Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 14 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:

Some important data sets and a clutch of big reports make the headlines this week. The picture for 2022 is starting to take shape.

The data sets include the first figures on staff and pupil absence in schools in England this term, latest numbers on the national tutoring programme and the number of ex-teachers who have answered the call so far to help out. 

And the batch of reports this week includes an interim report on how schools have been coping with the lockdown, differences in higher education performance between A level and BTEC students, what attracts international students to UKHE and a hefty Global Risks Report from the World Economic Forum

Here are some details behind the headlines, starting with those data releases.

One headteacher this week described life in schools as ‘a daily struggle.’ The latest absence rates indicate why. As of last Thursday, 3.9% of pupils in state funded schools in England and 8.6% of teachers were absent, up 0.2% and 0.6% respectively from the end of last term and largely due to what the Americans call ’the big sick.’ As ASCL’s Geoff Barton put it: “Any hope that the Christmas holidays would act as a firebreak for schools and colleges have evaporated with the latest set of statistics.”

On the wider front, FFT Education Datalab had an interesting briefing this week about patterns in pupil absence based on evidence from last term. Unsurprisingly perhaps, absences tended to be higher on a Friday afternoon but lowest on a Wednesday morning. This was true for both primary and secondary state schools in England. As Teacher Tapp reported this week, part-time working in schools wouldn’t be easy to adopt as a way forward.

Next, tutoring, where the government claimed this week that the figures for the national tutoring programme were ‘hugely impressive.’

Not everybody agreed. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) called the figures “without question, depressingly low” and pointed to the low take-up –  particularly through the tuition partners and academic mentors pillars. Higher take-up could be found under the more flexible school-led tutoring route, where there were 230,000 starts for the last term, but it all falls somewhat short of the government’s ambition of 2m courses over the academic year. Details can be found in the latest published report here 

As for the numbers, of those ex-teacher returnees signing up so far, the total as of last Friday was 585 – 100 through Teach First and the remainder through various agencies. In fairness it’s less than a month since the government issued its call to arms (or pens) and as it argued ‘Given the size of the sample, the actual number of ex-teachers who have signed up is likely to be much larger’,  but it still remains, in the words of the NAHT, ‘a drop in the ocean’.

On to those reports, with some details on two of them.

First, how schools have been coping with the challenges of lockdown and education recovery, the subject of an initial report commissioned by government and published this week. 

Titled School Recovery Strategies it looked at the first year of the 2020/21 lockdown, where schools faced multiple challenges, but manages to find plenty of examples of heroic responses. As one primary teacher outlined last summer: “The subject leaders edited the termly overviews, identified things that weren’t covered last year and the non-negotiables and they pulled out the key strands from the summer and tried to fit them into the (2020) autumn term where possible.” 

Most schools adopted what the report calls ‘a mix of curriculum and pastoral strategies.’ These were targeted at English and maths, and specific groups such as the disadvantaged and special needs groups – along with pastoral and counselling support. But it did mean some difficult decisions had to be made. ‘We took out anything that was non-statutory, which is a real shame actually, because it’s the stuff that children enjoy doing.’

The report also listed what it called some ‘unexpected positives,’ unforeseen bonuses which have arisen out of the lockdown. These included a rise – some of it quite rapid – in IT skills among both staff and pupils, and a strengthening of togetherness whether with fellow teachers or with parents. Pulling together in adversity perhaps. A further report covering this year is underway where schools will be looking not just to sustain education recovery, but helping generate a ‘return to normality.’ 

And second, the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Risks Report published this week. Its central message was evident from its opening paragraph. ‘A divergent economic recovery from the crisis created by the pandemic risks deepening global divisions at a time when societies and the international community urgently need to collaborate to check COVID-19, heal its scars and address compounding global risks.’ 

The 117-page report went on to highlight risks from its Global Risks Perceptions Survey including societal and environmental risks – notably the health of the planet, technological risks, and international risks such as cyber-attacks and misinformation. It concluded a with a risk register of the top five risks identified for each country surveyed. For the UK these included cybersecurity failures, global debt crises, economic stagnation, infectious disease and extreme weather.  

