- 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:
The easing of guidelines on facemasks in classrooms and communal areas has been a big talking point for many this week. Although a bit of advance notice would have helped.
As a measure, it has irritated many MPs, divided parents and caused endless difficulties in schools, colleges and universities. It’s not the end of health concerns of course, providers continue to grapple with them, but as a survey this week from the parents’ association, Parentkind, highlighted, what most parents want when it comes to education – and no doubt most students and teachers – is for a sense of normality to return.
That may come in time, but for the moment there’s plenty to contend with, as is evident from this week’s other big education-related stories.
They include a statement of intent from the Education Secretary; some concerns from a leading education body about identifying future attainment gaps; the launch of an inquiry by the Children’s Commissioner into children missing from school; some major developments around quality provision in English higher education; growing concerns about poverty levels in the UK; and some mixed messages from the latest sweep of data on the economy and the labour market.
And if that’s not enough, a row has broken out about reading methods; a leading body has denounced the latest proposed changes to GCSE modern languages; the numbers supporting the petition to preserve BTECs edges towards the magic 100,000; and university admissions personal statements have been dismissed as ‘Barometers of middle-class privilege and no longer fit for purpose.’
Plenty to take in, so here’s a few details behind some of these stories.
That statement of intent from the Education Secretary first. This came in an address to officials at the department. In it, he focused on what he called his mantra of ‘skills, schools and families.’ There was little new or substantive in what he had to say, and, as many have pointed out, plenty missing as well, but he has a reputation of getting things done and his trademark delivery + data may yet see gears changing. The SEND Review and Schools White Paper, both expected soon, may prove the point.
Second, the issue of reporting attainment gaps in future which was raised in an important report this week from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER.) This argued that changes to benefits, introduced to help ameliorate things under the pandemic, had increased the numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals, but as a result changed the nature of the group and thereby future reading of attainment trends. Would future changes then be due to 'the composition of the disadvantage group, economic conditions or genuine attainment changes?'
The report called for ‘a basket of measures to understand how the attainment and profile of disadvantaged pupils is evolving over time.’ This could include re-thinking the design of the Pupil Premium to embrace a wider reach over a period of time.
Third, those developments around quality provision in higher education in England. At the start of the week, Universities UK published a new framework for ensuring course quality. Its aim was to offer a series of metrics, 24 in all, and described as ‘principled, flexible and sensitive’ that could be used in course reviews. It included student outcomes and graduate prospects, but also much more.
A few days later, the Office for Students (OFS), the regulatory body, went further and set out some specific requirements, ‘numerical thresholds ‘for full and part-time students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level’ designed in its words ‘to set a high bar.’ It includes, for instance, a requirement for ‘60% of students to go into professional or further study’ with sanctions if not.
The proposals, which were accompanied by changes to the Teaching and Excellence Framework (TEF), are subject to consultation, but have inevitably attracted sharp comment. The OfS suggested ‘this is a landmark moment to tackle poor quality’ and will help students, many from poor backgrounds, progress in life; ‘achieve their dreams’ as the minister reinforced in a tweet.
Others are unconvinced. This tweet from a lecturer is symptomatic: “how are universities meant to make this happen? Some of my grads became primary school teachers. One became a buyer for Tommy Hilfiger. They’re all happy. Are we meant to find them and yell at them now until they go manage something?”
There’s a lot to consider and the consultations remain open until the middle of March.
Next, the number of families living in poverty highlighted in the latest annual UK Poverty Report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The data, which is spiced by evidence from its Grassroots Poverty Action Group, refers to 2019/20, but the cloud of the pandemic, impending inflation, and welfare limits loom large.
Broadly, poverty levels, especially for children and pensioners, had started to show improvement in the nineties and noughties, but have been on the rise since. As the report acknowledges, the pandemic has thrown standard data measures up in the air somewhat, but the headline message is clear. 'More than 1 in 5 of our population (22%) are in poverty in our country – 14.5 million people. Of these, 8.1 million are working-age adults, 4.3 million are children and 2.1 million are pensioners.' In the words of the Associate Director at the Foundation: ‘poverty is not a fleeting experience.’
The impact on education and health inequality are two of the worrying consequences. As the report explains, attainment gaps in education make any escape from poverty harder as children become adults. Sam Freedman has a good commentary on it all in his Substack.
Finally, over in Westminster this week, Conservative former minster Jesse Norman tabled a new clause for the HE Freedom of Speech Bill to encourage greater transparency around foreign donations. The Education Committee took evidence on prison education. The Work and Pensions Committee questioned ministers about what the government is doing about children living in poverty, while the DCMS Committee took evidence on influencer culture and online harms.
