Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 08 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 keep the headline writers busy again this week.

There’s been a lot to choose from. The Conservatives seized most of the headlines as they rounded off this season’s big Party Conferences. The Insolvency Service reported no big increase in planned redundancies with furlough drawing to a close. A House of Commons Committee called on the government to offer more support for parents struggling with childcare, while the Education Secretary promised a deep dive into the rising number of school absences. In other headline news, the government stepped in to outlaw essay writing services for students; the Lifelong Learning Commission published its opening report; debate continued both in Conference and elsewhere about the future of GCSEs; and Sir Michael Barber called for ‘bucket lists’ of character developing activities for school children in his response to The Times Education Commission.

We start the roundup this week in Manchester where the Conservatives were holding court in their annual Party Conference.

Each of the Parties has had things to say about education and skills at their respective Conferences. The Lib-Dems produced a rabbit out of the hat at theirs with the promise of an education voucher for families to spend on education recovery as they saw fit. A week later, Labour marked out its priorities. The list included a promise of more teachers, better mental health support, the ending of charitable status for private schools, a curriculum for the future and ‘world-class science and innovation.’

As for the Conservatives, they have had what most of the media have called ‘a policy-lite’ Conference this week. The Chancellor and the Education Secretary both made brief speeches early on in the proceedings. The Chancellor promised more support for those seeking employment including extending the business hire of apprenticeships scheme as well as creating AI scholarships, all the while remaining ‘fiscally responsible’ and welcoming the impact of new technology. A case of ‘Rishinomics with a new Californian twist’ according to the Resolution Foundation. For the Education Secretary, just a week or so into the new job, it was a quick run through the current agenda with the announcement of a Schools white paper to tackle innumeracy and illiteracy the headline feature.

The Prime Minister concluded events with the traditional Leader’s speech described by The Spectator as ‘a gossamer thread of policy amongst a barrage of jokes.’ There were lots of references to skills as part of the ubiquitous levelling up and new model economy, but only one announcement and that wasn’t particularly new. It was a promise of a £3,000 levelling up premium for top maths and science teachers to work in deprived areas. A policy that had been dropped a year ago.

There’s been lots of useful commentary about all three Conferences. Nick Hillman, director at the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) wrote a helpful summary of the key takeaways from the Conservative Conference for higher education here while in terms of general summaries, Paul Waugh in the i newspaper and The Spectator have both provided helpful commentaries..

Away from the febrile world of Conferences, its been the usual busy week.

The main news continues to be the build up to the major spending announcements due at the end of the month. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has been looking at the challenges facing local councils as they and organisations like the British Academy and Sutton Trust all revealed their wish list. At the same time a future vision for education continues to be sketched out by the various Commissions set up in the wake of the pandemic to plot a better future. Last month alone saw reports from four such Commissions and this week two more have been in the news. It’s turning into a rich autumn harvest.

This week’s twosome included the Lifelong Learning Commission and The Times Education Commission.

Set up in February this year under the stewardship of former Universities Minister Chris Skidmore, the Lifelong Learning Commission is looking at post-18 provision – both colleges and universities – and how to create a better lifelong learning system. It’s promising a series of reports over the coming months but this first report makes a series of recommendations for creating a more flexible and supported lifelong learning system, including a credit-based funding and accreditation system. It’s likely that their work will prove valuable to the new DfE Ministers as they grapple with the current big thinking on post-18 provision in the shape of the Augar Review.  

The Times Education Commission which was set up at the beginning of June to roam over much of the education system, is currently gathering thoughts from a number of leading figures and is due to report back next year. This week Sir Michael Barber published his thoughts. His big idea was to create more time in the year for what he termed ‘accomplishment and character’ via ‘a bucket list’ of opportunities for pupils in primary and secondary. A bit like Labour MP Wes Streeting’s ‘ten by ten’ (ten opportunities such as learning to swim or play games a child should have by age ten). Sir Michael’s bucket included sporting and musical activities, outward bound activities, visits and so on. Spread over five days a year, it would put at minimum an extra 2.5% on the budget. Sir Michael also called for the scrapping of exams for modern foreign languages in favour of graded assessments similar to music exams.

In other news this week, teachers have been heralded across the world as part of World Teachers’ Day; Lewis Hamilton announced a new partnership with Teach First to recruit and train more Black STEM teachers; the lead bodies to develop the next wave of T levels were announced; and the Office for Students raised concerns about writing standards.

But to end on a lighter note, entries for this week’s National Poetry Day have managed to raise a welcome smile for many people. Here’s an example of one that did just that.

‘It’s National Poetry Day today,

Teacher says ‘Will I read mine?’

Before I do, I have to ask,

Can a poem have just one line?’

