Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 05 November 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 Climate Conference has hogged most of the headlines this week, but there’s been plenty happening around education in Westminster as well so that's where we're starting with this week’s roundup.

At the beginning of the week, the new education team faced MP's questions for the first time. Questions and answers ranged from recovery costs (“the new recovery funding will help schools deliver evidence-based approaches to support the most disadvantaged pupils”) to BTECs (“I can confirm we’re not planning to remove funding from all BTECs”) to national tutoring (“I will happily look again at any bureaucracy that gets in the way and get rid of it”) to universities (“last week I wrote to all providers emphasising the importance of face-to-face provision”) to name but a few. 

The headline takeaway, however, was the comment by the Education Secretary that he would look into the evidence on extending the school day to help with recovery plans. Not everyone’s convinced. A YouGov poll found 31% of respondents ‘somewhat’ or ‘strongly’ opposed to the idea and 54% ‘somewhat’ or ‘strongly’ for it. And evidence this week from the charity Impetus, which works to support disadvantaged young people, found considerable variation in the length of school days – anything from 5 hrs to 6.45 hrs once breaks were taken into account – and little cut and dried evidence that increasing it raised attainment.

A day later MPs considered the Budget Resolutions, including the impact on education, with the Education Secretary claiming it had been a good deal. The Treasury Committee also took evidence from the Chancellor, among others, on the recent Budget and Spending Review; while the Education Committee took evidence on prison education. And the Bill providing for the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) had its Second Reading in the House of Lords. 

Next day, the newish Education Secretary appeared before the Education Committee, while the Chair of that Committee, Rob Halfon, proposed a Ten-Minute Rule Bill to prevent education settings from having to close due to issues like the pandemic. The Bill would position providers as ‘essential infrastructure’ and thus subject to a Parliamentary vote before having to close in future.

As explained by Rob Halfon “The Bill will introduce a ‘triple lock’ of protections to safeguard against any future school closures, except in cases of extreme emergency.” This triple lock would include advice from the Children’s Commissioner; a debate and vote in Parliament; and a 3-week time limit for a further vote. The Bill, with the mouthful title of The Schools and Educational Settings (Essential Infrastructure and Opening During Emergencies) Bill, had its First Reading and now faces a Second Reading on February 4 next year when it will be discussed in more detail.

At the heart of this is the impact of learning and development loss, as highlighted by a number of reports. Yet, according to the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) “This Bill misses the point. Rather than thinking about political mechanisms to prevent school closures, we need the government to do far more to help keep classes open.” So we wait to see if the Bill progresses or not. Ten-Minute Rule Bills rarely complete their passage, although this one does have considerable support.

The Education Secretary appeared fairly non-committal about the proposed Bill in his appearance before the Education Committee, saying only "we’ll look at it" while promising at the same time to keep schools open. But he did promise to publish some thoughts on extending the school day before the end of this year, along with plans for a home education register. And the long-awaited SEND review will be published early next year. As for the ongoing issue of catch-up funds, the Education Secretary stood by his argument that money was there and it was how it was used that mattered. Quality rather than quantity as the department’s permanent secretary added.

In other education news this week, the government published data on this summer’s exams, while Ofqual launched a consultation on how exam boards might make the language and format of assessment more accessible. In FE, the government offered further guidance on higher technical qualifications, and the Education Secretary dismissed thoughts of removing BTECs. And in HE, the All-Party Parliamentary University Group reported that students see university as expensive but worth it, and thoughts turned to whether a new White Paper was in the offing. Links to all below.

Finally, the Oxford English Dictionary declared ‘vax’ as the word of the year following on from climate emergency, toxic, youthquake and post-truth in previous years. As befits the times, none very uplifting.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘English exam boards may be asked to avoid complex language’ (Monday).
  • ‘Bill to prevent emergency school closures’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Oxford college to change its name after £155m donation’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘GCSEs 2021; How teacher grades changed the landscape’ (Thursday).
  • 'Miniisters play down BTEC's cull' (Friday).