To round off. This week, Nick Hillman, director of the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) put out an interesting blog. In it, he listed five pretty gloomy predictions that had been made about the impact of Covid on education. Thankfully they did not materialise as envisaged, leaving education as strong as ever.
The top headlines of the week:
- ’The schools that send the most pupils to Oxbridge’ (Monday).
- ‘Poor pupil progress increasingly difficult to measure’ (Tuesday).
- ‘Inquiry launched to find 100,000 missing pupils in England’ (Wednesday).
- ‘OfS publishes plans to punish English universities for poor value for money’ (Thursday).
- ‘Masks to stay in many secondary schools in England despite rule change’ (Friday).
- Latest Covid guidance. The Prime Minister confirmed in a statement to MPs that current Plan B restrictions – such as the wearing of face masks in indoor public places and in schools, and advice to work from home where possible – would start to be eased, in some cases immediately, leading to a return to Plan A.
- Restart Scheme. The government updated its Restart Scheme, announced 18 months ago to help claimants who have been out of work for a year to find local jobs, to provide 12 months support for those who have been out of work for 9 months.
- Help to Grow. The government invited applications from small businesses to its Help to Grow: Digital Scheme, which provides such businesses with discounts off eligible digital products and free tailored support to help their business grow.
- Broadband rollout. The Public Accounts Committee published the results of its Inquiry into the promised rollout of superfast gigabit broadband, concluding that while there has been some progress, this has been down to commercial companies rather than government, leaving it short of its downgraded targets.
- Latest labour market data. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest set of figures on the labour market showing the number of UK employees now up to pre-pandemic levels and a record number of job vacancies but an increase in the economic inactivity rate and concerns about low wage growth.
- IES on the labour market picture. The Institute for Employment Studies published its regular accompanying report on the latest labour market figures suggesting things slowing down with higher levels of worklessness as more older workers leave but an improving employment picture for young people.
- Poverty Report. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published its latest annual report into UK Poverty covering 2019/20 and bringing together grassroots experience with a range of statistical data to indicate worrying signs of rising levels of poverty among children, working-age adults and pensioners with the pandemic, inflation, poor housing and restricted benefits all factors.
- State of the North. The thinktank IPPR North published it latest State of the North report pointing to the considerable gap in funding and support for the region with only limited funding coming through the Levelling Up Fund and issues like attainment gaps in schools still wide, setting out three ‘missions’ for the future including a strengthened economy and high-quality education system.
- Young Enterprise. Young Enterprise published its Annual Report and Accounts for the year ending 31 July 2021 highlighting its work over the year particularly around its 4-year No Time Like the Future strategy, which has included new programmes, secured investment and digital development, and with a number of new priorities for the future, including increasing access and quality.
- Child protection. Leading child protection groups launched a new campaign to highlight the dangers of end-to-end encryption as being adopted by online companies.
More specifically ...
- Latest Covid guidance. The government issued amended guidance for schools following the ending of Plan B restrictions with among other things recommendations on face masks in class lifted immediately and in communal areas from next Thursday.
- The view from here. Parentkind published the results of a survey of parents in England, undertaken in the first week of term and pointing to pretty split views on masks and vaccinations but a general desire to see schooling return to normal as soon as possible.
- Pupil disadvantage. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published new research pointing to increased numbers of disadvantaged pupils eligible for free school meals as a result of more flexible welfare measures introduced under the pandemic, in turn making future measurement of attainment gaps for such pupils difficult to discern.
- Sixth Form Numbers. FFT Education Datalab looked into staying rates on rates for 16 yr olds following the exams issues of summer 2020 when the number of students in English state schools achieving higher grade GCSEs increased but the number staying on in school sixth forms hardly increased without any obvious reason.
- Leaving care. Ofsted reported on its recent research among young people about their perceptions as they prepared to leave the care system with many indicating that they were not fully supported or prepared to leave and needed more time and help to be able to cope.
- GCSE Languages. The British Academy voiced reservations about the reforms to GCSE Modern languages announced last week after lengthy review, suggesting that the proposed focus on defined language lists risks diminishing the richness of different languages and cultures.
- Reading wars. Researchers at UCL reported on their research into the teaching of phonics in schools in England suggesting that it was no longer supported by the evidence and needing to change, arguing in a letter to the Education Secretary for a broader approach 'enabling teachers to use their own judgement about which (approach) is best for their pupils.'
- Early Years.The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) blogged about the impact of the pandemic on Early Years provision, highlighting its importance and acknowledging recent government funding, but pointing to new research showing that early intervention programmes could have positive benefits.
