Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 08 April 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:

Some slowing down of education developments this week as we head towards the Easter break, but a number of prominent news stories all the same.

An ever-growing list includes a bunch of updates from Ofsted on how education recovery is going, a couple of interesting set piece speeches: including one from a minister; an olive branch on Skills Bill plans for applied general qualifications such as BTECs; some formal transition arrangements for LEPs; another report calling for apprenticeship reform; some thoughts on how universities could work best with schools; and a heartfelt plea from two leading teaching unions.

Here are a few details.

Education recovery first, where according to Ofsted’s chief inspector launching the four reports on progress being made, “we’ve seen lots of really good work across early years, schools and FE this term but it’s clear that the pandemic has created some lingering challenges.”  

She pointed in particular to the impact on younger children’s development which “if left unaddressed, could potentially cause problems for primary schools down the line.” The report into early years highlighted issues around children’s communication and language, personal, social and emotional developments, and physical development citing evidence in each case of delayed development and expressed anxieties.

The reports, which also covered schools, FE and prison education, are based on sample inspection evidence and discussions from over the last few months. 

For schools, they highlight learning gaps in subject areas like maths, languages and writing, concerns about pupil wellbeing and behavioural issues, and widespread problems caused by staff absences and increased workloads. Schools were doing what they could, applying a range of catch-up strategies, targeted support, tutoring, progress monitoring and so on but it was clearly difficult for many.

In FE, similar concerns about learning gaps, student motivation and wellbeing, and pressures on staff were all evident, but with the added issues of practical skills, industrial experience and work-based assessment, all being difficult to deliver in remote scenarios. 

The Education Secretary spoke last week in stirring terms about his mission as Education Secretary. “My mission as Education Secretary is a simple one: to give every child the outstanding education that so many children are now receiving.” Presiding over a substantive education recovery would help him deliver on that. 

And if he needs an incentive, he should look no further than the article on school lockdowns in The Times this week by James Kirkup, director of the social market foundation. “The extent and duration of the harm done to our children since 2020,”  he wrote “should be a national scandal.” 

Next those two interesting speeches – one from the skills minister here and one from the departing chief executive of the Office for Students here.

The skills minister, Alex Burghart, spoke about the future of skills at an event hosted by the thinktank Policy Exchange. In many ways, it was a traditional skills minister’s speech, full of resolve about tackling the skills shortages, the skills system and misleading perceptions about the importance of skills and what the government was doing about it all. He even went so far as to call for more apprentices and fewer undergraduates, although he was elusive on levy reform. 

What made it interesting was partly the sense of timing with the Skills Bill about to complete and partly the feeling that there is now a real sense of policy incentive around skills. As the AoC’s Julian Gravatt tweeted this week ‘Skills has never had so much attention,’ although he did add that underfunding was likely to persist.

The other notable speech this week came from Nicola Dandridge who reflected in a presentation to the Association of Heads of University Administration on her time in higher education and in particular as chief exec of the Office for Students (OfS.) 

It was an interesting mirror held up to a sector seemingly facing constant change. She explained how and why the OfS had been created – to articulate for students, a shift she suggested yet to be fully understood, and highlighted the challenges involved as a regulator in focusing on quality. “This tension of speaking the truth and regulating robustly, while not undermining the reputation and quality of much of the sector, is undoubtedly a challenge for a regulator.” A balancing act still being worked through.

The olive branch on applied general qualifications came in a letter from the Education Secretary to members of the Lords who were considering the final amendments to the Skills Bill where it had become a particular issue. 

The letter adopted a reassuring tone: 'We expect to remove just a small proportion of the total level 3 BTEC and other applied general style qualification offer – significantly less than half'  it conceded. In addition, employers are ‘guaranteed’ “a say if they believe qualifications support entry into occupations not covered by T Levels as part of the appeals process.” The Education Secretary’s noted pragmatism may yet allow him to kick off the next session of Parliament, due on 10 May, leading on his acclaimed skills revolution.

Finally, a quick word on that heartfelt plea from two teaching unions. 

It came from the National Association of Head Teachers and the Association of School and College Leaders in an open letter to the Education Secretary, venting their frustration over the ‘premature’ scrapping of free Covid testing to staff and pupils and the publication of this year’s performance tables. 'Given the strength of feeling from our members on these issues, we are therefore taking the unusual step of making this an open letter.'