As for Westminster this week and sticking to education, the Lords completed their examination of the ARIA (Advanced Research and Invention Agency) Bill, which is now poised for completion. Writing for Wonkhe, David Kernohan wondered whether it’s all necessary. “ARIA needs to get the advice and the message right to have a chance at success.” 

The Education Committee held witness sessions on the government’s education catch-up programme, prison education and children’s homes. The schools Standards minister issued a statement about changes to local authority funding of school improvement functions, claiming “These changes “should be viewed in the context of Government continuing to deliver year-on-year, real terms per-pupil increases to school funding.”

Elsewhere, six schools from across the UK were selected to work with the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee’s youth engagement programme. They will be providing the young people’s perspective.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’Exam ‘nervousness’ as Year 11s top Covid absence rates’ (Monday).
  • ‘National tutoring programme has failed, says Labour’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Minister rejects return of KS3 SATs but mulls ‘internal’ tests to boost literacy’(Wednesday).
  • ‘GCSEs: Third of students improve grades in autumn exams’ (Thursday). 
  • 'Schools Minister pledges sustainable strategy for long-term remote learning’ (Friday).


  • UK labour market. The Migration Observatory published its latest briefing on migrants in the UK labour market indicating that as of Quarter 3 last year, they constituted 18% of the employed population largely in sectors like hospitality, transport, and ICT.
  • Global Risks. The World Economic Forum published its latest hefty Global Risks Report pointing to vaccine inequality and uneven economic recovery as major global risks with others, including technological risks, international risks and risks to the planet big concerns as well.
  • Local council finances. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined the financial impact of the pandemic on councils last year in a new commissioned report, pointing to a varied picture with a fall in income for some but reported higher spending on non-education services for others, indicating a need to rethink allocations for any future crises.
  • Young people’s finances. The RSA and Health Foundation published a new report as part of their long-term inquiry into young people’s future financial health and economic security, looking here at the economic challenges facing many 16-24-year-olds and finding many ‘financially insecure’ and calling for economic safety nets as a result.
  • Job recruitmentKPMG and the Recruitment and Employment Confederation published their latest report on the jobs market based on survey evidence collated in December and showing a continued increase in hiring activities as the market tightened pushing up starting pay. 
  • The spread of AI. The government published a commissioned report from Capital Economics looking into the use of AI by UK businesses – suggesting that while its use is currently fairly small scale (15% of all businesses) the potential and opportunities (an increase to 22.7% of businesses by 2025) are considerable.
  • Managing tech introduction. The TUC agreed a set of five principles, including working with employees and respecting their rights, for when new technologies are introduced into such workplaces as local authorities and health boards. 
  • Child abuse.The Internet Watch Foundation reported an alarming ‘three-fold’ increase in abuse imagery of 7-10 year-olds, urging parents to follow a ‘Talk Checklist’ with their children as the government launched its latest ‘Stop Abuse Together’ campaign.

More specifically ...


