Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 15 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:

MPs head back to Westminster next week with debate about government spending priorities gathering momentum. It’s been one of the talking points of the week. 

In other education news this week, members of the Lords have been discussing the Skills Bill, with the campaign to protect applied qualifications like BTECs gaining vigorous support. We’ve also had new research on international students; the announcement of more free skills courses for adults; and the launch of the latest national professional qualifications for teachers.

Here’s a quick run through a couple of these stories starting with the issue of future government spending.

Red letter day (27 October) is fast approaching, and is the day when the Office for Budget Responsibility sets out the forecasts for the economy and Chancellor will announce both the Budget and the Spending Review plans for the next three years. It’s clearly a significant moment in the calendar and even more so this year given the current economic climate. The IMF, for instance, this week suggested that the UK could take longer than other EU countries to recover post-pandemic although the latest economic figures, also out this week, pointed to some recovery for the UK in August after a poor July.

The past few weeks have seen organisations from across the board submit their bids to the Treasury for extra support under the Spending Review. The employers’ body, CBI, for instance, listed seven priorities, including £4.6bn for investing in skills and £6bn for local growth and devolution along with support for innovation, digitalisation and tackling climate change. Many bids have also come from education. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) called for a ‘£5,76bn funding boost’ in their submission. Recovery learning, skills provision and pension costs have been among the funding concerns for schools, colleges and universities respectively.

In launching the Spending Review in early September, the Chancellor highlighted a number of ‘Build Back Better’ priorities, including The Plan for Growth and of course levelling up. But he also outlined the ‘envelope’ within which the government was operating, with tax rises announced to pay for the Health and Social Care Levy and pay restrictions and department efficiencies expected from spending departments. It has left the Chancellor pretty much ‘boxed in.’

That was the verdict from the influential Green Budget report’ launched this week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Citi Bank. Their regular pre-Budget report points to the Chancellor facing a difficult balancing act with spending on important areas like health, defence and schools having to be toned down to meet ambitions to balance the books. ‘Sympathy for Sunak’ suggested conservativehome this week as he faced a difficult dilemma. Sympathy more perhaps for what the report calls the “perennially squeezed areas such as local government, further education, prisons and courts” which may also face a tight round. We wait to see.

In summary, there’s still a lot of ‘what ifs’ about the economy which may yet alter the balance. And as Nick Hillman usefully reminded us this week, “Spending Reviews, whether good or bad, are not the final word.”

Nor, many people hope, will the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill provide the final reproving word on applied general qualifications like BTECs. The Bill reached the Report Stage of the House of Lords this week where a number of amendments were put forward. One of these would allow for more time before such qualifications – which as the BBC pointed out are so vital for social mobility – lost their funding. This came as the group campaigning to protect student choice published a letter, with a large number of MPs’ signatories, calling on the Education Secretary to rethink the Department’s plans for ‘such valuable qualifications.’ 

The next stage of the debate is on Monday. The Association of Colleges has a useful summary of developments here.

In other news this week, Katharine Birbalsingh, generally dubbed in media headlines as ‘Britian’s strictest headteacher’, was announced as the preferred candidate for the role of Chair of the Social Mobility Commission. She now goes before a Select Committee for confirmation, with the appointment of new Commissioners to follow. Alun Francis, chief exec of Oldham College, was named as her deputy. His report on social mobility published by Policy Exchange this week is an important read. 

The ONS published the latest labour market data, taking in the summer period with vacancies data into September. The headline figure of a record 1.1m vacancies seized most headlines, with a rise in average earnings for some. But as the Institute for Employment Studies pointed out in its regular useful analysis, the market remains tight, with groups such as older workers still struggling and an increase in the numbers held back by ill health. On a more positive note, more 16-17 year-olds have found jobs, “over the last quarter, half of the total growth in employment was accounted for by 16–17-year-olds” and more firms are offering flexible working arrangements. The House of Commons Library Service has a useful briefing on youth unemployment figures compared to competitor countries, which can be found here

Returning finally to the Chancellor. He has been in Washington this week with other G7 finance ministers, but took time out to confirm that there will plenty of Christmas presents around for people to buy. It led to some people on social media suggesting they wouldn’t be too disappointed if some of the more expensive children’s presents just happened to become unavailable this year.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Zahawi pushes student Covid jabs as cases soar (Monday).
  • ‘U-turn: DfE revives teacher trainee bursaries (Tuesday).
  • ‘Scrapping BTECs ‘hammer-blow for social mobility’” (Wednesday).
  • ‘Covid: schools picking up the pieces amid lack of support services (Thursday).
  • ‘Early 2000s baby boom will soon flood universities, warns former Tory Minister (Friday).


