Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 29 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:

The Budget and Spending Review have been making most of the news this week.

Big Budget announcements always generate a frisson of anticipation, even perhaps excitement. None more so than this week’s, described variously by the media as ‘critical to this government’s future’ and the ’most significant in the Chancellor’s career.’ 

The Treasury did its bit to orchestrate the mood in advance, releasing 19 carefully timed positive notices about the NHS, transport, skills and public sector pay ahead of the big day much to the annoyance of the Speaker who argued that Parliament, not the media, was the rightful place for such announcements. The downside to raising hopes too high can be dangerous, but they remain part of the confident mood swing the PM set out to establish in his Conference speech earlier in the month. How far this sets in remains to be seen.

The general verdict so far on the Budget has been fairly tepid.

Labour criticised the government for ‘being out of touch’ and in particular for hitting workers with 'the highest sustained tax burden in peacetime'. The FT said the Budget was more of a new page (of higher taxes and higher spending) than the dawn of a new era. The Resolution Foundation had some alarming figures about the impact on household budgets and pointed to the downsides of ‘a high tax, big state, low wage economy.’  And the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) struggled to find much feelgood in it at all. 'High inflation, rising taxes, and poor growth, still undermined more by Brexit than by the pandemic, will see real living standards barely rising and, for many, falling over the next year.' 

For education watchers, the usual sources such as FE WeekSchools Week, the TES and Education Guardian all have helpful summaries. But the mood for education is pretty downbeat.

Making sense of it all can be difficult, but here are four hopefully helpful summary points.

First, while the Chancellor adopted quite a bullish tone in his 65-minute speech, it’s important to look behind some of phrases and figures to see where government policy is heading longer-term.

The following may offer some clues. First, the anchor phrase the Chancellor kept referring to in his speech was ‘high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy.’ That’s the current mantra, and one in which economic policy is being carefully fitted. The Chancellor’s job for the moment is to provide the tools. Second, in his speech the Chancellor set out what he called ‘four fiscal judgments.’ These will set the margins for funding in the years ahead and are worth noting. They include protecting ourselves against economic risks; continuing to support working families; meeting obligations to the world’s poorest; and supporting growth by ‘increasing total departmental spending over this Parliament by £150bn.’ And third, the Chancellor’s positive approach, ‘new age of optimism’ and so on, suggests he’s swallowed whole the Prime Minister’s boosterish approach to economic recovery, even if not his expensive wish list.  

Second, skills remain a thing. 

We may not be quite clear exactly what skills we need; we don’t have an established industrial strategy; the Industrial Strategy Council may have gone; and the Skills and Productivity Board remains a murky presence; but skills remain a big priority for the government. They get plenty of mentions in the various Budget documents, and the Chancellor appeared keen to demonstrate that he was ready to fund things. A lot had been hinted at in earlier announcements, but the formal commitment to increase skills spending over the lifetime of the Parliament by £3.8bn – that includes additional support for 16-19 learners; apprenticeships; adult skills, including numeracy; green jobs; and capital budget in general – was welcome for a sector that has mostly been starved of funds in recent years. Not all the details are clear, particularly over how much is new money, if any, but it signals a big moment for skills training. The regular AoC summary is a valuable guide.

Third, what about the rest of education? 

Higher education may feel the most miffed. There was little in it for them beyond the continuing commitment of 2.4% of GDP to R/D and some support for important research programmes, such as Horizon Europe, and for the setting up of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA.) All rather ‘disappointing’ as Nick Hillman, director at the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) put it, although universities may well feature prominently in the so-called skills revolution. As for any formal response to the landmark Augar Review with its proposals on tuition fees, minimum entry standards and so much more – zilch. The Minister hinted that a response will be coming in a few weeks, but as Ed Dorrell put it “Augar is condemned to live permanently in perpetuity".

As for schools, there were promises of continuing money – £200m for holiday activities and food programmes; £2.6bn over three years for SEND places; ongoing commitments to increase teacher staring salaries to £30,000; building 500 more schools; an additional £1.8bn for education recovery; and £4.7bn for core school funds in England. The latter came with a claim that this would restore per-pupil funding to 2010 levels. But as Paul Johnson of the IfS put it "Not much of a boast really to say that school spending per-pupil will return to 2010 levels. A decade and a half without growth is quite a thing". 

As for the education recovery funding, the £1.8bn takes the total to nearly £5bn. Welcome of course, but as Labour’s Rachel Reeves said it was "a pale imitation" of what Sir Kevan Collins had called for and falls well short of what bodies such as the Education Policy institute have proposed. Sir Kevan himself labelled it "meagre". Sam Freedman has a useful assessment of it all on the Institute for Government website. In short, he feels education has been marginalised and lacks investment and support to tackle the range of problems it currently faces.