  • Clean Green. The Prime Minister announced a Clean Green Initiative at COP26 that would see the UK increase funding and support to help developing countries take advantage of green technology to support sustainable economies.
  • COP26 Finance. The Chancellor addressed delegates on COP 26 Finance Day where he set out three actions the UK was now ‘accelerating,’ including increasing public investment, with £100m going to the UK Taskforce on Access to Climate Finance, mobilising private finance through Mark Carney’s Financial Alliance, and requiring firms to publish detailed transition to net zero plans.
  • Is a Greener World Possible? The New Economics Foundation published a series of essays and comment pieces examining some of the issues involved in ‘greening the economy and society’ with the steps needed to get there.
  • Bank of England Report. The Bank of England published its latest quarterly Monetary Policy Report suggesting the ‘economy is continuing to recover from Covid,’ inflation is expected to rise to 5% next spring before falling back, and interest rates will ‘need to rise modestly’ in the future.
  • Social Mobility Commission Chair. The Women and Equalities Committee endorsed the appointment of Katharine Birbalsingh as Chair of the Social Mobility Commission following her appearance before the Committee but urged her to listen to a wide range of opinion on social mobility and called on the government to hurry up and appoint fellow Commissioners to support her. 
  • Levelling Up. The government announced the first successful local projects to benefit from level up funding under the Community Renewal Fund with reskilling, online training, employment and wellbeing programmes, and low carbon technology among the projects listed.
  • Professional Qualifications. The government published a series of factsheets outlining the proposals in the Professional Qualifications Bill currently before Parliament which revokes some preferential recognition derived from EU law and provides for UK sector specific regulators to recognise professional qualifications gained elsewhere.
  • Digital Divide. The Local Government Association published a new briefing on the importance of tackling the digital divide as part of levelling up, outlining the role local councils can play in helping people learn online and gain digital skills. 
  • Flexi working. Leading organisations reported on some of the barriers to more flexible working arrangements in a report sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation, calling for more support from both government and employers to make opportunities more accessible and for these to be embedded in future work practices.
  • Culture matters. The RSA set out the findings from its extensive Learning about Culture project which looked at the importance of arts-based learning, calling for this to be given greater prominence in schools as part of a broad and balanced curriculum.
  • Tertiary Commission. The Welsh Government set out plans to scrap the Higher Education Funding Council and create a new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research, bringing together all aspects of post-16 provision under one monitoring and regulatory body and operating on the basis of nine strategic duties including encouraging participation and promoting collaboration. 
  • Youth sector. The National Youth Agency reported on the initial findings from its sector survey pointing to a variety of providers and provision with much depending on the region and type of organisation but some interesting data on the support being provided notably towards the wellbeing of young people.

More specifically ...


