Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 25 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:

Back to business this week for MPs and for many schools and colleges after the half term break with a lot going on.

The big education news concerns higher education where after a number of false starts and various gnashings of teeth, the government finally unleashed its formal response to the major review of post-18 education, the 200+ page Augar review completed nearly three years ago. More on this to follow.

In other higher ed news and suitably topical, the government advertised for a new chief executive for the Office for Students (OfS.) 'Proven system as well as organisational leadership skills' being one of the person spec skills required. It also confirmed that it was abandoning proposals to move to a post-qualification admissions system. ‘Left it in the too difficult drawer,’ as ASCL’s Geoff Barton put it. The Skills and Post-16 Bill reached its final stages, potentially heralding a major upsurge in skills planning and provision in this country. And, according to Wonkhe, the HE Freedom of Speech Bill faced being squeezed out through a lack of parliamentary time.

Elsewhere, the Prime Minster announced a new ‘Living with Covid plan’ meaning restrictions were eased for most education settings with many schools continuing to express caution. Ofqual published its qualifications market report for 2020/2021 showing trends in qualifications and awards over the year, along with pricing trends. And the Prince’s Trust published the latest in a series of reports highlighting the challenges facing young people post-pandemic. As the chief executive put it in his introduction to the report, 'The pandemic threatens to be a scar for life on the younger generation, unless we act now.'

Some important developments therefore. Here are a few details behind some of these top stories.

Higher education first, where the government’s proposals have attracted media headlines for much of the week. There’s a lot to take in and there’s been some excellent commentary, including, most notably, from Nick Hillman on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) website; John Morgan in the Times Higher; and the detailed observations in Wonkhe. The Education Secretary’s Statement to MPs about the reforms and the debate that followed can be read here.

Arguably, three main headlines stand out.

First, minimum entry requirements, MER in the trade, and the aspect that has provoked the most comment so far. Broadly, the government is proposing to remove fee loan options from applicants who don’t meet minimum entry requirements, namely either GCSE grade 4 in English/maths or two Es at A level or equivalent. This is part of the government’s move on so-called ‘low quality courses' – 'racking up debt for low-quality courses that do not lead to a graduate job with a good wage', as the paper puts it. 

Applying the GCSE metric could see some 4,000 students marginalised, many from disadvantaged backgrounds. And anyway, do all applicants need these minimum requirements to do well in higher ed? That’s the argument from critics. 

Former UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook has a useful and more positive take on it all. She argues that most HE providers, indeed most sixth forms, already require minimum entry requirements and that this could actually widen access by encouraging a greater focus on KS4 pupils. The John Blake argument of reaching through to schools to strengthen access perhaps. Maybe, but it still leaves the problematic area of GCSE resits for 17 and 18-year-olds where pass rates remain low. 

Second, future financing, where as Nick Hillman argued the basic fee/loan model remains much as before but on a more ‘sustainable’ footing. This will see tuition fees frozen for two more years, the threshold at which graduates have to pay back lowered to £25,000 for new borrowers from Sept 2023, and the repayment term extended from 30 to 40 years with limits on interest rates. 

The government claims that this will ‘create a fairer system for both students and taxpayers’ and is promising more funding long-term, but as ever, perspectives vary. The further freezing of tuition fees was seen as ‘painful’ by one academic largely due to inflation. The lowering of the repayment threshold and the extension of the repayment period was characterised in the media as ‘paying off debts into their 60s’; while the doubling of the number who will have to pay back was seen as hitting middle earners hardest. With the cost of outstanding loans set to hit half a trillion by 2043 as the government argued, there are no easy options. 

And third, there are a lot of proposals still under discussion and for which the government is seeking views. These are laid out in two consultation papers. 

One looks at the much-vaunted Lifelong Loan Entitlement, due to be in place from 2025 and offering a loan entitlement to four years post-18 largely flexible, modular provision at levels 4-6, spread over a lifetime. ‘A journey that can stop and start when you like’ as the minister explained. The consultation sets out 40+ questions on how such a system should operate.

The other asks a number of questions, 28 in all, about different aspects of the proposed reforms including what it called ‘the case for proportionate number controls’ as well as minimum entry requirements for students, the uptake of L4/5 courses, and reducing the fees for foundation years. A lot to consider by 6 May. 

Away from higher ed, two other top stories this week.

First, the Skills and Post-16 Bill which early in the week reached the last lap in Parliament. A number of significant amendments were considered, but the Bill remained broadly intact, although the Education Secretary did acknowledge that “the debate on technical qualifications has been particularly passionate and robust.” 