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Zahawi: White Paper on illiteracy in new year’ (Monday).
  • ‘Covid absences rise two-thirds in a fortnight’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Selling essays to students to be made illegal in England’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Universities in England ‘failing to mark down students’ for poor writing skills (Thursday).
  • ‘Private school fees v state funding gap doubles (Friday).


  • The PM’s Conference speech. The Prime Minister rounded off the Conservative Party 2021 Conference in characteristic fashion highlighting what he saw as the strengths and values of the country and the importance of the shift to a high-skill, high-wage economy, adding few policy announcements beyond a reworked premium for science and maths teachers to work where they are most needed.
  • The Chancellor’s Conference speech. The Chancellor used his Conference 2021 speech to reinforce the importance (and success) of the measures being taken to support jobs and stabilise the economy, promising to extend aspects of the Plan for Jobs, to create special AI scholarships for disadvantaged young people, and to remain ‘fiscally responsible.’
  • National Cyber Force. The government confirmed that a permanent base for the National Cyber Force would be located at Samlesbury in Lancashire bringing together a range of technology and personnel to confront future cyber challenges.
  • Darlington campus. The Treasury announced an advertising campaign and careers drive to promote opportunities at its new Economic Campus in Darlington which ultimately hopes to incorporate a number of dept offices and recruit staff from the local area as part of its levelling up campaign.
  • Local Council finances. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined some of the challenges facing councils in England ahead of the Chancellor’s spending Review, suggesting that even with an increase next year, councils will face a £2.7bn funding gap with priorities like adult social care a big concern.
  • Key worker poverty. The TUC published commissioned research undertaken by BritainThinks indicating that ‘one-in-three earns less than £10 an hour’ and many others are resorting to foodbanks as it called on the government in its Spending Review to raise the minimum wage and give public sector workers ‘a decent pay rise.’
  • Modelling UC reforms. The New Economics Foundation highlighted the challenges facing many families as the Universal Credit (UC) uplift was removed, putting forward modelling on various other alternatives, such as lowering the taper rate at which benefits are removed, that might help those most in need.
  • Spending Review submission. The British Academy published its submission to the Treasury’s Spending Review listing seven priorities including using the Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities to help with economic recovery, increasing investment in UK R/D, and supporting HE and skills.
  • LGA submission. The Local Government Association (LGA) outlined six priorities including education and children’s social care, and strengthening local economies as it published its submission to the Treasury’s Spending Review suggesting that councils are facing ‘cost pressures of £2.6bn a year.’

More specifically ...


  • Premium payments. The PM announced as part of his 2021 Conference speech that teachers in the first five years of their careers in subjects including maths, physics, chemistry and computing, could qualify for a ‘levelling-up’ premium of up to £3,000 tax free if they went to work in schools in areas of disadvantage.
  • Fees and funding. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) reported on the growing gap between private school fees and state school funding suggesting that it had ‘more than doubled over the last decade’ reinforcing concerns about inequality heightened under the pandemic.
  • Barber’s Bucket list. Sir Michael Barber outlined some thoughts on reforming school education to The Times Education Commission calling for more days to be added to the ‘learning year’ so that pupils in both secondary and primary could have space to undertake ‘a bucket list of activities’ such as sports or outward-bound visits, music, language or local activities.
  • Careers guidance. The government confirmed it was including a requirement in its Skills Bill currently going through Parliament to ensure that pupils received the full range of career choices including vocational/technical options such as apprenticeships were included in careers guidance in future.
  • Exam board AQA launched a new online hub to provide a platform for comment, insight and debate about the future of exams and assessment.
  • What next for GCSEs? Exam board AQA published a new report on GCSEs, past, present and future, with survey evidence from young people saying they were glad to have taken GCSEs although they would have preferred to have included more practical skills, and with the report concluding that the case for the exam remains strong but some evolution is necessary, especially to be able to cater for all.
  • Trends in arts subjects. FFT Education Datalab examined recent exam entry trends for GCSE/A’ English and arts subjects which have seen a steady decline in many cases, looking at factors such as pupil profile, the introduction of the EBacc, the lure of STEM subjects but without any clear conclusions.
  • Reforming Teacher Training. The Gatsby Foundation published a collection of essays from key figures on the future of ITT (Initial Teacher Training) currently under considerable debate, with no clear consensus on how best to move forward, suggesting the need for more reflection rather than further action.
  • Hamilton mission. Lewis Hamilton announced a major new partnership between his charity, Mission 44, and Teach First with the aim of recruiting, training and supporting 150 Black STEM teachers over the next couple of years to work in schools in disadvantaged areas.
  • Under pressure. The mental health body Place2Be published the results of its survey of parents of young children finding many under pressure and looking for more support especially over their children’s behaviour as the charity launched a new resource ‘Smart’ pack for parents and carers.