- School improvement. Tim Brighouse and Mick Walters outlined in a new blog some of the thinking behind their new book on school improvement, which includes among its 39 steps, proposals for an expert consultant teacher in every school, along with a clearer role for local authorities.
- Latest Covid guidance. The government issued amended guidance following the lifting of Plan B restrictions principally to reflect the removal of guidance on wearing facemasks in class this week and in communal areas from next week.
- Post-16 qualifications. Edge published its response to the Education Committee’s Inquiry into Post-16 qualifications pointing among other things to the constant state of churn around such qualifications, concern about the emergence of a divisive binary system, and examples of good practice abroad, concluding with a proposal to consider a Bacc model as an alternative.
- BTEC petition. The petition on protecting BTECs and other similar qualifications edged towards the required number for it to lead to a debate in Parliament on the matter.
- Setting the benchmark. The Office for Students set out plans to tackle course quality by setting thresholds including retention and progression rates which could lead to sanctions if not met, along with new requirements under the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).
- If you have a complaint. The Education Secretary wrote an open letter to students urging that if they had a complaint about a lack of in-person teaching to speak to their institution, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, their Student Union and/or the Office for Students for possible remedies.
- Freedom of Speech Bill. Former (Conservative) minister Jesse Norman proposed a new clause to the HE Freedom of Speech Bill which would require providers to declare details of foreign donors who donate £50,000 or more and for the OfS to maintain an annual register of donations.
- No NDAs. Government, universities and campaigners came together to commit to scrapping the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) in dealing with cases of sexual misconduct, bullying and harassment.
- Nursing applications. UCAS reported on nursing applications last year pointing to a large rise in the number of applicants of all ages and backgrounds for courses in England with the work of the NHS during the pandemic seen as one of the determining factors.
- EU wide. The Times Higher reported that the EU was forging ahead with its plans for closer collaboration in higher education with further clusters and alliances, joint degrees and enhanced student mobility through the European Student Card initiative, all under development.
- Course value. Universities UK set out a new framework and potential metrics including student satisfaction, graduation employment and social and green impact, that could help member institutions in England determine ‘high-quality value’ courses potentially from next year.
- Annual Report. The Student Loans Company published its Annual Report and Accounts for 2020/21 pointing to a satisfaction rating of 79.1%, and to coping with the pandemic and the new loan requirements likely from the Lifelong Loan Entitlement as notable risks but with an enhanced ‘Evolve’ customer experience strategy now in place and reshaping customer relations.
- Graduate Pathways. Researchers at Birmingham University looked into destination patterns for recent graduates, using 2018/19 data to point to notable differences in mobility and location between different graduate and degree types, suggesting this could have implications for local employers and for the government’s levelling up plans.
- Blended learning. The Russell Group tackled the issue of blended learning in a new comment piece, explaining what it is, how member universities have been working with students to develop it, how it’s not just a cost-saving measure and how different institutions have been applying it.
- Collaborative Projects. QAA announced the list of 17 Collaborative Enhancement Projects that have successfully secured funding for this year, ranging from ‘Academic Integrity’ and ‘Apprenticeships’ to ‘Micro-credentials’ and ‘Postgraduate Research.’
- Understanding Living Costs. The Student Loans Company outlined maximum and minimum funding support available to students in England for living costs this year with the range covering those living away, living at home and living in London.
- E-books. The University and College Union (UCU) wrote to the universities minister with concerns about the pricing and licensing of e-books, asking her to call on the Competition and Markets Authority to conduct a review of the academic e-book market.
- Five wrong predictions. Nick Hillman, director at the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) outlined five common predictions originally made about the impact of Covid on education, such as a drop in student numbers, and that home schooling would widely reduce the amount of learning by pupils, showing that, thankfully, in each case they have proved to be wrong.
Tweets and posts of note:
- “Margaret was back in Yr 1 today. Both the teacher & TA were absent so things were "a bit tricky.” By the time the parent helper had explained the groupings, the rooms, the resources & the lesson structure, there were literally seven minutes left to deliver the Phonics lesson” | @RetirementTales
- “I’m off to teach some children how to read. I’ll pop back tonight to see what those who don’t do my job imagine I’m wrong about” | @HeyMissSmith
- “One of the things that makes me smile when I visit different schools are all the passive-aggressive notes in the staffroom kitchens of about doing your own washing up. They’re different every time” | @nowMrsMFL
- “Somewhere in Sanctuary buildings an official closes the file “Augar response March 2022 final draft”, moves it to a folder with twenty-five other older dated files, and sighs” | @jonathansimons
- “When I die I’d like someone to calculate how much of my life was spent waiting for a teenager” | @skynewsgirl
- “I honestly can’t work out how we’ve still got another two weeks of January to go but yet Christmas was about 3 months ago”
A selection of quotes that merit attention:
- “This government got the big things right” – the PM announces an easing of Plan B Covid restrictions,
- “There are clear benefits to being in the office, such as collaboration and on-the-job learning, and blanket work-from-home guidance has had significant downsides for city centre trade in sectors such as hospitality and retail” – the CBI reacts to the relaxing of rules on working from home.