In his winding-up speech, the Education Secretary spelt out the benefits to learners, employers, the sector and the country at large. In turn this was greater flexibility, a central role in shaping local skills provision, a beefed-up role and standards, and, yes, support for levelling up. Either way, the Bill which enacts most of the government’s 2021 Plan for Skills could prove a defining moment for a sector which has been poorly valued in the past.

Second, the easing of virus-related restrictions and the impact on education settings. The Education Secretary explained it all in a letter to Rob Halfon, Chair of the Education Committee. “Now that we are offering it (the jab) to all 5–11-year-olds in England, we are in a much stronger position to remove all remaining legal restrictions and reduce the use of additional measures.”

That said, the announcement generated a mixed response from those in education. As ASCL’s Geoff Barton put it: “Like everyone else, we want to see the back of coronavirus, but this does feel like a headlong rush rather than a sensibly phased approach.” Among his concerns was that the dropping of requirements for twice-weekly testing, along with the need to self-isolate, could lead to more rather than less disruption, let alone where it left vulnerable staff and pupils. For its part, the NEU rather awkwardly concluded that 'school leaders will not be holding their breath.' 

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Universities must ditch online lectures when all remaining Covid restrictions are lifted, minister says’ (Monday).
  • ‘Skills Bill clears the Commons’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘English universities await clarity on impact of GSCE entry bar’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Ministers scrap plans for post-qualification admissions’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Chaotic’ youth job scheme failing to deliver, MPs say’ (Friday).


  • Living with Covid-19. The PM outlined government plans for living with the virus, based around four principles (protecting the vulnerable, lifting domestic restrictions, maintaining resilience, investing in life sciences) with restrictions eased including for most education settings accordingly. 
  • Chancellor’s presentation. Rishi Sunak called for ‘a new culture of enterprise’ as he outlined government’s plans in the annual Mais Lecture for the economy post-pandemic, stressing the importance of three features: capital, people and ideas with skills and training an important contributor to each as he reinforced his credentials as a free market, low tax Chancellor
  • Levelling Up. The House of Commons Library Service provided a useful summary of the recent Levelling Up White Paper with coverage of the education and skills bits, regional data on skill levels, plus the Paper’s five pillars and 12 missions.
  • Online Safety Bill. The independent fact checking charity FullFact reported on the draft Online Safety Bill, suggesting that they felt it was ‘a missed opportunity,’ and listing ten ways in which they felt the Bill could be improved including targeting specific harmful behaviour rather than trying to control content and giving Ofcom greater powers for dealing with misinformation.
  • Jobs Outlook. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation published its latest regular Jobs Outlook, covering November 2021–January 2022 and pointing to business confidence returning with employers looking to take on more staff, especially temporary, with most candidates preferring hybrid working arrangements. 
  • Older workers. The TUC reported that a growing number of older workers, aged 50-65, were leaving the workforce before they reached pensionable age largely because of long-term health conditions but in turn reversing previous trends of more people staying on in work, calling as a result for better support for those who can/do stay on in work.
  • Youth Index. The Prince’s Trust published its latest NatWest Youth Index with worrying evidence that large numbers of young people were struggling to recover from the emotional impact of the pandemic, many were worried about future employment and happiness levels among 16-25 yr olds were at their lowest point since the survey began.
  • ParentWise. The government launched a new pilot campaign in the West Midlands aimed at helping parents and carers by offering support and resources to ensure young people are protected and stay safe from incidents like knife crime, abuse and drugs.

More specifically ...


  • Covid rules. The government updated its Covid-19 Operational Guidance for schools to reflect the latest position set out by the PM with the removal of guidance on bubbles and mixing in schools and of twice weekly testing where required.
  • Qualification system. Ofqual published its latest annual report on the qualifications market covering the 2020/21 year, a year somewhat skewed by the appearance of Covid-19 but showing an increase in the number of awarding organisations and active qualifications available as well as in vocational certificates awarded but a continuing drop in AS levels.
  • Qualification prices. Ofqual published its annual listing of qualification prices for 2021 showing a 0.5% increase overall on the previous year but minus the fee rebates provided because of the restriction on exams last year and which in turn ranged from 26% to 42% depending on exam board.
  • Destination data. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published a report commissioned by Edge looking into the case for generating longer-term destination data which in turn could help both young people as well as their schools and colleges assist in securing better labour market outcomes. 
  • Cyber Explorers. The government announced as part of the National Cyber Strategy. the rollout of a new scheme to help pupils, aged 11-14, develop an understanding of and gain the skills in cyber security by collecting virtual badges as cyber explorers. 
  • BAME histories. The footballer Troy Deeney launched a petition to make the teaching of Black, Asian and minority ethnic histories compulsory in schools as is now the case in Wales.
  • The return on languages. Rand Europe and Cambridge University published new research highlighting the benefits of learning a language suggesting for example that if more secondary pupils learnt either Mandarin, French, Spanish or Arabic, it could boost human capital and significantly improve UK trade values.


