Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 19 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:

Adult learning and skills, inspections, GCSEs, student financing: a familiar set of issues have been making the headlines again this week. 

Adult learning and skills first, for which November is always a busy month. Activity this week included the Education Secretary making two notable speeches, the FE clans gathering for their annual conference and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) publishing the latest batch of labour market data.   

Nor was that all. Elsewhere, the International Public Policy Observatory and Youth Futures looked at how cities should tackle youth unemployment, the Resolution Foundation and Centre for Economic Performance examined problems around low productivity and the British Council hosted its ELTons Awards for innovation in English Language teaching.

A lot going on therefore – so what stands out? 

Let’s start with the two speeches from the Education Secretary, one to MPs introducing the Second Reading in the Commons of the Skills Bill, the other to the Association of Colleges (AoC) Conference. 

Three messages stand out from these speeches. 

First, the government remains committed to the importance of skills as a driving force in its ‘Build Back Better’ recovery plans. “We will build on this (the recovery) by having skills at the very heart of our plan,” the Education Secretary told MPs. This is “the age of the skills economy” as he told AoC delegates. Skills matter therefore, but second, the government expects returns on the money it’s putting in. FE providers will be expected to deliver. Hence the rallying cry for colleges to deliver more apprenticeships; the additional year for L3 reforms; and the easing of T level requirements. The message here is we’ve listened, now do your bit. And third, funding has been put in and providers given the green light, but there are still a number of questions about how it will all work. Labour’s Kate Green alluded to this in her speech to the AoC Conference with her questions about local skills planning and qualification reform. As one practitioner put it: ‘BTECs may be staying, but we don’t know which ones.’ Uncertainty remains an issue. 

Next, the bigger picture of the labour market, where the latest quarterly figures from the ONS this week were promising. Employee numbers up; the unemployment rate down; job vacancies at a record high; an increase in ‘median monthly pay'; no major fallout from the ending of furlough; and plenty of talk of recovery. “The labour market continues to recover strongly, with record moves into employment in the summer” as the Learning and Work Institute put it in its summary. 

But, and there are always a few buts of course, the message here – as Neil Carberry Recruitment and Employment Confederation chief executive indicated – was that “this sugar rush will not last forever, and we can already see the pace of growth starting to slow.” The signs are there. Long-term unemployment up, economic inactivity up, many, according to the TUC, on low pay and zero-hour contracts, and significant pockets of disadvantage across the country. Pitch in the worries about the latest rise in inflation and the cost-of-living question becomes major for many people. “The economy needs ‘goldilocks’ pay growth – fast enough to protect living standards, but not so fast as to generate excessive inflation” as the Resolution Foundation put it.

On to inspections, where the planned accelerated programme of Ofsted inspections has attracted considerable comment this week. It won’t start until next September and will aim to complete by summer 2025. 

The aim is to provide a comprehensive picture on how education recovery is going over the next three years and for the government to be able to report, hopefully positive progress. That’s the message it’s aiming to give out, but the other side of the coin is that is highlights the different approaches to education recovery that have been evident since the resignation of the Recovery Czar. 

Recovery needs everyone pulling together not apart. As the Chief Inspector told the Schools and Academies Show ‘it’s the right thing for parents and the right thing for children.’ School leaders were not enamoured, ‘tone deaf,’ as one professional body put it. 

As for GCSEs, their nature and future has been in the news again this week with two reports suggesting if not reformed, they should make way for a Bac model at age 18. This case has been argued for some time and was reiterated by the Chair of the Education Committee in his piece for the conservativehome site this week. The government is unlikely to scrap them at the moment, the retreat from the Tomlinson reforms is still too vivid, but as in so many areas of life, the pandemic has created a momentum for change and the various Education Commissions beavering away may yet trigger some changes.

And on student financing, highlighted again this week as the Opposition tabled an Early Day Motion in the face of rumours about a lowering of the repayment threshold, the issue here is when the government will respond to the growing body of proposals, not just on financing, but on the admissions system, entry requirements and other matters. The longer it leaves it, the stronger the rumours of change become. 

In other education news this week, the Schools and Academies Show has been taking place with an impressive array of resources on view let alone leading speakers. A link to the site is here.

