Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 11 February 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:

An abridged version this week with Education Eye away for the latter half of the week, but hopefully capturing most of the week’s education news.  

Core essentials has been the big theme this week with exams, apprenticeships, and young people’s mental health all topping the news stories.

National Apprenticeship Week is still in full swing, with 1,200 events and more across the country celebrating the successes and benefits of apprenticeships. So instead, some words below on the other two themes of the week so far. 

This summer’s exams first, where the build-up moved a step nearer with the promised release of advance information on some of the content and assessment for this year’s GCSE, AS and A level exams.

The government remains committed to holding exams this summer. Not everyone is convinced. Parentkind for instance reported recently that three-quarters of the parents it surveyed would have preferred teacher-assessed grades while some, such as Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, would like to see exams at age16 scrapped altogether. ‘A pointless ritual’ is among the descriptions he used.

Debate about exams at age 16 has been around for some time and is likely to rear its weary head once more as the various Commissions looking into the future of education post-pandemic draw up their final thoughts. Already at least two have pushed for alternative approaches, and just last week at Cambridge Assessment’s seminar on assessment, the concept of school diplomas to capture extra-curricular activities was aired again. Again, we’ve been here before, but it’s an important issue if contributors to The Times Education Commission are anything to go by.

But back to more immediate matters, with the release of what the Education Secretary described as ‘advance information' that ‘will ensure that students can do themselves justice in their exams this summer.’ In essence, this entails guidance on broad content and assessment approaches per subject to help focus revision, given the disruption to schooling over the past couple of year. In the words of the Joint Council for Qualifications: “The information will detail the focus of particular aspects of the examination; for example, the content, contexts, texts, topics, sub-topics, themes and skills that will be assessed in the 2022 exams.”

Some have said it’s too late, others that it in their particular subject it doesn’t help a great deal, but Ofqual, as regulator, has been careful to get the balance as fair as possible, ensuring that the information does enough to help students with their revision, but not so much that they create prepared answers. On top of that, whether it’s the choice of topics or support materials available, these will vary with each exam board. 

The big challenge this year remains that of ensuring a level playing field. Evidence throughout the lockdown has shown some regions, some schools, and some students have lost out more than others. As the National Association of Head Teachers wrote, when it comes to students, “they simply want a fair shot at success in their exams this summer.” Ensuring that remains the challenge.

Next, young people’s mental health, a growing concern according to school leaders, much under discussion, and the subject this week of an MPs’ debate; a witness session by the Education Committee; and two leading reports. 

The first of these reports was the government’s hefty State of the Nation Report into Children and Young People’s Wellbeing. This was the third such annual big picture summary and covered children and young people in England aged 5 -24 with some interesting reflections on future concerns and some wider social issues thrown in.

Broadly, the report concluded that 'rates of probable mental health disorders among children and young people remain higher in 2021 than they were in 2017,' but that 'children and young people’s subjective wellbeing showed signs of recovery in 2021, following a small reduction in 2020.' It is in effect a mixed picture. Coming out of lockdown has clearly helped, although it was worrying to note that a small group of children reported low scores in happiness with their school.   

In fairness, schools generally have done a tremendous job in supporting pupils through the pandemic, but have continually raised a lack of support, gaps in provision and long waiting lists when it comes to referrals. These were all issues raised by the Children’s Commissioner in her report and by witness evidence to the Education Committee. As the Children’s Commissioner noted, although the waiting time for referrals has actually decreased over the year by as much as eleven days, 37% of children on waiting lists are still waiting for their treatment to begin. A lot seems to depend on where you live, with waiting times varying between 14% to 78% apparently. 

The government is pinning a lot of its hopes on its programme of school mental health support teams, but as the Education Committee heard, given the scale of the problem, the programme needs to step up and be more ambitious. Other forms of support the government is supporting such as ‘Student Space,’ the online platform for HE students, can be found here.

