Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 12 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:

One of those weeks where the headlines have glared elsewhere and there’s been, perhaps thankfully, less to report for education. 

Here’s a quick run through what we do have.

First, higher education, where tuition fees have continued to attract comment as lips remain whetted about a possible White Paper later this month. The Office for Students also seized the moment to call for thoughts on a new strategic plan. 

This week’s contribution on tuition fees has come from the Centre for Policy Studies. It called for loans to be managed through universities, which in turn could ensure that they were directed at courses that offered the ‘best’ returns. It’s not a new idea and begs many questions, but the report’s opening shot (“University students in England are being ripped off by the current tuition fee system”) ensured considerable coverage. On the Wonkhe site David Kernohan looked at what a fee cut could mean for universities with some modelling, but it’s not as simple as it seems. Reduced fee figures continue to be bandied about, but at present maintenance support looks a better bet. And on that subject, the House of Commons Library Service has a good briefing paper published this week. It can be found here.

For schools, the Minister gave a further update on the long-awaited SEND Review, and, in particular, the steering group overseeing developments. And Ofqual and the government confirmed 'Plan B' contingency arrangements for next summer’s GCSE and Advanced level exams. Broadly, if they do end up having to be cancelled, Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) would apply again, as this year, but with improved guidance on things like when to collect assessment evidence. In the words of the National Association of Head Teachers: “Although confirmation has come later than hoped, this guidance should help to avoid a repeat of the intense pressures for teachers and school leaders in summer 2021”.

Elsewhere, the National Governance Association offered a useful insight into this and other current pressure points facing schools as it published its latest survey of strategic priorities of governing boards in schools and trusts in England. Funding of course remains a concern for many, although more long-term than short-term. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given the need to respond to the pandemic, premises management emerged as a new priority for governing bodies, second in the list. Top was pupil mental health and well being with 54% of governors saying they’d direct recovery funding towards this over the coming year. Reassuringly, boards also reported an increase in the systematic monitoring and addressing of such issues where possible. 

As for FE and Skills, November is traditionally a big month for adult learning. This year looks like being no exception with the Federation of Vocational Awarding Bodies holding its annual conference this week, the Association of Colleges next week, and spanning them both, this week’s Annual Lifelong Learning Festival. 

The highpoint of the Festival this week has been the centenary of the co-ordinating body the Learning and Work Institute, and the publication of its annual survey of learning participation by adults. It’s the 25th such survey, an impressive milestone by a body which may have changed its name over the years, but not its passion for adult education. The HE Policy Institute’s Nick Hillman had a nice complimentary piece on the Institute here, suggesting learning, especially adult, should be seen less as a one-dimensional ladder and more as a multi stage climbing frame.

The good news from the survey this year was a timely increase in participation, up to 44%, partly driven by the shift to online as a result of the lockdown. 

The flip side though was a fall in adult basic skills participation, with age, cost, time and motivation all cited factors. Provision such as the adult numeracy course 'Multiply' highlighted by the Chancellor in his recent Budget speech, may help here, but as the survey report indicates, “Two in five respondents (40 per cent) indicated that none of the options listed would encourage them to take up a free English or maths course.” Sparking motivation remains a challenge all round.

As for those conferences, minsters for both the government and Labour expressed support for applied general qualifications such as BTECs at the Federation of Awarding Bodies event although Labour’s support appeared more widespread. And the programme for next week’s colleges main event is here. Ofsted and Ofqual have slots on the Day 1 and the Education Secretary addresses conference on Day 2.

In Westminster, MPs have been on a short recess for much of this week, except for cabinet ministers who were summoned – flip charts at the ready – to an awayday on levelling-up.

Before they headed off, MPs discussed a petition on safety in nightclubs in light of the current concerns about spiking, notably in many university cities. In response the Minister indicated that the government and police were taking incidents seriously. Some arrests had been made, licensing laws were being scrutinised and community groups were working together on the issue. “We are putting the full force of the Government behind tackling the issue, because we want women and girls to feel safe when they are going out at night”. 

