Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 13 January 2023

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:

A lot happening this week, much of it wide-ranging.

It includes stories on industrial action; energy bills; education data from the 2021 Census; pupil rolls and a falling birth rate; L3 qualification reform; university admissions reforms; future science strategy; and global risks. 

Things are certainly back with a vengeance. 

Here are the top headlines of the week with links to specific sector stories below.

  • Strike action. The minister’s door remains open, but little progress has been made in talks over industrial action this week between government and teaching unions. Teachers in Scotland have been taking action this week, while in England and Wales, members’ ballots by the NEU and NAHT have all just closed. The NASUWT remains in dispute, but is not taking action and ASCL is considering its next move following members’ initial consultation. Progress hinges on the pay awards for last year and this. The NEU is talking about ‘rail-style’ sporadic action by teachers in the coming months. 
  • Cost-of-living. The bad news, according to the Resolution Foundation’s latest annual Living Standards Outlook is that we’re only half way through the cost-of-living crisis. Families with limited disposable income, on limited wages and with three or more children, are being hit the hardest. The good news is that things should start to improve from 2024. But, and it’s a big but,'there are signs that the cost-of-living crisis will leave a long-term mark on people’s finances and health' and pose challenges over inequality in the future. 
  • 2021 Census. Data on education and skill trends and levels is starting to come out from the 2021 Census. This week, for instance, we learned that 8.8m people in England and Wales indicated they had no qualifications, while 16.4m had a L4 or above qualification. In both cases i’s an improvement on the last Census in 2011 when, for instance, 11.3% of British adults reported having no qualifications. The ONS has lined up further releases during the year on qualification levels by age, ethnicity, and country of birth, with more to follow the year after. 
  • Impact of falling birth rate. The deadline for primary school applications is this Sunday. Many managers and local planners will be looking at the numbers closely as the reality of a changing demographic becomes more apparent. London Councils, for instance, reported this week that reception places will drop 6.3% over the next 3/4 years. They’ve been plateauing in some boroughs since 2017. They also forecast a smaller (3.7%) drop in demand for Year 7 secondary places. A falling birth rate, but also housing, freedom of movement, and family movement post-Covid and Brexit, are being seen as factors. Revitalised planning, admissions, and school mergers, are among the options under consideration.
  • Qualification reform. Rob Halfon, who is proving to be a very energetic skills minister (careers guidance last week, 16-19 funding, student loans and L3 reform this week) set out this week what he described as “the start of the final stage of the reforms to post-16 qualifications".’ These cover mainly L2 and L3 technical and alternative qualifications, which have been under consultation and development for three years. There are still concerns about whether the reforms will restrict learner choices and the nature of the approvals process – and it will all add to pressures on many FE providers – but the government is intending for the new system to be in place for 2025. 
  • University admissions. UCAS reported this week on some changes it’s proposing to its admissions process. These include the launch this year of an Outreach Connection Service and course entry grade profiles; further work on predicted grades and international student admissions; and, from next year, the introduction of standardised references, and a personal statement built around six structured questions. It’s asking for views on the latter which tends to provoke strong views.
  • Science strategy. In some more positive news this week, George Freeman, the science minister, hailed the work of UK science, and sketched out a future global science strategy for the UK in a speech to the think tank Onward. Touching on the issues around the UK’s continued membership of the EU Horizon programme, he said “If we cannot play in the European Cup of science, then we must simply have to go and play in the World Cup of science”. This, along with a list of potential opportunities and committed funding, provided a welcome positive note in a week of challenges.
  • Global risks. As if we don’t have enough problems, the World Economic Forum is talking about the threat of ‘polycrises’ to keep us on our toes in the years ahead. This sets the scene for the gathering of global leaders at Davos next week, where among the reading materials will be the Forum’s latest Global Risks Report. Top of the list of risks for over the next two years are the cost-of-living crisis, natural disasters and extreme weather, and geoeconomic confrontation. And over the next ten years, the top three all cover failing to deal with climate change. A link to the lists is here

The top headlines of the week

  • ‘Third of England’s teachers who qualified in last decade have left profession’ (Monday).
  • ‘Census shows stark differences in people’s qualifications across England and Wales’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Private schools tax breaks inexcusable, says Labour’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Primary schools in London may need to merge or close as intakes dwindle’ (Thursday).
  • ‘University staff plan 18 days of new strikes’ (Friday).


