Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 01 October 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:

Plenty to consider this week with education and skills featuring prominently in Keir Starmer’s speech in Brighton; debate growing about changes to the repayment of student fee loans, announcements made about next summer’s exams; furlough drawing to a close and the government boldly launching a National Space Strategy. 

There's a lot to take in so here’s a bit of detail behind some of these top stories, starting in Brighton.

Sir Keir Starmer’s 88-minute Leader’s speech passed what Paul Waugh of the i newspaper called the ‘blink’ test, others thought it passed the ‘Ru Paul test.’ Either way, it was as the media said ‘a job well done, a serious speech for serious times.’ 

A large chunk of it was given over to education and skills. Indeed Labour advisers pointed to education as one of the key messages the speech was seeking to convey. Pledges included ‘a major school improvement plan’; two weeks' work experience and access to a careers advisor; specialist mental health support; a big push on digital skills; world leadership in science and R/D; and ‘a curriculum for tomorrow.’ These followed earlier announcements about removing the charitable status from private schools, changing the focus of Ofsted and recruiting ‘thousands’ more teachers. Plenty on offer therefore. Teacher unions were broadly supportive. ‘Promising but needs a bit more detail,’ the school report verdict from one of them.

On to student fee loans where rumours about government plans to include a lowering of the repayment threshold for tuition fee loans for students in England in the forthcoming Spending Review have seen a rash of modelling and debate this week. Currently graduates start repaying when they earn £27,295 and what isn’t paid off after 30 years is then written off. The landmark 2019 Augar Review recommended dropping the threshold to £23,000. In his publication this week, former Universities Minister David Willetts suggested £21,000 with a 5-yearly review. The government appears likely to go for some lowering of the threshold along with possible changes around course entry levels and alignment to graduate returns when it responds to the Review at the end of the month. 

It’s over ten years since the Browne Review recommended the current fee loan model and it has provoked sharp debate ever since. London Economics and FFT Education Datalab both provided interesting modelling this week – one on the impact of changing the repayment threshold and the other on adopting minimum course entry levels. In both cases, the worry was a likely squeezing of opportunity – particularly for more disadvantaged groups – if either proposal went ahead. 

A further issue, taken up by MoneySavingExpert Martin Lewis this week, is what to do about those who have already paid or who are already in the system. He reckoned that applying things retrospectively could cost graduates £400 a year more. ‘Don’t punish graduates like me’ wrote one correspondent in The Independent this week. Then there’s the issue of demand. Record numbers continue to apply to university including UK 18-year-olds from disadvantaged areas according to UCAS. As David Willetts argued in his publication this week: “It is hard to stand in the way of the university aspiration of many young people and their families.”

Next, those various announcements this week about next year’s exams. They cover the adaptations for GCSEs and AS/A’ levels. Things like a choice of topics in some GCSE subjects and advance information in some other subjects, proposed to help mitigate the disruption caused by the pandemic and now agreed following consultation. The government and Ofqual have also launched contingency arrangements should exams not be able to go ahead next year, basically building on procedures used this year. And Ofqual has also confirmed the model for grading next year, proposing a gradual return to pre-pandemic procedures by 2023 with grade boundaries for next year set ‘at a midpoint between 2021 and 2019.’ 

As Ofqual go on to say, it’s too early to assess the impact of this. Entries haven’t been made yet and senior examiners have of course yet to review any work and make judgments about grade boundaries. Their view is that ‘results overall will be higher than in 2019, and not as high as in 2020.’ FFT Education Datalab has had an initial stab at modelling the impact and suggests some subjects may see a considerable drop in A grades at A’ level. Sam Freedman called it ‘a brave decision.’ Overall, Unions have given it all a cautious response and welcome some certainty at last. As the National Association of Head Teachers remarked “The most important thing is that this decision has been made and everyone involved now knows what to expect.”

On to the furlough scheme, which drew to a close this week. One of the more generous of such schemes internationally, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (JRS) to give it its full title, went through various iterations and came at some cost – nearly £70bn. But so far it has helped see off the worst fears about unemployment and should be seen in the words of the Resolution Foundation who reported on it this week as, 'a great success'. 

