Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 10 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:

“This was a difficult year to be young, and a challenging time to be learning.” Not just a commentary on this year but the opening sentence in the introduction to this year’s Ofsted Annual Report. 

The Report – normally a major set piece moment in the education calendar – provides the headline news for this week. 

In the week's other education news: UCAS published the first of its trio of ‘End of Cycle’ reports summarising HE application data for 2021; PA Consulting published its latest interesting survey of UK Vice Chancellors; the Institute of Education and partners highlighted the worrying trend of young people exchanging non-consensual sexual images; and the FT reported on the saga of the levelling-up White Paper. On top of all that, it’s been another busy week for education in Westminster, with questions to ministers and the announcement of an important review into child protection. 

Links to all these and some details below, but we start this week with a few words on Ofsted’s latest Annual Report.

The headline message from the Report is that ‘Nearly all children have fallen behind because of Covid.’ We shan’t know the full extent of this for some time although we’ve had some excellent early projections from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Education Policy Institute, among others, but it remains the big worry hanging over so much of education and runs throughout the Report. Also it comes, incidentally, as the World Bank along with UNICEF and UNESCO suggest a generation of children, particularly in low and middle-income families, could lose $17 trillion in lifetime earnings because of disrupted education. 

Disrupted education, what the Chief Inspector labelled as ‘hokey-cokey education,’ has affected learners at all levels. Special needs pupils shorn of services; children stuck in bubbles; apprentices denied placements; prisoners unable to leave their cells; all were affected as the Chief Inspector said ‘to some degree.’

In terms of detail, state schools in England – where inspectors carried out a range of interim and eventually full inspections over the year – emerged with little change to the number judged 'good' or 'outstanding'. The Report acknowledges the efforts made to offer remote learning, but notes equally that this didn’t work brilliantly for all: 'Schools had to make adaptations that were unlikely to be as effective for all children as face-to-face teaching.' Unsurprisingly, the pandemic meant that the curriculum offer tended to become restricted, and equally unsurprisingly, mental health issues became more of an issue. 

Vulnerable children, school absences, training for new teachers, catch-up, reformed alternative provision, all are mentioned among the litany of challenges for the future, but arguably the key message from the report is that 'schools must once again become places where children can enjoy a rounded experience.' And, it seems, ‘a well-planned and implemented curriculum.’

As for FE and skills, where equally a range of inspections was carried out over the year, the number of providers judged 'good' or 'outstanding' was 83%; 81% for apprenticeship providers, up a little given a change in the number of providers in scope. 

As with schools, the biggest problem was the disruption to studies faced by learners of all types. Best providers carried out ‘rigorous initial assessments’ and structured courses accordingly. 'These providers worked effectively to adapt the curriculum in the changing circumstances of the pandemic.' Weaker providers, the Report notes 'tried to replicate what they would have done in the classroom in remote lessons or training sessions, without considering the pedagogy associated with a different teaching method.' For many learners, the loss of ready placements, face-to face support, careers guidance, and more, meant they struggled to complete courses, and this in turn led to mental health concerns. As with schools, FE providers have a big job ahead in terms of catch-up.

The Report also takes in other parts of the education system as well. including early years, independent schools, alternative provision, adult learning, prisons and social care. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is, as the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) put it, a ‘bleak’ Report.

The issue of the exchanging of non-censual images was highlighted in a report this week capturing the experiences of young people aged 12-18. The problem is not new but the report raised a number of disturbing features including notably that many of the girls questioned, and it was mainly girls who had suffered, said they hadn’t reported incidents because it wasn’t worth it. The government points to the steps it’s taking through the Online Harms Bill but as one of the co-authors of the report said ‘this is a societal problem.’

On to levelling up, where it appears that the White Paper setting out government thinking on this key area of policy will not now be published this year. 'Levelling up is fast becoming one of those dream policies that the government actually doesn’t have the resources to figure out properly,' the FT reported one insider as saying this week. 

The article went on to suggest that the pro-devolution lobby was wining the argument, and that LEPs, or at least some, may be scrapped as part of 'a gradient of powers depending on mayoral model or county deals.' There’s a long history of regional furniture moving, LSCs, RDAs, LEPs and so on, each driven by a desire for more local decision making.  Whether that will include devolved responsibility for post-16 provision remains one of the intriguing questions for this long-awaited Paper. 

In a busy Westminster this week, the Education Secretary announced to MPs that Annie Hudson, chair of the National Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, would work with local leaders to undertake an independent review into the case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. In the words of the Children’s Commissioner in a blog 'these reviews are stage one of transforming systems.' She went on to outline how every local system needs vision, support and ambition to make things better for every child. 

