- 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 questions posed among the education headlines this week. Not necessarily new but revealing in their own way.
Three stand out.
- Is the current school curriculum outdated and remote from the world of work?
- How big a problem is education catch up following the pandemic?
- What’s the latest picture on student enrolments and qualifications in UKHE?
The first of these was raised by The Times Education Commission which published its interim report this week.
The Commission was set up last year as the effects of the lockdown on schooling began to bite, with a brief to examine the future for education post-pandemic. As Rachel Sylvester, Chair of the Commission explained, ““Now is the perfect time in light of the pandemic to consider a transformation to the education system.”
They weren’t the only ones. At least half a dozen other bodies including ASCL, Pearson, the Commission on Assessment and the Student Futures Commission were engaged in similar projects but The Times Commission was different. It wasn’t education led, its 20+ commissioners were drawn from ‘commerce, politics, science, technology and the arts’ as well as education.’ It was also independent and claimed a panoramic view. Whether this has enabled it to take more of an objective, perhaps radical, look is open to question. Some in the profession aren’t sure.
It has however taken evidence from over 300 witnesses over the last seven months including 'eleven former education secretaries and two former prime ministers' and amassed a pile of evidence accordingly, not all positive. Overall, it has encompassed seven of the ten objectives it set out to examine, including the curriculum, teaching, assessment, mental health, social mobility and even the purpose of education itself. And it’s the latter that has sharpened its initial conclusions that we have, in England at least, an outdated curriculum. ‘An analogue system in a digital age.’
The report lists a litany of concerns raised: ‘a third of children written off,’ ‘a dysfunctional exam system,’ ‘a demoralised workforce’ and 'unhappy pupils'. At this stage it is not putting forward solutions, they will come with the final report in the summer, but the direction of travel appears clear. How far this may all lead to ‘radical reform’ let alone reflect the more positive picture happening in many schools up and down the land remains to be seen.
Second, the question about how big a problem education catch-up actually is. This week we got some sense of the global dimensions with a report on the matter from UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank, launched to herald the International Day of Education. It talked about ‘a harrowing reality’ for the 1.6bn learners across the world who have had their education disrupted, pointing to ‘substantial losses in maths and reading’ and deepening inequalities as countries struggle to get things back to normal.
The report came out as the Education Committee took evidence from practitioners here as part of its Inquiry into the government’s own catch-up programme. Early research about the impact of lost learning on young people in this country has been pretty bleak and may take some time to quantify fully. Last year for instance the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) suggested a possible loss of earnings of up to £40,000 per individual over a lifetime. And there’s also the impact on health, wellbeing and so much more to factor in.
In its session, the Education Committee heard criticisms about the government’s approach, suggesting it lacks ambition and scale. The national tutoring programme for instance came in for particular criticism, and the problem of a widening attainment gap remains worrying. The government did provide additional funds under the last Budget but could do worse than look at the learning recovery model with its three levers (consolidating the curriculum, extending instructional time, and improving the efficiency of learning) suggested by this global report.
Third, UK higher education, seemingly under constant scrutiny, but responding well according to a couple of reports out this week.
The first report offered us a picture on student enrolments and qualifications for 2020/21, courtesy of the HE Statistics Agency (HESA). It pointed to a burgeoning picture of enrolments, up 9% on the previous year to 2.75m, 57% female, 74% of white ethnicity and 91% from state education.
International recruitment remained high, particularly postgrads, with Italy and Romania among EU countries and China, India and Nigeria from the non-EU world sending the most students. Domestically the OU, UCL Manchester, Coventry and Nottingham Trent constituted the top five in terms of student enrolment. Business Management, medicine and veterinary science were the most popular subjects while Languages continued its steady downturn. There was a slight drop in the percentage of undergraduates gaining a 2:1 (47 to 46 per cent) and a slight increase in the number gaining a 1st (35 to 36 percent). The Times Higher has a useful summary of it all here.
The second report was UCAS’s final End of Cycle Report on 2021 admissions. It reinforced many of the trends indicated in the HESA report including a growing student cohort, continuing high levels of international recruitment and an increase in the number of entrants from disadvantaged areas. In terms of particulars, it also reflected the changing demographic as more 18-year-olds came on the scene, and the impact of managing an admissions system during a global pandemic. As UCAS’s chief executive highlighted, the admissions system is constantly evolving with personal statements and references for instance currently under review, but its ability to provide stable service during the pandemic deserves mention. Wonkhe has a useful analysis of it all here.