Issues still remain however, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) pointed out this week, with Londoners, older workers and those without degrees facing the biggest challenges finding jobs. Around a million-and-a-half may still be on furlough and the IfS also point to a mismatch between those without jobs and current vacancies. That said, a YouGov poll this week found that 58% of Brits believe we have now reached the right moment to end the scheme, while 59% rate it as one the most important interventions during the pandemic, second only to the vaccine rollout. Labour market figures will be carefully watched over the coming months.

Elsewhere this week, the government launched a National Space Strategy, complete with the obligatory split infinitive in the PM’s blurb as the media noticed. The Strategy is built around four ‘gearing up’ phases over the next decade: countdown, ignition, thrust and orbit, all designed to capitalise on the skills and technology associated with space development and give the UK a leading edge. 

In other news, bids to the Treasury for the forthcoming Spending Review have continued to build up. Last week the college sector submitted its proposals and this week it was the turn of universities with Universities UK pitching for the sector to become key players in post-economic recovery. The submission called for continued investment, sticking with the commitment on future research funding and working together to enhance transformational change. The Edge Foundation also submitted its bid this week with an emphasis on FE funding, apprenticeships for younger learners and careers guidance.

And finally, how to make an entrance. Parents/families have been busy over the past week or so dropping off their offspring to start their university lives. Some have taken to social media to say how difficult it’s been. So perhaps spare a thought for one family who managed to add a bit of drama by crashing the family car into the new residence block as they pulled in, causing a fair bit of damage. ‘One way to announce your arrival,’ as more than one person noted. Picture here.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’No 10 plans to lower salary levels at which graduates start repaying loans’ (Monday).
  • ‘Warning to schools over fake Covid jab consent form’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘DfE confirms remit for FE’s two new Ministers’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘2022 exams: Adaptions and grading plan finally confirmed’ (Thursday).
  • Students push back against ‘YouTube’ learning as campuses reopen’ (Friday).


  • Plan B consultation. The government called for views, particularly from businesses and venue organisers, as to whether there should be vaccine passports for some indoor/outdoor events including nightclubs and sports arenas, for visitors aged 18 and over, under its Plan B arrangements. 
  • National Space Strategy. The government launched its National Space Strategy with a 10-point plan, including becoming the first country from Europe to launch a small satellite and developing related technology and skills, as it seeks to take a leading role and capitalise on technologies associated with space and science.
  • Household Support. The government announced a new £500m Household Support Fund which will come into place as Universal Credit uplift draws to a close, will be paid through local councils and is intended to help households most in need with essentials over the coming months.
  • Conference speech. Keir Starmer focused on what he called ‘some of the big issues’ as he sought to sketch out a post-pandemic vision for the country in his Conference speech, highlighting the importance of health, education, climate change and economic recovery in particular and defining his core values as ‘work, care, equality, and security.’ 
  • Job well done. The Resolution Foundation published an end of term report on the furlough scheme which drew to a close this week, reflecting on its various phases of development and impact and concluding that while it had come at a cost, the scheme had ‘prevented catastrophic rises in unemployment.’
  • The ending of furlough. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) also reported on the ending of the furlough scheme, equally highlighting its importance but stressing that employment issues remain with mismatches between vacancies and those looking for work, and older workers, Londoners and those without degrees likely to find it hardest to find jobs. 
  • The gig economy. Public First examined the gig economy, what it’s like to work in it and the policy steps needed for going forward in a report commissioned by Uber, calling among other things for greater clarity and support for the role of a gig worker and protection by the proposed new Single Enforcement Body.
  • Social Guarantee. The New Economics Foundation argued in a new briefing that as we emerge from the pandemic, there should be a new Social Guarantee, one that would ensure universal services, a living income and a living wage, providing for the ‘essentials’ of improved living standards, good jobs and movement towards a low-carbon economy.
  • Education signalling. The Social Market Foundation examined the issue of signalling in education, where some forms of education do little to improve a learner’s skills beyond signalling pre-existing traits, suggesting that this is especially pertinent in higher ed and inviting views on further ways to avoid this such as reducing the emphasis on exams, encouraging modular provision, and looking at better ways to measure ‘learning gain.’
  • Local Digital Skills Partnerships. The government published a commissioned evaluation of the Digital Skills Partnership scheme pointing to a number of positives such as reductions in digital exclusion and better working with business but highlighting the need for clearer priorities, alignment with the wider skills agenda and flexible funding if the scheme is to be further rolled out.
  • The view from here. Andrew Bailey, Governor of the Bank of England, pointed to a slowing of the rate of recovery, ‘hard yards’ as he called it, in an address to the Society of Professional Economists, highlighting concerns about inflation, supply bottlenecks and uncertainty in the labour market as current concerns.