  • Skills Bill. The Skills Post-16 Bill completed its final stages in the House of Commons where many of the 35 amendments on matters like careers guidance, the defunding of BTECs, local skills improvement plans and the apprenticeship levy were considered but not ultimately accepted. 
  • Skills Bill amendments. The Association of Colleges (AoC) listed four ‘key priorities’ (strengthening the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, extending benefit rules, ensuring colleges have a role in local skills improvement planning, and creating a 10-year strategy for skills) for the Skills and Post-16 Bill that it hoped MPs would support as the Bill moved into its final parliamentary stages.
  • Kickstart problems. The Public Accounts Committee published a critical report on the government’s Kickstart job scheme for young people one year on, pointing to poor planning and monitoring and calling for a clear strategy for its future development.
  • Regulating L3 qualifications. Ofqual launched consultation on a proposed approach to regulating alternative (academic and vocational) qualifications, listing 27 questions covering titling, assessment, grading, design and approval arrangements with consultation due to close on 20 April.
  • Independent Training Providers. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) launched a new report setting out the role and the range of services and provision that independent training providers (ITP) provide, arguing that they often get overlooked within the skills sector and calling as a result for them to be given more opportunity to do what they do best.
  • Engineering sector. The Sutton Trust and Bridge Group examined access and progression in the engineering sector, noting that while it was more diverse than many other professions, those from more disadvantaged barriers still faced considerable barriers when trying to get started or progress in their career, calling as a result for clearer data and pathways to help in future.


  • Post-Augar reforms. The government launched consultation on a number of proposals outlined in its response to the Augar reforms including in particular entry thresholds and potential student number controls as well as L4/5 provision.
  • Lifelong Loan Entitlement. The government launched a consultation on how the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, which is due to be fully in place from 2025 offering a loan entitlement for four years spread over a lifetime and intended to usher in a more flexible, responsive form of higher-level lifetime learning, might operate.
  • PQA. The government issued its response to the recent consultation on university admissions through a post qualification admissions (PQA) system, outlining the broad models proposed and the responses received but confirming that it intended to work to improve the current system rather than instigate further radical reform. 
  • Admissions reforms. John Cope, Director at UCAS, outlined in a blog on the HEPI website how, despite the toing and froing about PQA, UCAS was continuing to undertake a range of important reforms to increase the reach, transparency and responsiveness of the admissions system.
  • Finance changes. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) reflected on the government’s latest proposals for reforming the fee/loans model suggesting that those on lower middling incomes could be hardest hit but that the system is now more transparent and ‘akin to a mortgage loan.’ 
  • Minister’s perspective. The universities minister outlined the context and government perspective on the latest proposed reforms in a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies, arguing that ‘sustaining, future-proofing and improving’ higher ed were the three key pillars of their reforms.
  • Office for Students. The government launched an advert for the post of chief executive of the Office for Students on a salary of £150,000-£165,000 pa.
  • In response. The Russell Group responded to media reports that its members had financially gained during the pandemic by not providing full services, arguing that in reality they had invested heavily to provide a range of services at reduced costs to an increased number of students.
  • Widening participation. The HE Statistics Agency (HESA) published data for 2020/21 on widening participation showing a slight 0.1% increase in the number of young f/t UK 1stdegree entrants from state schools/colleges and with 12% from low participation neighbourhoods.
  • The view from here. The NUS published a brief survey of student views on current issues, released as part of the organisation’s centenary events, with nearly a half (48%) indicating that they reckoned previous generations had a better student experience than they currently are.
  • AI for HE. Mary Curnock Cook and Nic Newman provided a valuable menu of AI resources available to support students in their journey through higher education, suggesting in a blog on the HEPI website that while gaps and challenges remain, the potential for AI remains enormous. 