MPs also looked into the provision of school-based counselling services. A large number of MPs joined in a wide-ranging debate on the matter before the Minister responded, listing the action the government was currently taking –  including the Wellbeing for Education Recovery programme, mental health support teams (180 currently operational apparently), and funding for NHS-funded mental health services. 

Finally, headline of the week goes to The Sun. Apparently, along with a shortage of other workers such as HGV drivers, motor technicians and so on, Santa Clauses are in short supply for Christmas events. ‘Lost Claus,’ according to that paper.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Implicit need for parents to top up student loans to be made clear’ (Monday).
  • ‘Ofsted: Inspections fair despite Covid pressure’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘SEND review steering group appointed to push through reforms’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Nine in ten university students in England have had at least one jab’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Students to sit repeated mock A’ levels and GCSEs, says Ofqual’ (Friday).


  • Urban Climate Action Plan. The government launched a new UK Urban Climate Action Plan (UCAP) that will provide funding for cities and regions in developing countries to help them tackle climate change and become carbon neutral by 2050. 
  • Levelling Up. The government announced the 13 local councils selected to receive project funding from the Dept of Levelling Up as part of its Partnerships for People and Place programme which will look at new ways of tackling local youth unemployment, health, crime and poverty issues.
  • Global Education. UNESCO’s International Commission on the Futures of Education called in a major global report for a ‘new social contract for education’ able to face new challenges and built around a series of principles including an interdisciplinary curriculum, wide participation and connected opportunities.
  • Equality Boost. The recruitment company Total Jobs launched new tools to support employers in targeting job adverts at social mobility ‘cold spots’ following research indicating young people were missing out on opportunities compared to those from professional backgrounds.
  • Flexible working. Timewise published its latest Flexible Jobs Index pointing to the fact that while 90% of people want to work flexibly, only 26% of jobs are offered as such (23% in education) and mainly at a higher wage level.
  • Disabled workers. The TUC published evidence from the Leonard Cheshire charity indicating that disabled workers have been ‘hit hardest’ in the wallet by Covid, often facing pay cuts and difficulties in finding jobs.
  • Automotive technicians. The Institute of the Motor Industry published new analysis suggesting that the UK would struggle to hit 2030 target on electric vehicles because of ‘massive’ shortfall in trained technicians, over 35,000 to be precise.
  • Babies in lockdown. Leading charities came together to highlight the impact of the pandemic on families and babies pointing to the need for greater support and setting out a ‘Call to Action’ including investment in community support.

More specifically ...


  • 2022 exam contingency plans. The government and Ofqual published contingency arrangements for next summer’s A’/AS/AEA/Project/GCSE exams following consultation, confirming current plans for exams to go ahead with stated modifications but the use of Teacher Assessed Grades, with updated guidance on for example the timing of planned assessment opportunities, as a Plan B option if exams ultimately have to be cancelled. 
  • SEND Review. The Children and Families Minister confirmed that a green discussion paper would be published on SEND in the first three months of next year and detailed the members of the steering group that will help drive developments. 
  • Climate change strategy. The DfE set out a draft climate change strategy for education which will remain open for consideration until March before publication in April and provide action plans under five main headings including climate education, green skills and careers, buildings, operations, and data.
  • Careers Guidance. The House of Commons Library Service provided a helpful briefing on the Education (Careers Guidance in Schools) Bill currently going through Parliament and proposing to make careers guidance a requirement each year through secondary education for state funded schools in England from next September.
  • Primary assessment. The EDSK think tank followed up its recent work on assessment system in schools by examining SATs and the primary school assessment regime arguing that currently it’s burdensome and not necessarily informative calling accordingly for a shift to an online, adaptive testing regime.
  • Multiplication Tables Check. The Standards and Testing Agency updated its information for parents on the Multiplication Tables Check for Yr 4 pupils which becomes statutory this academic year.
  • School absence. FFT Education Datalab followed up its recent analysis of secondary school absence rates by looking into those for primary schools suggesting an improvement on last year but with a rate at 10% still higher than pre-pandemic.
  • Governance priorities. The National Governance Association (NGA) reported on the priorities identified by school governing bodies with funding, particularly for the long-term remaining an issue, but pupil mental health and wellbeing, premises management and recruiting quality leaders the top three priorities currently.
  • Autism matters. The National Autistic Society highlighted the challenges faced by parents with children with autism as it published its Schools Report 2021 where a quarter of those surveyed said they had to wait three years to get support.
  • Mental health. The Institute of Education examined mental health pressures as young people progress through school in a report led by UCL researchers, using clinical evidence to suggest that adolescence rather than academic pressures lie behind much of the increase, especially for girls, during secondary years. 