More specifically ...


  • 2022 GCSE and A’ level exams. The government and Ofqual set out arrangements for next year’s GCSE, AS and A’ level exams in response to consultation, with confirmation of the use of a choice of topics in GCSE English Lit and some humanities subjects, advance information about the focus of content in other GCSEs and A’ levels, plus some support materials, with grade boundaries set at the midway point between 2019 and 2021 as part of a gradual return to normality by 2023.
  • Impact of grading announcement. FFT Education Datalab considered the impact of the latest decision on next year’s exam grading, suggesting a drop in the overall number of A grades likely to be awarded next year, with A level modelling suggesting music and drama likely to see the biggest falls.
  • Contingency arrangements for GCSE/GCE. The government and Ofqual also launched consultation on contingency arrangements for next year’s GCSE. AS, AEA and A’ levels exams, should they have to be cancelled again, proposing the use of teacher assessed grades (TAGs) as this year but with some modifications such as tighter guidance on what evidence could be used, to improve things.
  • Contingency arrangements for Voc Quals. The government and Ofqual outlined contingency arrangements for next summer’s vocational/technical qualifications should formal assessments and exams have to be cancelled, proposing a similar approach doe GCSEs/GCEs with teacher assessed grades where appropriate with improvements, adaptations for qualifications like Functional Skills, and delayed assessment where occupational competence needs to be demonstrated. 
  • KS3 maths. The government and National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Maths (NCETM) published detailed non-statutory guidance to help with the teaching of maths at KS3, with sample curriculum frameworks and practical activities that could be adopted on a progressive term by term basis.
  • Standardisation training. The Standards and Testing Agency confirmed that face-to-face standardisation training for moderators of KS1/2 English will be replaced by ‘online self -guided training materials’ this year with the first materials available from the beginning of November. 


  • Skills Bootcamps. Ofsted announced it had been asked by government to carry out a thematic review of Skills Bootcamps to see how effectively they were operating, with a range of visits pencilled in for Dec – March 2022 and a report due Sept 2022. 
  • HGV training. The government announced funding and support partly through Skills Bootcamps and partly through the Adult Education Budget to help train and licence a further 4,000 HGV drivers as concerns about shortages grew. 
  • Traineeship contracts. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) announced that bids for traineeship contracts this year need to be submitted from eligible providers, such as those with other ESFA contracts and with ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted ratings, by 22 October 
  • Apprenticeship assessment. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) produced a series of brief good practice guides for apprentices, employers and training providers respectively on assessment for apprenticeships.
  • Toolkit for the creative industries. The Social Mobility Commission launched a toolkit to help employers recruit more people from a diverse background to the creative industries, with a series of practical measures built around such matters as leadership and culture, hiring and progression and the use of data.
  • Edge on spending. The Edge Foundation submitted its proposals to the Treasury’s Spending Review calling for apprenticeship levy funding to be directed towards 16-24 yr olds, increased investment in careers advice and guidance, and a longer-term funding model for FE.
  • The Science Museum announced its new interactive gallery funded by the Gatsby Foundation which will focus on the important role of technicians, what they do and how to become one with the aim of encouraging more young people to consider joining up.