Stand-out tweets

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “The best part of being a teacher is having a captive audience for my dad jokes” | @ScottPughsley
  • “The Apprentice should put to bed the ‘schools should teach soft skills’ fanfare that regularly gets trotted out by business leaders. Candidates bang on about their leadership, creativity, teamwork, etc and then get put on a task where they have no expertise, and fail. Every week” | @JamesTheo
  • “Apparently my class didn't want to do the thing I left them for cover today in my absence, so they hid it before the cover teacher arrived” | @MathsImpact
  • “My broadband went down for five minutes this evening so I had to talk to my family. They seem like nice people” | @markgsparrow

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “And I think it’s very very important that we should get the message over to everybody that schools are safe” – the PM announces the lifting of most Covid-19 related restrictions including for schools.
  • “Up until this point, the rules around self-isolation have been clear-cut but we can now expect sectoral differences to emerge” – the CIPD respond to the lifting of Covid-related restrictions.
  • “This is a government that is willing to take on the big questions and deliver solutions to them. And there are important questions around higher education that remain unresolved” – the government launches consultation on its higher ed reforms.
  • “The proposals would rule out a fifth of all kids from getting a student loan, leaving them to stump up the £27,000 themselves or abandon their uni dreams" – The Sun explains the latest HE reforms to its readers.
  • “Government needs to stop talking about a Lifelong Learning Entitlement and get on and deliver it” – the AoC calls for action on the LLE.
  • “Ability to provide operational, cultural and strategic senior leadership to a complex organisation at the relevant scale” – the government sets out some of the essential criteria for the role of CEO of the Office for Students.
  • “These new places were created at the same time as universities managed continued real terms cuts in the value of fees due to rising inflation that mean courses for UK undergraduates are provided at an average deficit of up to £2,400 per student per year in medical courses and £1,000 in classroom subjects" – the Russell Group defends itself from media charges of profiteering during the pandemic.
  • “On Friday our union will discuss and decide the next steps in this dispute and that will include reballoting and escalation towards a marking and assessment boycott” – the University and College Union (UCU) considers its next steps. 
  • “For some of those young people, it feels safer to stay in their rooms, which feels to them like the only safe space they have any control over” – the i highlights the issues around ‘ghost’ children, those staying away from school beyond the pandemic.
  • “All the studies show the impact is negligible for the huge amounts of money that would be needed” – plans to extend the school day to help with catch-up appear to be shelved.

Important numbers

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

  • £17 a month. How much graduates would have to pay back on their student loans, according to the government in its latest funding changes for HE.
  • 22%. The number of respondents who reckon that colleges and universities are a priority for government, according to a survey from the NUS.
  • 90.2%. The number of young UK f/t first degree entrants in 2020/21 from state schools or colleges, according to latest data from HESA. 
  • 20%. The number of young people, aged 16-25, who worry that their employment prospects have been ruined by the pandemic, higher for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, according to the Prince’s Trust Nat West Youth Index 2022.
  • 178.The number of Ofqual regulated awarding bodies in 2020/21, up on the previous year albeit with 32 dormant according to Ofqual. 
  • 136,000. The number of state school pupils in England out with confirmed cases of the virus for Feb 10, down from 250,000 the week before, according to latest reported figures.
  • 245. The number of state schools in England so far this year asking Ofsted to defer an inspection with 42 declined, according to figures from Ofsted.
  • 30%. The number of respondents whose half term plans were stymied by the storms, according to Teacher Tapp.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Education Committee evidence session on Children’s Homes (Tuesday 1 March).
  • FT digital event for schools on climate change and its impact on the curriculum (Tuesday 1 March).
  • Institute for Government conversation with Andy Haldane on how to make levelling up work (Tuesday 1 March).
  • World Book Day (Thursday 3 March).

Other stories

  • Meetings bloat. A useful article appeared in the FT recently on meetings, which have burgeoned during the pandemic as people have strived to stay in touch. Meetings have always been a source of contention: too many, too long, too inconclusive, too dominated by one voice and so on. According to the article, for instance, one poor meeting can generate three more further meetings, presumably to sort out what should have been agreed at the original one. Meetings bloat, as it’s termed, can be damaging to company productivity as well as to personal wellbeing, although many find them useful. The general view is that if meetings can be restricted to set times – Wednesday mornings seems favourite – they can be useful. A link to the article is here
  • Happy in your job? There’s been a lot of talk recently about the ‘great resignation’ boom, people realising during lockdowns that their job isn’t the be-all and end-all of their lives and deciding to leave and do something different as a result. A lot depends on whether you’re happy at work, whether you have a rewarding job, good boss, good friends, good prospects and so on. The recruiting company Indeed has done a lot of work recently on which jobs appear to have the happiest people. Education comes out as the happiest job in their recent ‘Work Happiness Score,’ followed by aerospace and defence, and media and communications. People who work in property, management, consultancy and the automotive industry emerge as the least happy. Having a clear sense of purpose seems to be a determining factor. A link to the list 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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