  • 2021 exams, GCSEs. The government published performance data from this year’s exams for KS4 pupils, based on teacher assessed grades, showing a further drop in full EBacc entries, a slight increase in the percentage of GCSE entries grade 4 or above, an increase in the attainment gap and continuing variability in performance across local regions.
  • Summer 2021 exams, A’ levels. The government published performance data for A’ level and other L3 qualifications from this summer’s exams based on teacher assessed grades and showing an increase in the average point score on 2018/19, a mixed picture on the disadvantage gap, and among other things slower progress on English and maths resits.
  • COP26. The government announce the range of measures as part of COP26 youth day, including a new climate leaders award; a proposed model science curriculum embracing climate issues and the use of energy pods to help decarbonise school buildings.
  • Home Education. The government published its response to the Education Committee’s earlier Inquiry into children educated at home, acknowledging some of the concerns about out of sight childrenbut going for better data to support local councils and a potential future registration system as preferred alternatives.
  • Doing time. The government published its review into time spent in school and 16-19 settings and how this might affect student recovery indicating that on average most schools in England worked to 6hrs 30 mins with 98% offering before or after school activity, concluding that only at the more flexible 16-19 end of provision would any changes to the day be beneficial.
  • Extending the School Day. Impetus published its report into the impact of extending the school day on attainment, indicating from its survey that the length of the school day varies among schools as does any impact on attainment, and concluding that ‘there was no cut and dried case’ that extending the day improves outcomes.
  • Accessible assessment. Ofqual launched consultation on proposed new guidance for exam boards when designing and developing ‘accessible assessments’ including exams, asking for views on features such as structure, language, reasonable adjustments and assistive technology.
  • Latest attendance figures. FFT Education Datalab examined the latest school attendance figures which had suggested various anomalies with for example an increase in Covid rates among Yr 7s compared to Yr 11s yet no concomitant rise in absences, wondering as a result whether more younger pupils were asymptomatic. 
  • Mental health. The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition published its second annual report highlighting many of the challenges young people have faced coming out of the pandemic and calling for young people’s mental health to be seen as a major government cross-dept strategy with an implementation plan to match.
  • Children and the environment. The Children’s Commissioner reported on what children and young people had said about climate issues in The Big Ask survey undertaken earlier this year with 6 – 8 yr olds concerned about animals, pollution, plastic and climate change, and teenagers keen to see government take action and for them to be involved.
  • Careers support. The Careers and Enterprise Company launched a new £2m project with support from JMorgan Chase aimed at supporting disadvantaged secondary school students develop the skills needed to transition into work or further training through career-readiness programmes delivered via regional Career Hubs.
  • Family Hubs. The National Centre for Family Hubs held its first national implementation day with the Minister launching a £12m Transformation Fund to support local authority bids for Family Hubs and a new Implementation Toolkit and other resources all launched.
  • Primary School Libraries. The National Literacy Trust with Penguin Random House UK launched the Primary School Library Alliance to direct funds and support for reading spaces and materials after a report showed that primary schools in poorer areas lacked both.
  • NLG programme. The National Governance Association (NGA) reported that over 60 new National Leaders of Governance (NLG) had been appointed to help strengthen and support school governance where required. 


  • Higher Technical Qualifications.The government set out guidance and procedures for higher technical qualifications (HTQs) with the first, that on Digital, due to start from next September. 
  • T level placements. The government confirmed continuing flexibilities for T level students on certain industry placements with Digital, Construction and Health and Science routes allowing for 25% of placement hours to be taken remotely.
  • Strategic Plan.The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) set out its strategic plan for the next three years with a focus on delivering qualifications and programmes that meet employer needs, supporting a more coherent skills system, and on securing quality training and assessment.
  • Stakeholder survey. The institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) launched its latest annual stakeholder survey which will run until 12 Dec. 
  • Digital Generation. IT job agency, CW Jobs, examined how far Generation Z (those born 1997-2012) will help fill tech skills gaps, finding that although nearly half work or plan to work in the tech sector, many also lack confidence, support and direction, and need better guidance from employers to fulfil their goals.
  • Skills Reform Board.The government announced that Rebecca George had been appointed as Independent Chair for the DfE Skills Reform Board which will oversee delivery of commitments in the Skills for Jobs White Paper currently being enshrined in legislation under the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill.
  • New Chair.City and Guilds announced Ann Limb as its new, and first female, Chair taking over from Sir John Armitt.