Elsewhere, it has been Anti Bullying week, marked by 80% of schools last year and running this year under the theme of ‘One Kind Word.’ It was an issue in Parentkind’s recent Parent Voice Report where nearly 50% of parents raised concerns. The government took time out to remind everyone of the work it was doing in this field, including a new counselling scheme for schools and provisions in the Online Safety Bill.  

The National Cyber Security Centre revealed in its annual report an increase in cyber-attacks over the year with an alert issued to the education sector in March following a ‘spate of online attacks from late February.’ On a more positive note, the Centre continues to work closely with education generally to strengthen cyber resilience, as well as working with the NSCS in developing an online cyber security game for children and helping young people understand tech and cyber security through its CyberFirst programme.

In Westminster, MPs debated the Skills Bill, (the Committee is expected to begin its sessions on 30 November) the Lords completed their Third Reading for the Professional Qualifications Bill, and the Education Committee took further evidence on provision in Children’s Homes.

Finally this week, an interesting survey commissioned by Pearson and undertaken by Public First looking at the impact of the pandemic on jobs and careers. It concludes, “across social grades there is no notable trend in whether individuals believe their chances of a good career have been damaged by the coronavirus pandemic.” These remain uncertain times ...

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Zahawi announces slowing down of BTECs cull’ (Monday).
  • GCSEs failing to prepare children for modern world, say private school heads’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Face masks in schools more likely as government plans for winter surge (Wednesday).
  • ‘Spielman grilled by heads over Ofsted’s return’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Schools in England told to limit uniform costs’ (Friday).


  • Mansion House speech. The Prime Minister gave the traditional Lord Mayor of London’s Mansion House Banquet speech, using it to claim that COP26 had shown that the world recognised it was at a tipping point over climate change and promising to deliver a series of future roadmaps on developments as well as helping the UK become a science superpower and building the first general purpose quantum computer.
  • Cyber security. The National Cyber Security Centre published its latest annual report pointing to ‘an unprecedented’ number of cases over the last 12 months, many linked to ransomware attacks, and with vaccine research, distribution and supply chains all targeted.
  • Education spending. The House of Commons Library Service published a useful briefing on education spending in the UK with a series of useful charts showing spending trends over the years, how its been divvied up and how it compares with other countries, noting the peak in spending in 2009 -2011, the decline over subsequent years followed by the ‘sharp increase’ in 2020/21.
  • Online safety. The government announced the five winning projects that will receive funding from the Safety Tech Challenge Fund to develop innovative tech solutions to tackle online child abuse.
  • Ethical AI. JISC and BILETA outlined the steps education and research bodies should undertake including key questions on purpose, readiness and culture as they consider a move to more ethical AI. 
  • Living Wage. The Living Wage Foundation published its latest annual report on numbers paid below the Living Wage based on data up to April this year, showing a small fall to 4.8m in the number of jobs paid below the rate.
  • Being more productive. The Resolution Foundation and LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance examined the issue of poor productivity in a new report for the Nuffield funded ‘Economy 2030 Inquiry,’ suggesting that current diagnoses fail to recognise the need to improve investment, leadership and core skills which are all factors that need to be addressed.
  • Latest labour market data. The ONS published the latest quarterly labour market data covering the period to this September and showing a record number of job vacancies and increase in the employment rate along with details on earnings and employment across UK regions.
  • Latest labour market data analysis. The Learning and Work Institute reported on the latest labour market data, pointing to a further increase in employment over the last quarter but an increase in longer-term unemployment especially among older workers, and with inactivity levels remaining high generally.
  • More labour market analysis. The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) added its regular analysis to the latest labour market data, generally agreeing with the positive signs on employment trends but equally highlighting concerns about labour market participation and labour market supply with worrying signs about the drop in the numbers of older people, especially women, in the labour market.
  • Labour Market Outlook. The CIPD published its Labour Market Outlook for this autumn painting a fairly positive picture with employment confidence remaining high, no major job losses as a result of furlough and pay expectations up though with employers increasingly concerned about how to fill vacancies in some sectors. 
  • Youth unemployment.  The International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) outlined ways in which various cities around the world had gone about tackling youth unemployment post-Covid ahead of a major conference on the matter, with funded job schemes in Milwaukee, bonus schemes in Geneva for hiring apprentices and employer subsidies in Brussels among the examples given. 
  • Challenges ahead. The British Academy reported on the importance of the contribution of leading social science and humanities bodies in helping countries combat the challenges that lie ahead, including currently post-pandemic recovery. 
  • Decarbonisation Dynamics. The RSA examined the impact of decarbonisation on three sectors, heavy industry, vehicle manufacturing and energy and fossil fuels and energy production, suggesting that jobs in these sectors in the North and Midlands might suffer the most, calling for transition funding accordingly.

