Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 03 December 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:

Renewed guidance about the virus, amended travel arrangements, uncertainty about nativity plays, its been an apprehensive week for many in education. 

The mood was perhaps best captured at the start of the week in a blog by Nick Hillman director at HEPI. "All I want for Christmas," he wrote, "is some certainty about future developments", in this case for higher ed. It’s a sentiment felt by many in education this week as they consider how the end of term will play out. 

Some are looking further ahead. Joe Hallgarten, now heading up the Centre for Education and Youth (CEY) hung out a new advent calendar; ‘We’re dreaming of a White Paper.’ The White Paper in this case is the Schools White Paper, due in the New Year. The CEY is proposing a thought a day that might go into the White Paper as the days build up to Christmas. They’re also inviting contributions. 

And for those looking further ahead and perhaps seeking more certainty, the Schools White Paper is not the only Paper due out early next year. The Families Minister confirmed again this week that the long-awaited SEND Review will be published for consultation in the New Year, while the Education Secretary talked of two new skills awareness campaigns – one covering technical qualifications and the other covering adult skills – being launched around the same time. On top of that we may yet see the promised Levelling Up White Paper, let alone the formal response to the Augar proposals on post-19 provision. ‘In due course’ was the familiar refrain to MPs’ questions on the matter this week.  

But back to this week’s news where Labour appointed a new Shadow Education Secretary and the Skills Bill continued its push through Parliament. 

Elsewhere, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) published its annual report on education spending in England, labelling the cuts over the last decade as, 'effectively without precedent in post-war UK history'; the Education Policy Institute applied ‘experimental methodology’ to examine educational outcomes for refugee and asylum-seeking children in the UK, finding many of them months behind when it came to exams; the government published its response to the initial teacher training market review as well as latest recruitment data showing shortages in many secondary school subjects; JISC published its latest survey charting the digital experience of staff in FE and HE as part of the great switch to online learning – coping but challenging, the postscript there; and the Office for Students published its annual review (a Wonkhe appraisal is here); while staff in some universities this week went on strike over pensions, pay and working conditions. No link intended between the two stories.

Links to most of these stories can be found listed below.

One story, however, stands out because it affects so much of education, and that is the IfS’s report on education spending in England. Here’s a summary.

The report looks at spending, student numbers and future challenges across all sectors, from early years to higher education and contrasts what’s happened to education spending with that of health. Thirty years ago, they were level pegging in terms of public spending. Since then, despite a spending boost in the 2000s, spending on education has fallen sharply back. There are of course important reasons why spending on health has increased, but the fall of that for education combined with recent cuts has left parts of the education system in a parlous state. 

There’s a lot in the report but arguably three messages stand out.

First, the extent of the cuts to education over the recent decade. They include a '9% real-terms fall in school spending per pupil and a 14% fall in spending per student in colleges.' As ASCL’s Geoff Barton put it, "that’s a pretty dreadful legacy." In fairness, recent funding announcements, including notably the 2021 Spending Review, have seen more money dished out to both schools and colleges, but this will only get things back to where they were a decade or so ago. And they of course come as education everywhere faces enormous challenges post-pandemic. 

Second, higher education, largely absent from the latest Spending Review, but facing huge uncertainty about future funding models. To date, the fee loan system hasn’t put many students off, but there are growing concerns about whether the current system is sustainable, particularly as the report notes a projected 13% increase in student numbers over the next five years. The report looks at various options for reform, but concludes that 'only a lower interest rate and a lower tuition fee cap (with compensation for universities through more differentiated teaching grants) would deliver clear improvements to the system'. 

And third, and it comes in the final sentence of the report, the question now is whether education generally is financially robust enough to be able to deliver on both political and personal objectives. ‘Can I get my child into a good nursery or a good school?’ ‘Can education support levelling up or provide sufficient skills training?’ ‘How do we recover learning and close the attainment gap?’ These are big questions and the response so far, on recovery for example, suggests the government isn’t going to cough up a great deal more cash easily to deal with these questions. 

In Westminster news this week, the consultation on making flexible working the default closed in midweek. The TUC wants employers to be more upfront about what they can offer from the job ad. 'The right to ask nicely is no right at all,' they argued in a survey this week. CIPD’s response, pointing to employer support for the right to request from day one, can be found here. The government announced safety net funding for those who have bid for research and innovation grants to Horizon Europe, but are yet to have their grants confirmed. The Education Committee held a witness session with the Children and Families. The PM hosted a roundtable with pharmaceutical companies resulting in more money for UK Life Sciences and earlier in the week, the government hosted the Future Tech Forum in London. And one Cabinet Minister warned people to be careful who they kissed under mistletoe this year. 