Education Ministers fielded questions in Parliament this week with plenty of what Quentin Letts in The Times described as 'obscure Whitehall tongue.' Topics included the EBacc, technical qualifications, student loans, lifelong learning, the latest variant, and education recovery. A particular issue was how the national tutoring programme was going, with concerns about low take-up following the latest contract in June. And, never far away, the phrase ‘in due course’ cropped up again when the universities minister was asked about the response to the Augar Review. 

Elsewhere, the Education Committee launched a call for evidence on the educational challenges facing children from travelling communities and heard evidence from leading bodies including the Education Endowment Foundation, Education Policy Institute and The Tutor Trust about government ‘catch-up plans.’ And the Public Accounts Committee took evidence from DWP officials on the government’s Kickstart scheme for a report later.

And finally, the annual Downing Street Christmas card is being sent out next week. If you’re waiting to receive one, it’s worth noting the reverse side, which has been drawn up by college students. 

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Ministers step in to ‘step up’ tutoring scheme uptake’ (Monday).
  • ‘Many LEPs in England face axe under government levelling up plans’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Multinational running England’s catch-up tuition90% below enrolment target’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Omicron: Ofsted suspend inspections' (Thursday).
  • ‘T levels: 9 in 10 providers miss enrolment targets’ (Friday).


  • Drugs Plan. The government launched its 10-year Drugs Plan, introduced by the PM with significant investment promised, and built around a 3-pronged approach of breaking down drug supply chains, improving treatment and recovery, and changing attitudes towards drugs.
  • Shadow Team. Keir Starmer completed his reshuffle of ministerial posts by appointing Stephen Morgan MP a Shadow Schools Minister, Helen Hayes MP to children’s matters and Justin Madders minister for the Future of Work.
  • Economic Outlook. The CBI issued its latest Economic Forecast pointing to a reduced growth forecast for next year due to rising costs and shortages, with unemployment continuing a gradual decline but inflation peaking at 5.2% next spring.
  • COP 26 follow-up. Leading business, union and environment groups called on the government to set up a cross-government group and get going on delivering the Glasgow Climate Pact agreed at COP 26, pointing in particular to supporting developing countries, providing for green levelling up and funding local authorities to help with skills development, local jobs and transport links.
  • Global Education Crisis. The World Bank, UNESCO and UNICEF published a new report as part of Recovering Education 2021 Mission, calling for countries globally to dedicate greater investment in education recovery post-pandemic, indicating that the pandemic had heightened inequalities and left a generation facing huge potential lifetime earnings losses.
  • Women and Men at work. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined gender pay differences as part of its major review into Inequality suggesting that while there had been some ‘modest convergence’ in earnings over the past 25 years, inequalities remained, current policies tended to reinforce labour differentials and, interestingly, the wage gap for more educated women hadn’t improved.
  • Low-paid homeworkers. The think tank Demos looked into the experiences of low-paid workers working from home and found that contrary to opinion, many relished the opportunity, citing better work-life balance, and would prefer to retain the flexibility despite concerns about pay and contracts.
  • Youth Evidence Review. The government published initial findings from the evidence assessment commissioned for its Youth Evidence Review looking into the challenges and opportunities facing young people, finding them generally happy although with concerns about wellbeing, mental health, transition to work and, particularly in deprived areas, health issues. 
  • Online sexual abuse. UCL’s Institute of Education and partners reported on their survey among young people about non-consensual exchange of sexual images pointing to the fact that this was becoming ‘dangerously normalised’ and harmful especially to girls, calling for tech companies to have stronger privacy settings, schools to do more to highlight the issue and parents to work closely with their children on online use.
  • If you go down to the woods. The Forest Research organisation published unique research suggesting that visiting UK woodlands could be good for people’s mental health bringing benefits such as a reduction in depression, fewer visits to GPs and a reduction in prescriptions amounting to £185m in total.

More specifically ...