In other education news this week, latest government figures suggested a drop in Covid-related pupil absence, with numbers in state schools in England down from just over 5% to 3.9% as of last Thursday. Staff absence, however, remains a big headache for a lot of schools. Not all of it is Covid-related, but as ASDCL’s Geoff Barton wrote “trying to plug the gaps left by having almost a tenth of their teaching staff absent” is a daily worry. 

Elsewhere, Ofsted looked into ways of tackling poor pupil attendance and how some schools were going about it. Everyone has a part to play it seems. The Civic University Network brought together latest thinking on making the post-16 sector work better for learners. It included the familiar call for a single funding body. And the Office for Students’ new Director of Fair Access and Participation started to sketch out his thoughts on how best to close access gaps, calling among other things for schools and universities to work together in renewed partnerships. Links on all these are listed below. 

In Westminster, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill (ARIA) returned to the House of Lords for consideration of amendments put forward by the Commons. The Treasury Committee took evidence on jobs growth and productivity post-pandemic. And as mentioned, the Education Committee looked into pupil wellbeing as well as the government’s education recovery plans.

And finally, some interesting education policy reflections this week with the publication of a series of interviews by Ed Dorrell at Public First with past Education Secretaries – stretching right back to Lord Baker. And ten years on from the Gove reforms, Sam Freedman, who was a special adviser at the time, offered his thoughts on how the reforms had worked out and what more needed doing. As Michael Gove observed in his interview with Ed Dorrell, "it’s all evolving all the time." And so it feels ...

The top headlines of the week:

  • ’GCSEs and A levels in 2022 will be graded more generously' (Monday).
  • ‘Mental health support for children lacks ambition’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Early GCSE results won’t count in 2022 league tables' (Wednesday).
  • 'UK university dispute escalates over plan to down staff pay' (Thursday).
  • 'Councils cut primary school places as baby boom flattens' (Friday). 


  • Policy priorities. Andrew Griffith, the PM’s new Director of Policy spelt out his priorities for government policy in a comment piece on conservativehome, listing among them, growing employment, tackling the NHS backlog, controlling our borders, making our streets safe, bringing down the cost of living and delivering benefits from Brexit.
  • Business Council meeting. Number 10 published a brief summary of the recent first meeting of the new Business Council, set up to advise the government on rebuilding the economy post-pandemic and post- Brexit, with skills, training and the green industrial revolution among the key topics discussed.
  • Education, education, education. published a fascinating collection of interviews, compiled by Public First, looking at the nature and rationale behind changes in education policy through interviews of respective Education Secretaries from the days of Margaret Thatcher to Theresa May. 
  • Education reform. Sam Freedman, who worked as aa senior adviser to Michael Gove at the time, examined the Gove reforms 10-years on, arguing that they generated a significant reform of the education system but that the effects have been ‘patchy’ with problems of dual responsibility and inequality, suggesting a number of proposals such as ‘moving to a high-capacity all MAT system,’ as a way forward.
  • Powering down not levelling up. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) and partners published their winter 2022 assessment of the economy suggesting GDP growth of 4.8% this year falling to ‘well below 2%’ for next year with rising inflation and cost of living pressures likely to hit the lowest income households the hardest.
  • Targeted Furlough Scheme. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) called for a targeted furlough scheme, such as that used in Germany and Switzerland, to be created with controlled eligibility and compliance monitoring, to help support key economic sectors if and when future crises occur.
  • Employee absences. The CIPD reported on a new survey showing the impact of long Covid on employee absence, indicating that nearly half of organisations surveyed had employees off because they are suffering from it yet only a quarter are providing guidance for managers on how best to support such staff.

More specifically ...


