Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 07 January 2022

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:

A difficult start to the new term. 

Face masks in classrooms as well as communal areas; students asked to Covid test before returning; talk of combined classes, ‘pausing certain specialist subjects,’ deploying a reserve army of teachers and of online provision where necessary. As one headteacher told The Guardian “My expectation is there will be quite a lot of disruption over the next few weeks and we will have year groups working from home.” 

Not a very auspicious beginning.

The problem is staff shortages, caused by the Omicron virus where the rise in infections has led to huge staffing disruptions across the public sector – including for teachers and support staff. The cabinet office is looking at worst case scenarios of 10%, 20% and 25% wider workforce absences as part of government contingency planning. 

The absence rate for teachers hit 8% just before Christmas, and the i newspaper reported it rising to 10% + in some areas as schools opened this week. Many expect it to rise considerably higher.

The government has continued to stress that keeping schools open “is our number one priority” and has set out a range of measures to underpin this. 

The latest were announced just ahead of the start of term and laid out in more detail by the Education Secretary in a Statement to MPs when they returned this week. They included:

  • Extending the use of face coverings to classrooms for Year 7 students and above.
  • On-site and home testing for staff and students.
  • Vaccinations for 12-15 year olds.
  • Booster offers for 16-17 year olds.
  • More air purifiers for classrooms.
  • Encouraging retired and reserve teachers into the classroom.
  • Mitigations regarding inspections.

The measures have been broadly welcomed, albeit with some reservations.

MPs have been particularly concerned about the use of face masks in the classroom, “a harsh imposition on children” as one MP put it. The chair of the Education Committee was equally concerned. In a newspaper article at the start of the week he highlighted “the significant impact of masks on children’s wellbeing and learning”. In response the Education Secretary confirmed that the department was conducting further research and reiterated his line that ‘they (masks) wouldn’t be needed a day longer than necessary.’ 

MPs also had concerns about this summer’s exams and the number of (or lack of) air purifiers, while the unions have called for greater government support generally. In an open statement at the start of the week, they urged the government to help with Covid testing, funding for staff cover, more air purifiers and for Ofstedto back off. In fairness, Ofsted has recognised the problem. “We are not carrying out any inspections this week” its statement said. “When inspections resume, we will encourage schools, colleges and nurseries that are significantly impacted by COVID-related staff absence to request a deferral.”

Among all the many worries at present however, two stand out: this summer’s exams and the mental health of children and young people. 

On the former, the official line at present is that this summer’s exams and assessments will go ahead as per the arrangements set out by Ofqual in November. This includes modifications and advance information due to be set out in detail by exam boards in a month’s time and confirmation that grading will reflect ‘a midway point between 2021 and 2019.’ It also includes contingency plans for Teacher Assessed Grades if the worst comes to the worst. Teacher Tapp had some interesting survey data this week on exams; 48% surveyed don’t think they should be cancelled, higher among secondary school teachers.

On mental health, evidence continues to build about the pressures on children and young people. The charity YoungMinds reported last year that 67% of young people aged 13-25 with needs felt that the pandemic would have a negative long-term effect on their mental health. And a report out over the festive period from the Commission on Young Lives highlighted the growing numbers of teenagers at risk and the lack of support in the current care system for vulnerable young people. A difficult time to be young.

Apart from coping with the pandemic, how is the year ahead shaping up? 

The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) found some cheer among the tea leaves in its look ahead to 2022. Its top ten forecasts for the year included a 4%+ growth for the UK economy; a rise in wages; growth in some tech sectors; and perhaps a boost of late optimism from the Commonwealth Games, World Cup and Platinum Jubilee celebrations. On the flipside – and it’s growing one – inflation; the cost of living; environmental issues; skills shortages; and technology concerns may all tip the scales. 

It all rather points to what the Resolution Foundation dubbed in a briefing published just after Christmas as ‘the year of the squeeze.’ “The overall picture is likely to be one of prices surging and pay packets stagnating” with low-income households the hardest hit, they concluded.

As for education, away from the pandemic, there are a number of things to look out for in the weeks ahead. These include: the SEND review; the next update on 2022 exams; a White Paper on literacy and numeracy; the passing of the Skills and Online Harms Bills; a statement on HE reforms; an update on the economy; and the May local elections. Probably in that order. 

On top of that, a number of the leading Commissions set up over the last 18 months to consider different aspects of the future of education are set to publish final reports in the coming months, with The Times Education Commission likely to lead the headlines.

New Year or not, the load rarely lightens ... 

