Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 26 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:

Schools, skills and social mobility; all have been in the news this week.

Schools first, or more precisely, parents’ views on schools, as reported in the latest annual Parent Voice Report, published this week by Parentkind (PTAs in old money). 

It offers an interesting perspective on what parents think about schools, as well as related matters like funding, inclusion and mental health. The headline and pleasingly positive message was that “77% of respondents are happy with the quality of education their child receives and 75% feel that respect and courtesy are in evidence throughout the school.” As the Report notes, after 18 months of disrupted schooling, this was pretty reassuring. 

There are of course areas of concern and three in particular were listed: a lack of after school activities, no doubt stymied by pandemic restrictions; worries from parents of secondary school pupils that their children were less happy and secure with their lot; and a continuing low, albeit slightly improved, ranking for careers guidance. Overall, parents are keen to be involved in their children’s education, are broadly supportive of the current curriculum, while favouring a rounded outcome. And when it comes to wider wellbeing issues, point to exam stress, anxiety, and bullying as the top concerns. A summary is available here. It’s an interesting read.

On to skills, a regular topic of concern where there have been two notable developments this week. The first came at this week’s CBI Annual Conference where Keir Starmer talked up Labour’s support for business and promised a big push on skills.  “So, skills policy is the first line in the first chapter of Labour’s plan for good business,” he maintained. The policy would include a big focus on technical and digital skills; a promise of 100,000 new businesses in the first five years; and most prominently, the creation of a new council of skills advisers. With David Blunkett at the helm, their role would be to recommend changes that could help ensure ‘everyone leaves education job-ready and life-ready.’ Quite a challenge.

The other development came from the Education Committee, which launched a new Inquiry into qualifications for young people aged 16+. This follows the government’s review of L3 qualifications, which had provoked questions about choices and options, especially for those following the vocational route. 

The future of BTECs may have been stayed for a while at least and T levels remain in their early stages, but Rob Halfon the Chair of the Committee is keen for the Inquiry to look at options for young people and how they can support entry to employment. He’s also keen to examine the potential for a post-16 Bac model, something for which he’s been an advocate for quite a while. “Rather than create a binary system of academic A-Levels and vocational T-Levels, should we think more broadly to create a parity of esteem between vocational and academic learning?” The parity question, it seems, is never far away. The Committee is calling for evidence by 20 January 2022. There’s likely to be a large bag.

As for social mobility, this emerged as a strong theme in changes announced for higher education by the Universities Minister this week. In her speech to the THE Campus event, Michelle Donelan argued that, recovery-wise, it’s going to be a very different normal for HE. More flexible learning opportunities; shorter courses; increased higher technical provision; more formal outreach activity with schools;‘good graduate outcomes;’ and a new approach to social mobility.  

On the latter, she set out a new brief for the Office for Students on tackling access and participation, and announced a new Director of Social Mobility at the Office for Students in John Blake. It’s a challenging role and both Wonkhe and the HE Policy Institute have been quick to offer guidance and context. Nick Hillman at HEPI set out six points a new Director should bear in mind when picking up the baton, while Joathan Simons on the Wonkhe site provided a helpful backcloth to the government’s new-found commitment to universities’ wider role in post-18 provision. 

Interestingly, it means that three respected educationalists now hold key positions on social mobility: John in the higher ed sector and of course Katharine Birbalsingh as Chair of the Social Mobility Commission – along with Alun Francis her Deputy and a College Chief Executive. It underlines the important role education plays in improving social mobility. 

Further evidence of this can be seen in a report out this week looking at mobility rates for different universities, degrees and courses. Using Longitudinal Education Outcomes for students who attended university in the mid-2000s, the research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) and the Sutton Trust provides a level of detail not previously seen. 

Broadly, the headline story is that the least selective post-1992 institutions perform very well in this regard, while some of the more elite institutions do not. There are variations and caveats. For example, London graduates have higher returns because of higher wage levels in London. More specifically, Queen Mary, Westminster, and City are the top three ranking universities in London for mobility, while outside London Bradford, Aston and Newman take the top spots. In terms of the top three subjects for mobility, Pharmacology, Computing and Law emerge as the leaders. Perhaps the most salient point from the report is that 'Universities with the best average earnings returns often have poor access rates, resulting in low mobility rates' although average mobility rates are improving slowly, at around 1.6% currently.