  • Energy relief. The government announced a discount scheme for high energy non-domestic users including business, charities and public sector bodies such as schools and colleges, that will replace the current energy relief scheme when it closes at the end of March and provide support with discounts to March 2024.
  • Participation in sport. The Public Accounts Committee called on the Dept for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) along with Sports England to report back on how Olympic legacy money had been spent and how they intended to increase grassroots participation in sport after it published a report criticising a poor return on the Olympic participation legacy.
  • Back to work. Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Ashworth used a keynote speech to outline a number of reforms around job centres and employment support that the Labour Party was currently considering, including ‘modernising’ job centres so that they became community hubs, helping early retirees back to work, and expanding employment support schemes.
  • 2021 Census data. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published data from the 2021 Census showing the number of recorded pupils and students in England and Wales (11.5m), the number with L4 or above qualifications (16.4m), and the region with the greatest number of people with high level qualifications (London).
  • Job prospects. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) reported on how young people (aged 16-24) who entered the labour market during the pandemic had fared, finding that apart from those from disadvantaged backgrounds, the majority of graduates and school leavers thankfully appear not to have suffered in terms of occupational progression or job quality, with the caveat that some of the more negative effects may not yet have been fully realised.
  • Living Standards. The Resolution Foundation published its annual Outlook on living standards for the year ahead suggesting that we’re only halfway through the cost-of-living crisis and that although the government has rightly prioritised support at those most in need, many households face a continuing squeeze with disposable income likely to fall by 3% over the year.
  • Cost-of-living. The Money and Pensions Service suggested that over 12m people were borrowing money to pay for food and essentials, with a half doing so for the first time, as it launched a new social media campaign to raise awareness of the help and guidance available.
  • Online safety. Ofcom launched a call for evidence on the risks of harms to children online as it prepares to consult on codes of practice and guidance ahead of taking up its expected role as online safety regulator.
  • Media literacy. Ofcom also announced that it was commissioning a number of organisations across the country including The Guardian Foundation, West Notts College and Mencap, to help improve the media literacy online skills of communities most at risk of online harm.
  • Cyber security. The National Cyber Security Centre launched its new, free service known as Cyber Essentials, intended to offer funded support to small organisations in high-risk sectors, helping to ensure they have the basic structures in place.
  • EdTech.The OU announced the launch of EdTech Foundry, ‘a new online start-up incubator’ that will work with its established Institute of Education Technology to help businesses develop technology enhanced learning.   

More specifically ...


  • Teachers’ pay. Luke Sibieta, Research Fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined teachers’ pay in the context of current recruitment concerns and talk of industrial action, concluding that for most teachers inflation was likely to mean salaries would fall by 5% in real terms this year, following a decade or more of real-term salary reductions.
  • Primary intake. London Councils reported that 29 out of 32 London Boroughs were expecting a 4% drop in demand for reception places over the next three years with a 3.5% drop in demand for Year 7 places over the same period, largely due to a fall in the birth rate and changing migration patterns.
  • Pupil absentees. The Education Committee announced a new Inquiry to look in depth at pupil absentees, notably the most persistent and the most disadvantaged, including how some schools and families were tackling this and what further data and support was needed, calling for evidence submissions by 9 February 2023.
  • Private schools. The Labour Party called for a reform of the tax status of private schools in a debate in Parliament, arguing that this would release funding to recruit more teachers and raise education standards in state schools, losing the ensuing vote by 106 votes.
  • Trust leadership. The Confederation of School Trusts announced a new online tool, produced with BlueSky Education, to provide a competency performance model, built around six core responsibilities for aspiring Trust leaders. 
  • Excluded pupils. FFT Education Datalab looked into what happens to pupils who have been permanently excluded suggesting that while primary school pupils generally return to mainstream schooling often as part of secondary transfer, those excluded in secondary tend not to be re-admitted for up to three years. 
  • Subject trends. The British Academy published the first in a promised series of reports looking into the strength of some subjects taken in UK secondary schools – in this case humanities and social sciences – finding a mixed picture in humanities with for instance entry trends for GCSE Eng Lit up but at A level down, and for social sciences, entry trends for subjects like geography and psychology both up.
  • Online safety. The government updated its guidance for schools on teaching online safety outlining the risks and harms that many children may face and how some of these could tackled in schools along with links to useful sources to help develop a whole school approach.
  • Mental health. The Coalition on Youth Mental Health in Schools, brought together 18 months ago by the consultancy Public First, announced a second wave of activity, trialling three areas for further development embracing leading, teaching and studying in a so-called mentally healthy school. 