  • Expanding the Plan for Jobs. The Chancellor announced as part of his Conference speech, a number of measures particularly to help younger and older people with employment including extensions of the Kickstart scheme to next March, the business hires of apprentices’ scheme to next January, and the Job Entry Targeted Support scheme (JETS) to next September.
  • Skills Bill. The government published further supplementary information to its Skills and Post-16 Education Bill currently going through Parliament, adding details on its recent announcement about extending careers guidance in schools but also about local skills improvement plans and the listing of post-16 providers.
  • Lifelong Learning. The think tank Res Publica published the first in what’s intended to be a series of Papers from its Lifelong Learning Commission, looking on this occasion at adult learning and setting out a number of proposals including scrapping the Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) rules and developing a more coherent regulatory framework to enable more adults to gain skills.
  • FE professional development. The government announced the list of successful providers under its FE professional development grants pilot which will see eligible providers funded up to £500,00 to offer training and support over the next few months in areas like the use of technology, the quality of teaching and learning, and supporting inexperienced teachers.
  • T levels. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) announced the lead bodies for the development of the fourth wave of T levels due for first teaching in 2023 with City and Guilds, NCFE and Highfields Qualifications now variously responsible for design and development.
  • T level contracts. FE Week examined which awarding bodies were ‘winning’ in the race to develop T levels and capture most of that market pointing to NCFE as the most successful followed by City and Guilds and Pearson.
  • Careers support. The Social Mobility Commission examined in a new report how far different behavioural interventions might help increase the engagement by disadvantaged young people with careers guidance, finding little immediate impact and calling as a result for better targeting and more face-to-face support.
  • Accrediting training. The Prince’s Trust announced a new partnership with City and Guilds whereby students training with the Prince’s Foundation in areas like craft skills and hospitality would be able to gain accreditation from City and Guilds.
  • Tackling skills shortages. Julian Gravatt explained in an interesting article in FE Week how difficult it now was for government to tackle skills shortages such as the current need for lorry drivers or abattoir workers because it no longer has the tools, planning or levers to plan and react quickly to such shortages.


  • Conference musings. Nick Hillman, director at the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) reflected on some of the key takeaways from the Conservative Conference, listing seven in all including the lack of recognition of some of the current big issues from pensions to post-qualification admissions, along with continuing fringe debate about the central role of universities.
  • Essay mills. The government confirmed that it intended to make it a criminal offence ‘to provide, arrange or advertise for financial gain’ essay writing services to post-16 students in England as part of the Skills Bill currently going through Parliament.
  • HERR ending. The government announced that in line with other post-Covid activity it would be stopping, by the end of this year, new applications to its HE Restructuring Regime HERR,) the support scheme set up last year for eligible HE providers facing financial difficulties because of Covid.
  • SPAG report. The Office for Students (OfS) reported on its sample review over the summer into assessment practices being used for spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG,) suggesting that these were not being rigorously applied in some cases, calling on providers to apply expected standards in future.
  • Gender pay gaps. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined the issue of graduate gender pay gaps with women still suffering a pay gap against similarly qualified men, highlighting the fact that childcare, attitudes to risk and discrimination can often play a part but undergraduate subject choice with men often choosing subjects that pay better later, being a big factor.
  • Measuring disadvantage. The HESA reported on the development of a new ‘area-level measure of socio-economic disadvantage, based on qualification and occupation data embedded in Census 2011 data and which could provide a more targeted and specific way of identifying disadvantage.
  • Levelling up. The Million+ Group published a new briefing on Levelling Up, listing a number of funding streams such as the HE Investment Fund (HEIF) and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) into which the government should invest R/D monies to support local growth.
  • Supporting local business. The Million+ Group also published a series of case studies showing how member universities work closely with local businesses in different parts of the country, highlighting the importance of local partnerships generally.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “University life after Covid: 'I go into the library and see people I haven’t seen since 2020” | @jim_dickinson
  • “Spain to give 400 euros to 18-year-olds to spend on cultural – but not bullfighting” | @Independent
  • “When my big sister babysat the siblings, she would let us have Book Dinner; you can read at table, but if you spill food, you put the book away. If you laugh out loud, you read out the funny bit. So sad this isn't a thing in adult life” | @grenej
  • “Going on your iphone and forgetting why you're there is the new wandering into a room and forgetting why you're there” | @PickardJE