Over in Westminster this week, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee launched an Inquiry into diversity in STEM. It’s calling for evidence by 14 January 2022 on the extent of underrepresentation among those working in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) areas. Questions were raised by MPs about any possible changes to student loan repayment thresholds, but were greeted with the standard response of “we will conclude the Review in full in due course.” And the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Skills, Careers and Employment hosted a session on Green Skills post COP 26. 

Finally, in other news to note below, the National Audit Office published a further report on school finances; Ofsted launched a consultation on its role as quality assurer for the Online Education Accreditation Scheme; Directors of Children’s Services reported on the growing number of home-educated pupils; and language and exam bodies called for a rethink on reform of GCSE modern languages. In FE land, the Collab Group of Colleges found ‘guarded optimism’ about T levels in a new survey, while the Prince’s Trust found young people anxious about how (let alone when) they’d be able to get their lives back post-pandemic. And in a busy week for HE the HE Policy Institute published an interesting report with the Centre for Global Higher Education on graduate views about the student loan system.

And Marcus Rashford announced that his Book Club partnership with Burberry, Macmillan children’s books and the National Literacy Trust will help transform library spaces for children in schools in Manchester, Leeds and London. In an open letter, to children, he wrote “If you’re feeling a little down today, a little confused, even a little bit scared, this is your safe space.” 

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Labour unveils new council of skills advisers’ (Monday).
  • ‘Universities to get good job targets for poor students’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Councils in England report rise in elective home education’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Autumn GCSE exam entries drop two thirds,’ (Thursday). 
  • Schools to get ‘advisers’ to tackle persistent absence’ (Friday).


  • The PM at the CBI Conference. The Prime Minister addressed business leaders at the CBI Annual Conference in what was described as ‘an awkward’ speech in which while talking about skills and the green economy, he ended up referencing a recent visit to Peppa Pig World to illustrate UK creativity.
  • Labour at the CBI Conference. Sir Keir Starmer also addressed the CBI Annual Conference where he promised Labour would focus on skills and create a new council of skills advisers, develop a better alternative to business rates, ensure more contracts for British firms and sort out some of the post-Brexit agreement issues.
  • 4 Highs. The CBI’s Director-General, Tony Danker, used his address to the Conference to highlight the importance of ‘four key elements’ (High-value sectors; High-value firms; High-value skills; and higher business investment) that would help lift productivity and support levelling up, pledging also to set up a new CBI Centre for Thriving Regions, complete with a new Director, staff and Levelling Up Playbook.
  • Working Lives. The Resolution Foundation and the Centre for Economic Performance published their latest report in the Nuffield funded Economy 2030 series, highlighting changes to working patterns emerging from the pandemic with mass unemployment avoided, more women but fewer men economically active, and hybrid working remaining popular among professional classes. 
  • Working practices. The professional body, the CIPD, published a new report suggesting that compared with a decade ago fewer people were working variable hours or on non-permanent employment and that work generally was becoming more secure but calling for job quality and choice to remain at the core of employee discussions.
  • Youth Jobs. The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) examined jobs for young people as part of the Health Foundation’s Inquiry into young people’s future health, listing the features young people look for in work and the challenges some of them face post-pandemic, calling among other things for improved careers guidance and support, better quality work experience, and an enhanced youth offer.
  • Jobs Outlook. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation published its latest Jobs Outlook survey covering August – October 2021 showing business confidence in hiring, down and concerns about inflation, up but overall, slightly more firms pointing to prospects improving rather than worsening.
  • Tackling misinformation. The RSA in partnership with BT examined the issues around fake news and how best to tackle them, citing five main types of information consumer from ‘traditionalists’ to ‘hoaxers’ and calling for an Office for Public Harms and for social media companies to be held more responsible.
  • Volunteering Futures. The government, Arts Council and leading bodies launched a new support fund to enable more people to undertake volunteering opportunities across the arts, youth and civil sectors. 
  • World Children’s Day. The Minister wrote an open letter to young people in England, thanking them for their contributions submitted as part of the Children’s Commissioner’s Big Ask and confirming that in preparing its regular report to the UN for next summer on children’s matters, the government would continue to listen to children’s issues.

More specifically ...


