Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 17 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:

An uneasy end of term for many in education. ‘A fraught end to the fraughtest of terms’ as ASCL’s Geoff Barton put it.

An interesting measure of just how fraught things are at present is Teacher Tapp’s Nativity Index. This is the percentage of schools that were looking to hold an in-person nativity event. According to their reckoning, the number dropped 20% in the last couple of weeks and it’s probably a lot more with Covid related absences making planning difficult. “Zoom has never heard more Silent Night” as one MP put it this week.

The latest figures on school staff and pupil absence point to a disturbing trend. 2.9% of pupils, 2.4% of teachers and 2.1% of other staff in state schools in England absent for Covid related reasons as of last Thursday, up in each case and leaving some schools – like some universities – having to consider online provision. 

The big worry is whether it will lead to future school closures, something the government is committed to avoiding as far as possible and which was raised in an urgent question in the House of Commons this week by the chair of the Education Committee. He feared that ‘sadly’ schools were moving towards de facto closures. The minister claimed in response that the government is doing all it could to ensure schools open as expected in January. Just this week for instance, it confirmed the new national daily testing of Covid contacts policy. That followed the 95.2m tests administered across education settings by the start of the month and, in turn, the opening out of the vaccine programme to children.

The minister argued that the government was ‘throwing the kitchen sink’ at the booster programme to provide further protection. It needs to be a big sink. The chair of the Education Committee had elsewhere described school closures as ‘an apocalyptic scenario.’ There’ll be plenty of careful watching of trends over the festive period to avoid last year’s scenario of schools opening in January for one day and closing the next.

As for other news this week, the DfE published its annual report and accounts, a hefty 270+ pager covering the period up to the end of March this year, but all introduced by the current Education Secretary. Ofqual published its regulatory report on this summer’s exams and assessments, also with some useful facts and figures, while Ofsted published a series of reports on how the pandemic has been affecting learners and how schools and colleges have been coping. Rapidly devising alternative strategies in many cases.

Elsewhere, the FE Commissioner, newly in post, published this year’s annual report, showing a positive picture with fewer colleges entering ‘full’ intervention. And the head of UCAS offered an interesting reflection on trends in this year’s round of university entry. It’s also been a busy week for updated labour market and economic data, with a mixed bag of some good – but equally apprehensive – news with one eye on the variant.

Links to all these and more below, but here’s a few details behind one of these headlines, those Ofsted reports.

The reports cover this term and provide a useful window into how learners, let alone schools and colleges, have been coping with the impact of the pandemic on education recovery.

For schools, the biggest challenges appear to have been new intake pupils – those starting primary or secondary this year who haven’t been able to benefit from the normal preparation, along with special needs pupils and those with long-term absence. Many subjects reported gaps in knowledge with literacy and maths among the most prominent, but schools have resorted to all kinds of strategies, including ongoing assessments, curriculum modifications, catch-up classes, booster sessions and special tutoring to help overcome learning loss. Pupil mental health, staff absences and the simple but important sense of daily rhythm that schools bring to children’s lives have all been affected by the pandemic, however a sense of resilience emerges.

A similar picture of programme disruptions, core learning gaps, staff pressures and mental health worries emerges from Ofsted’s briefing on FE. As with schools, FE providers have adapted assessments, rejigged programmes and provided catch-up sessions to help, but FE also faces the particular problem of trying to rebuild practical activity and work placements, which are crucial to so many programmes. As FE Week highlighted, the pandemic has loaded some particular pressures on the sector and its learners – practical assessment logjams and gaps in placements to name but two – which may take some time to resolve. 

Over in Westminster this week, the Joint Committee of MPs looking into the draft Online Safety Bill published its report on evidence taken about online abuse. It called as a result for stronger regulation, including a mandatory Code of Practice drawn up by Ofcom to be included in the Bill, as well as for individuals to be able to complain to an ombudsman. Elsewhere, the Education Committee took evidence on its Inquiry into Prison Education.

Finally, as we reach the end of the year, thanks for reading and in many cases passing on these weekly updates. They all appear on the EdCentral site here and hopefully offer a helpful roundup of education developments as each week progresses. Things are never dull.

The next edition will appear in the New Year.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Covid close contact daily testing brought back for schools’ (Monday).
  • ‘Some schools struggling to stay open as Covid cases rise’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘GCSEs 2022.: School exams fees rises below inflation’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Omicron: Schools prepared if Covid forces online move next term’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Ex teachers could return to schools amid Covid staff absence’ (Friday).