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Secondary school pupils in England advised to wear masks’ (Monday).
  • ‘School funding squeeze biggest since WWII’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Refund students hit by English universities strikes, says watchdog’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Secondary teacher trainee pandemic boost evaporates’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Staff absences having ‘massive impact’ on pupils, say headteachers.’ (Friday).


  • Shadow Education Secretary. FEWeek/Schools Week profiled the newly appointed Shadow Education Secretary, noting that she was state school and Oxbridge educated, had strong views on education and was seen as a rising star.
  • Education spending. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) published its latest Nuffield funded annual report on education spending in England, highlighting the cuts in funding over the last decade which despite some recent investment has left much of the education system struggling to deliver.
  • Local Growth and Productivity. The Productivity Institute published a new report on local growth and productivity in England, pointing to the multi-layered structures and systems in many local authorities and arguing that the forthcoming White Paper on levelling up should aim for greater devolution within ‘a longer-term institutional framework.’
  • Algorithmic transparency. The government announced the creation of an algorithmic transparency standard, developed with the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, available next year and able to help ensure greater transparency around the use of algorithms by public bodies. 
  • Global Gateway. The EU launched its international infrastructure and connectivity programme known as Global Gateway bringing together some €300bn in public and private investment and focusing on five key priorities including digital, health, transport, climate and energy and education and research, which will be led by Team Europe working with member states.
  • Gig working. The Social Market Foundation reported on gig workers, and in particular the experience of Deliveroo riders, finding the majority welcoming the flexibility such work brings and satisfied with their earnings but with the report highlighting the need to treat such workers properly and recognise that long-term security may be an issue.
  • Flexi working. The TUC published the results of its survey, conducted by YouGov, on flexible working indicating that 70% of HR managers said they’d either implemented flexible working or were ready to support it, with the TUC in turn calling for stronger duties on employees to include it in job adverts. 
  • Green Jobs. PwC launched its Green Jobs Barometer which measures and monitors progress by UK regions and sectors towards net zero using five ‘Pillars,’ including green job creation, green workplaces and the carbon intensity of jobs and showing currently a mixed pattern of development and some concerns about job losses in some sectors.
  • Trust the science. Wellcome published its latest Global Monitor looking at the impact of both the pandemic and of science across over a hundred countries, pointing to a 10% increase in the numbers saying they trust science and scientists in general, yet with only 25% saying their governments valued the opinions of scientists.
  • COP lessons. The Edge Foundation outlined three lessons for education arising out of the recent COP26 Conference, including equipping young people with green skills and knowledge, hosting green ‘empowerment’ activities, and helping young people connect with nature.

More specifically ...


  • Covid guidance. The government updated its guidance for schools in light of the latest virus concerns, advising the use of masks for staff and secondary pupils in communal areas and confirming test, trace arrangements and isolation arrangements where necessary.
  • Staff absences. The Key published new survey evidence indicating that a lack of staff was making it difficult for pupils to catch up with Yr 2 in primary and Yr 11 in secondary the year groups struggling the most.
  • Impact of school closures. NFER published a new report looking at the impact of Covid disruption and school closures on KS1 pointing to pupils falling noticeably behind where they should be on reading by the end of the summer term although Yr 2 pupils were catching up on their maths, recommending a continuing focus on small groupwork and pupil support.
  • ITT numbers. The government published the latest census on initial teacher training (ITT) numbers in England for 2021/22 showing an increase in meeting targets for primary subjects but a fall in meeting recruitment targets for many secondary subjects including maths, computing, languages and physics.
  • ITT Market Review. The government published its response to the earlier consultation on the initial teacher training (ITT) market review, confirming an extension of the implementation by a year along with funding (£35.7m) to support the reforms and the easing of requirements on the evidence base for curriculum design and on requirements for lead mentors.
  • Teacher training bursaries. The government set out the training bursary arrangements, along with specific scholarships, for initial teacher training for 2022/23 where eligible recruits can receive support ranging from £10,000 to £24,000, notably for science, computing and maths.
  • SAFE spots. The government announced funding and support for its SAFE scheme (Support, Attend, Fulfil, Exceed) where taskforces, led by local school leaders, will support young people in ‘hotspots’ around the country where they are most at risk of youth violence. 
  • Parent carers. The Minister addressed the National Network of Parent Carer Forums where he reiterated government commitment to publishing the SEND review for consultation next month as well announcing a new pilot to test training in staff use of assistive technology. 
  • Refugee children. The Education Policy Institute along with the Unbound Philanthropy Foundation examined the educational outcomes of refugee and asylum-seeking children in England in a new report indicating that those entering the UK without parents end up on average three years behind other children by the time they take their GCSEs, and experience greater problems in terms of absence rates and exclusions.
  • Pay gap. Leading education professional bodies published a new report showing a considerable pay gap between male and female teachers, particularly at senior levels, reiterating calls for the Pay Review Body to conduct a full review.
  • Pupil premium. Teach First called for funding for the pupil premium to be kept in line with inflation and for 3-year funding commitments to ensure funding stability.


