also more centrally, in-person seminars, workshops, work-related and independent learning. As ever, it’s getting the blend right that counts and that’s what universities have been working on. 

And third, student financing, a continuing issue and one the government is currently wrestling with ahead of its autumn statements, with rumours of minimum entry levels and graduate returns as possible metrics for future financing. The current model of expensive loans with high interest rates that may ultimately come back to bite the Treasury/taxpayer is ripe for further reform, but as the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported this week, there are no easy answers. They looked at various options, including increasing the repayment rate, extending the loan period and lowering the repayment threshold, and fed them into their new interactive tool, but in each case, no simple solution emerged.  

More generally, it’s Party Conference time for the major political Parties in England. The Lib-Dems were first up last weekend with Party Leader, Ed Davey making a strong pitch for education in his Conference address.  He called for ‘a massive Covid education catch-up plan', which would see schools given licence to spend the funds as they best saw fit and, intriguingly, parents granted a voucher ‘to spend on what they wanted for their children’s education.’ He claimed this was ‘the most radical empowering of parents ever.’ “Parents could choose to spend it with their child’s own school; on an after-school homework club; one-to-one tuition or special extra-curricular activities for example …or parents could choose to spend it on tuition they organise themselves; or with a music teacher; or on therapy and counselling.’ The budget was not indicated at this stage.

Coming up this weekend it's the Labour Party Conference and Keir Starmer has set out his thoughts in advance in an earnest essay or as some called it ‘a sermon’. “Britain under the next Labour government will no longer be trampled by the tyranny of low expectation.” The section on education talks of ‘high-quality schools’ for all; the need to develop skills and strengthen the vocational route; and closing the attainment gap. Details are expected to follow. Overall, for Blair’s ‘stakeholder society’ read ‘contribution society.’  

Back in Westminster, the Education Committee took further witness evidence this week as part of its Inquiry into Prison Education. It also heard from expert health witnesses, including Professor Chris Whitty on the vaccination of children. The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee published the first of its reports into its extensive inquiry into child poverty, calling for a single measurement framework and a measurable strategy. And the International Trade Committee called for greater support and transparency around inward investment, especially to help levelling-up where universities and the Skills Accelerator could play key roles. 

Elsewhere, the government launched a consultation on more flexible working arrangements and announced a new AI Strategy with a 10-year vision. The Digital Secretary’s Statement to MPs announcing the Strategy can be found here.  MPs held a Westminster Hall debate about school buildings calling in particular for a named contact to whom matters could be referred. The Shadow Education Secretary secured an urgent question about catch-up learning which saw the new Schools Minister respond much as his predecessor had. The OECD followed up last week's launch of its hefty review of countries’ education systems by hosting a week of events and debate dedicated to helping young people find jobs and move on from the pandemic. A list of events held as part of its Youth Week can be found here,with today’s event focusing on apprenticeships.

And finally, following last week’s research reports about how graduates staying local can help level up communities, Chinese authorities appear to have come up with a novel idea. According to a report in the Times Higher, they are setting up local ‘marriage assistance projects,’ offering to find a spouse for graduates that stay local. For better or worse.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Students must have say over online learning – regulator’ (Monday).
  • ‘Call for new deal for England’s children as poll shows mental health concerns’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Lost school days could hit 12m without jab, says Whitty’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Covid cases among England’s schoolchildren hit record peak’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Primary SATs test in England do not appear to harm children’s wellbeing’ (Friday).