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Heads warn of weeks of Omicron disruption in English schools’ (Monday).
  • ‘Schools in England may suspend certain subjects to cope with Covid.’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Exams need to be Covid-safe and fair, union says.’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘HMI to inspect schools from next week.’ (Thursday).
  • 'Schools in England ‘teetering on edge’ from Covid-related absences.’ (Friday).


  • Build Back Better. Number 10 reported on the work of the Build Back Better Business Council which has been working with the PM’s Business Council over the year in support of economic recovery and the transition to net zero, focusing in particular on the three ‘growth pillars’ of infrastructure, skills and innovation.
  • A binding contract .Sir Keir Starmer set out the bones of a new contract with the British people in a keynote speech, promising to run a government on three principles: security (in jobs and health support,) prosperity (through skills and opportunities) and respect (to be valued for who we are and what we do).
  • Job churn. The Resolution Foundation and LSE’s CEP examined the prospect of economic change for the labour market and what this might for employees in a new report, arguing that the current small-scale structural change in the labour market was likely to be overturned by a combination of the pandemic, Brexit and transition to net zero, all of which needs to be planned for.
  • Q4 Economic Survey. The British Chambers of Commerce published its Quarterly Economic Survey for the final quarter of last year, pointing to a flattening in economic recovery, concerns about inflation and a huge increase in the number of firms expecting to increase their prices over the next few months. 
  • Levelling up pensions.The Onward Group called for the threshold for pension auto-enrolment to be reformed including scrapping the £10,000 eligibility threshold so that younger, part-time and low paid workers could benefit.
  • Understanding money. The Bank of England announced it would be releasing a new ‘pop-economics’ book in May addressing ten questions on the economy and the Bank’s role in this, with copies to go to school libraries as well as supporting the Bank’s wider education programme.

More specifically ...


  • Latest guidance. The government updated its Covid guidelines in a series of publications as it confirmed its pledge to keep schools open as far as possible in the face of the variant. This included urging Year 7 pupils and above to wear face masks in classrooms while promising more air purifiers and additional support for Covid testing.
  • Joint Statement. Unions issued a joint statement on the impact of the variant ahead of the start of term, expressing a wish to wish to work with government to minimise Covid disruption, but calling for additional resources for staff cover, air purifiers and Covid testing.
  • The case for masks. The government published an evidence summary on the use of face coverings in education settings (albeit based on pre-Omicron data), suggesting that they can help reduce transmission ‘by reducing the emission of virus-carrying particles when worn by an infected person’ but acknowledging that their use can be problematic in some learning settings. 
  • Onscreen assessment. The exam board AQA announced a pilot to test out the potential for onscreen assessment in some GCSE core subjects. The assessment will sit alongside traditional exams and help build up evidence of future assessment possibilities. 


  • Latest guidance. The government updated its Covid guidelines for FE providers ahead of the start of term to include recommendations on the use of face coverings in classrooms and teaching settings.
  • Skills Update. The Minister for FE and HE reported to Parliament on the various announcements about skills made just before Christmas – including the number of new Institutes of Technology; the number of short courses available from September; further details on the T level Capital Fund; and the additional funding for 16-19 provision.
  • Skills Bill. The House of Commons Library Service published a useful briefing on the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, setting out the key issues and associated debate and developments as it awaits the report stage in the House of Commons.
  • Writing Project. The Association of Colleges (AoC )announced that in conjunction with the English and Media Centre it intended to run a national college creative writing project during the year to encourage more students to develop their writing skills further.


  • Latest guidance. The government updated its Covid guidance for HE providers ahead of the start of term to include advice on the use of face coverings in teaching settings; the position on confirmatory PCR tests; and quarantine arrangements for unaccompanied minors, particularly those who have travelled from or through a red list country and are coming to join an HE provider.
  • Exam design. The Times Higher reported on a trial being undertaken at Exeter University whereby specific computer-generated data sets are developed for each individual student as part of their exams to prevent any collusion or cheating, suggesting that this may be a way forward for online exams in the future.
  • First-in family. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published a new report looking at first-in family students, suggesting that it’s time to rethink using the concept as a measure of disadvantage, arguing that other measures could better reflect widening participation.
  • Top 40 stories. Nick Hillman, director of the HE Policy Institute (HEPI), listed the top 40 blogs and news stories read on its website over the past year. These pointed to a diverse and wide-ranging list of preferences – albeit with some topics such as pensions, equality matters and international students cropping up more frequently.