  • Exams 2022. Ofqual provided a simple subject-by-subject listing of the main changes such as to coursework and choices of topics, put in to help support students as they prepare for this year’s GCSE, AS and A level exams after two years of disruption. 
  • Advance information for this year’s exams (pdf). The Joint Council for Qualifications set out the thinking behind and principles for this week’s release of advance information on this summer’s Ofqual regulated exams.
  • Coping with exam pressure. Ofqual updated guidance for students on coping with exam stress with tips on how best to plan revision, feel more confident and generally manage the stress that often comes with exams. 
  • Performance measures 2021/22. The government issued guidance, with worked examples, on how KS4 performance measures for 2021/22 will be calibrated, counting entries from 2019/20 and 2020/21 but using only results from 2021/22 for KS4 and scaled scores for Progress 8, given the disruption to data over the last two years.
  • KS1/2 Assessments. The Standards and Testing Agency published guidance for readers of English spelling, punctuation and grammar tests being used for KS1/2 assessments this year.
  • In response. HMC, the leading independent school organisation, published a robust response to a claim in last week’s Sunday Times that independent schools had gamed the system last summer to ensure higher grades, arguing that the facts, the procedures and the hard work and regulations pursued, showed that the claims were ‘a direct attack’ on hardworking students and professionals.
  • Reform rather than revolution. Former Ofqual Board member Barnaby Lenon argued in a seminar on the future of assessment hosted by Cambridge Assessment that some changes were needed for exams but that reform rather than revolution was preferable, such as creating an alternative English exam for 17 yr old resits and adding computational thinking to A level maths, and also making the case for a school diploma to recognise extra-curricular activities. 
  • School admissions. The government launched a consultation on some proposed changes to the school admissions code, namely adopting the arrangements for remote and more flexible appeals hearings adopted during the pandemic, for more permanent use.
  • Tackling poor attendance. Ofsted published a new report looking at how some schools had tackled problems of poor attendance and persistent pupil absence, pointing to such measures as getting to the bottom of the problem, communicating clearly and remaining ambitious, as ways of improving things.
  • Children’s wellbeing. The government published its latest annual ‘State of the Nation’ research report into children and young people’s wellbeing painting a challenging but at times hopeful picture as things return to normal but with many young people concerned in one way or another about their future.
  • Children’s mental health services. The Children’s Commissioner published the office’s latest annual report into children’s mental health services pointing to some progress in both provision and recognition but highlighting the continuing growing gaps in services and the impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health generally.


  • Apprenticeships. The government heralded the onset of National Apprenticeship Week 2022 pointing to the range of events taking place throughout the week and underlining the importance of apprenticeships as central to the country’s plans for economic recovery. 
  • Apprenticeships by numbers. The government published a collection of data on apprenticeships in England over the last three years to accompany this year’s National Apprenticeship Week with apprenticeship starts, levy and non-levy, incentives and forecasts all among the details. 
  • Why become an apprentice. The government set out, as part of National Apprenticeship Week promotions, five reasons (high quality training, paid work, plenty of choice, rewarding, more people are doing it) why people of all ages should consider undertaking an apprenticeship. 
  • Apprenticeship letters. The Skills Minister, Alex Burghart, set out the benefits of apprenticeships in respective letters to students and to parents, citing in particular the opportunity to earn, learn, and achieve that the programmes bring. 
  • 16-19 programmes. The Education and Skills Funding Agency set out guidance for how the additional money for 16-19 provision, announced in last autumn’s spending plans, should be used with the emphasis on additional teaching time where maths is a priority but also to support mental health and/or high needs support where needed.
  • Inspection arrangements. Ofsted confirmed its summary of changes for inspection arrangements this year mainly covering the transitional arrangements adopted for the pandemic and timescales for new providers and full inspections.


  • Access and participation. John Blake, the Office for Students’ new Director for Fair access and Participation, outlined in a major speech the challenges involved in helping widen access, setting out three ambitions for the future including encouraging more universities and schools to work together, strengthening the evidence base, and building access and participation into the OfS’s core work, with new institutional plans to be brought forward a year.
  • A fair future for students. Conor Ryan, Director of External Relations at the Office for Students blogged about his recent presentation at an event hosted by HEPI and Advance HE in which he listed three challenges for HE providers, namely quality, digitalisation and access.
  • Post-16 collaboration. The Civic University Network published a new report, written by The College of the Future and Sheffield Hallam, looking with case study evidence at ways in which the UK post-16 sector could best work together, recommending among other things a single funding and accountability body and clearer missions for both colleges and universities. 
  • Stick to science. European researchers called on EU bodies and members states to collaborate more closely on research and innovation and in particular to bring non-EU members such as Switzerland and the UK into the fold to strengthen Horizon Europe.
  • Drugs taskforce. Universities UK announced it was working with Unite Students, GuildHE and Independent HE, to help establish a common approach to tackling drug supply and misuse, with leadership to come from the creation of a taskforce that would work with a number of agencies.
  • New career opportunities. The Sutton Trust announced a new partnership with Bloomberg LP, a global business and finance company, which will provide eligible and successful student applicants with career opportunities and bursary support through Bloomberg’s network.