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “We should never forget that people around the world admire this country for its history and its traditions, they love the groovy new architecture and the fashion and the music and the chance of meeting Michael in the disco” – the PM talks up the country in characteristic style in his Conference speech.
  • “The plans suggested here have not been developed with the benefit of consultation with the education profession” – the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) responds to the PM’s announcement about the premium payment for some STEM teachers.
  • “And I have to be blunt with you. Our recovery comes with a cost” – the Chancellor hints at the medicine to come.
  • “Inflation could be the biggest 70s comeback since ABBA” – the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) point to inflation ‘being on the prowl again’.
  • “Stay local but go far” – Michael Gove on levelling up.
  • “I will bring forward a schools white paper in the new year outlining plans to tackle innumeracy and illiteracy” – the Education Secretary looks to make his mark.
  • “Alas, the clamour for in-person policy debates has forced the aluminium platter of cold bacon rolls to return, as we all get back to the traditional dawn of the dreaded 8am breakfast fringe” – former Universities Minister on the joys of early morning Conference fringe meetings.
  • “This is the antithesis of a rapid, one-shot policy paper approach” – Res Publica publishes an initial Paper on Adult Learning, the first of an intended series.
  • “The wonderful thing about our University is that it is like a tidal pool: with each vibrant new intake of students, it becomes a new place with a new community of inhabitants” – the V.C. at Oxford University with her annual Oration.
  • “We really need to see the grant extended to the end of 2022” – the British Chambers of Commerce on the extension of the business incentive for taking on apprentices.
  • “Teaching and learning is very difficult in these circumstances and it is clear that the educational disruption of the past 18 months is far from being over” ASCL responds to the latest pandemic related attendance figures.  
  • “They’re going out by the end of this month” – the Education Secretary on the distribution to schools of carbon-dioxide monitors.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 52%. The number of businesses in a survey worried about inflation, according to the latest Quarterly Economic Survey from the British Chambers of Commerce.
  • 63%. The number of people surveyed who thought that climate change was already having an effect in the UK, according to figures from the BEIS Summer Public Attitudes Tracker.
  • 44%. The number of staff back in the office at least part of the time, according to the Chartered Management Institute.
  • 87p. How much women on average were paid last year for every £1 paid to men, according to research from the FT.
  • 253,100. Apprenticeship starts for the first three quarters of the year to April 2021, down 6.9% on 2019/20 according to the latest official figures.
  • 12%. The number of people surveyed who reckon that exams should be run as normal next summer without the release of any advance content, according to a survey from Teacher Tapp.
  • 8,880. The number of entries for A’ level subjects in England for the 2021 autumn series with maths and science subjects featuring strongly, according to Ofqual.
  • 73%. The number of pupils surveyed who said they were ‘glad’ that they took GCSEs, according to research from AQA on the future of GCSEs.
  • 204,000. The number of pupils absent from state schools in England on 30 Sept for Covid-related reasons, up from 122,000 a couple of weeks earlier, according to latest official figures.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • House of Lords returns (Monday 11 Oct).
  • House of Lords undertakes questions on 2022 exams and the report stage of the Skills Bill (Tues 12 Oct).
  • AoC Curriculum Planning Conference: 2023 and beyond (Tues 12 Oct/Wed 13 Oct).
  • Launch of National Citizen Service and Centre for Education and Youth on ‘Enriching Education Recovery’ (Friday 15 October).

Other stories

  • Levelling up. There’s been much discussion at the Conservative Conference this week about just what levelling up really means. Neil O’Brien MP, who leads on levelling up in the dept and is working up the White Paper on the matter due out later this year listed four priorities. They include; local empowerment; boosting living standards; improving opportunity and services; and restoring local pride. His boss at the newly minted dept of Levelling Up, Michael Gove reflected these as he listed four priorities in his speech. These included: strengthening local leadership so as to drive change; raising living standards; improving public services; and giving local people the resources to enhance their area. Interestingly, when YouGov polled people this week about what they thought should go into levelling up, three of the top four priorities mentioned were education and skills. They included: increasing government support for youth training and apprenticeships; more money for schools; and increasing support for adult skills. A link to the YouGov survey is here.
  • Spotlight on. Pearson has launched an excellent new ‘Spotlight’ series. The first one was launched at the end of last week and focuses on Workforce Skills. The next two in the pipeline will look at Online Schooling and Onscreen Assessment respectively. Both should be out before the end of the year. Their value, if the first one is anything to go by, is that they bring together a wide range of current thinking, research, polling and data in a very accessible form…in a sense all you need to know on a hugely important topic, gathered in one place. A link to the series can be found here.
  • Fleeing the nest. More this week on dropping off children at university for the first time and the empty nest effect with a poignant tale in The Guardian. “I miss him, yes, but I don’t miss everything.’ It’s a touching read and 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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