  • Graduate outcomes. The Office for Students published further provisional research evidence on the role of local context in determining university participation and outcomes, suggesting ‘place matters’ when it comes to earnings and job types albeit with good opportunities generally available for graduates despite labour market differences.
  • Teaching and learning. Universities UK highlighted how universities were approaching teaching and learning this year, showing through case studies that while there was no one-size-fits -all most were offering in-person provision as well as looking to blended models for the future.
  • Research and Innovation. Universities UK also set out its thoughts on science and innovation in light of the Budget, pointing to what had been asked for (commitment to the £22bn R/D target by 2024/5) and what had been granted (£20bn by 2024/5 and the £22bn 2 yrs later) plus support for Horizon Europe. 
  • Is it worth it? The All-Party Parliamentary University Group reported on student views on the student finance system gathered from student groups about to apply or about to start university, with many seeing university as expensive but worth it, and generally favouring traditional f/t degree courses and for increased participation.
  • Universities and climate change. The Russell Group outlined the work that member universities across the UK were doing on environmental issues as it called for a decade of research and innovation for net zero.
  • Subject Benchmarks. QAA launched consultation on revised Benchmark Statements, which set out the standards and knowledge expected of graduates in specific subjects, including here Chemistry, Computing and History.
  • Student Futures. Stephanie Marshall, V.C. at Queen Mary reflected in a comment piece for the Student Futures Commission about future provision of teaching and learning post-pandemic and the mixed mode model being developed at Queen Mary.
  • Literature review. Advance HE published the results of a literature review into student access, retention, attainment and progression, undertaken by a team at Sheffield Hallam, calling among other things for policy ‘stickiness’ to ensure policies and practices that work are carried forward long-term.
  • Let’s hear it for Arts and Humanities. Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer at the Times Higher highlighted in a comment piece, the importance of arts and humanities disciplines in developing critical thinkers needed for a new age of technology and reality.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “A two week celebration of business as usual and blah blah blah” | @GretaThunberg
  • “If you’re having a bad day just be glad you didn’t call your headteacher dad…If anyone needs me I’ll be in the corner dying of shame” | @ScottPughsley
  • “On Btecs, Zahawi says "we won't get rid of quality Btecs, I want to squash that narrative that has built up, I don't know where from" | @whazell
  • “Wellbeing is not smoothies, mindfulness at lunch or a massage at your desk. It is a strategic imperative says @ProfCaryCooper#cipdace” | @HR_Gem
  • “All parents should have their own inset day to recover from October half term “break” | @janemerrick23
  • “The govt obsession with extending the school day is built on the idea that children are the same humans before lunchtime as they are after” | @RogersHistory
  • “My daughter, who is off school with chickenpox, is currently in her bedroom knitting while listening to 'Just a Minute'. She is 10” | @sarfrazmanzoor
  • “Well, 59 children went and 59 children came back so I’d call my first ever school trip a success” | @UhmitsMissB
  • “Delivered an Oak lesson as cover today. The teacher was ridiculously smiley and upbeat. The difference between "perky bright virtual teacher" and "gaunt, skeletal and exhausted real teacher" was stark” | @adamboxer1
  • “Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good” | @ThomasSowell.

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Yes my friends – we have brought you to the very place where the doomsday device began to tick” – the PM opens COP26 in Glasgow.
  • “We must use this opportunity to create a more equal world. We must be motivated not by fear, but by hope" – Sir David Attenborough strikes an important chord at COP26.
  • “Systemic change is needed – in society, government, and in our education. No ifs, no buts, no cop outs. It is the responsibility of Governments to hold exploitative corporations to account and fix the emergency that they have created” – the NUS send their message to world leaders at COP26. 
  • “With time running out on climate change we need a 21stc equivalent of ‘Dig for Victory’” – Portland communications tap into era defining messaging.
  • “While we admire and value robustness, as Chair of the Social Mobility Commission she will need to demonstrate her ability to listen to, and work collegiately with, colleagues and stakeholders with whom she will not always agree” – the Women and Equalities Committee endorse the appointment of Katharine Birbalsingh as the new Chair but offer her advice as well.
  • “This is wreaking havoc in many schools because they have to juggle online and in-person learning for different groups of pupils at different times with fewer staff. It is an impossible situation” -ASCL reacts to the latest school attendance figures.
  • “But let me be clear. I am not a lockdown sceptic – I am a school-down sceptic” – the Chair of the Education Committee proposes legislation to prevent school closures.
  • “Use language that is straightforward – for example, “with” rather than “in conjunction with” – Ofqual proposes new guidance on exam/assessment design.
  • “It is with great regret I write to tell you that this project has come to an end for Westminster School and its wholly-owned UK-based subsidiary company” – Westminster Schools pulls out of arrangements to licence schools in China.
  • “A single glass of wine a night probably does not have the health benefits we have been led to believe, a new study has claimed” – Erm…