More specifically ...


  • Accelerated inspections. The government called on Ofsted to undertake an accelerated programme of inspection, pledging an additional £24m to enable the inspectorate to be able to report back by summer 2025 on how schools and colleges were managing the quality of provision post-Covid.
  • The view from the Chief Inspector. Amanda Spielman, Ofsted Chief Inspector, addressed the Schools and Academies Show where she acknowledged the challenges faced by schools and pointed to recent ‘promising’ reports as she set out the thinking and approach behind accelerated inspections before facing challenging questions on the matter. 
  • GCSE reform. HMC (the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference) reported on their survey of teachers, including in the state sector, into the future of GCSEs, suggesting these were failing to prepare young people for the future and calling on the government to set up a major review of the system with the aim of creating a more accessible, engaging and suitable qualification. 
  • Scrapping GCSEs. The BETT Advisory Board wrote an open letter to the Education Secretary urging him to tackle a number of issues in education citing four in particular, including scrapping GCSEs for a Bac at 18, providing SEND pupils with enabling technology, supporting FE in leading a skills revolution, and re-engineering the classroom for AI to provide a link between school and home.
  • Online exams. Colin Hughes, chief executive of AQA, laid out the case in an article in the i newspaper, for a future of online exams, suggesting the pandemic had hastened the argument for and concluding that pen and paper exams would likely remain in some form but combined with digital.
  • Joining a MAT. The government published commissioned research into the benefits or otherwise of schools joining a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) where research caried out this summer showed most recent converters decided to join so that they could collaborate and share skills though the process involved was challenging albeit the overall benefits positive, with non-converts particularly concerned about a lack of autonomy.
  • School Efficiency. The Education Policy Institute blogged about the government’s current financial efficiency metric acknowledging the virtue of its simplicity but pointing equally to some limitations in its benchmarking approach and promising to report on some alternative models.
  • Primary schools STEM. Leading figures and celebrities joined the Institution of Education and Technology in calling on the government to help tackle the UK engineering shortage by supporting the development of engineering skills in primary schools. 
  • School absences. FFT Education Datalab examined trends in pupil absences in both primary and secondary schools so far this term, acknowledging that this was higher than pre-pandemic but indicating that the data on illness absences made it difficult to determine whether Covid was the sole factor or whether there were others. 
  • SATs dates. The Standards and Testing Agency listed the dates for forthcoming primary assessments with, for instance, next year’s KS2 SATs set for 9 – 12 May 2022.
  • Anti-Bullying Week. The government reminded people, as part of Anti-Bullying Werek, of the funding and support it was putting in to combat bullying including a new counselling scheme, an Online Safety Bill and next year’s pioneering global LGBT conference. 
  • Bullying findings. The Children’s Commissioner published evidence from young people on bullying, gathered as part of the recent Big Ask research project and released to support Anti-Bullying Week, with many pointing to social media as a cause but highlighting also the importance of family and school support.


  • Skills Bill. The Education Secretary announced that more time would be granted to complete changes to L3 qualifications including BTECs and that the English and maths exit requirement would be removed from T levels as he laid out the government’s case for the Skills Bill in an opening statement to MPs for the Bill’s Second Reading.
  • The Education Secretary at the AoC. Nadhim Zahawi addressed the AoC Conference where he heralded the onset of the skills economy, praised the role of FE providers, called on colleges to deliver more apprenticeships and reinforced current government reforms of skills training. 
  • Labour at the AoC. Kate Green, Shadow Education Spokesperson, also spoke at the AoC Conference where among other things she called for greater clarity over the future of BTEs, stronger employer partnerships and an FE Recovery Premium.
  • Accelerated inspections. The government called on Ofsted to undertake an accelerated programme of full inspections, pledging an additional £24m to enable the inspectorate to be able to report back by summer 2025 on how colleges and apprenticeship providers were managing the quality of provision as well as responding to local skills needs, post-Covid.
  • College Boards. The AoC published a briefing on college boards indicating that the average board had between 17 and 19 members, often male but with limited representation from disabled and ethnic groups, recommending as a result a range of policies to help improve inclusion and wider representation.
  • Kickstart landmark. The government reported that the Kickstart scheme, launched last year to help provide short term jobs for young people claiming Universal Credit, had now reached ‘a milestone moment’ of having helped 100,000 young people start jobs, although as the Opposition pointed out that was still well short of the 250,000 originally promised. 
  • Call for Evidence. The Learning and Work Institute issued a Call for Evidence for its research project with the Social Mobility Commission and Poverty Inequality Commission on the impact of the pandemic on disadvantaged young people across the UK, which is due to be published next spring.
  • Recruiting construction workers. The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) reported on its joint survey and research into the challenges of recruiting for the construction sector, putting forward six suggestions including better targeting, changing work practices and generally promoting a more accessible and positive image of the sector.