Finally, in other education news this week, the National Association of Head Teachers called for further adaptions for this summer’s exams in light of continuing but variable patterns of pupil and staff absences. Updates from exam boards on current agreed adaptions are expected shortly. The government set out new proposals for improving school attendance as concerns persist about long-term absences. Debate continued about progression into HE by T level students and the issues involved in this with two comment pieces published this week, both listed below. And the government continued its push on skills, outlining four campaigns as part of its ‘Skills Revolution'.
To end, a quote from the Chair of the Education Committee to The Times Education Commission on the vexed question of matching skills and knowledge: “It’s all very well if everybody knows the name of every fish and every river, but if they don’t know how to fish they’re not going to be able to provide a meal for themselves.”
The top headlines of the week:
- ’Ministers urged to review exams plan amid Covid disruption’ (Monday).
- ‘One in eight pupils out of school as Covid worsens’ (Tuesday).
- ‘Schools risk teaching about a world that won’t exist’ (Wednesday).
- ‘Apprenticeship starts recovering to pre-pandemic levels, DfE data shows’ (Thursday).
- ‘DfE to be quizzed over ‘piecemeal’ careers education’ (Friday).
- Back to Work. The government launched a new ‘Way to Work’ campaign, designed to get half a million people into work by the end of June through a mix of carrot and stick – the latter meaning that those on Universal Credit could face sanctions within one rather than three months if they don’t make ‘reasonable efforts’ to find and secure a job, whatever the sector.
- Cyber security. The government launched its first Government Cyber Security Strategy, pulling together funding, resources and expertise into a single system with a co-ordinated centre and clear reporting service, able to build resilience and ensure public services could operate when faced with growing cyber threats.
- International data. The government announced the launch of a new body of global digital experts, known as the International Data Transfer Expert Council, with a brief to provide independent advice to the government on grabbing opportunities in global data sharing. particularly around priority countries like the US, Singapore and Australia.
- COP legacy. Alok Sharma, COP President, spelt out the four priorities for the UK Presidency over the coming year in a major speech, pointing to global emission reduction, global adaption, financial support and critical area action.
- Carry on working. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) reported on its funded research into the impact of the increased pension age on working lives, showing that since this was raised, more people have continued in work, generally in the same employment, often from poorer areas and largely for financial reasons while those unable to work or unemployed are less well off.
- Levelling Up. The Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up published a collection of essays from leading commentators on different aspects of Levelling Up including economic, work-based, social, skills requirements and he importance of place, concluding with seven principles, such as local empowerment and infrastructure investment, needed to underpin the approach.
- Life on a low income. Researchers on Nuffield’s Covid Realities programme published their final report documenting the challenges facing families on a low income where the pandemic has helped expose issues in the welfare system, calling among other things for the removal of the 5-week wait for Universal Credit, a personalised case worker per family and support for education and training.
- Capital concerns. The Social Market Foundation reported as part of an extended project on poverty in the UK and particularly London, highlighting the phenomenon of in-work poverty caused largely by low wages in low-skill jobs, and urging employers to set a new poverty benchmark that could be adopted as a standard in future.
- High St losses. The Centre for Cities published its latest annual economic assessment of UK’s cities showing that big cities and large towns have in many cases been ‘levelled down’ by the impact of the pandemic, with lost sales and vacant units, but that less prosperous areas may struggle more this year as they seek to re-energise.
- Global education. UNICEF marked the latest annual International Day of Education by highlighting continuing concerns about children and young people’s education wreaked by the pandemic with schools still partially or fully closed to many millions of children and fears about their loss of basic skills and growing welfare problems.
- The childcare market. Researchers at UCL examined the childcare market in a new Nuffield-funded report, arguing that it was increasingly becoming dominated by private, profit-focused companies who fail to invest in staff, wages or facilities, calling as a result for a review of funding, greater transparency over management and resources, and greater access for disadvantaged families.
More specifically ...
- Pandemic support. The government announced further help for schools as Plan B restrictions came to an end, with funding (£8m) for secondary schools to help with vaccinations and the promise of more air cleaning units across the system.
- Air-cleaning units. The government reported on its survey of DfE-funded air cleaning units, undertaken in December, showing wide usage and a high percentage of efficiency.
- School attendance. The government launched trials of a new automated data collection system for school attendance along with consultation on a range of measures, including a new regulatory framework for issuing fixed penalty notices for school absences, intended to strengthen the management of school attendance.
- Careers education. The Education Committee announced a new inquiry into careers education in schools indicating it will be ‘a root and branch review of the system that will also set out a plan for the future.’
- Exam appeals. Ofqual published data on exam appeals for GCSE, AS and A level last summer, when all students were offered the right to appeal but which ultimately saw 0.3% of grades challenged with 0.1% of grades changed.