  • 16-19 funding. The government announced a 2.2% increase in the 2023/4 funding rate for 16/17-year-olds and for 18 + year-olds with high needs, plus a 10% increase in the cost weightings for some technical/vocational programmes, allocated from last year’s Spending Review and intended to help with 16-19 provision and support.
  • Qualification reform. The government issued an important update report on the reforms around L2 and 3 qualifications which will see new quality criteria and approval processes implemented with awarding body needing to register their intent by 10 Feb 2023, submissions this July, confirmation of approval decisions and funding the summer after and a new formulated qualification system at L3 and below in place from 2025.
  • Qualification approvals. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) followed up the government’s latest report on L3 qualifications by setting out the approvals process for L3 technical qualifications with awarding organisations required to prove employer engagement and employer demand.
  • Skills Survey. The CBI published the results of its latest employer survey of education and skills showing employers more concerned with tackling inflation and recession than training and skills initiatives with many unaware of recent government skills developments such as T levels and Local Skills Improvement Plans. 
  • T Levels. The government published updated guidance on T level work placements, confirming the core principals but acknowledging that for a handful of T level sector areas (6 currently,) some (20%) could be remote. 


  • Fees and loans. The government announced that tuition fees would be frozen for a further two years, maintenance loans would increase by 2.8% for the coming year, an additional £15m would be made available in hardship funding for the current financial year, and those starting Higher Tech Qualifications in 2023/4 would qualify for fee and maintenance loans for the first time.
  • Maintenance loans. The Russell Group called on the government to uprate maintenance loans this year to account for inflation, suggesting that if not, some students could be left short by as much as £1,500. 
  • Cost-of-living. The Student Loans Co published a brief guide for students on what financial support and sources of help are available to help manage the cost-of-living.
  • Graduate tax. Nick Hillman, director at the HE Policy Institute (HEPI,) outlined the context around any likely graduate tax such as that reportedly being considered by the Labour Party at present, pointing in particular to a seminal old DFES paper on the matter, now available on the HEPI website. 
  • University applications. UCAS reported on its current work on reforming and improving the admissions process, where it’s proposing from 2024 to transform the personal statement from an ‘open box’ to a series of standard questions around things like course motivation and preparedness and extenuating circumstances and preferred learning styles
  • Higher Technical Qualifications.The government provided an introductory briefing note on the new Higher Tech Qualifications, explaining which ones would be available when, how they’re approved and what funding was available. 
  • Antisemitism. The NUS set out a 5-point action plan including better representation, training and governance, all to be overseen by an Advisory Panel for tackling antisemitism within the student movement following an independent report last year that found evidence of ‘hostile’ attitudes in some cases. 
  • Oxford vision. Professor Irene Tracey set out her vision for Oxford University as she was inaugurated as its latest Vice-Chancellor, pointing to her local background and to four key themes intended to shape her tenure including education and teaching, discovery and translational research, local and global engagement, and people, promising on the latter that pay and working conditions would be a priority
  • Degree apprenticeships. The website offered a useful student guide to degree apprenticeships complete with a list of ‘need to knows’ and some pros (fully funded degree) and cons (doesn’t offer the university experience).

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Three words which can destabilise a school in an instant: "It's wet playtime!" | @RetirementTale5
  • “Now I have a son in high school, I know that the brands the teens currently love best are Berghaus and North Face. I wanted to look like a teenage vampire, the current kids want to look like 40 year old hillwalkers” | @FelicityHannah
  • “During term time, not an evening or night goes by, where I am able to completely switch off from work” |  @Thinkingschool2
  • “Sorry, I can't work any more today. I just attended a one-hour NGO call where people took up the first 40 minutes introducing themselves, and during this process my soul fled my body” | @beckyhammer
  • “A plea to any conference organisers, please don't print any more branded hessian bags. We've all got enough bags for life to last us a lifetime!!” | @AdrianBethune
  • “marriage is at least 20% one person asking the other where something is” | @NikiBlasina