  • Capacity Funding. The government announced the 39 providers who’ll receive capital funding from the government’s Post-16 Capacity Fund to provide facilities and workshop space for the growing numbers of 16–19-year-olds.
  • Skills Bill. The House of Commons Library Service published a useful section by section briefing report on the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill with helpful commentary and coverage of the Lord’s amendments.
  • Adult learning. The Learning and Work institute published its latest regular survey of adult participation in learning, its 25th, showing the first increase in participation in six years although largely among higher social groups and those in f/t work.
  • A century of lifelong learning. Kirstie Donnelly, chief executive of City and Guilds, commemorated the centenary of the Learning and Work Institute in a comment piece outlining the value and changing demands of lifelong learning.
  • Apprentices in Work. The Gatsby Foundation published a new briefing to help employers deliver quality apprenticeships using case study evidence to highlight best practice.
  • Gender balance. FFT Education Datalab followed up its investigation into subject gender balance in A‘ levels by doing the same for L3 BTECs finding that when it comes to BTEC subject choices, health studies is the most ‘disproportionately’ female, engineering the most male dominated and graphic design and music studies the most evenly balanced.
  • Youth employment. Youth Employment UK reported on the recent meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group which is hosting an Inquiry running into January 2022 on ‘The Impact of Vocational Qualifications on Young People’s Employability,’ setting the issues in context and outlining some of the changes that have led to the Inquiry.
  • Youth Futures. The Youth Futures Foundation launched a new fund with local authorities, charities and aligned businesses able to bid for support to help provide coherent service support for young people seeking work and progression.
  • Nationals Finals. WorldSkills UK launched its National Finals Competitions designed to showcase UK skills talent and identify those who might ultimately get selected for Team UK.
  • Action Research. The Education and Training Foundation published a compendium of research reports on areas such as digital and maths skills that have been developed under its Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment project work over recent years.