  • Staff absences. The Sutton Trust and Teacher Tapp reported on trends in Covid-related staff absences as the new term got under way, highlighting differences by region with for example schools in the NW hit the hardest, as well differences between school types with state schools, especially the most deprived, harder hit than private schools.
  • Coping with recovery: Part 1. The government published interim findings from its commissioned report into how schools were coping with education recovery, looking in this first instance at the 2020/21 academic year. The ‘innovative’ curriculum and pastoral responses adopted by many were noted, but it highlighted the continuing need for funding, support and a ‘return to normality’ where possible.
  • School improvement grant. The government responded to its autumn 2021 consultation on removing the current council grant for school improvement in favour of top slicing from school budgets, confirming it will now go ahead with the proposals in the coming financial year despite the many critical responses.
  • National Tutoring Programme. The government published final figures for 2020/21 and provisional figures for 2021/22 on national tutoring programme take-up of partners and mentors, with many suggesting it was still some way off target.
  • Ex-teacher numbers. The government published initial data on the number of ex-teachers signing up so far to help schools which currently, as of last Friday, stands at 585.
  • School absences.  FFT Education Datalab examined pupil absence trends from last term showing how it differed week by week and even day by day with, perhaps unsurprisingly, Friday afternoon emerging as the highpoint for absences.
  • A level choices.  FFT Education Datalab looked into how far A level choices differ by region, suggesting that the top 3 A level choices (maths, psychology and biology) remain largely constant across the country, but take-up of subjects like economics, geography and art and design tend to vary by region. 
  • What teachers did next. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published new commissioned research on teachers leaving the profession and the implications for pay-setting, showing that most teachers who left stayed in the wider education sector, and while those who left altogether often earned more, it was less than similar teachers who stayed in teaching.
  • Research. The Education Endowment Foundation reported that for its initial round of commissioned research in 2022 it would be looking to focus on three areas: Early Languages; Early Years and KS1 Maths; and Cognitive Science.
  • The view from here. The Executive Director of Parentkind blogged about the recent Parent Voice Report which was published just before Christmas, pointing to the fact that most parents support and work closely with their local school and are supportive of it, but equally want to see their children with opportunities to develop wider skills and an assessment system that reflects this.


  • The BTEC route. Researchers at UCL and Oxford Brookes examined differences in higher education outcomes between BTEC and A level students, finding that while more of the latter tend to stay the course and secure higher degrees, many BTEC students equally achieve high degrees, but that low module programme scores often act as a factor in limiting success.
  • T level progression. FE Week reported that many universities are stalling on accepting T level students for university admissions with elite universities suggesting they need more time for the qualifications to become established.


  • Research Bureaucracy. Professor Adam Tickell, who was appointed by the government last year to look into the bureaucracy around research, published an interim report highlighting the key issues identified so far and grouped under six headings including the application process; assurance reporting and monitoring; and in-grant management. 
  • International studentsUCAS reported on its research into international students and what attracts/detracts from their wish to study in the UK, finding academic reputation and welcoming atmosphere big draws, but a lack of information on funding, accommodation and employment options drawbacks. 
  • Student EngagementJISC and Emerge Education offered a range of insights and tips in a new report on using AI and other technological solutions to enhance student engagement, setting out a number of steps that could be used to deliver progress.
  • Access and participation. Chris Millward reflected on his tenure as OfS Director of Fair Access and Participation in an address to the Centre for Global HE, arguing that while access had improved there was still some way to go for equality of opportunity, especially for more mature applicants, calling ultimately for more diverse routes rather than limiting numbers or adopting minimum entry requirements.
  • Creative SparksUniversities UK launched a new campaign to boost creative activities in UK universities in the face of concerns about future funding, encouraging them to highlight at least one creative spark from their institution who has had an impact on people’s lives and can help promote the message.
  • Latest guidance. The University and College Union (UCU) issued new guidance for university and college leaders on protecting staff and students from any further spread of Omicron, calling, among other things, for a reduction in the number of people needed on site, access to high-quality masks and the provision of ‘proper’ sick pay measures.
  • Inside HE. The Times Higher reported that it had acquired the US-based higher ed news, data and analysis company Inside Higher Ed, creating what’s intended to be ‘a powerful data and insights global body for higher ed.’

Stand-out tweets

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Exams will go ahead says @nadhimzahawi. It’s the Dunkirk spirit he says” | @sianGriffiths6
  • “If you spend a little bit of time outside academia you realise there’s quite a lot of self-indulgence in academia … I just quite like working in a setting where people crack on. Talking leadership 8: Anthony Finklestein” | @Phil_Baty
  • “Margaret has been reluctant to tell me how her morning went. It turns out, she wasn't prepared for a fire drill. She says she was very pleased to get everyone out safely & she did account for the right number of children. It's just that they weren't all from the right class” | @RetirementTales
  • “Sat in traffic this morning and not moving. I’m thinking to myself that this isn’t normal. Then it hits me… I’m on the wrong motorway going to my old school I left 15 months ago” | @SFL2326
  • "If it's important to read the small print, why don't they make it bigger?” | @paddingtonbear