  • Ministry of Levelling Up. Michael Gove’s new dept set out its role and mission for leading government plans on levelling up as it confirmed Andy Haldane, on secondment from the RSA, would head up a new co-ordinating taskforce on levelling up.
  • New Digi and Culture Secretary. Nadine Dorries, the new Digital and Culture Secretary promised she would support current plans for digital regulation but also do everything she could ‘to drive UK tech to new heights’ as she opened London Tech Week.
  • National AI Strategy. The government launched a new National AI Strategy, setting out a 10-year vision to position the UK as a ‘world leader’ in this area, listing a set of actions over the next 3, 6 and 12 months across 3 core themes that included investing in the long-term, extending the benefits, and establishing effective AI governance.
  • Flexible working. The government launched consultation on taking flexible working arrangements further, particularly in light of the recent shift in work practices, calling for views on whether to make flexible working a ‘day one right,’ whether current reasons for refusing a request remain valid, and procedures for requesting a temporary (flexible) arrangement.
  • Labour thinking. Keir Starmer set out his thoughts on the future for Labour and the country in a 35-page essay, released ahead of the annual Party Conference, with plenty of aspirational soundbites including ‘high-quality schools for every child that prepares them for the future’ but limited details.
  • Education catch-up plan. Sir Ed Davey, Leader of the Lib-Dems, made education catch-up a key part of his Leader’s Speech to the Party’s Annual Conference, proposing that a third of the money should go to parents to spend on education/welfare matters as they wished and the rest to schools to spend as they saw fit.
  • Crisis management. The British Red Cross published a new report looking at how well-equipped UK systems and procedures are for dealing with crises, recommending changes across seven key areas that could help including planning, community engagement, and continuous learning and future-proofing.
  • Economic Outlook. The OECD published its Interim Economic Outlook suggesting economies continuing to recover but with prices and inflation both set to rise in coming months, momentum slowing in some regions and ultimately much depending on vaccination programmes, supply chains, inflation expectations and cost pressures
  • Labour market matters. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) dug deeper into labour market data in a report funded by the Economic and Research Council, suggesting that despite the headlines, vacancies in some sectors remain well below pre-pandemic levels and competition is greater with a lot depending on age, skill-set and occupation.
  • Hiring policies. The CIPD and Omni published a new survey of employer approaches to recruitment and talent planning indicating that a large number (43%) take a fairly ad hoc approach with little sense of longer-term strategic planning and suggesting current volatilities make workforce planning and skills strategies even more important.
  • Work experiences. The Resolution Foundation examined the experiences of people at work over the last few decades as part of its major Nuffield funded ‘Economy 2030 Inquiry,’ suggesting that many people are happy with their jobs and derive satisfaction from them but that this is less true for low earners for whom work has become harder and more stressful with little say in changes to workplace practices indicating perhaps why some manual jobs are hard to fill at the moment. 
  • Building a new economy. The IPPR think tank published a report outlining a more progressive post-Covid economy built around ‘four power shifts,’ including from Whitehall to the regions, from employers to employees, from those with wealth to those locked out, and from the included to the excluded in society.
  • Levelling Up. The No Place Left Behind Commission set up last year to recommend ways of improving local communities, published its final report with a focus on improving high streets, greening towns, and generally showing that homes and neighbourhoods matter.
  • Guaranteeing a rapid recovery. The Social Market Foundation outlined some of the findings from the Rapid Recovery Challenge about the sorts of innovative solutions needed to effect such change including calling on the government to act as ‘a systems operator,’ creating a digital platform for services to develop and cohere better for individuals.
  • Baby shortage. The Social Market Foundation highlighted in a new report, a decline in the birth rate in the UK suggesting that ‘a long - term shortage of working age adults,’ could have pronounced effects on the UK economy in future, calling as a consequence for cheaper childcare and better parental leave.
  • Family Hubs. Barnardo’s highlighted the importance of Family Hubs as part of the government’s levelling up policy in a new report, pointing out how the model can bring services together, unite communities and save costs, calling on the government to invest in such a network.

More specifically ...


  • The Big Answer. The Children’s Commissioner published responses from children and young people to the survey launched earlier this year on their thoughts and feelings on life and future beyond the pandemic, with many responding positively about families and school but with concerns about mental health and future prospects. 
  • Ofsted reviews. Ofsted announced that it had been asked by government to carry out reviews of two key catch-up reforms: the quality of tutoring for schools and 16-19-year-olds, where it will investigate matters like selection criteria, content and impact, and teacher professional development especially the early career framework and national professional qualifications.
  • National Reference Test 2022. The NFER and Ofqual, as lead agents, set out the arrangements for next year’s National Reference Test which will take place in a two-week slot between Feb and April 2022 and help generate further evidence of the impact of the pandemic on pupil learning.
  • 10 years on. Former School Standards Minister Nick Gibb MP reflected on his tenure in education over the past decade, highlighting some of the work achieved during that period including notably the reform of the curriculum and the work on reading that he had championed, urging his successors to keep up the standards momentum.
  • School accountability. FFT Education Datalab outlined some initial thoughts on how a new model of school accountability might be developed, acknowledging that schools were busy at present but suggesting two quality domains -Inclusion and Attainment – that could be adopted for accountability in future.
  • Glasses in Classes. The government announced a new scheme to help children in a number of disadvantaged regions with poor eyesight by providing them with two pair of glasses, one for home and one for school, to help with reading and writing. 