  • Budget and spending. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) and Citi Bank published their regular Green Budget discussion briefing on options for the Chancellor as he prepares for the Budget and Spending Review, pointing to an uncertain economic recovery and little room for manoeuvre for increased spending on many public services. 
  • Changing demographics. The Resolution Foundation examined the recent trends in births with a low in 2002 but a spike in 2012 which is gradually feeding through the education system and currently building up demand post-16 for college and university places where investment, according to the report, needs to be targeted.
  • Latest labour market data. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest labour market figures for the period to September 2021 pointing to a new high in job vacancies, a further improvement in the unemployment rate and an increase in average wages for many but with economic activity for some groups such as older workers remaining low and worries about the effect of inflation on wage growth and household incomes generally.
  • Labour market analysis. The Institute for Employment Studies published its assessment of the latest labour marker figures suggesting that despite the ‘continued improvements in employment and record numbers of vacancies, the labour market remains ‘tight’ with areas of rising economic inactivity. 
  • Global outlook. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) published its outlook for the global economy suggesting global growth at 5.9% for 2021, more subdued than previously because of supply issues, and with the UK taking longer to recover than other G7 countries. 
  • Policy checklist. Labourlist provided a useful checklist of all the major speeches and announcements made at the Party’s recent Annual Conference.
  • Call for Evidence. The government launched a Call for Evidence for developing a future Wireless Infrastructure Strategy, seeking evidence on future needs, government support and the sort of regulatory and policy framework needed.
  • UK app. The government announced a new app that would allow members of the public to access government services such as free school meal support or changing drivers’ licenses via one simple process rather than having to use multiple passwords and options.
  • Taking care of business. The Cabinet Secretary outlined the work of the Civil Service and the management of government in a lecture to students in Newcastle, looking at the operations set up to manage Brexit and Covid as well as the current Delivery Unit.
  • Social Mobility. Alun Francis, the newly appointed deputy chair at the Social Mobility Commission, argued in a new report for the Policy Exchange think tank that the current approach to social mobility suffered from a number of flawed approaches (he listed seven) and called instead for a wider set of initiatives that could offer upward mobility for all.
  • Local growth. The Centre for Cities argued in a new blog for the re-emergence of big cities, hosting new, and more knowledge intensive industries, noting the long list of local growth initiatives launched by government over the last 40 years, not all of which have been implemented or have aided city growth.
  • Industrial Plan. The FT reported on the 5-year €30bn industrial plan outlined by President Macron ahead of next year’s French election, with promises of funding for ten targets including high-tech industries, green issues, health and creative industries, and a reduction in reliance on imported materials.
  • Family Lives. The Nuffield Foundation announced a £2.8m grant to the Rees Centre at Oxford University to conduct a 5-year research project into how best to inform and support child and family social policy at both a national and a local level. 
  • Family matters. The Children’s Commissioner published the latest in a series of blogs responding to the major ‘Big Ask’ survey of children and young people, looking here at family matters and highlighting a number of policy priorities arising, including the need to extend the Family Hubs network and Supporting Families programme.
  • Young people’s financial wellbeing. The think tank Demos with the Yorkshire Building Society looked at how best to support young people’s financial wellbeing much of which has been tested by the pandemic, calling for much more financial education in schools along with Help to Save schemes for young people.

More specifically ...


  • Dear Parents. The Education and Health Secretaries wrote a joint letter to parents of secondary school and college students, thanking them for their efforts in helping keep young people safe during the pandemic and urging them to support getting the vaccine and to continue regular testing as far as possible.
  • Setting out his stall. The Education Secretary addressed the National Association of Head Teachers’ Conference last weekend where as a new incumbent he set out his stall, listing the promised Schools White Paper, SEND, starter salaries, and of course funding, as initial priorities.
  • Bursaries and grants for ITT. The government set out the latest funding available for initial teacher training (ITT) including bursaries and scholarships for postgrads and undergrads in maths, science, computing and languages, increased bursaries for trainees in D/T, languages and geography as well as other grants for eligible trainees.
  • NPQ reforms. The government outlined the latest suite of national professional qualifications (NPQs) and funding available for teachers and leaders for 2021 including new and reformed qualifications at both senior and middle leadership level and with two further NPQs, one on early years leadership and one on leading literacy, both set for next September.
  • Learning through disruption.UCL’s Institute of Education published a report showing how, along with learning needs, families and communities had turned to schools, in this case, primary, for basic needs and support during the pandemic, calling as a result for a costed recovery plan particularly for areas of need.
  • In praise of school libraries. Head of English Gaurav Dubay blogged about the importance of school libraries for the Great School Libraries Campaign, arguing that among other things libraries/librarians support the curriculum, encourage reading for pleasure and help young people take on responsibility.