  • School finances. The National Audit Office (NAO) published a further report on school finances in England, following up its report in the summer and focusing on schools’ financial health and dept support, suggesting that schools’ financial health had held up well and some, notably trusts, were in surplus but that some of this had only been achieved, particularly in secondary schools, by limiting what they did.
  • The view from parents. Parentkind published its latest annual Parent Voices Report on what parents think about schools (generally very positive,) what they’re concerned about (secondary school years,) how involved they want to be (very) and what’s stressing their children (exams, bullying and social media.) 
  • School attendanceThe government responded to concerns about school attendance in some areas by announcing that experienced former teachers and local authority leaders would work with schools as ‘expert attendance advisers
  • Teacher Wellbeing. The charity Education Support published its latest annual Teacher Wellbeing Index painting a rather downbeat picture of an increase, from 73% to 77%, in the number of teachers suffering depression, anxiety and mental health pressures generally. 
  • Online accreditation. Ofsted launched consultation on the standards and accreditation procedures required of those seeking to offer online education which would be overseen by Ofsted at a cost and where approval would be based on such features as proprietor suitability, the quality of leadership and delivery and strength of security arrangements. 
  • Inspection data. Ofsted published data on state school inspections in England as of the end of August 2021 showing 1,300+ inspections carried out with 86% of schools rated good or outstanding, the same as the previous year.
  • Languages GCSE. Leading Language and Exam Bodies announced that in light of issues raised by the government’s content review earlier this year, a new further phase of ‘design and development’ should be undertaken looking at aspects like vocabulary and structure with the aim of completion by next Easter.
  • Language Trends. The British Council reported on its survey, undertaken by YouGov, of how Yr 9 pupils in England viewed languages with Spanish, French and German regarded as the most popular and many pupils (72%) seeing languages as important although just over half saw them as difficult to learn. 
  • Relationships and Sex Education. The government published a commissioned report into attitudes among young people towards sex education and subsequent sexual risk-taking, based on evidence before changes to the guidance and showing that many, though not all, found relationship and sex education useful and generally helpful in avoiding risks later though concerns remained about some vulnerable groups. 
  • Alternative Provision. FFT Education Datalab looked into how many pupils were educated offsite in alternative provision in England each week, pointing out that some of the data was difficult to get but suggesting a figure of around 37,000 although not all in alternative provision.
  • Ministerial address. The Minister for Children and Families addressed the National Children and Adult Services Conference where he praised the work of staff in the sector, ran through the funding and support the government was providing particularly in supporting families, and promised to work closely with colleagues in the future.
  • Elective Home Education. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) published its latest annual survey of elective home education, collated on school census date in October and showing a further increase in numbers being educated at home, much of it triggered by the pandemic, but with LAs concerned about a lack of powers to be able to assure standards and safeguarding. 
  • Carrots and sticks. Researchers reported in The Economics of Education Review on a recent study looking into incentives, financial and non-financial, for GCSE students in England, concluding that rewards have the potential to raise attainment notably for many disadvantaged groups.


  • Post-16 qualifications. The Education Committee followed up recent debate about qualifications at 16+ by announcing a new Inquiry into the qualification system at L3, how well they prepare young people for the world of work and the government’s proposed reforms around T levels and BTECs, with evidence to be submitted by 20 Jan 2020.
  • T level thoughts. The Collab Group reported on its survey, undertaken in the summer, into member views and approaches to T levels, finding mixed views largely dependent on whether providers were currently offering them or waiting to, with some concerns about awareness, placements and effect on other routes but overall, some ‘guarded optimism.’
  • Kickstart limits.The National Audit Office (NAO) reported on the Kickstart scheme, launched last year to provide placements for 16–25-year-olds on benefits, suggesting that so far its had ‘limited impact’ given the reopening of the economy meant many jobs would have been created anyway and final evaluation of the scheme is unlikely to prove anymore positive.
  • Youth unemploymentThe House of Lords Committee looking into youth unemployment published the results of its major Inquiry calling for long-term national and local planning focusing on skills matching, skills development especially around digital and green skills, stronger careers guidance, better funding for FE and apprenticeships and more support for the disadvantaged.
  • FE funding. The House of Commons Library Service reported on FE funding in England providing helpful explainers on the latest trends, issues and developments.
  • Digital Functional Skills. Ofqual released further consultation on the regulatory arrangements, conditions and requirements for Digital Functional Skills which are due to be introduced from August 2023.
  • Lost confidence. The Prince’s Trust and Censuswide published the results of a new survey into the effects of the pandemic on young people aged 16-25 in the UK, indicating that many, particularly from poorer backgrounds, had lost confidence, faced mental health and job worries and were worried about when they’d be able ‘to get their lives back’ but also valued opportunities to gain new skills.
  • NHS workforce. The government announced that it was accepting recommendations to bring together the respective bodies in charge of education and training and digital transformation for NHS staff into one body under the roof of the NHS.
  • Construction concerns. The Construction Leadership Council wrote to the government raising concerns about problems associated with the transition to the UK CA Mark, calling for a range of flexibilities to be adopted.
  • Governance Matrix. The Education and Training Foundation published a new Governance Maturity Matrix for use by college governing boards enabling them to assess themselves at three levels on factors like strategy, finance and culture.
  • Apprenticeship Ambassadors. The government announced a new Chair (Anthony Impey,) Vice-Chair (Kathryn Marshall) and Co-Chair (Emma Beauchamp) for the Apprenticeship Ambassador Network.