  • Future funding. The Association of Colleges (AoC) submitted its proposals on future funding for the college sector to the Chancellor’s Spending Review, listing three core areas where colleges will have a key role in the future (skills for jobs, education recovery, climate action) and calling for an extra £4.6bn over the next three years to be able to deliver in each case. 
  • Developing technical excellence. WorldSkills UK and partners examined how seven other countries, including Austria, Hungary and S. Korea were going about developing technical excellence to see what lessons could be learned, highlighting establishing benchmarked global skills standards, supporting the art of teaching and innovation, and staying close to skill needs, as key recommendations.
  • Centres of Excellence. WorldSkills UK and NCFE listed 12 more colleges and training providers joining their Centre of Excellence model for developing and sharing excellent practice in skill development.
  • Adult education. The Collab Group published a new paper highlighting the importance of adult education and looking at ways to strengthen it, including aligning priorities with local improvement plans, adopting a 3-year funding settlement, and expanding the reach of the lifetime skills guarantee to include equivalent qualifications.
  • COSMO. The Sutton Trust announced that the first stage in its major longitudinal cohort study (COSMO) intended to examine the short, medium and long-term impact of the pandemic on young people’s progression, social mobility and educational inequality, will take place this week with thousands of 16/17 yr olds receiving a questionnaire.


  • Student financing. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined the student financing system in England in a new Nuffield funded report, using a new student finance calculator to warn the government as it ponders reform, that there are no easy options with lower interest rates among the least bad choices. 
  • In-person teaching. The Times reported that just three universities (Sussex, Sheffield, Southampton) out of 27 in its survey were intending to return to full in-person teaching this term.
  • R/D. The Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published correspondence with the Business Secretary from the summer about the extent of the government’s commitment to increasing the R/D budget to £22bn by 2024/5, with the Minister confirming in his response both the commitment as well as other activity being lined up as part of the Innovation Strategy.
  • Humanities matters. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published an authored paper on the humanities, reflecting on the trend of declining numbers and acknowledging that weaker graduate returns compared to some other disciplines was an issue but pointing to the importance of humanities-based skills in many aspects of life and calling for their embedding in school curricula. 
  • Participation and wage disparities. The Times Higher examined the latest figures from the OECD showing a widening participation gap with more women increasingly entering tertiary education than men yet still lagging behind them when it comes to earnings.
  • Experience of LGBT+ students. UCAS, in conjunction with Stonewall, reported on research among LGBT+ students looking into their education experience so far and their expectations ahead of starting university/college, suggesting many had had a good experience at school so far and were looking forward to the next steps but equally hoped for support and understanding.
  • Deficit of respect. Former Minister Baroness Stowell of Beeston called, in an essay and event for the Social Market Foundation, for the gulf in respect between graduates and non-graduates to be addressed, arguing that ‘character not academic success should define social value.’ 
  • Strike ballots. The University and College Union (UCU) announced that it would hold ballots for strike action over pensions and pay as well as casual working and unsafe workloads, with the ballots due to take place from mid Oct and possible strike action before the end of the year.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Possibly the worst bit of an academic job advert I've ever seen: "This post is to cover maternity on a month-to-month basis up to 9 months or until the substantive postholder returns from maternity leave, or in the event of her resignation, whichever date is earlier" | @agnesjuliet 
  • “Scotland: Pupils graded for happiness to end focus on academic success | The Times” | @FEontap
  • “For a profession with a workload crisis, we don’t half do some arguing on the internet” |  @H_Miss88
  • “My cousin had the best line to use with students, and I've happily stolen it for interactive sessions: 'Turn your cameras on please. I'm not the TV” |  @LeapfrogMark
  • “Would you go to your school reunion if they had one? I would 100% NOT” |  @Backpainandwine
  • “The biggest lie with the ‘Get into teaching’ ad is the teacher walking out at the same time as the students! | @MissHudsonHist
  • “There are three kinds of academics: 1) those who know what’s going on and speak up, 2) those who know what’s going on and stay silent, and 3) those who have no idea what’s going on” | @timminglab
  • “The trick to surviving academia is to find the healthy middle ground between imposter syndrome and economist” | @NC_Renic
  • “Why does there have to be an app for EVERYTHING? Son at university informs me that he had to download an app to use the washing machine” -@guywalters.
  • “Anyone else have such a deep-rooted fear of being late, they even join Zoom meetings early?! | @GeorgieR30
  • “My parents are going on an abroad holiday soon, which means I am putting in a lot of overtime in my second unpaid job as a PA and IT technician!! | @HannahAlOthman