  • Funding HE. Former Universities Minister David Willetts tackled the issue of boosting HE while cutting public spending in a new publication for the HE Policy Institute (HEPI,) highlighting the importance of higher ed to individuals and communities and calling for the fee loan repayment threshold to be reduced to £21,000, FE and HE to work together on higher-level technical provision, BTECs to remain and 4-year degrees to be considered.
  • Spending Review submission. Universities UK made its case to the Treasury ahead of the forthcoming Spending Review, pledging to help build back and create opportunity and value post-pandemic and calling among other things for fee support levels to remain, targeted maintenance grants to be introduced, and the R/D commitment to be met.
  • Economic contribution. Universities UK published a briefing, undertaken by Frontier Economic as further evidence for the Spending Review submission, highlighting the contribution universities in England make to the UK economy through employment, international students, visitor spending, R/D and economic output generally. 
  • Levelling Up. The Russell Group highlighted the role their universities play in levelling up around the country with a series of case studies showing the contribution they make in providing ‘high-quality’ provision and research in each region.
  • Managing the money. The Office for Students (OfS) published its latest guide to how it’s managing the funding over the current year, going through what money is available, how its divvied up, provision for particular courses and priorities, and the terms and conditions that have to be observed.
  • Modelling the numbers. London Economics examined the impact of lowering the student repayment threshold in a couple of Scenarios as rumours grew that this was under consideration by the Treasury, suggesting that it could achieve savings but would leave graduates variously having to contribute more and with much depending on expected earnings.
  • Martin’s money. MoneySavingExpert Martin Lewis warned the government against retrospective changes to student loans, indicating that cutting the repayment threshold as is being suggested could result in graduates having to pay around £400 pa more.
  • Entry thresholds. FFT Education Datalab examined the issues around setting minimum entry thresholds for entry to university, for instance 3 Ds or 3 BTEC merits or GCSE passes in English and maths all of which have been mooted, suggesting that ‘introducing an entry bar would reduce opportunity.’
  • Consultation on Quality and Standards. The University Alliance Group published its response to the Office for Students’ (OfS) consultation on Quality and Standards which closed this week, offering broad support but raising concerns about the extension of OfS regulatory oversight in certain areas including modular, partnership and degree apprenticeship provision
  • Civic Agreement. The five HE institutions of Greater Manchester signed a ‘groundbreaking civic university agreement,’ endorsed by city leaders and local Mayor Andy Burnham, pledging to work together on six key priorities including jobs and growth, the digital economy, and climate change.
  • Early Career Researchers. The British Academy announced that Birmingham University would be the first of its proposed regional hubs for early career researchers focusing on humanities and social sciences, with further regional hubs to follow over the next couple of years.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “I have been a deputy head for a whole month! I really want to say something eloquent about how good it is but I'm too tired to think!” | @MrsSTeaches
  • “Went out for brunch after attending the wrong induction for the wrong course for my first day at my new uni” | @penny_disco
  • “I feel like a bit of a terrible parent cos my kids don't go to loads of clubs. I thought I'd ask my 5 yr old if he'd like to go to any clubs & mentioned a few he could try. He said, "all I want to learn is how to colour in the lines". It really made me laugh!” | @navyeyelash
  • “Quick thought on reinstating work experience: I was made to do two weeks work experience when I was at school and it was the most pointless thing ever. I spent most days packing boxes in a back room of Topshop for no money - when I already had a part-time job waitressing” | @SophiaSleigh
  • “So much new whizzbang pedagogy is using standard tasks and giving them fancy new names” | @michael_merrick
  • “Cooking fish in the staff room is a hate crime” | @8dangerou_sadam