  • Minister’s address. The Universities Minister addressed the THE Campus event where she praised universities for their work during and beyond the pandemic, highlighted the importance of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, announced a new Director for Fair Access and Participation, called on the Office for Students to work on a new approach to access and participation, and promised that recovery ‘is going to be far from back to normal’ in the days ahead.
  • Access and participation. The government issued new guidance to the Office for Students on access and participation, building on progress made in schools and focusing on clear targets, pre-entry work with key groups such as white working-class boys, degree apprenticeships and other L4/5 courses and improved course outcomes. 
  • New Director for Fair Access. Nick Hillman, director of the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) congratulated John Blake on his appointment as Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students and offered six points to bear in mind including the need to talk with and visit the sector and building on the evidence, as he picked up the mantle from the start of next year.
  • Access and participation outcomes. The Office for Students reported on the outcomes of access and participation plans and investments by HE providers in England in 2019/20 showing that providers had invested over £376m in financial support for underrepresented students and that providers had ‘broadly delivered’ on their commitments.
  • Student loans. The HE Policy Institute and Centre for Global Higher Education investigated graduate views on the student loan system in England pointing to concerns raised about the high levels of debt it can generate and the longer-term impact this can have, with income-contingent loans considered as preferable.
  • Social mobility rates. The government along with the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Sutton Trust published new, more granular detail, about how far different institutions let alone courses and subjects help improve social mobility with ‘low-mid ranking providers, often outside London’ emerging on top and some mixed results for both traditional and newer institutions generally. 
  • Work placements in UK HE. The government published a commissioned report looking into available literature on the nature and number of work placements available for students in UK HE, finding most of it fairly standard and not identified by type let alone skills development or costs and benefits to the employer.
  • Research culture. Professor Julia Buckingham, Chair of the Researcher Development Concordat Strategy Group, blogged about the importance of creating a positive culture within which researchers could operate and pointed to a new report coming on the impact of the concordat.

Stand-out tweets

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “On a train today for approx 6 hours. Looking forward to reading exactly 8 pages of my book and spending the rest of my time on my phone” | @HKesvani
  • “So I joined (or rather re-joined) LinkedIn thinking it might be useful for recruitment… So far I’ve not managed to post any jobs (or work out how to) but the algorithm has clearly picked up on my love of cake as it keeps notifying me of baking jobs in Morrison’s” | @CobblesAnn
  • “Is there any two-word phrase more designed to inspire fear, despair and ennui than "Team Fun"? | @katebevan
  • “My daughter just told me a brilliant story about a teacher asking a pupil to go and bring her the guillotine (paper cutter). The kid misheard and was gone for ages. They came back with the school GAELIC TEAM. Went round every classroom to round up 20 confused lads. Wonderful” | @DecLawn
  • “I have managed to upload the wrong PDF in support of my annual appraisal. It ought to have been a record of CPD, in fact it's a cocktail menu. How's your day going?” | @bealelab
  • “Given how chilly it is, I wonder how a penguin builds its house? I'm guessing Igloos it together...” | @Mr_H1978
  • “Give the person to your right a neck rub, we’re creating a chain of happy relaxation – even the memory still horrifies me” | @informed_edu
  • “My vegan mate just said that people who sell meat are disgusting. I told her that people who sell fruit and veg are grocer” | @LauraFMcConnell