Important numbers

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

  • 72%. The number of Brits who think human activity is to blame for climate change, an increase of 20pts over the last eight years according to a YouGov poll.
  • 4.5 million. The number of gig workers in England and Wales according to the TUC.
  • 24%. The number of people planning to change jobs in the next few months, according to recruitment agency Randstad UK.
  • 7.4%. The unemployment rate across the Eurozone, down to pre-pandemic levels according to the FT.
  • £5.3bn. The amount of student finance paid so far this term in maintenance loans and tuition fees, according to the Student Loans Company.
  • 92%. The number of FE leaders in a survey who believe cyber security should be a major priority, up 5% since 2020 according to a poll from JISC.
  • £18.1bn. The amount of funding available for the latest round of Opportunity Area Grant funding, according to the government.
  • 38.7%. The percentage of pupils entered for all five EBacc components in 2020/21, down from 39.8% the year before according to latest government figures.
  • 248,000. The number of pupils off state school in England on 21 October just before half term, up from 209,000 the week before according to latest government figures.
  • 3,822. The number of schools that have engaged so far with the national tutoring programme, according to the Education Secretary.
  • 91%. The number of teachers without children able to get a bit more sleep over half term as opposed to 83% with children, according to Teacher Tapp.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Lifelong Learning Week (Monday 8 November – Friday 12 November).
  • Federation of Awarding Bodies Annual Conference (Thursday 11 Nov – Friday 12 November).
  • Learning and Work Institute Annual Conference on adult basic skills (Thursday 11 November).
  • Pearson HE webinar on ‘Why students turn to cheating services’ (Friday 12 November).
  • COP 26 (31 October – 12 November).

Other stories

  • HE’s moment in the sun? One of the surprises of last week’s Budget was that there was so little mention of higher education. Yes, there were references to research and innovation, a science superpower and Horizon Europe as Universities UK pointed out this week but that was about it. This was all the more surprising given the number of unanswered questions around HE at present. Will there be a lowering of fees, what about minimum entry standards, admissions reform, access, quality standards, global positioning, the long-awaited response to the landmark Augar Review; all are under discussion. One suggestion is that things are in the process of being brought together in the form of a major new White Paper, perhaps in the coming weeks. That was the view from Wonkhe this week. Yet as Nick Hillman, director at the HE Policy Institute blogged in response, major White Papers need a number of ducks to be lined up first. He listed eight, and he wasn’t sure they were yet. Plenty of people will be looking out for any signs of white smoke coming out of the DfE in the coming weeks.   
  • Global Trends. Another one of those fascinating global surveys this week. It came from Ipsos Mori in the form of its latest Global Trends Survey. This looked at a wide range of trends across 25 countries of all types. Its overall message is that despite the shock of the pandemic, public attitudes and values have changed little over recent years. In summary, climate change has become more important as an issue, brands, especially corporate, matter, concerns have continued about the power of social media companies, there’s rising faith in science, and nostalgia is not what it used to be in some countries. A link to the full set of results is here. 
  • Dreaming of? They may not all be available if supply problems continue but the annual Dream Toys list of top toys for Christmas has just been published. The prices range from £10.99 to £69.99 with an average price of just over £35.00. Other suppliers have their own lists, Amazon for example has its own, but for what it’s worth here’s the top three toys on the Dream Toys list. They are a Barbie Colour Change Mermaid, a Bluey Family Home Playset, and a Cocomelon Deluxe interactive Doll. If you want to add anymore to your list, they’re all here.

If you find my policy updates useful, please consider donating something, however small, 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