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Education is so important I’m tempted to say it three times” – Keir Starmer channels his inner Blair as he talks about education in his Conference speech.
  • “Delivering enriching, enjoyable childhoods. The opportunity for every child to reach their potential The skills young people need for the future, and the skills our country needs” – the Shadow Education Secretary sets out Labour’s education vision to the Party Conference.
  • “Overall, as this scheme winds down in just a few days’ time, it’s safe to conclude that it is job well done” – the Resolution Foundation on the furlough scheme. 
  • “The injustice is simply astounding,” – the NUS responds to rumours that the government is looking to lower the threshold for paying back student loans.
  • “The three roles we are advertising will give the successful candidate an opportunity to lead on developing particular aspects of funding and accountability policy, as well as providing strategic oversight across the reform agenda to ensure we deliver on ministers’ objectives” – the DfE advertises three Senior Policy Advisor roles covering FE funding and accountability.
  • “It would be a mistake to stop BTECs to try to force young people onto T-Levels. As a minimum I propose proper consultation with employer groups before implementing any such change” – former Minister David Willetts reflects on the importance of vocational provision.
  • “Our aim is to return to a pre-pandemic grade profile. But we don’t think it would be fair on 2022’s students to do it all in one go, given the disruption they have experienced. We will aim, therefore, to return in broadly 2 steps” – Ofqual outlines a gradual return to pre-pandemic grading arrangements.
  • “I want teachers and students to know that I will always stand up for them and tackle harassment head-on” – the Education Secretary comes out fighting for schools facing anti-vaxxers 
  • “Independent schools contribute nearly £14bn to the UK economy every year, support more than 300,000 jobs and save the taxpayer another £3.5bn annually through the education of 600,000 children and young people, at no additional cost” – independent schools respond to Labour’s call to end their charitable status.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 5.5%. The figure for UK GDP for the second quarter of this year up to June, up from an original estimate of 4.8% according to latest official figures.
  • 53%. The number of Brits in a survey who think the economy will get worse over the next 12 months, according to Ipsos Mori.
  • £23,000. The threshold that the government is considering adopting for paying back student loans, down from the current £27,295, according to various media headlines.
  • £95 bn. The amount that universities in England contribute to the UK economy, according to a new report commissioned by Universities UK.
  • £10.1bn. The additional funding needed for schools and colleges this year to restore per pupil funding to 2015 levels, according to the Spending Review submission from the NAHT and NEU.
  • 6,725. The number of responses received to the consultation about next year’s GCSE and A’ level exam arrangements, according to Ofqual.
  • £4,900. The planned per pupil expenditure for 2021/22, according to latest government figures.
  • 20,000. The number of seasonal workers Amazon UK is looking to hire for the Christmas period, according to media reports.
  • 43%. The increase in sales of Lego products in the first half of this year, confirming its position as the world’s largest toymaker according to media reports.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Conservative Party Conference (Sunday 3 – Wed 6 October).
  • National Poetry Day (Thursday 7 October).
  • Launch of Lifelong Education Commission report (Monday 4 October).

Other stories

  • The great skills debate. This week the FT has been running a series of articles on the big domestic issues facing the country post-pandemic and how far the Johnson government will be able to effect the transformational change it keeps portraying. One of the issues it looked at was the supply of skills and how far government can encourage more people to take-up technical/vocational courses often in colleges. It’s not a new debate, most governments have had a go at tackling the so-called ‘skills crisis’ as the number of strategies and white papers attest but the article suggests things might change this time for three reasons. First, the Chancellor is supportive, seeing a switch to FE as a ‘cheaper’ learning route. Second, FE is keen to pick up the mantle given the fall in adult learning and its second-class treatment in recent years. Third, the government is keen to tackle the ‘burgeoning’ costs of HE building up for the Treasury. The big problem is that the FE sector has been woefully underfunded in recent years and encouraging people to apply to colleges for technical courses rather than to university may be quite a challenge. A link to the article is here.
  • A good commute? According to research published this week from National Rail and UCL, train commutes can be good for you. Apparently being able to mentally prepare for work on the way in and de-stress and reflect on the way back is good for the soul and can improve productivity. No mention of not being able to get a seat and burning up about the cost of the ticket but on a more positive note, the rail industry is preparing to offer FutureLearn online courses with hot drinks as part of the commute to help keep the brain active. A link to the story is Best for sports. As students continued to head off to university, another of those lists of top-ranking universities was published this week. This one came from the health club chain, PureGym, and looked at which universities had the best sports societies and facilities. Lancaster and Oxford came out joint top, followed by Bristol, Cambridge, Nottingham and UCL. A link to the survey can be found here.
  • Best for sports. As students continued to head off to university, another of those lists of top-ranking universities was published this week. This one came from the health club chain, PureGym, and looked at which universities had the best sports societies and facilities. Lancaster and Oxford came out joint top, followed by Bristol, Cambridge, Nottingham and UCL. A link to the survey can be found 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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