  • Covid guidance. The government updated its guidance for FE in light of the latest virus concern, advising the use of masks in communal areas and confirming test, trace and isolation arrangements where necessary.
  • Awarding guidance. Ofqual outlined latest guidance for centres for awarding vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) in 2021 and 2022, confirming that exams and assessments should go ahead albeit with approved modifications and with set arrangements for specific qualifications like T levels and Functional Skills. 
  • T level thoughts. Huddersfield’s Centre for Research in Education and Society published early findings from its research into teacher perceptions of T levels showing T levels are seen as more challenging than other L3 qualifications and teachers are more supportive of T levels in Construction and Health than those in Business and Digital.
  • Skilled worker route. Oxford’s Migration Observatory looked into trends in skilled worker visas with the cap now removed, showing much of it driven by jobs in healthcare and most gravitating towards London particularly in sectors like IT, finance and science suggesting some uneven regional impact.
  • Digital experience. JISC published its latest annual survey of the digital experience of teaching staff with many pointing to how much their role had changed as a result of the pandemic along with pressures on systems, support, access and wellbeing that emerged as a result. 
  • Youth Forum. Youth Employment UK reported on its latest Youth Voice Forum which looked at vocational education including notably the role of BTECs stressing the importance of retaining different routes and learning styles, along with employer links and careers support.


  • Annual Review. The Office for Students published its latest Annual Review outlining a stronger but more minimal regulatory approach under its new strategy and a continued focus on quality, access and tackling harassment.
  • Horizon Europe. The government announced that as a short-term measure it would guarantee funding to successful bidders to Horizon Europe yet to have the deal agreed, and also provide further support and stability to enable UK R/D to go ahead should future collaboration fail.
  • Student finance. The government reported on the proposed changes to student finances for 2022-2023 where loans and grants will be uplifted by 2.3% forecast inflation suggesting that this will have ‘a marginally positive impact’ on particular groups.
  • International students. Universities UK published its latest annual facts and figures on international students in UKHE, in this case covering 2019/20 and showing the UK remaining the second most popular destination, albeit with Australia catching up fast, with China, India and Nigeria the top three sending countries and Business/Management and Engineering/Technology the top two popular disciplines.
  • Student transfers. The Office for Students published further experimental data on student transfers, both within the same or to a different provider, looking on this occasion at data on 2018/19 entrants and finding as with previous evidence that it’s largely underrepresented groups, largely male and 21+ who transfer, usually without credit.
  • Access and participation. Universities UK reflected further on access and participation and education recovery through a set of published case studies reinforcing the importance of focusing on outcomes rather than inputs, ensuring plans were more place and student-based, and adopting a more strategic approach. 
  • Lessons from the pandemic. Universities UK reported on research conducted earlier this year with 13 member institutions on lessons learnt from the pandemic about teaching and learning, suggesting there had been positives in terms of skill development, the use of online assessment and increase in support services, leading in turn to an acceleration of future plans for hybrid learning, digital support services and redesigned spaces. 
  • Digital experience. JISC published its latest annual survey of the digital experience of teaching staff pointing to the enormous pressure generated by the pandemic on both staff and students with access, staff support and technical problems all cited as issues.
  • Research Centres. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) announced addition funding for six new university lead research centres examining current social and economic issues including early years maths education, digital technologies and intergenerational matters.
  • All remote. PIE News reported on the ‘Tomorrow University of Applied Sciences’ which is aiming to operate remotely, using ‘a data-driven learning platform’ to provide 15-minute interactive sessions delivering bachelor programmes in English via six semesters at a cost of €550 per month.
  • Waiting for Santa. Nick Hillman, director at the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) looked into some of the policy activity that higher ed is still waiting on, pointing to three in particular (admission reform, fee reform, post-pandemic recovery) that may yet determine how HE shapes up but where details and timing remain uncertain. 
  • Policy Lab. UCL announced that Professor Marc Stears, currently Director of the Sydney Policy Lab, had been appointed to head up the new UCL Policy Lab which is due to launch next May.