  • Ofsted Report. Ofsted published its latest Annual Report pointing to the worrying effects of learning loss resulting from the pandemic and the challenges faced by learners, families and schools as a result, calling for well-planned and implemented curricula, improved teacher training and support for the most vulnerable as part of future plans. 
  • Exams 2022. Ofqual wrote to schools and colleges alerting them to the advance information agreed for next year’s GCSE and A/AS levels, the context of which are being sent out by respective exam boards currently with more specific subject detail due to follow by 7 February 2022.
  • NRT 2021. Ofqual reported on the National Reference Test (NRT,) undertaken by a smaller sample of Yr 11 students this year and not used to provide benchmark awarding data given the use of teacher assessed grades for this year’s GCSEs instead, but collated to be able to provide a continuing picture of performance. 
  • School attendance. The government reported on the first meeting of the new attendance alliance, a group of leading figures in education including the Chief Inspector and Children’s Commissioner who have committed to meet monthly for the rest of the school year and work with partners to improve school attendance.
  • Mental health. The House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee published its report into children and young people’s mental health provision, highlighting a growing problem exacerbated by the pandemic and pointing to a system struggling to cope and in need of greater investment.
  • Leadership pipeline. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) published the results of a new survey showing a noticeable drop in the number of school leaders looking to move up to a headship citing personal and professional pressure as a deterrent and calling for government to restore trust in school leaders.
  • Pandemic effect. The NFER and ASK Research examined the impact of the second lockdown on pupils with special educational needs, painting a rather bleak picture of children missing out on support services and falling behind in their learning with many families finding things very difficult.
  • Creative Leadership. The Mercer’s Company and Winchester University’s Centre for Real-World Learning examined the evidence around creative leadership in English schools, building on work undertaken by the Durham Commission and embracing a series of steps that build in forms of creativity.


  • Ofsted Report. Ofsted published its latest Annual Report highlighting the challenges faced by learners of all types generated by the pandemic particularly those linked to practical and work-based skills, stressing the importance of providers building in structured opportunities in the future. 
  • Exams 2022. Ofqual wrote to schools and colleges alerting them to the advance information agreed for next year’s GCSE and A/AS levels, the context of which are being sent out by respective exam boards currently with more specific subject detail due to follow by 7 February 2022.
  • The future of LEPs. The FT reported that the government was considering scrapping some LEPs and moving to a gradient system of devolved powers including of posr-16 provision as part of levelling up plans.
  • Before and after. Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University published a new report for the Coalfields Regeneration Trust looking at how the pandemic had affected ‘older, industrialised Britain,’ pointing out that it was lagging behind the rest of the UK in terms of UK and remains so, calling for a range of measures including investment, devolution, training and skills to help level up.
  • Disabled young learners. The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) warned about new rules coming in next week that will prevent disabled young people from accessing Universal Credit unless they were found to have limited capability for work before starting education with disabled 19yr olds still in education likely to be hardest hit.


  • Annual Review. The QAA published its Annual Review for 2021 detailing the work carried out both in the UK and internationally including launching the 2ndedition of the Credit Framework for England, supporting 13 Collaborative Enhancement Projects, hosting 40 webinars, and working with partnerships across the globe. 
  • ‘A quiet revolution.’ PA Consulting reported on its latest major survey of UK Vice Chancellors pointing to the emergence of ‘a quiet revolution’ emerging from within the sector as university strategies, driven by a new breed of leaders and the effects of the pandemic, become more aligned with local place and demand to become in effect a ‘University for Others.’
  • One Nation University. Richard Brabner director of the UPP Foundation, outlined the case in a new publication for the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) for a new form of university, labelled ‘One Nation,’ in that it offers opportunity and builds community cohesion, fuelled by a Student Community Service Programme and led by an Office of Place.
  • 2021 entry data. UCAS published the first of its End of Cycle reports analysing entry data and trends for 2021 highlighting the increase in places for high achieving young people with the proportion of UK 18 yr olds with a confirmed place this year rising to 38.3%.
  • UKRI Review. The government announced a review of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI,) to be led by Sir David Grant, to report back next summer and to look at the organisation’s efficacy, efficiency, accountability and whether it has the right structure and delivery model for the future.
  • Value for money. The Office for Students (OfS) reported on its measures to secure value for money in its various operations over the last year, pointing to its systems for continually monitoring procurement and performance and development of its value for money dashboard leading to a £160,000 underspend on budget this year.
  • Staffing trends. King’s College Policy Institute examined changing patterns in staffing in higher education in a new report, pointing to a rapid rise in senior managerial and admin posts over the last 20 years along with an increase in teaching-only posts, some of it seen as a reaction to increased work around surveys and data as well as needing to compete globally but all at a time when the number of technicians and secretarial staff declined. 
  • Too many arts graduates? Professor Anna Vignoles reflected in a comment piece in the Times Higher on the issue, currently under debate, about graduate returns and how far this should influence course provision, arguing that favouring one set of disciplines over another is a false logic when we should be both helping build on the love of a subject and the skills it promotes.
  • Heriot-Watt Online. The Scotsman reported on the launch of an Online initiative from Heriot-Watt intended to provide access to a wide range of courses including masters in logistics and digital transformation and a range of undergrad and apprenticeship programmes aimed at developing the skills of the future workforce. 
  • New Research Centre. Imperial College London hosted the opening of its new research hub, funded by a gift from Sir Michael Uren, located in White City and providing a ‘landmark’ hub that can bring together leading engineers and clinicians to tackle biomedical and healthcare problems.
  • Technician Commitment. Universities UK announced it was formally adding it support to the Technician Commitment, a university and research institution initiative set up a few years ago to enable visibility, recognition, career development and progression for technicians working in HE.