- “While it’s good to see employment continuing to rise, on pay it’s the same story of a squeeze on workers” – the TUC responds to the latest labour market figures.
- “You should be in no doubt that you deserve a fair deal and should understand what options are available if you feel you have not received what you were promised by your HE provider” – the Education Secretary tells university students to complain if they’re not getting the in-person teaching promised.
- “Many are now manufactured by teams of unnamed advisers, amid growing skepticism in universities over their usefulness” – Lee Elliot Major calls for an end to personal statements in university admissions.
- “Literally I’m going to go out and find them” – the Children’s Commissioner for England launches an inquiry into children missing from school.
- “Unfortunately, the modifications since then have been limited and will do little to allay those concerns” – the British Academy expresses concerns about the latest GCSE modern language reforms.
- “Where there are major shortcomings in quality then Ofsted reserves the right to apply remedies” – Ofsted explains the role of a contracted inspector.
- “Our new research shows that the government’s policy is uninformed because it is not underpinned by the latest robust evidence” – researchers at UCL call for changes to reading policy.
- “It’s number one and it’s the least taught thing in life” – Bear Grylls urges children to learn from failure.”
- “Something that is difficult to imagine without experiencing it is how relentless poverty is” – the Joseph Rowntree Foundation publishes its latest annual report on UK poverty.
Not-to-be-missed numbers of the week:
- 1,247,000. The number of job vacancies in the UK Oct-Dec 2021, a new high according to the latest figures from the ONS.
- 5.4%. The CPI inflation figure for the UK for December, up from 5.1% previously and the highest rate for nearly 30 years according to latest official figures.
- 75%. The number of UK CEOs planning to increase headcount this year, according to PwC’s later global CEO survey.
- £203 a month. The extra amount households will have to find in monthly expenditure following this year’s ‘Awful April,’ according to the Centre for Economics Business Research (CEBR.)
- 7. The number of recommendations out of 53 recommended in the 2017 Taylor Review of modern working practices that the government has so far enacted, despite accepting 51, according to MPs.
- £177.9bn. The size of the loan book now managed by the Student Loans Company according to their latest annual report.
- 28,815. The number of applicants through UCAS last year that put nursing as their first -choice course, a record according to UCAS.
- 68. The number of universities that could face strike action following reballots, according to the University and College Union (UCU.)
- A fifth. The fall in the availability of hospital beds over the last four years for children and teenagers with mental health problems, according to a report in the FT.
- 31%. The number of children in the UK living in poverty, according to the latest UK Poverty Report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
- 38%. The number of parents who agree that children should wear masks in classroom, with 60% disagreeing according to a new survey from Parentkind.
Everything else you need to know ...
What to look out for next week:
- 4th annual International Day of Education (Monday 24 January).
- Education Committee evidence session on the government's catch-up programme (Tuesday 25 January).
- Westminster Hall debate on the role of early years educators (Tuesday 25 January).
- Education Policy Institute virtual panel discussion on ‘Putting Sustainability at the Heart of Education’ (Tuesday 25 January).
- UCAS End of Cycle Report (Thursday 27 January).
- Launch of the Institute for Government’s 2022 Whitehall Monitor Report (Thursday 27 January).
- 4-day week. The 4-day working week has been much in discussion this week as a return to the office or workplace looms for many, following the easing of Plan B guidance which had included recommendations on working from home. Not everyone is able to do it of course but for those that can, the benefits are said to be considerable. Firms that have tried it in the past, such as Microsoft, claim that its improved both productivity and staff morale. Now a major trial of the system is set to go ahead over the next six months involving some 30 UK companies. The aim is to look at the impact on productivity, staff wellbeing, local infrastructure and so on. A link to the story is here.
- Not the season to be jolly for everyone. This week, new data was published from the ongoing COVID-19 Social Study. It found that many people, particularly young adults, had struggled with depression over Christmas. The study, which is funded by Nuffield, UKRI and Wellcome and led by researchers at UCL, is tracking people’s health and welfare experiences during the pandemic over a 3-year period and has already thrown up important evidence on issues like mental health, loneliness, and disadvantage. The growing range of anxieties and a lack of confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis stand out from this latest research which was undertaken in the first week of this January. Details can be found here.
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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.