  • Labour market data. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest set of data on the UK labour market showing a further increase in the employment rate, a new record high of job vacancies but an increase in economic inactivity.
  • Labour market data commentary. The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) provide its regular helpful summary of the latest labour market data highlighting that the ending of furlough had not led to any great increase in vacancies and that job vacancies remained high particularly in some sectors but that the labour market remains tight with many older people now not seeking work and Omicron potentially posing a threat to the market.
  • National Cyber Strategy. The government published an upgraded National Cyber Security Strategy, pledging that the UK would remain a leader in cyber responsibility, outlining five ’pillars’ for this from building a resilient system to deterring adversaries, and including new ‘Cyber Explorers,’ an online platform that will teach children cyber skills in classrooms.
  • Annual Reports and Accounts. The DfE published its annual report and accounts for the year to March 31 2021 with 270+ pages outlining the Dept’s structure, highlights, overall performance, risks, financials and audit and reflected in a battery of charts, data and facts and figures.
  • Wealth gap widening. The New Economics Foundation reported on its modelling of household incomes showing that two years on from the 2019 general election and subsequent promotion of levelling up, more well-off families have seen their incomes rise by £3,300+ a year while poorer families have found their incomes squeezed, with more now living in poverty and levelling up some way off.
  • Statutory Sick Pay. The CIPD argued that the current system of statutory sick pay was inadequate and was being exposed as such through the pandemic, calling on the government to implement reforms put forward four years ago including extending protection to those on the lowest incomes and looking at the case for an enforcement body.
  • Worst Christmas.’ The TUC examined the latest data on wages suggesting that low pay growth and high inflation were likely to leave many working families facing ‘their worst Christmas wage squeeze in nearly a decade.’ 
  • Mental health support. The Centre for Mental Health called in a new report for “a comprehensive national mental health system for 0–25-year-olds,” suggesting that the current patchwork system was inadequate and a properly funded system was now urgently needed.
  • The CHILDS Framework. The Nuffield Foundation reported on the CHILDS (Child Health Integrated Learning and Delivery) model of data-based integrated services and early intervention approaches to child health care that is being applied in some inner-city areas and proven to be helping to improve health inequality.

More specifically ...


  • School funding. The government confirmed the allocation of school funding next year which will see an additional £4bn as promised going into schools including increases for high needs pupils and in the pupil premium rates, with primary schools receiving £4,362 per pupil and secondary schools £5,669 per pupil.
  • Catch-up funding. The government announced that the remainder of the Accelerator Fund, the £22m Fund set up earlier this year to help with catch-up learning, would go to three regions (the North, East and West Midlands) that evidence suggested had experienced the highest learning loss.
  • Workforce Fund. The government confirmed that the Fund used to help schools meet the cost of workforce absences was being brought back in the light of Omicron and would run to next half term.
  • How schools are coping. Ofsted published a new report on the continued impact of the pandemic on children’s learning and how schools were helping pupils catch-up, showing that new intakes both in primary and secondary along with absentees appeared the most behind but that schools were using personal assessments, curriculum adaptations, and in some cases tutors and an extended school day to help with learning recovery.
  • Ofsted inspections. Ofsted published data on inspections carried out for the first three months of this term showing an increase in the number of schools judged good or outstanding particularly among those previously needing to show improvement, although nearly half of those previously graded as outstanding had dropped a grade.
  • Summer 2021 exams. Ofqual published its report into this summer’s GCSE, AS and A’ level exams and the monitoring and regulation activity it undertook for what was another year of cancelled exams, running through the cycle of planning, delivery, quality assurance and delivery, outlining the arrangements and issues in each case before concluding with the planning for next summer.
  • Evidence-based teaching. The Education Endowment Foundation outlined further plans to support evidence-based teaching practice in English schools over the coming year including building up the platform of evidence-based programmes, supporting schools through the Research School Network and carefully evaluating the outcomes.
  • Parental guidance. The Children’s Commissioner for England published guidance for parents and carers on talking to their children about online sexual harassment including the posting pf sexual content and body image photo, suggesting that it helped to ‘talk early, and talk often.’
  • Missing school. The Children’s Commissioner for England confirmed plans to launch an investigation into children missing from schools and vulnerable as a result.
  • Trends in Careers Education. The Careers and Enterprise Company published its latest report on trends in careers education in schools and colleges over the last 18 months, where the pandemic has obviously restricted some activity like work experience but where other positive trends, such as a greater alignment between jobs and learning, were referenced in the six trends listed.