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “You successfully levelled me up” – the Levelling Up Secretary emerges from a trapped lift at the BBC.
  • “One company director I know was recently surprised, on trying to schedule a meeting with a junior employee, to be told that it clashed with his yoga session” – the FT’s Camilla Cavendish considers whether working from home limits productivity.
  • “They are doing it in primary and secondary schools and in colleges. I expect universities to do the same thing, otherwise explain why not” – the Education Secretary calls on universities to undertake in-person teaching.
  • “An element of digital learning, which was also an important feature of university courses pre-pandemic, will continue” – the Russell Group responds.
  • “Sticking plaster” – the Shadow Schools Minister condemns the government’s volunteer teacher scheme.
  • “Absence tends to be lowest on Wednesday mornings and highest on Friday afternoons” – FFT Education Database examines patterns in pupil absence.
  • “We are under no illusion that there is still work to do” – the programme director for the national tutoring programme at Randstad.
  • “With over 745m paid subscriptions, Apple continues to connect the world’s developers, artists and storytellers with users across more than a billion devices. Delivering powerful tools, content and experiences that enrich their lives in profound ways everyday” – Apple reflects on Apple’s success.
  • “Face masks make people look more attractive, study finds” – The Guardian

Important numbers

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

  • 10-15%. Average staff absences in businesses across the country, much higher than the average 5-6% expected in January according to the CBI
  • £35bn. The potential hit to the UK economy in January and February from Omicron-related staff absences, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR).
  • 10%. The number of firms who have been the subject of cyber attacks over the past year, according to research from the British Chambers of Commerce.
  • 44%. The number of adults surveyed who reckoned they wouldn’t be in dire financial straits if they’d been taught financial literacy, according to the Centre for Social Justice.
  • 8.6%. The number of teachers and school leaders absent from state schools in England last Thursday, up from 8% at the end of last term according to latest government figures.
  • 585. The number of ex-teachers coming forward so far to help schools, according to latest government figures.
  • 207,000. The number of pupils estimated to have started tutoring courses as of 1 December 2021, according to latest provisional government figures.
  • 47%. The number of Brits surveyed who would rather have an extra hour’s sleep than be given £20 in cash, according to a survey from YouGov.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Education Committee meeting (Tuesday 18 January).
  • Professional Qualifications Bill debate (Tuesday/Thursday 18/20 January).
  • Work and Pensions Committee session on ‘Children in Poverty’(Wednesday 19 January).
  • UCAS End of Cycle report on nursing applications (Thursday 20 January).
  • Publication of stats on skills shortages in DCMS sectors (Thursday 20 January).
  • Opening lecture of the Whole Education Annual Conference (Thursday 20 January).

Other stories

  • Population count. ‘But in 2025-26, 4,000 more people will die than are born in the UK’ according to the ONS. This is the stark headline that much of the media has seized on from the UK population projections published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) this week. They are of course just projections, but they do highlight the extent of a rapidly ageing population and the need for a new baby boom to compensate. There will be some increase in the population over the next decade, up 3.2%, but the forecast is lower than in previous estimates. Net immigration is seen as a way of mitigating some of the gaps, but a lot depends on government policies. Whether it’s a ‘demographic crisis’ as some have said remains to be seen, but it’s an important pointer for future government planning. The report can be found here
  • The pros and cons of AI. An interesting survey from Ipsos Mori recently about artificial intelligence and how it’s viewed globally. The survey was conducted late last year for the World Economic Forum with respondents from across 28 countries. Most see AI as helping in areas like education, entertainment, shopping, and food and nutrition, but are less sure of its benefits when it comes to income, employment, and family relationships. 60% feel that AI powered services and products will transform their lives over the next few years, generally for the better, but 40% admit that a reliance on AI makes them nervous. A link to the survey 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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