  • EDM on student loan repayments. Labour tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM) in response to growing rumours about a lowering of the repayment threshold for student loans from the current £27,295 to £22,000, calling on the government to review the whole system and consider funding HE instead ‘through wealth and income taxes.’
  • Funding based on graduate employment. The Times Higher looked into the issue of basing funding on graduate employment outcomes, using case study evidence from countries such as Denmark, Finland and New Zealand to highlight some of the pitfalls as well as government options for such a metric.
  • Ahead by BETT. Leading organisations in UK higher education announced the launch of a major new event to take place alongside BETT 2022 showcasing innovative resources and methods for HE leaders and practitioners to use as they look to apply technological solutions to transform teaching and learning post-Covid.
  • Quality placements. The Million+ Group called on the government to strengthen the role of placements in initial teacher education, in a briefing released ahead of a Lords debate on the matter.
  • Strike dates. The University and College Union (UCU) announced that a number of universities would undertake strike action over pay and pensions from the 1stDecember to the 3rd of December with potential working to rule to follow.
  • Runners and riders. Nick Hillman, director of the HE Policy Institute, ran his eye over possible names for the new post of Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, noting how difficult it might be not just to fill the post but to undertake it as well.
  • Innovation matters. Anna Jackson, Head of Customer Insights at Pearson, reflected on the recent, and inaugural, Pearson HE Innovate Awards which shone a light on much of the inspiring but often unrecognised work going on in the sector, pointing to ways in which this could be better shared.
  • Post-Covid Alliance. The Universities of Manchester, Melbourne and Toronto confirmed they would work together in a new partnership, sharing expertise, skills and resources, developing teaching and learning, and tackling global issues.
  • Sussex investigation. The Office for Students confirmed it was investigating compliance with regulations on academic freedom and freedom of speech by the University of Sussex following the ‘Stock’ affair. 
  • Managing crises. Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor at Oxford, explained in an interview with the FT how she had helped lead Oxford through the pandemic, setting up crisis management teams and helping earn a reputation for scientific activities while securing finances and student numbers.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Sorry I was late to the Zoom call, I was sitting ready in anticipation for an hour then clicked the wrong thing with one second to go” | @SoVeryBritish
  • “If you have not found 'touch up my appearance' on zoom yet, then you are doing the pandemic all wrong” | @GongGasGirl
  • “I was acting head for the second time today. Only for 2.5 hours. 20 Year 1 children got stung by wasps after accidentally disturbing a nest, and a random cat caused carnage by running down the corridor. I swear these things WAIT for me” | @MrCeeYr6
  • Interesting study from 29 primary schools in Matsumoto City, Japan that suggests that reducing the number of students in a class on its own has little impact on influenza transmission, and that masks and vaccines are likely to be more effective” | @dylanwiliam
  • “Does anyone still have exam dreams? I keep dreaming that I have my A-Levels/ finals in a couple of weeks but I haven’t done any work and I know nothing. Will I have these for the rest of my life? Will I be 82 and thinking: why I don’t remember any German vocab?” | @RosamundUrwin
  • “It’s extremely concerning how so many people think Thomas Cromwell was Oliver Cromwell. This is why China are beating us. Our education system is failing our children” | @MahyarTousi