  • Strategic planning. The Office for Students (OfS) launched a consultation on its proposed strategic plan for 2022-25, sticking with its mission statement and regulatory objectives but highlighting two key areas: quality and standards, and equality of opportunity, which along with enabling regulation will form the focus for the coming years. 
  • Coronavirus and HE. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published experimental data from its Student Covid Insights Survey in England indicating that most students had had at least one Covid jab let alone two but many were experiencing feelings of poor mental health and wellbeing.
  • Tuition fees. The Centre for Policy Studies called in a new report for universities to be responsible for managing the fee loan system, arguing that this would produce efficiencies, direct students to courses that generate higher returns and create savings that in turn could be directed to poorer students, research and technical courses. 
  • Topping up loans. MoneySavingExpert Martin Lewis reported that the government had heeded his call for information on maintenance loans to be clearer about the role of parental contributions and that this would be provided next year so that both students and parents were aware of the importance of top ups.
  • The fees debate. Ed Dorrell, director at Public First, reflected on recent research evidence on tuition fees, suggesting that the concept of fee paying while not welcome was now broadly accepted but that what would help students more, would be bringing back maintenance grants.
  • Turing Scheme. The government confirmed the decision, announced in the Budget, to extend the Turing exchange scheme for a further three years with £110m available for 2022/23.
  • What happened to CATs? Lizzy Woodfield, Policy Adviser at Aston University reflected in a comment piece on Wonkhe on Colleges of Advanced Technology (CATs) and what role they could play in the future as HE diversifies.
  • Anti-Semitism. The Office for Students (OfS) reported an increase in the number of HE providers adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, adding case studies and resources to help where necessary. 
  • Student engagement. Advance HE published its 2021 UK Engagement Survey indicating that although challenges with remote learning and student isolation remain real for many, remote learning has helped develop learning skills for others while student engagement has varied across different groups. 
  • Clearing the Big Smoke. London Higher, the body that represents London universities and HE colleges, reported on the work HE providers in the city were doing to help lead the charge towards net zero, urging the government and mayor to show their support by for example setting up a Green Expert Panel to lead developments.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “'I am enormously proud of all that we have achieved since we were set up in 2018” – Nicola Dandridge announces her departure, from next April, as chief executive at the OfS 
  • “At my TV roadshows, I’ve met students living off cold baked beans, because parents believe the loan is enough for them to live on and they should be independent – not realising that their incomes meant the amount received was half what’s deemed to be the true living cost” – Money Saving Expert on student financing.
  • “Staff and students alike will be watching closely to see if vice chancellors step up and resolve this, which is entirely in their gift” – the University and College Union call on universities to avert proposed strike action.
  • “My message to parents, if a school that had an ‘outstanding’ judgement 15 years ago now has a ‘good’ judgment – that is a good school, you should believe that” – Ofsted’s Chief inspector as outstanding schools face inspections often after a considerable gap.
  • “It is estimated that in England, one in eight young people – 13% of those aged between five and 19 – are living with diagnosable mental health disorders” – Nick Brown MP opens MPs’ debate on school-based counselling services.
  • “A child is a child. No matter the circumstances” – UNICEF highlights appalling conditions facing many migrant children currently held at European borders. 
  • “It has been wonderful to have both His Royal Highness and Cheryl here with us today and to hear directly from young people about how The Trust has helped them to turn their lives around” – the Prince of Wales and Cheryl (Cole) visit Cheryl’s Trust Centre in Newcastle supporting young people in the region.

Important numbers

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

  • 1.3%. UK economic growth for the last quarter, pointing to a slow recovery according to latest official figures.
  • 26%. The proportion of jobs offering flexible working, according to Timewise.
  • 7m. The number of families entitled to Universal Credit following the Budget, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. 
  • 91%. The percentage of university students in England who’ve had at least one Covid vaccination, according to experimental data from the ONS.
  • 41,000. The number of placements under the Turing student exchange scheme this year, according to latest official figures.
  • 44%. The number of adults who have participated in learning over the last three years, an increase according to the latest participation survey.
  • 20%. The number of respondents who think that exam and assessment arrangements next year should return to normal, according to a survey by the National Governance Association.
  • 80%+. The number of teachers surveyed who travel to work by car although over 50% have to carry heavy bags according to a survey from Teacher Tapp.
  • £6.6bn. The amount of money spent during the lockdown on things that people now regret or don’t now use, according to an article in the i newspaper.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Association of Colleges (AoC) Annual Conference. (Tues 16 – Wed 17 November.)

Other stories

  • Using AI to curb exam cheating. With not just learning but university exams increasingly moving online, the FT this week reported on some of the artificial intelligence technology being used to prevent cheating. It looked at two systems in particular being used in Czech and Slovak universities, namely ScioLink and Born Digital. ScioLink for example photoshoots a candidate’s face and ID documents as well as sweeping round their room to ensure nothing untoward is around while they’re taking the exam. Born Digital can detect if someone is wearing earphones for information links. A link to the article can be found here
  • How to get a pay rise. Securing a pay rise at work can often be difficult. Among the barriers that need to be overcome is the ‘anchoring effect’ and ‘representativeness heuristic.’ That at least is the verdict of an associate professor from the LSE who offered a series of tips in an article in the FT this week for overcoming such cognitive bias. Her top six tips included Fobsag (fear of being seen as greedy) and addressing the curse of knowledge. A link to the article 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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