- This year’s exams. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) called on the government to review the adaptions agreed for this year’s exams and cancel the publication of performance data, arguing that the Omicron virus had exacerbated unfairness between different schools and different pupil groups.
- Children’s Social Care.The Children’s Commissioner outlined proposals for reform of children’s social care using evidence-based and casework to call for more responsive care plans, better access to services and stable care, and clear lines of accountability.
- Climate change strategy. Leading bodies, including education unions, wrote to the Education Secretary calling for the Department’s draft strategy on sustainability and climate change to be beefed up, with greater emphasis on embedding the concept in the curriculum, the nature of green skills and on decarbonising the school estate.
- Skills drive. The government announced the launch of four campaigns intended to help the drive around skills including ‘Get the Jump,’ a new hub bringing together training paths for young people, a new recruitment drive to encourage more people from industry to work in FE, an updated Skills for Life campaign, and a further call to employers to join in the ‘Skills Revolution.’
- Digi skills. The Institute of Coding reported on its Skills Bootcamps programme which is set to train more than 1,500 people with technical skills suitable for entry or mid-level tech positions.
- Core maths.The Royal Society and British Academy highlighted in a joint statement how important it was for young people aged 16 and over to gain a maths qualification, urging government, employers and universities to promote the case for Core Maths.
- T level progression. Nick Hillman, director of the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) responded in a comment piece in FE week on T level progression to university citing three factors in particular, including: the U-turn on maths and English requirements, concerns about drop-out rates, and institutional autonomy over admissions, as issues.
- More on BTECs. Emily Dixon, AccessHE Co-ordinator, London Higher, reflected in a blog on Wonkhe on some of the issues raised in the recent Oxford Brookes report on progression by BTEC and A level students, arguing that whatever happens with BTECs and T levels, there is a group of learners that will remain and need to be adequately catered for.
- 2021 admissions. UCAS published its final End of Cycle Report on 2021 admissions with a mass of data at qualification and institutional level but all generally pointing to continuing high demand and successful placing of students despite pandemic uncertainties.
- Student stats. The government published stats on student enrolments and qualifications in UK HE for 2020/21, collated by the HE Statistics Agency and showing first-degree courses remaining hugely popular, a slight increase in 1sts, and a continuing increase in international students.
- Risk-sharing. The Times Higher reported on a student financing model developed by the University of Buckingham which would enable students to pay for provision in a risk-sharing system using their post-graduation earnings, already developed by a finance firm and being used by a few other institutions.
- Online learning.The QAA shared the headline findings from its members survey, completed in November, and looking into the impact of the shift towards digital and hybrid learning on students’ achievement and engagement, suggesting that some groups fared better than others but with a full report due next month.
- Pension proposals.The University and College Union (UCU) put forward proposals on resolving the dispute over pensions ahead of further possible strike action, calling for retirement benefits protection in return for a small increase in contributions from members and employers with ‘an evidence-based valuation of the scheme’ to follow.
- Changing assessment. Wonkhe and Adobe reported on their research into developing practice in assessment, suggesting that the pandemic had helped trigger widespread rethinking of assessment practice and highlighting three case studies to show how practice was being variously tackled.
- Protecting BTECs. Leaders from University Alliance and the Sixth Form Colleges Association outlined the importance of retaining BTECs in a comment piece on Wonkhe, arguing that limiting choice and removing funding from qualifications of choice would restrict proven pathways for learners.
- T level applicants. Former UCAS chief Mary Curnock Cook reflected in a comment piece in FE Week about the challenges universities face in considering T level applicants, listing four things they might want to do: clarify their position with applicants; talk to providers; highlight any issues with the DfE; get clarity from government on the function of T levels.
- What have they ever done for us? Elena Wilson, Policy Manager at Edge, looked at Polytechnics in a blog for the HE Policy Institute (HEPI), pointing to some of the benefits they had brought, such as the focus on vocational provision and increase in student diversity, and like many, suggesting they were ripe for a return.
Tweets and posts of note:
- “Remember if you are off sick you must set cover. This must include lesson plans, differentiated resources, a highlighted MTP, seating plan with photos, PP, EAL, LAC, SEND, current grade, end of KS grade and Y11 target. Supply teachers will let them watch Netflix” | @NewbiwSlt
- “Today a KS2 child asked me what my job was in World War 2. I’ve added extra strong face cream to the shopping list” | @_Nicola_M
- “Wore a suit to work today and a kid told me “wow miss you actually look like a real teacher today and not just someone who’s come straight from uni!” | @MissRichardsMFL
- “As a secondary maths teacher, I feel I should give my expert opinion on the phonics debate. Why isn’t phonics spelt fonics?” | @aliyusaf
- “Just realised that I’m pro level at fixing jams in the photocopier. It’s like an F1 tyre change in the pits. I’m down to about 8.4 seconds to sort the jam. What are you pro level at in your school?” | @deputygrocott
- “Out of curiosity, does anyone always park in the same space at school or is it just me?” | @MrN_Primary
- “I would like publicly to thank all the people selflessly doing Wordle and not telling anyone about it. Never change” | @StigAbell
A selection of quotes that merit attention:
- “Wages gloom” – the TUC reports a fall in public sector pay for many in November and calls for urgent action from government to restore lost earnings.