Stand-out tweets

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Working from home whilst trying not to touch left over Quality Streets/Celebrations/Heroes should be a Japanese game show” | @dknights
  • “How dare you barbarians all mercilessly auto-send your emails at 8am on the first day back. Mine are gently and tenderly set for 9am” | @SMCoulombeau
  • “Sadly, we have decided to merge some classes. Y10 Maths will join BTEC Trampolining, counting how many times they bounce. Y8 French will study WW2 with History, and Art and Geography will merge. Hopefully, the geographers will learn to colour inside the lines” | @NewbieSit
  • “Margaret has just been offered two weeks of teaching in a nursery class. The agency lady asked if she knew about 'in the moment’ planning. This shouldn't be a problem. Margaret taught for 38 years and she never spent more than a moment planning anything” | @RetirementTales
  • “Back to work (virtually) for me today! Thankfully my commute is just a few steps across the landing” | @Sue_Cowley
  • “My smart scales were so surprised by my post-Christmas numbers that they asked me to confirm that I was really me” | @chriscurtis94
  • “As always, my New Year's Resolution is to annoy less grammar pedants” |@richardosman

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “We have more people in work now than there were before the pandemic began” – the PM looks for the positives in his New Year’s message.
  • “We need cool, calm heads” – the health minister on monitoring the Omicron data and keeping restrictions under review.
  • “I know people feel very strongly about this, and some have said we are wrong to do it. I follow the data, however, as I have always done” – the Education Secretary acknowledges MPs’ strong feelings about masks in classrooms.
  • “We are looking at what other data we might publish, as an addendum to the 2021 T Level Action Plan, in Spring 2022” – the minister answers a question in Parliament about the numbers taking T levels.
  • “The current government scheme contains so many complex conditions that it is inaccessible in many circumstances” – unions call for more help with supply costs to cover Covid-related staff absences.
  • “These subjects are the fount of mental health and the fruitful appreciation of the human condition” – a headteacher writes to the Timesto condemn a proposal to suspend creative subjects to cope with staff shortages.
  • “Dream on” – a primary school teacher reacts to news that the government is looking to recruit an army of former teachers to help out. 
  • “Teach them after school daily. Always. Other parents do. They just aren’t telling you” – Katharine Birbalsingh with advice for parents.
  • “These devices will no longer reliably function from January 4” – BlackBerrysigns off.

Important numbers

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

  • $3trillion. The market value of Apple, as shares rose a further 3% this week making it the world’s most valuable company, according to a report from the Financial Times.
  • 2%. The fall in office space in England over the year to March 31 2021 as work practices change, according to a report in the Financial Times.
  • £60m. The additional funds announced by government to help local authorities with adult social care, according to the BEIS department.
  • £30. The amount that pupils who have to miss school because of Covid should receive in the form of a daily catch-up voucher, according to the Lib-Dems.
  • 4%. The number of teachers who have had to isolate over Christmas because of a positive Covid test according to data from Teacher Tapp.
  • 7,000 into 300,000+. The National Education Union (NEU) divides the number of air purifiers promised by the number of classrooms in England and suggests it’s not enough.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • MPs’ questions to BEIS (Tuesday 11 January).
  • Westminster Hall debate on careers guidance in schools (Tuesday 11 January).
  • Education Committee evidence session on children’s homes (Tuesday 11 January).
  • Education Committee evidence sessions on the government’s catch-up programme (Wednesday 12 January).
  • General debate on the effectiveness of the government's catch-up and mental health recovery programmes (Thursday 13 January).
  • Report stage and third reading of the Education (careers guidance in schools) Bill (Friday 14 January).

Other stories

  • And the future is?It’s the time of year for predictions for the year ahead and the Financial Times’regular annual survey of 100 leading economists makes for pretty gloomy reading … at least on the economic front. The general mood was one of ‘prevailing pessimism over growth, inflation and living standards’ with Brexit issues and political uncertainty the two big dampeners. High energy prices, pandemic fuelled inflation, climate issues, further labour shortages and continuing waves of infection were seen as the big challenges for the year ahead. It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. Depending on how the challenges listed are managed, some point to a possible post-pandemic boom. In the words of the chief economist of the Institute of Directors: “ours is an economy that wants to grow.” Full details of the survey can be found here.
  • Most searched-for terms. And before we turn our backs on 2021, an interesting analysis from Google of the top searched-for items last year. In the UK they ranged from ‘when will the lockdown end?’ to ‘When does Love Island start?’ The most searched for people included Christian Eriksen, Matt Hancock and Emma Raducanu. And the most searched for news stories were on the Covid vaccine, Matt Hancock and Sarah Everard. Details all 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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