Stand-out tweets

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Spielman: Achievements disappointingly small after year of 'hokey-cokey' education” | @ed_ontap
  • “Did I leave a banana on my desk when I was last in the office? Guess I’ll find out in February…” | @HetanShah 
  • “I prefer not to think about that study that shows children who play Mary and Joseph are statistically more successful in adulthood. As I watch my son play Sheep Number 42” | @FelicityHannah
  • “Early risers are happier than night owls, study says” | @Independent
  • “Having trouble pronouncing omicron? You're not alone. It's on a list of 2021's most mispronounced words, along with singer Billie Eilish and NFL star Jason Kelce” | @AP
  • “When a financial advisor or accountant talks to me, I know what it must be like for a struggling language learner. Barely comprehensible input. To be fair, I can decode the words, but not extract the meaning” | @spsmith45
  • “One in five people can't finish a sentence on Twitter without getting distra” | @snb19692
  • “Unbridled joy after forgetting to open a chocolate advent calendar yesterday, so today there are two chocolates” | @OPSStim

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Can we beat this one? I am confident we can. Omicron notwithstanding. Can we beat the next one? That depends” – Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert reflects on the virus as she gives the latest Dimbleby Lecture.
  • “The pro-devolution agendaappears to be winning the day” – views on levelling up strengthen according to one government insider quoted in the FT.
  • “Stop messing around with governance arrangements and get on with the job" – the local TUC leader in Bristol calls for a proposed referendum on abolishing the role of mayor to be dropped and local services allowed to get on with things.
  • “Most importantly, we’re looking for experienced, strategic, pragmatic and collaborative individuals who are comfortable working in a rapidly changing policy environment” – Ofqual looks to recruit six ‘high calibre’ individuals to its board.
  • “£100 an hour and no chance of the sack” – the media comments on the latest shortage, the one about Santas!

Important numbers

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

  • 5.1%. The predicted growth for the UK economy next year with 3% in 2023, down on previous forecasts according to the CBI.
  • $17 trillion. The loss of lifetime learnings facing the current generation of school pupils arising out of pandemic-based school closures, according to the World Bank, UNESCO and UNICEF.
  • 24,855. The number of UK 18 yr olds choosing to defer their university course this year, up 15% according to latest data from UCAS.
  • 24%. The number of students saying they’d had no in-person teaching at all in the last seven days, according to data for the end of November from the ONS.
  • 60%. The increase in the number of managers and non-academic staff in UK universities between 2005/6 and 2017/18, according to research from King’s College Policy Institute.
  • 16%. The amount by which the rent for student halls of residence has increased since before the pandemic, according to a report from the NUS and Unipol.
  • 83%. The number of FE ad skills providers inspected judged good or outstanding last year, according to Ofsted’s latest Annual Report.
  • 86%. The number of state schools in England inspected judged good or outstanding last year, according to Ofsted’s latest Annual Report.
  • 24%. The number of respondents who think the benefits of allowing 13-17-year-olds to use social media outweigh the downsides with well over half disagreeing, according to research from TeacherTapp.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Parliamentary Christmas Recess starts (Friday 17 December).


Other stories

  • High anxiety. The Office for National Statistics’ latest release on personal wellbeing, out this week, showed that life satisfaction improved for most groups between April and June this year. They had fallen to their lowest levels since records began a decade ago, during the first and second waves last year, particularly last autumn/winter. That said, the bounce back this year has not been felt by all age groups. 20-24 yr olds in particular have struggled to recover their ‘bounce’ with loneliness and anxieties about jobs and futures seen as key factors. A link to the ONS briefing is here.
  • Christmas dinner costs. Good news for both children and adults this week. Brussels sprouts cost more this year but sparkling wine hasn’t changed in price. It suggests there might be fewer of the former and more of the latter when it comes to stacking the Christmas table this year. Details come from the data and insights company Kantar which has compared prices for core ingredients this year with those of last year. It reckons the average cost of a meal for four this year will amount to £27.48, an increase of 3.4% on the previous year. Details 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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