Fourth, and finally, what about any other points of interest from the various pronouncements? Well, levelling up remains a force with lots of related projects announced, but a White Paper not due until the end of the year. Children and families were mentioned, with support for providers and workforce training and funding for Family Hubs – albeit modelled on the previously scrapped Sure Start system. Also, as previously announced, the public sector pay freeze will be lifted, but it’s not clear where any increase would come from and anyway the ball was handed over to the various pay review bodies to resolve. There was also the now traditional rabbit out of the hat, in this case the universal credit taper rate for the lowest paid. And, if nothing else, the government is promising to put a rocket into space. Funding will be provided ‘for the UK to be the first country from Europe to launch a rocket onto orbit in 2022.’

Away from the Budget stuff, but still in Westminster, there’s been plenty going on in Westminster this week.

The Skills Bill had its third reading in the House of Lords and MPs discussed a petition on university fees. The petition called for more dialogue between MPs and students and a reduction in the tuition fee from the current £9,250 pa to £3,000. It was duly ‘considered’ by MPs. The Education Committee took evidence for its inquiry into universities and the pandemic. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Youth Employment held its first meeting on the potential removal of funding from some post-16 vocational qualifications such as BTECs. A follow-up meeting is set for next month and a report for ministers due in January 2022.

And for those looking for a positive note to end the week, the latest data from UCAS showing a notable rise in the number of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged areas applying to top courses for next year, offers a small chink.  

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Government has ‘maxed out’ on school catch-up cash, says Sunak’ (Monday).
  • ‘Grave concerns over funds to lift teacher pay freeze’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Budget: Covid catch-up fund boosted by £1.8bn’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Rishi Sunak’s catch-up fund is ‘false economy,’ says former schools tsar’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Budget fails to deliver ‘skills revolution,’ say education leaders’ (Friday).


  • Budget and Spending Review 2021. The Treasury published the Autumn Budget Report and Spending Review 2021 in one major document setting out the government’s plans for ‘an economy fit for a new age of optimism’ with proposals and funding, many already announced, on health, education, transport and levelling up in particular.
  • Chancellor’s speech. The Chancellor ran through his major Budget and Spending Review proposals in his formal speech to MPs, setting out the latest figures for the economy before taking major priority areas of spending such as health, housing and education in turn and outlining what was being proposed.
  • Economic scenario. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) published its accompanying Economic and Fiscal Outlook report indicating that the UK economy had emerged from the pandemic ‘bearing lighter scars than we originally envisaged’ creating some slack for the Chancellor but that longer term growth, inflation and living standards remain concerns. 
  • Resolution Foundation verdict. The Resolution Foundation published its verdict on the Budget and Spending Review suggesting we’re facing a challenging economic recovery marked by high taxes, poor pay growth, and a wider but weaker welfare state with Covid, Brexit and the transition to net zero, let alone expectations of the NHS all posing huge demands. 
  • IfS verdict. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) provided its regular comprehensive assessment of the Budget suggesting it was a pivotal moment as government shifted to a high tax, big state, big spend approach but leaving the government facing big challenges over how to reduce taxation and voters worried about the cost of living.
  • Small business index. The Federation of Small Businesses released its latest Index just ahead of the Budget, down at +16.4 on the previous quarterly reading with small firms concerned about energy costs, labour shortages and the tax burden in particular. 
  • TUC submission. The TUC listed its priorities for the government’s Spending Review calling for ‘concrete’ plans with investment for decent jobs including a raised minimum wage, resilient public services along with an end to the pay pause, and a ‘just’ transition to net zero.
  • Levelling up in the North. The Mayor of the North Tyne Combined Authority called, in a new report for the RSA, for a number of measures including the creation of a locally-led levelling up board and an earn back scheme to incentivise jo creation and help with levelling up wealth creation in the North.
  • People profession survey. The CIPD published its latest survey results for HR professionals and others who work with people, showing that many had boosted their skills during the pandemic while helping organisations adapt to changing working conditions and trends. 

More specifically ...