  • T level Action Plan. The government published an updated Action Plan for T levels outlining progress so far and underlining the funding available for the programme including through the latest capital funding and support for learners, and confirming also that further information on which courses may be defunded will come early next year. 
  • Institute of Technology.The government announced the names of a further nine Institutes of Technology following the latest round of applications which will now work to become operational over the next year.
  • 16-19 funding.The government set out the funding available for 16-19 learners available in the coming year pointing to an addition £615m to boost the per learner funding rate and allow for an extra 40 hours of provision for certain courses.
  • Summer 2021 exams. Ofqual reported on the exam and assessment arrangements for vocational and technical qualifications this summer, outlining the different arrangements agreed and adopted for different types of qualification and any issues that emerged, including the challenges of using third-party IT platforms and teacher assessed grades, concluding that all sides had pulled together impressively.
  • Education recovery. Ofsted published a new report on how learners and FE providers have been coping with the pandemic over the last term pointing to programme disruption, transition in forms of learning and lack of assessment and workplace opportunities as concerns but highlighting the range of strategies including initial assessments, rejigged curricula, programme extensions and alternative work placements adopted as a result. 
  • Workforce Fund. The government confirmed that the Fund used to help colleges meet the cost of workforce absences was being brought back in the light of Omicron and would run to next half term.
  • Commissioner’s report. The FE Commissioner published the office’s annual report with evidence from the three commissioners in role this year, pointing to a range of work over the year including 25 Diagnostic Assessments, 5 structural reviews, 4 initial intervention assessments and the new Active Support package. 
  • Apprenticeship provision. The government confirmed that permitted end point assessment flexibilities and the temporary suspension of the L2 functional skills requirement would be extended to the end of February next year.
  • Degree Apprenticeships. The Institute for Apprenticeships confirmed proposals put out for consultation earlier this year to strengthen the development and delivery of degree apprenticeships including integrating on and off the job training, and incorporating greater degree opportunities in level 6 and 7 apprenticeships.
  • Passport to Earning. UNICEF and Microsoft, working with Accenture and Dubai Cares unveiled ‘Passport to Earning,’ a global digital learning platform aimed at providing young people aged 15-24 across the world with free, certified skills training that could help prepare them for opportunities in the world of work.
  • Ask Ada. JISC announced a project with Bolton College to develop its ‘Ask Ada’ chatbot,’ a digital tool that has been operating at the College for some time providing answers to routine questions from students about college services and systems and which would now be trialled at four pilot centres, prior to potential wider use.


  • Next year’s fees. The Office for Students (OfS) published full fee information with maximum fee caps for qualifying students and courses registered with the OfS for 2022/23.
  • Capital funding. The Office for Students announced the capital fund allocation for the financial year to March 2022 with £128m distributed between 100 providers.
  • Visa reform. Universities UK called on the government to extend the visa arrangements for exchange students on stays, from six months to a year, arguing that the current system was undermining the Turing scheme as well as deterring many students who bring considerable benefits and income.
  • Reflections on this year’s entry data. Clare Marchant, boss at UCAS, offered further reflections on this year’s entry data in a comment piece on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) site, pointing among other things to a continuing increase in STEM subjects, growing interest in apprenticeships, and increasing demand generally from a growing number of 18 yr olds.
  • Student withdrawals. The Student Loans Company (SLC) published latest data on students with SLC loans who have withdrawn by the end of November this year, suggesting a 14% increase over last year, albeit with data disrupted through Covid.
  • Global perceptions. The British Council published its 2021 global survey of attitudes among young adults aged 18-34 taken earlier this autumn showing the UK as still one of the most popular countries across the G20 for education and for overall attractiveness.
  • Creative courses. Creative UK along with University Alliance and a number of leading signatories called on the government to consider the importance of the creative industry to both the economy and society before it started dishing out any future funds.
  • Civic map. London Higher which represents universities and HE colleges across London, published a pioneering map showing the extent to which such bodies support and contribute to London life and business as part of their civic engagement.
  • Mental health concerns. Scotland’s Mental Health Foundation reported on its survey of HE students in Scotland, claimed to be ‘one of the largest studies of student mental health in the UK,’ noting that even before the pandemic attending university can bring many challenges for young people especially and calling among other things for HE institutions to incorporate student wellbeing as a measure of institutional enhancement. 
  • First generation. UCL’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies examined first generation students, those who were first in a family to go to university, showing they were less likely to attend an elite university and if they were female likely to suffer a pay gap compared to those with a graduate parent and to work in smaller firms. 
  • Digital learner ID.  Alexander Iosad from the Tony Blair Institute called in a comment piece for Wonkhe, for a digital learner ID, issued at the start of compulsory education but able to track a learner’s journey and link in access to aspects like libraries and bus passes and provide a data map that could support both learners and policy makers.