  • More technical skills. The government announced that more free courses in STEM and digital areas would be rolled out in the coming weeks by providers using flexible and blended learning options, to help adults ‘retrain and upskill’ as part of the drive to help fill skills gaps.
  • User toolkit. The government set out a ‘provider delivery toolkit’ to help providers deliver higher tech qualifications with case study and other support material to use as need be.
  • Love Our Colleges. The Association of Colleges (AoC) published a briefing about the work, importance and priorities for colleges ahead of next week’s now annual ‘Love Our Colleges’ Week, highlighting the importance of a sector which educates some 1.7m learners a year.
  • Skills Bill. The Association of Colleges (AoC) listed a number of areas where it felt the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill could do with strengthening, including clarifying the role of colleges in Local Skills Improvement Plans and creating a national plan for English and maths, as it reached the Report Stage in the House of Lords.
  • Save BTECs. The ‘Protect Student Choice’ campaign published a letter, endorsed by MP signatories to the (new) Secretary of State, urging him to rethink urgently plans to drop funding for many BTECs and other applied general qualifications.
  • Dear Secretary of State. Business leaders from a range of organisations including London First and N.W. Business, wrote to the Secretaries of State for the Home Office, Education, Business, and Work, calling on them to consider a number of skills and visa measures to help local workers acquire the skills needed to get the economy going again.
  • Tech growth. The government published in a new report pointing to the West Midlands as the region with the fastest growing tech sector and on course to generate some £2.7bn for the local economy by 2025.
  • Apprenticeships. The Learning and Work Institute published four guides, commissioned by the DfE to help improve apprentices’ on-programme experience, covering aspects like ‘choosing the right programme’ and ‘line manager guide.’
  • Apprenticeships for all. The Social Mobility Commission published a new toolkit for employers, training providers and apprenticeship practitioners on developing more inclusive apprenticeship programmes, offering a range of advice, guidance and targeted interventions to apply as appropriate.
  • Getting the basics right. The Learning and Work Institute argued the case for supporting and investing in adult basic skills in a new report, pointing to low levels of English and maths by many adults in England yet suggesting that learning below L2 can greatly improve an individual’s employment rate.
  • L3 route. FFT Education Datalab looked at some of the issues and challenges facing those young people seeking alternative routes to progress to L3, ahead of a major Nuffield funded research project in this area, with issues such as career advice, accessibility, and pedagogy all potential factors.


  • Dear Chancellor. Leading research, science and higher ed organisation called on the Chancellor to stick to his commitment made in last year’s Budget to increase R/D funding to £22bn by 2024/25.
  • Widening participation. The government published the latest (2019/20) set of figures on widening participation in higher ed with more granular detail showing positives for some ethnic and disadvantaged groups but equally much depending on group type, university type and region.
  • Supporting international students. The HE Policy Institute (HRPI) and Kaplan published new research on the experiences and expectations of international students highlighting the importance many place on careers support, employability skills and work experience but equally pointing to the difficulties often faced in accessing them. 
  • University admissions. Quintin McKellar, VC at the University of Hertfordshire argued the case for a post-qualification offers system (PQO) in a detailed comment piece in the Times Higher which coupled with ‘a more uniformly applied system of contextualisation’ would be fairer all round.
  • Oxford impact. London Economics published a new study looking at the contribution to the UK economy in 2018/19 by Oxford University indicating that teaching and learning, research, the effects of exports and contribution to tourism collectively amounted to £15.7bn against operational costs of around £2.6bn.
  • Awarding gap. Advance HE reported on new data on the awarding gaps in 1st; 2.1 degrees between different ethnic groups suggesting that while it still remained sharp for many groups, it had decreased in 2019/20 arguably because of different assessment practices having to be adopted as the pandemic hit.
  • Face masks. The Times Higher reported on a survey on how UK universities were managing the question of face coverings, suggesting that with only 20 of the 91 institutions listed requiring them and others saying it was expected, there seemed to be some mixed messaging going on.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “This month I’m doing the ‘October Teacher Challenge’ where I basically just try and get through October” | @MisterFirth
  • “Our primary school sent a letter to parents telling us not to let kids watch Squid Game. And held an all school assembly telling the kids not to watch Squid Game. Result? Children who really want to watch Squid Game” | @pollymackenzie
  • “Only a matter of time now before I see a scheme of work based on Squid Game. Please Lord let me get to half term without seeing this” | @C_Hendrick
  • “Honestly my youngest's primary school send me more messages than my entire family and friendship group put together. It's starting to feel clingy” | @Samfr
  • “I have been on campus and drunk university meeting coffee. It was as reassuringly bad as I remember it” | @AnnaMGrey
  • “If universities are so good at brainwashing and indoctrination, why are so few students wearing masks on campus?” | @jim_dickinson
  • “We should think of the 'progressive' in progressive education as less like the one in progressive politics and more like the one in progressive rock” | @greg_ashman
  • “Why do schools have one SLT member as the sacrificial behaviour person? It’s a team effort. The system, rules, lines in the sand should come from the head, otherwise what do they stand for? Behaviour is a big team effort, not a lone wolf. Think Avengers not Charles Bronson” | @Strickomaster
  • “School Run. Everyone dropping off their kids seems to have an SUV. This is probably why they're parked on double yellow lines, across peoples driveways, lawns and the pavement. They're experiencing the off-road capability of their vehicles. SUV=Stops Up Verges” | @kidcobbler
  • “Whoever designed the teaching cluster rooms in @IOE_London must be a huge Star Trek fan: it’s like teaching on the command deck of the Enterprise” @emilytmurray
  • “You never, ever, ever need to use the phrase “going forward” | @RupertMyers