Stand-out tweets

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Maths anxiety in the UK is officially the worst in the world – and girls suffer more (via Mirror Online)" | @FEontap
  • “I’m very popular this morning! When I drove onto campus there was a long line of staff waving banners and tooting horns for me. VC” | @BantshireUni
  • “Meditation could replace school detention, suggests councillor (via BBC News)” | @tombennett71
  • “When asked to attend a 9am meeting, the legendary physicist and professor Sidney Coleman purportedly said, "I can't stay up that late" | @JannaLevin
  • “If politicians could stop talking about who we should/shouldn't snog/kiss so I can stop having to say snog/kiss on TV that would be great thanks. (Also why are still saying snog at all ever?!) | @KateEMcCann
  • “I once met a small prisoner in a lift. He was a little condescending” | @govindajeggy

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “It’s time for another Great British Vaccination Effort” – the PM on the response to the latest Covid variant.
  • The truth is that I was quite naughty when I was much younger and that’s where the most inspirational teachers set me on the right track” – the Education Secretary puts it all down to teachers.
  • “I had a wonderful education at my local state schools — and every child deserves that” – Bridget Phillipson on being appointed Shadow Education Secretary.
  • “We continue to carefully consider the recommendations made by the independent panel that reported to the Review” – the universities minister holds the line on responding to Augar.
  • “'The level of action seen today is just the beginning and university managers now need to wake up and address the very modest demands of staff” – the University and College Union herald their strike action this week.
  • “It's good that the government has moved swiftly to give clarity to schools and parents about the new mitigations” – the NAHT responds to the latest guidance on face masks.
  • “It has looked tired and worn for a while so this is a good way to quietly get rid” – companies prepare to ditch the Christmas office party in the light of pandemic restrictions.

Important numbers

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

  • £99bn. The figure for education spending in the UK for 2020/21, according to a new report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
  • 4.4%. The forecast inflation rate next year for the EU as well as for the UK, up on previous predictions in both cases, according to the OECD.
  • £500m. The amount of money promised for training and qualifications for social care workers, according to the government’s adult social care plan.
  • 1.2%. The number of green related jobs advertised in the first half of this year, according to PwC. 
  • £1,700. The likely impact of rising energy costs and inflation on UK household budgets next year, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research.
  • 3. The number of extra days holiday plus bonuses granted Lego employees for such a successful year, according to latest company news.
  • 27.5%. The number of international students in UKHE in 2019/20 as a percentage of the total UK student population, according to Universities UK.
  • 90. The number of applicants per graduate position, the highest on record according to latest data from the Institute of Student Employers. 
  • 208,000. The number of pupils not in (state funded) school for Covid related reasons as of last Thursday, up from 130,000 two weeks previously according to latest official figures.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Edge Foundation lecture on ‘creating a career with purpose.’ (Monday 6 December).
  • Onward panel event on transforming FE and helping those who don’t go to university,’ (Wednesday 8 December).
  • UCAS 2021 End of Cycle report. (Thursday 9 December).
  • Teach First panel discussion on rethinking the pupil premium. (Thursday 9 December).

Other stories

  • What makes for a dream job? In an interesting survey recently, Raja Workplace, a supplier of business equipment, surveyed 2,000 UK employees to find out what makes for a dream job. A great boss, top wages, not being hassled, plenty of perks? Almost. According to the survey, a dream job is one which has a 21–30-hour week, a salary of £44,355, 29 days annual holiday, a supportive boss and a 16–20-minute commute. Apparently 30% of UK employees have this. For those who perhaps don’t have it and are looking for more details on what goes into such job satisfaction, a link to the article is here.
  • Online job interviews. One of the side effects of the pandemic has been the growing use by companies of what’s called ‘asynchronous video interviews,’ AVIs for short. In these, the candidate answers a predetermined set of questions onscreen with no human interviewer present. In many cases, the company uses an algorithm to then sift through the candidates. They’re not new, they’ve been used for instance by US companies for some but as Sarah O’Connor explained in the FT this week, they may help speed up and streamline the interview process but they’re not popular with a lot of candidates. ‘It doesn’t feel natural’ one said while research from the University of Sussex highlighted how many young candidates felt depersonalised. A link to the story 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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