Stand-out tweets

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “RIP the print edition of the @tes. I know this is probably inevitable for a lot of publications but I, for one, will miss it appearing every Friday. Staffrooms won’t be the same without it” | @drdavidajames
  • “Rocket scientists and brain surgeons are no smarter than the rest of us, study finds” | @SkyNews
  • “My favorite student email of the week so far, five minutes before a deadline: “Dear professor. It has come to my attention that I will not be finishing this paper in time” | @lizrodwell
  • “You know your kid goes to school in Dulwich when you get this in the non-uniform day notes: "No eveningwear" | @JessicaGulliver
  • “Is mine the only school whose staff room has 100 knives, 200 forks and 1 manky teaspoon?” | @MathsMrH
  • “What do you call Santa’s little helpers? Subordinate clauses” | @shayera

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “The Committee were unanimous in their conclusion that we need to call time on the Wild West online” – a Joint Committee of MPs calls for changes to the draft Online Safety Bill.
  • “The UK has entered a tough new phase of the crisis with plentiful jobs but shrinking pay packets” – the Resolution Foundation responds to the latest labour market data.
  • “A national priority” – the PM’s spokesman highlights the importance of keeping schools open.
  • “Your second and third doses are comparable to sending your immune system to secondary school and then university to dramatically deepen its understanding” – the BBC explains the importance of the booster jab in education terms.
  • “I had hoped that low case numbers would have meant we could have completed term normally” – Loughborough University moves to online teaching for the last week of term. 
  • “Qualifications such as BTECs will continue to play an important role for 16- to 19-year-olds and adults, as they do now” – the minister answers a question in Parliament on BTECs.
  • “The National Tutoring Programme is on track to reach hundreds of thousands more pupils this year, as part of a significant expansion to give schools more flexibility to deliver tutoring that works for them and families, and ensure no child is left behind” – the Minister answers a Question from the Chair of the Education Committee about the National Tutoring Programme.
  • “Whilst we have grown accustomed to promises of multiple ‘golden ages’, ‘world beating programmes’ and ‘levelling firmly up’ to secure a brighter future, the reality of turning glitter into gold will be determined by a funding allocation from HM Treasury” – the Centre for Mental Health calls for comprehensive mental health strategy for young people.

Important numbers

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

  • 5.1%. UK inflation rate for November, up from 4.2% on the previous month and higher than expected according to latest official figures.
  • 1.2m. Job vacancies for the three months to November, the highest on record according to the latest official figures.
  • $226 trillion. Global debt last year, a record high according to the IMF.
  • 326,087. The number of digital devices such as laptops distributed since the end of this October for children and young people unable to attend school or college, according to latest official figures.
  • 20,000. The number of T level related professional development activities undertaken over the last couple of years, according to the Education and Training Foundation.
  • 6m+. The number of GCSE and AS/A’ level exam results issued this summer via teacher assessed grades, according to a report from Ofqual.
  • 39%. The percentage of schools managing to provide work experience for most of their Yr 11s in 2021, down from 57% from before the pandemic according to a report from the Careers and Enterprise Company.
  • 2.9%. The number of children absent from state funded schools in England as of last Thursday, up from 2.6% the week before according to latest official figures.
  • 353,932. The number of CO2 monitors delivered to state funded early years, schools and FE providers as of two weeks ago, according to latest official figures.
  • 40%+. The number of primary teachers who expect their school’s Nativity play will have to be virtual this year, according to Teacher Tapp.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Father Christmas. 

Other stories

  • Brain teaser. Each Christmas, GCHQ includes as part of its Christmas cards a set of puzzles or brain teasers. It even has someone who resides by the title ‘Chief Puzzler’ although as he said in an interview this week, it’s not his only role. This year GCHQ has aimed its puzzles at school pupils, those aged 11-18. The one for 15/16-year-olds for instance asks what the ‘k’ in this mnemonic for remembering scientific words means: ‘Do kindly place cover on fresh green spring vegetable.’ They will publish answers later but a link to the puzzles 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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