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “AI which is not a two toed sloth you use in Scrabble by the way, but artificial intelligence” – the PM discovers AI in a speech at the Mansion House.
  • “We haven’t just signalled the beginning of the end for coal. We’ve ticked our boxes on cars, cash and trees as well” – the PM talks up the success of COP 26 in a statement to MPs. 
  • “The last 12 years have been the worst period for wage growth since Napoleonic times” – the TUC responds to the latest figures on jobs and wages. 
  • “I propose that we move to a new system where children have the option at aged 18 to complete an International Baccalaureate, which focuses in equal measure on academic knowledge and skills” – Rob Halfon, Chair of the Education Committee on familiar terrain.
  • “We regret that UCU is proceeding with industrial action – it will not change the need for reform and will only disrupt students who have already faced a challenging 18 months and are keen to return to as normal an experience as possible” – the Russell Group responds to planned strike action in the HE sector.
  • “We have to say that the government has some strange ideas about the priority for education recovery” -ASCL responds to news that the government has called on Ofsted to inspect all schools and colleges by summer 2025.
  • “94% of respondents believe GCSEs either need complete or partial reform, more than half (54%) wish to see that process commence immediately, whilst a third (35%) would like to see it take place after a period of consolidation post pandemic” – HMC calls for reform of GCSEs.
  • “A director of public health might advise you that face coverings should temporarily be worn in communal areas or classrooms (by pupils, staff and visitors, unless exempt). You should make sure your contingency plans cover this possibility” – the government adds an Annexe to its guidance on face coverings in education settings.
  • “But don’t use the office party as an opportunity to solve work-related grievances, tackle a problem project, or pitch a new idea to your boss” – Youth Employment UK offer tips ahead of the festive party season.

Important numbers

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

  • 4.2%. The UK inflation rate for October, higher than the 3.9% expected and driven by increases in fuel and energy prices, and production costs, according to the latest figures from the ONS.
  • 7%+. The level of pay rise needed by workers next year just to stand still, according to the IfS.
  • 1.3M. The (record) number of job vacancies last month, according to latest ONS figures.
  • 40p. The increase in the Real Living Wage across the UK (20p in London) meaning a wage total of £9.90 (£11.05 in London) according to the Living Wage Foundation. 
  • 47%. The number of employers reporting hard to fill vacancies, according to the latest survey from the CIPD.
  • 5%. The monthly increase in revenue experienced by UK businesses adopting automation technologies, according to a report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research and SnapLogic.
  • 777. The number of cyber-attacks dealt with by the National Cyber Security Centre between September 2020 and August 2021, 20% of which were targeted at health and vaccine bodies according to the Centre’s latest report.
  • 58. The number of university campuses that could face strike action in December, according to the UCU.
  • 91.5%. The attendance figure for pupils in state funded schools as of last Thursday, up from 88.2% just before half-term according to latest published figures.
  • 4.5%. The increase in obesity prevalence between 2019/20 and 2020/21 for Yr 6 pupils, according to the National Child Measurement Programme for England.
  • 75. UNESCO’s recent special birthday age.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • CBI Annual Conference. (Monday 22 November – Wednesday 24 November).
  • All-Party Parliamentary Group session on Youth Employment (Tuesday 23 November).
  • Universities UK Research and Innovation Conference (Wednesday 24 November – Thursday 25 November.)

Other stories

  • Split infinitives. The use, and perceived abuse, of language has always provoked sharp debate with the misuse of exclamation marks, apostrophes and split infinitives among those that irritate the most. A new report this week from Lancaster University on how language has changed over the last couple of decades has confirmed what most people suspected, namely language has become much more informal. Out have gone formal constructs such as the pronoun ‘whom’ and the modal verb ‘shall’ and in have come more informal words such as ‘amazing’ and ‘stuff’ and yes, split infinitives, ‘to boldly go’ and so on. A link to the report is here.
  • Back to the office. Working from home and/or returning to the office remains a hot topic at the moment with particular views on both sides. This week the FT reported on its recent global survey on the matter among its readers. Unsurprisingly, hybrid working, where available, remained popular, but there were concerns that it could reinforce gender inequality let alone that among different age groups. For many, the daily drudgery of the commute was a big factor in being able to work flexibility as was mangers’ attitudes towards flexible working. A link to the survey is here.
  • Christmas costs. How much are you intending to, or perhaps having to, spend this Christmas? According to a survey from PwC, people will be spending more this year, typically £428 per person, compared to £384 last year. Some of this is down to price rises, but some also down to bigger family gatherings this year. Online will be another winner this year with the first two weeks in December the busiest. Oh, and half of those surveyed reckon they’ll have bought most of their presents by the end of this month. A link to the story 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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