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “We live in an era of many shocks” – Harvard University professor Kenneth Rogoff sums it up.
  • “No-one would take such a dismissive view of improving literacy, though it is perhaps unsurprising coming from those in politics who struggle to make their economic policies add up” – Rishi Sunak defends his case for keeping up with numeracy to age 18.
  • “When I weigh it all up, I’m doing the SMC more harm than good” – Katharine Birbalsingh relinquishes her role as Chair of the Social Mobility Commission.
  • “Libraries and museums will be eligible for extra support, as energy-intensive industries, but leisure centres and swimming pools will not be equally protected from high energy prices” – the Local Government Association points out some of the discrepancies in the government’s latest energy discount scheme.
  • “My goal is to fire and wire this great University more closely with our city, this nation and the globe, working generously with the other great British universities with whom we share our higher education ecosystem’ – the new V.C. at Oxford sets out her ambitions for the University.
  • “I have decided that the time has come to leave” – Professor Sir Chris Husband, V.C. at Sheffield Hallam, declares it’s time to move on 
  • “In the context of high inflation, rising energy bills, transport costs, rents, and falling wages today's 2.8% increase in the maintenance loan will barely touch the sides” – the UCU reacts to the government’s announcement of a 2.8% increase in maintenance loans.
  • “The increases and changes aren’t enough” – the AoC reacts to the latest funding announcement from government on 16-19 yr olds.
  • “We have offered to clear our diaries for such talks, but we have no dates yet” – the NEU declares itself ready for further talks with the government on strike action. 
  • “If you think NHS and rail strikes have been disruptive, just wait until teachers walk out” – the i’s political commentator Paul Waugh on the prospect of teacher industrial action.

Important numbers

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

  • 1.7%. The forecast for global economic growth this year, down from a previous forecast of 3% because of continuing global disruption and inflation according to the World Bank.
  • £2,100. The likely drop in disposable income for working-age families this year as a result of the cost-of-living squeeze, according to the Resolution Foundation.
  • 65%. The number of respondent businesses slightly aware or not aware at all of T levels, according to the CBI’s latest Education and Skills Survey.
  • 33.8%. The number of residents aged 16 and above in England and Wales with a L4 or above qualification, according to the 2021 Census data just released.
  • 32%. The number of teacher respondents who strongly disagree with maths up to age 18, with 23% slightly disagreeing. according to a survey from Teacher Tapp.
  • 93%. The attendance rate for schools for the first week of this term, according to latest early estimates from government.
  • 7.6%. The predicted drop in reception places in London boroughs, due mainly to a falling birthdate according to a report from London Councils.
  • 80. The number of hours lost on average by UK drivers last year due to traffic jams, according to INRIX’s traffic scorecard.
  • 4,000. The character limit for tweets from next month, up from 280 currently, according to Elon Musk.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Deadline for primary school applications (Sunday 15 January 2023).
  • MPs’ Education Questions (Monday 16 January). 
  • World Economic Forum in Davos (Monday 16 Jan – Friday 20 January).
  • International Higher Education Commission Evidence Session on ‘The Real Economic Value of International Students’ (Tuesday 17 January).
  • Institute for Government Annual Conference on key questions facing the government this year (Tuesday 17 January).
  • HMC/ASCL/Edge and partners conference on ‘Next Generation Assessment’ (Tuesday 17 January).
  • Free School Meals (Primary Schools) Bill Second Reading (Friday 20 January).

Other stories

  • The big assessment debate. For anyone interested in the big assessment debate at the moment about the role of AI systems v human marking, assessment guru Daisy Christodoulou has a fascinating blog on the matter this week. The current discussion of course is around the use of CHATGPT and Diasy puts it to the test in a number of trials involving writing assessments. Broadly the AI system performs well in standard formats but ‘does make some errors particularly about complex content.’ In Daisy’s view, we need to consider combining the strengths of the two -human comparative judgement with AI systems. She and colleagues will be running trials this year. They’ll be worth following. A link to her website is here
  • What’s in store for education this year? One last set of predictions for the year. This one comes from someone well versed in policy, education expert Jonathan Simons. His ten education predictions for the year include teacher strikes but these having little impact on government, some merging or closing of primary schools as pupil rolls fall, ChatGPT emerging as an issue for assessment, Labour announcing a review of tuition fees, and hey presto, the Education Secretary remaining in post all year. See the full list here
  • Working 9 to 5. How many hours a week do you work? It’s all relative of course and sometimes it depends on who’s asking. But according to the ILO International Labour Organisation) just over a third (35.4%) of the world’s workforce works longer hours than the standard 43.9 hours a week while a fifth (20.3%) works less and not always by choice. The details can be found in a monster new report on global working patterns published by the ILO last week. The pandemic obviously had an impact on working arrangements and has hastened the search for a better work-life balance but not for all groups and not for all countries. The report concludes with ‘five dimensions of decent work,’ including offering choice, being family friendly and providing for gender equality. A link to the 170+ report 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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