- “It was quite a healing time period, and therefore it made coming out of lockdown even more difficult as I became used to that lifestyle in a way” – university students tell The Tab how they coped during lockdown.
- “I don’t think the pressure always produces good essays, just lots of them really fast” – Oxbridge students reflect on their experience.
- “All of this would be easier for universities, T Level providers and students if government were clearer about exactly what and whom T Levels are for” – former UCAS chief exec, Mary Curnock Cook on the issues around T level progression.
- “Today’s data also shows a significant move away from unconditional offer making as universities have sought to provide greater stability to students and address concerns from schools and colleges” – UCAS reports on its final data on 2021 applications.
- “Even if BTECs disappear, the students taking them won’t” – Emily Dixon, AccessHE coordinator, blogs about the future of BTECs.
- “A consensus has emerged about the need for a radical reshaping of an education system that is increasingly seen as out of touch” – The Times Education Commission offers its interim verdict on the education system.
- “Of particular concern is that almost one in ten of our teaching staff are away from work” – ASCL responds to the latest school attendance figures.
- “A bureaucratic nightmare” – headteachers tell MPs about the national tutoring programme.
- “The magnitude of the shock (from Covid disruption to learning) is still not fully understood” – UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Bank report on learning loss to children around the world as schooling remains disrupted.
Not-to-be-missed numbers of the week:
- 4.7%. The projection for UK economic growth this year, down slightly on the previous forecast but still higher than other G7 countries, according to the IMF.
- £16.8bn. The estimated figure for UK borrowing last month, down £7.6bn on December 2020, according to latest published figures.
- 55,000. The increased number of 65-year-olds in paid work last year, according to research from the IfS, largely due to the increase to 66 of the pensionable age.
- 16.6%. The number of employees said to be reconsidering their job if their employer forces them back to work, according to research from Slack.
- 130,200. The number of apprenticeship starts for the period August-October 2021, up 43% against the same period the year before according to latest government figures.
- 616,000m. The number of students around the world still affected by partial or full school closures nearly two years into the pandemic, according to UNICEF.
- 415,000. The number of pupils on state school rolls in England absent from school last Thursday for Covid-related reasons, up 100,000 from the start of term, according to latest official figures.
- 16,000. The number of GCSE and GCE exam appeals last summer with 5760 upheld according to figures from Ofqual.
- 1,000. The extra number of air cleaning units promised for early years, schools and colleges, according to the government.
- 58%. The number of primary school classroom teachers (38% in secondary) reporting they’d been shouted at by parents during the difficult days of lockdown, according to a survey by Teacher Tapp.
Everything else you need to know ...
What to look out for next week:
- Education Questions in the House of Commons (Monday 31 January).
- Advanced Research and Invention Bill amendments (Monday 31 January).
- Education Committee session on Children’s Homes (Tuesday 1 February).
- How did free school meal recipients get on? Some interesting data this week from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) looking at the earnings income at age 25 of those who had free school meals against those that didn’t. The headline message is that “inequalities continue into early adult working lives for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.” Broadly, by the age of 25, nearly a quarter (23%) of FSM recipients who had attended school in England were earning above the full-time equivalent of the Living Wage. This was mainly males and in some parts of the country, notably the North East, the figure was lower. But nearly a third had no recorded earnings and just under a half (42%) had earnings below the Living Wage. The ONS will be looking further at educational and demographic factors in subsequent briefings, all of which will help build up a picture on social mobility. Details here.
- The Big Issues. This week, the research company Ipsos Mori published its latest monthly listing of the top concerns expressed by respondents. People. Covid remains as the top concern mentioned by 42% of people, although this is down by 20 percentage points over the last month. Coming in at joint second with the economy, and no doubt a reflection of the past month, is a lack of faith in politics/politicians. This was mentioned by 25% of people. Other concerns in descending order included the NHS, Europe, climate change and poverty. Worries about the cost of living were starting to be mentioned while education, particularly schools, was mentioned by 10% of people. Details 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.