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “This is the moment when we spit out the orange peel, we adjust our gum shields and our scrum caps. "And we get out on to the pitch in the knowledge that we're going to have to do it together and we're going to have to do it as a team." – the PM’s pep talk to his new Cabinet last weekend.
  • “I want Labour to once again be Britain’s bricks and mortar – a symbol of solidity, reliability, shelter and the prospect of building something new and better” – Keir Starmer sets out his vision for the Labour Party in a new essay.
  • “We’ve cracked start-ups. Now it’s time to go big, and to begin paving the way for a new generation of British tech titans” – the new Digital and Culture Secretary (Nadine Dorries) launches London Tech Week.
  • “Companies want to work with the Government to ensure that they can say ‘no’ when they have properly considered requests but for good reason can’t accept them” – the CBI responds to the government’s consultation on flexible working.
  • “The right to ask nicely is no right at all” – the TUC issues its response to the consultation on flexible working.
  • “Students can expect most seminars, small group classes and lab work to be taught in-person, alongside a range of extra-curricular activity, social events and support services on campus” – Russell Group universities set out their teaching plans for the year.
  • “The people who lead our country on politics and economics, who almost all did go to university, must do more to respect and understand those who did not” –  Baroness Stowell offers thoughts on the education divide in an address to the Social Market Foundation.
  • “The department does not expect additional resource implications for schools” – DfE ministers respond to questions about schools incurring extra costs in carrying out vaccinations.
  • “And I urge my successors to resist the siren voices of those who call for GCSEs to be abolished” – former School Standards Minister Nick Gibb with a message for his successors.
  • “They are a survivor generation – a sleeves‑up, pragmatic generation, with civic‑minded aspirations” – the Children’s Commissioner for England on the young people emerging from her major new survey.
  • “Waterloo Road is the perfect lens through which to explore post-Covid Britain” – the BBC announces the return of the school drama series.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 5.2%. The growth forecast this year for the UK against 5.7% across the OECD generally, according to the OECD’s latest economic report.
  • £370bn. The cost of government spending as a result of Covid-19, according to the National Audit Office.
  • £1.3bn. The amount that firms have paid back in furlough money since last summer, according to the Treasury. 
  • 68%. The number of firms planning to increase pay in line with or above inflation, according to a survey from the CBI/Pertemps. 
  • 22%. The number of employers who have made changes to employees’ terms and conditions, including some such as on pay and location of work that were positive, between March 2020 and July 2021, according to CIPD
  • 36%. The number of teachers surveyed who said they were ‘ambivalent’ about the new Education Secretary with 12% ‘optimistic’ and 24% ‘pessimistic,’ according to Teacher Tapp.
  • 1.58. The number of children per woman in England and Wales currently, down from 2.93 from a peak 70+ years ago and leading to potential long-term labour shortages according to a report from the Social Market Foundation.
  • 91.9%. The pupil attendance rate for state schools in England as of the 16 Sept with an estimated 1.5% off because of Covid related reasons, according to the latest official figures.
  • 71%. The number of children aged 9 – 17 surveyed who said they were happy with their life, according to a major new survey from the Children’s Commissioner. 
  • 200m. The number of new users joining LinkedIn over the last three years, and growing, according to an update from the company cited by the FT.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Labour Party Conference (Sat 25 – Wed 29).
  • ArkTalks webinar on ‘How has education in England changed in recent decades?’ (Wed 29 Sept).
  • Furlough scheme closes (Thus 30 Sept).

Other stories

  • Remote learning through the pandemic. Some interesting data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) this week on remote learning during the pandemic. Building on evidence from Teacher Tapp and others, the ONS reckoned that “it (remote learning) was at best a partial substitute for in-class teaching during the pandemic as pupils covered substantially less material.” This affected some groups more than others including primary school pupils and schools with a high proportion of those on free school meals. It also affected certain subjects – arts and creative subjects for example, more than others. The data tends to reinforce emerging perceptions and for many, highlights the need for careful targeting of recovery funding. A link to the briefing can be found here
  • Digital goldmine. The BBC has a fantastic wealth of material that can be used to inspire teachers and learners alike. It includes terrific historical and scientific films and documentaries let alone the more recent epoch-making Planet Earth and other David Attenborough inspired programmes. As part of its centenary celebrations, the BBC is intending to make its “entire digitised BBC broadcast archive” available to schools, colleges and universities. In addition, it will go out and speak to schools and deploy many of its current broadcasters to share experiences, storytelling sessions and presenting skills with students. It all sounds like a tremendous opportunity. A link to the BBC announcement 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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