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Science needs to be everywhere, it can't sit as if it's one thing off to the side” – Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, calls for a senior minister with cabinet ranking to be created for science.
  • “I will listen to you and work with you to make sure we do right by children and learners” – the newish Education Secretary makes his promises as he addresses teachers for the first time.
  • “If the Chancellor allocates funding towards COVID-19 catch-up without increasing his overall envelope or rowing back on his commitments to areas such as the NHS, defence, schools and overseas aid, he will have to make even bigger cuts to unprotected budgets” – the IfS signals dilemmas facing the Chancellor as he draws up government spending plans.
  • “We are delighted that this year we look set to support more students than ever before” – the Student Loans Company reports on a busy start to the new academic year.
  • “But it is not necessary to remove applied general qualifications to make T levels a success” – campaigners call on the Education Secretary not to abandon BTECs.
  • “The upward relative mobility of the few must be matched by the upward absolute mobility of the many” – the newly appointed deputy chair of the Social Mobility Commission rethinks the approach needed.

Important numbers

Not-to-be-missed numbers of the week:

  • 0.4%. Growth for the UK economy for August 2021, below expectations but an improvement on the -0.1% of the previous month according to latest figures.
  • 1,102,000. The number of job vacancies in the UK, a record high according to latest figures from the ONS.
  • 21%. The number of key workers considering quitting because of low pay, heavy workloads and poor recognition, according to a survey commissioned by the TUC.
  • +3. The latest consumer confidence figure, down to pre-pandemic levels with concerns about inflation, supply chains and stock gaps, according to PwC’s latest consumer confidence survey completed last month.
  • £17m. The money added to Skills Bootcamps to train up to 5,000 new and existing HGV drivers, according to latest Skills Plan details.
  • 26%. The number of people in Britain reporting that they suffer from a mental health problem, according to a survey by YouGov for World Mental Health Day.
  • £732m. The amount in education exports that the University of Oxford contributed to the UK economy in 2019/19, according to London Economics.
  • 319.6 bn. The number of emails likely to be sent and received worldwide this year, according to Statista.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • House of Commons returns (Monday 18 October).
  • Continuing Report Stage of Skills Bill in the Lords (Monday 18 October).
  • Colleges Week (Monday 18 October – Friday 22 October).
  • Learning and Work Institute/Edge: Youth Employment and Skills Summit (Wednesday 20 October).

Other stories

  • Mental health. Last Sunday was World Mental Health Day and the Children’s Commissioner for England acknowledged the occasion by publishing what children had said about mental health in the recent ‘Big Ask’ survey. Some of the responses were reassuring, others more worrying. For example, 80% of 9-17 years said they were happy or OK about their mental health while particular groups including older girls, those from a poor background and some ethnic groups were less happy. Social media, exams, bullying and family problems were cited as common reasons for poor mental health and/or unhappiness. A link to the report is here.
  • Trust me, I’m a… The polling company Ipsos Mori recently published the results from its latest Global Trustworthiness Index. The poll was conducted among adults across 28 countries in the spring of this year and looks at which are the most/least trusted professions. Doctors came out on top at 64%, followed by scientists at 61% and teachers at 55%. At the bottom were politicians, government ministers and advertising executives in that order. The rate for teachers has remained pretty constant over recent years, if anything rising rather than falling. A link to the survey can be found here.
  • Pandemic effect on changing lifestyles. The big high street store with a devoted following, John Lewis, published its retail report recently. It provides an interesting commentary on how lifestyles have changed as a result of the pandemic. For example, things that could be used to aid homeworking have been among the top selling items. They’ve included ‘Corner sofas, statement desks, ergonomic chairs and even pen pots.’ To go with homeworking, slippers have also gone well. Apparently ‘sheepskin-lined mules from Ugg that cost £80’have been best sellers and even Crocs have been going down a storm. Unsurprisingly passport covers have not been selling well. A link to the report 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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