  • Spending plans. The government outlined the funding promised under the Budget and Spending Review for schools including additional money for education recovery, core provision, disadvantaged pupils and starting salaries but leaving many in the profession under whelmed.
  • Early years. Ofsted reported on its research into early years multiple providers looking into areas like staffing, budgets, policies and the curriculum, reflecting the influence such providers have across individual nurseries and underlining the importance of consistent practice and potentially the case for more targeted inspections.
  • Young Enterprise. The Young Enterprise charity announced a new partnership with the Westminster Foundation to help young people in state primary and secondary schools develop financial and enterprise education and associated opportunities for young people over the next five years.
  • Remote learning. UNICEF published a new survey report looking at various countries readiness to be able to provide remote learning in response to crises and disruptions such as the pandemic, suggesting that many remain poorly prepared particularly in West and Central Africa with pre-primary education the most neglected area.


  • Spending plans. The Chancellor pledged a 42% increase in skills spending over the period of this Parliament as he set out the government’s Budget and spending plans, listing support for increased learning hours for 16-19 yr olds including those on T levels, continued capital investment, support for adult skills especially those with low numeracy and continuing developments around apprenticeships. 
  • Helping with the maths. The government announced as part of the Budget, a new £560m scheme known as ‘Multiply,’ intended to help 500,000 adults improve their numeracy skills through online tutoring and flexible courses.
  • Skills Bill. The government published an updated Impact Assessment for the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill covering the changes around careers engagement, essay mills and the designation of 16-19 Academies with further assessment likely following consideration of changes included during the Lords report stage.
  • Where next for the labour market? The Learning and Work Institute looked at how the pandemic and other developments were shifting the ways in which we live and work, calling for increased employment and training support, flexible work options and financial support to help adopt best practices and aid recovery.
  • Future Skills Scheme. The New Economics Foundation highlighted the importance of reskilling workers whose jobs are vulnerable while still in work rather than after, suggesting in a new report a European style short-time Future Skills Scheme at a cost of £26m a month per 100,000 workers, that would entitle eligible people to undertake training while working minimum hours. 
  • Apprenticeship opportunities. The Association of Apprenticeships announced it was teaming up with ITN Productions Industry News to host a series of events, profiles and interviews about the importance of apprenticeships which will be featured during National Apprenticeship Week next February.
  • E-assessment. The Gatsby Foundation examined the potential of developing e-assessment for technical provision, looking in particular in England at higher learning levels and suggesting current arrangements make it challenging although adaptive assessment with AI and VR simulations offer some ways forward but require concerted policy commitment.


  • Spending plans. The Chancellor promised a £5bn increase in R/D by 2024/5 and a commitment to meet the target of investing £22bn in research by 2026/7 as he outlined the government’s Budget and spending plans but added no more detail about a response to the Augar review or details on changes to admissions practices which are still awaited.
  • Turing scheme. The government confirmed as part of its 2021 Spending Review that funding for the Turing student exchange scheme would continue for a further three years.
  • University entry 2022. UCAS published data on autumn 2022 university applications for Oxbridge and medical/dentistry courses at the mid-October deadline point, showing applications overall up 1% on last year with an 8% increase in applications from UK 18 yr olds from disadvantaged areas but a 4% drop in international applications generally.
  • Science and research. The House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee raised concerns in a new report about delays and uncertainties in confirming the funding arrangements for Horizon Europe and three other EU schemes which have left UK participation on hold and universities and research communities unable to bid for future projects and contracts.
  • Staff wellbeing. Education Support, a body which champions staff wellbeing in colleges and universities, reported high levels of mental health concerns among staff in a new survey, making a number of recommendations about staff wellbeing and work culture as a result.
  • National Student Survey 2022. The Office for Students issued guidance on the arrangements for the latest National Student Survey which will take place during spring next year with the core questions remaining but additional questions on the pandemic and degree apprenticeships removed and where further changes remain under consideration for consultation next summer.
  • UKTNE 2019/20. Universities UK published its latest report into UKHE transnational education (TNE) with 156 providers reporting having students studying through TNE in 225 countries and territories with Asia hosting the most.
  • Working with small businesses. Universities UK published as part of its #GettingResults campaign, a series of case studies on how universities are working with small and medium enterprises helping local economies and levelling up.
  • Student Futures Commission. The Commission posted reflections on its third oral session held at the end of last week focusing on the issue of employment and employability, looking at the work universities were doing to support local economies as well as developing student employability skills, and stressing the importance of universities, employers and students all working together.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Did Sunak just do that whole spiel about sparkling wines so it would be called the champagne budget in the papers?” | @Samfr
  • “Odd that having combed through the HMT documents I'm none the wiser as to what adult skills spending is for each of the next three years than I was after the leaked announcements. Doesn't help transparency” | @Stephen_EvansUK
  • “Saying study routes at 16 should only be A Level, T Level or apprenticeship is like saying all must play sport but only football, diving or judo & can only do first if you’re an above-average footballer & second if you have local diving pool. Leaves nothing for 25-35% of cohort” | @ipryce
  • “I would rather have root canal than practise weekly spellings every day with my very reluctant five year old fledgling speller” | @Emma_Turner75
  • “Apologies to anyone at the Andy Burnham press conference (politicians, press officers, other journalists) who may have thought I was telling them to f*** off during a hot mic moment, I really wasn’t, I was swearing at my ineffectual technology” |  @JenWilliamsMEN
  • “It turns out the most exciting Christmas ever is the run up to your child’s second Christmas. It’s already unbearable” | @toni_pearce