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Baffling” – The Spectator’s verdict on the PM’s speech to the CBI Annual Conference.
  • “I can promise you that the only F words I will be using are foreign investment, fair trade, fiscal policy and fiduciary duty” – the Labour leader promises support for business leaders.
  • “In the immediate term, the post holder will play a significant role in managing the core school budget as we transition from the recent Spending Review into departmental business planning, leading work with analysts and policy teams on the overall forecasting for business planning while developing our public commentary on school funding” – the DfE advertises for a new Policy Adviser.
  • “This refocusing of the system is not about creating a new, burdensome industry” – the government issues new guidance to the Office for Students on access and participation.
  • “It makes you feel sick and horrible” – graduates express their worries about student debt in new report from HEPI and CGHE. 
  • “Individuals eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) in year 11 who attended university are almost four times more likely to be amongst the highest 20% of earners at age 30 than those who did not, and around ten times more likely if they attended one of the four most selective universities in the country” – the DfE publishes new research on university degrees and social mobility.
  • “It is of paramount importance that the government treats education as an investment rather than a cost and that it improves the level of funding for schools, colleges and young people” – ASCL responds to the NAO’s report the financial sustainability of schools in England.
  • “When I was at school my home economics class was just awesome” – MasterChef judge Marcus Wareing calls for more practical subjects on the school curriculum.
  • “It ultimately comes down to something very simple: being kind” – the President of the Girls Schools Association explains what being ‘woke’ means.
  • “Every dumb picture, every unfinished conversation and every idle feud is preserved" – Times contributor James Marriott on the curse of the internet.

Important numbers

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

  • 21%. Average office occupancy level for offices in England at the start of this month, according to a report in the FT.
  • 66%. The number of UK business leaders who expect an increase in cyber security threats over the next 12 months, according to PwC.
  • 4,000. The number of jobs being created over the next four years in Britain by Lidl, according to the FT.
  • 53.4%. The number of 17-30 years who initially entered HE in England in 2019/20, up 1.5% on the previous year according to latest official figures.
  • 44%. The number of young people, higher among poorer communities, who don’t know when they’ll get their life back post-pandemic, according to a survey from the Prince’s Trust and Censuswide.
  • 321,400. The number of apprenticeships starts in England in the quarter up to July 2021, down 0.3% on the previous year according to latest official figures.
  • £6,000 - £10,000. The likely cost of becoming an accredited provider of online education provision, according to Ofsted. 
  • 636,327. The full-time equivalent number of teachers in the UK in 2020/21, up 1.9% on the previous year according to latest official figures. 
  • £600m. The shortfall in children’s social care funding, according to the Local Government Association.
  • 115,542. The calculated number of children and young people in England home educated last year, up 34% on the previous year according to a survey by the Directors of Children’s Services.
  • 55%. The increase in the number of Nativity scores and scripts requested, indicating that school Nativity plays might be back on according to an article in The Guardian.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Angela Rayner speech at the Institute for Government on ‘Standards in Public Life’ (Monday 29 November).
  • Education Policy Institute Annual Lecture on ‘International Comparisons of Education Recovery’ (Tuesday 30 November).
  • Westminster Hall debate on introducing a Natural History GCSE (Wednesday 1 December).
  • National Apprenticeship Awards Final (Wednesday 1 December).
  • Education Committee session with the Minister for Children and Families (Wednesday 1 December).

Other stories

  • World Children’s Day. To mark World Children’s Day this week, UNICEF and Gallop published a survey of young people, recoding their thoughts on what it’s like to be a child these days and how they viewed the future. A remarkably hopeful picture emerges from many of them. Aware of global issues such as climate change, poverty, and of course the pandemic, they are keen to see challenges tackled and the world a better place. As the UNICEF Executive Director put it “Compared to older generations, the world’s young people remain hopeful, much more globally minded, and determined to make the world a better place.” A link to the story is here
  • 50 years on. Three editors of the Times Higher offered their perspectives this week on the changing nature and perhaps face of higher ed as the THES reached its 50th Sir Peter Scott, editor from 1976 to 1992 spoke of the push for growth in the sector, the onset of cuts and the erosion of autonomy. Anne Mroz, editor from 2008 to 2012, spoke of widening participation and the need to work with schools. And John Gill, the current editor since 2012, referenced the introduction in 2010 of tuition fees, along with marketisation, globalisation and more recently, the impact of the pandemic. A link to it all is here.
  • What’s the office ever done for us? An interesting perspective on the working from home v being in the office dialectic from the Chartered Management Institute this week. Its forthright conclusion is that “if you want a job, work from home; if you want a career, go to the office.” On that basis it adds what it calls ‘five compelling reasons’ for going back in. They include: being able to collaborate, mentoring, building a common culture, building networks and furthering your career. Others might add opportunities to chit-chat, getting out of the house and so on. It does recognise though that some people are more able to work from home (the Covid aristocracy) while others can’t (the Covid proletariat.) A link to the piece is 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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