Stand-out tweets

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “I've been back in my regular primary school today. The lovely Head was delighted to see me and he was thrilled to hear of our nostalgic assembly plans! He's offered us an overhead projector and a broken ring binder of acetates, with hymns which used to be in alphabetical order” | @RetirementTales
  • “There’s never a dull moment in schools. Today, I joined the Year 11s as the entered the gym for a mock exam. Two lads stopped and squirted moisturiser on their hands. That will help us with the writing, sir” | @Xris32
  • “Is every parent right now just desperate for spring to hurry up? Constant nursery/school illnesses are just so tiring” | @nellblock
  • “One thing I love about teaching primary is you can be the worst artist, but whenever you draw the kids will act like you’re Michelangelo unveiling the Sistine Chapel.” | @primaryteachew
  • “A lot has changed since I’ve been in the office, but the decision to swap the male and female toilets on the newsroom floor was not a change I anticipated” | @kerrya11en

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “We simply cannot go on like this and the strengthened Online Safety Bill is a step in the right direction. The frustration is that it has taken an eternity to reach this point”-ASCL responds to government plans to strengthen the Online harms Bill to protect children from online pornography.
  • “I can make more of a difference with apprenticeships than by following my dad Tony into politics” -Euan Blair as reported in i news.
  • “We are also ensuring there is a safety-net for students with a generous approach to grading” – Ofqual’s chief regulator sets out the modifications agreed for this summer’s exams.
  • “We recognise the uneven impact on schools and colleges of the pandemic, and will ensure clear messages are placed on performance tables to advise caution when considering the 2021/22 data” – the government issues revised guidance for this year’s performance tables.
  • “Wasteful, costly, cruel and pointless” – Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins on GCSEs.
  • ‘Listen, understand, empathise and support – but do not tolerate’ – Ofsted reports on good practice in ensuring good school attendance by pupils.

Important numbers

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

  • 3m. The increase in the number of low-income employees on Universal Credit since the start of the pandemic, according to a survey from the TUC.
  • 1 in 50. The number of jobs advertised in January offering a 4-day week, according to employment agency Adzuna.
  • 1.6%, The number of university academic staff in England on zero hours contracts, according to the universities minister in a reply in Parliament.
  • 320,000. The number of pupils in state-funded schools in England absent last Thursday through Covid, down from 415,000 previously according to latest official figures.
  • 1 in 6. The number of children thought to be struggling with a mental health disorder, up from 1 in 9 pre-pandemic, according to the Children’s Commissioner.
  • 40%. The number of teachers surveyed who think teacher observations and feedback improve their teaching, although younger teachers were more positive according to Teacher Tapp.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Parliamentary recess.

Other stories

  • The view from here. Public First interviews Education Secretaries from the last 35 years or so. Available to view here and here
  • Living in the Metaverse. A number of tech giants are leading on making this a reality but for many of us perhaps the Metaverse remains a distant universe divorced from reality. Yet this week, the US-base tech consultancy, Gartner, suggested that by 2026, at least a quarter of us may spend ‘at least an hour a day’ in the Metaverse. What will be doing there? Well, apparently anything ‘from attending virtual classrooms to constructing virtual homes.’ As Reuters reported earlier this year, virtual real estate in the metaverse is already going for a princely sum. And learners collaborating through virtual space is also well under way apparently as well. A link to the story is 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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