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “I know that families here at home are feeling the pinch of higher prices and are worried about the months ahead. But I want you to know, we will continue to do whatever it takes, we will continue to have your backs; just like we did during the pandemic” – the Chancellor sets out to reassure.
  • “Today’s Budget invests in the most wide-ranging skills agenda this country has seen in decades” – the Chancellor tackles the skills bit in his Budget speech.
  • “However, the high headline increase would in fact be a smaller real rise than some recent years, given that inflation is likely to be over 4 per cent by April 2022” – the Resolution Foundation points out that the rise in the National Living Wage may not be all it seems.
  • “If inflation subsides in 2023, this Budget will look like a masterstroke worth celebrating with English sparkling wine. Otherwise, it’s another tax and spend Budget” – the Centre for Economics and Business research (CEBR.)
  • “Everyone who works for a living deserves a decent living. But the last 12 years have been the worst period for wage growth since Napoleonic times” – the TUC reacts to the latest data on wages.
  • “Recycling is a red herring” – the Prime Minister talks climate change with primary school children.
  • “I urge colleagues not to refer constantly to media speculation, because we have not yet made an announcement, but it will be coming shortly” – the Universities Minister responds to a question about the Augar review.
  • “Apprenticeships are incubators of greatness” – the new Skills Minister.
  • “I have no intention of scrapping GCSEs” – the new Schools Minister in an interview last week with the i newspaper.

Important numbers

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

  • 2%. The so-called scarring effect of the pandemic on the economy, less than feared according to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR.)
  • 6.5%. The growth prediction for the UK for this year, up from an original 4% according to the Chancellor in his Budget speech.
  • 4%. Average CPI inflation rate next year, according to the Chancellor in his Budget speech.
  • 2026/7. The target date for an increase in R/D investment to £22bn, according to the Chancellor in his Budget speech. 
  • £3.8bn. The increase in skills spending over the Parliament, according to the Chancellor in his Budget speech.
  • 51p. The proposed increase in the minimum wage for apprentices due to take effect from next April according to the Treasury.
  • £1.8bn. the additional funding for education recovery over the Parliament, according to the Chancellor in his Budget speech.
  • 77,810. The number of people who have applied, at the mid October deadline, for Oxbridge and medical/dentistry courses for autumn 2022, according to UCAS.
  • 12%. The number of respondents who said their schools graded lesson observations, down from 24% three years ago, according to a survey from Teacher Tapp.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • COP 26 (31 October – 12 November).

Other stories

  • Climate language. Climate change has become a big topic in recent months especially with the build up to the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow this weekend. This week the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) provided an interesting update on how the language of climate change has evolved recently and what new related words have been added to the dictionary as a result. What stands out, it suggests, is how much more passionate and emotive the language around this topic has become. For example, the terms climate crisis and climate emergency are now used much more frequently than climate change and greenhouse effect. To be precise “climate emergency was 76 times more frequent in the first half of 2021 than it was in the first half of 2018.” And, according to the authors, terms like ‘climate refugee’ and ‘water insecurity’ have now warranted being added to the dictionary. Other examples and a link to the article can be found here
  • Spicing up graduation ceremonies. An interesting article this week in the Times Higher about graduation ceremonies and how tedious some have become. “The gowned, mortar-boarded graduand stands up as their name is read out, walks to the stage, shakes hands with a worthy, acknowledges the applause from their family and then sits down again: this formula has remained fundamentally unchanged for generations.” The event is special for both the graduate and family and friends but has in some cases become expensive and hidebound by tiresome regulations about what to wear, where to sit and so on. So as the writer, a visiting professor at the university of Bolton suggests, how about jazzing things up a bit? More music, creativity, experiences, different garbs are among the ideas put forward. It can all be read here.

If you find my policy updates useful, please consider donating to help support its publication. EdCentral is a not-for-profit social enterprise company and relies on donations to continue its work.

Would you be interested in receiving a copy of Education Eye straight to your inbox on publication? If so, leave your details here and if there's enough interest in an email version, we'll get it sorted.

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.



EdCentral Logo