Both unions have been pointing to the continuing disruption being caused by Covid in recent weeks, with rising levels of absence evident among both staff and pupils, ‘greater over the last few weeks than at any previous point during the pandemic,’ they suggest. “Since Christmas, 342 of our 800 pupils have been absent having tested positive for Covid – including 64 of our 150 Year 11 pupils. I have also had 25 of our 51 teachers absent with Covid,” wrote one school leader.

The Education Secretary has stuck pretty rigidly throughout to the line of doing everything possible to keep schools open and to ensure exams go ahead. 

Figures released this week for the end of March show a slight drop in the numbers of pupils and staff out of school for Covid-related reasons. 2.2% for pupils in state schools in England, down from 2.5% a couple of weeks before. 8.7% for teachers, down from 9.1% from a couple of weeks before. The department will be watching the graphs carefully over coming months, especially given the increase in absences caused by ‘exceptional circumstances related to Covid.’ 

Education Eye will be taking a short break while Parliament is in recess over the Easter period.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Pandemic has delayed social skills of young children, says Ofsted chief’ (Monday).
  • ‘Covid: doubling in absence due to partial school closures’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Apprenticeship levy opposed by most UK employers, survey finds’ (Wednesday).
    ‘Significantly less than half of AGQs like BTECs will get the chop, government concedes’ (Thursday).
  • ‘UK universities to ‘twin’ with Ukrainian unis to support students and academics during the war’ (Friday).


  • Family Hubs. The government followed up its recent announcement on extending the Family Hub system by spelling out in more detail how the network of Hubs operates and the support available through them for families and children.
  • Disruptive technologies. London Economics published its second major report for AI for Services, on technology trends in UK accountancy, legal and insurance services, noting the impact of the pandemic in ‘spurring’ on developments but pointing to poor skills availability and a lack of leadership commitment as continuing barriers. 
  • Health and wellbeing at work. CIPD and Simplyhealth published their latest report on health and wellbeing at work suggesting that wellbeing and mental health were beginning to slip down business agendas although support for people working from home as well as through other stages of an employee’s working life remained priorities for many businesses. 
  • Youth employment. PwC published the latest Youth Employment Index, compiled by the Youth Futures Foundation and PwC, showing the UK rising two places to 18thout of 38 OECD countries for youth employment prospects but with notable regional differences and poor levels of insecure and p/t employment for young people generally.
  • Leave no child behind. UNESCO published a new report highlighting the global challenges around boys’ education with 132m boys of school age currently missing out on education and many struggling with disadvantage and disaffection, calling for a mix of improved access, investment, data and resources to help tackle the problem.
  • Leaning loss. McKinsey examined the impact of the pandemic on global learning systems stressing the fact that the pandemic had exacerbated existing inequalities in the system and concluding that on average students globally are eight months behind where they should be but that this varies greatly by region.

More specifically ...


  • Dear Education Secretary. The NAHT and ASCL wrote an open letter to the Education Secretary calling on him to reconsider the ‘premature’ scrapping of free Covid testing for staff and pupils and to abandon plans to publish performance tables for this year.
  • Schools White Paper. The House of Commons Library Service provided a helpful summary of the Schools white paper released last week to a muted reception, with the briefing highlighting in particular the final push towards a full academy system, higher standards in English and maths, and a ‘richer, longer’ week, among other measures.
  • Future plans. Rob Halfon, chair of the Education Committee, reflected on last week’s two big education papers, suggesting that they had laid the ground for an important future education agenda that should now tackle early years, the tuition programme, missing pupils, and skills provision.
  • Ongoing recovery: schools. Ofsted published a new report on post-pandemic education recovery in schools based on a recent sample of inspections and discussions, showing learning gaps closing in some cases albeit with maths, phonics and writing still causing concern, but pupil wellbeing and staff absences continuing to make life difficult for many schools.
  • Ongoing recovery: early years. Ofsted reported on progress in education recovery among early years providers, using evidence gathered over the last few months to highlight continuing concerns about the negative impact of the pandemic on children’s ‘personal, social and emotional development,’ in many cases affecting their language development and leaving some without essential social skills. 
  • Assessment network. Cambridge Assessment announced the launch of a membership scheme aimed at bringing together practitioners from around the world, sharing best practice and future developments in assessment and learning.
  • ARK’s SPArk. ARK schools confirmed the re-design of its SPArk ‘student learning portal,’ set up during the pandemic to support learning at home by providing a range of activities and resources but now reconfigured to offer wider forms of support for learners.


  • Skills Bills amendments. The Education Secretary wrote to members of the House of Lords as they considered the final amendments to the Skills Bill to reassure them about the continuing existence of many applied general qualifications such as BTECs as well as of the importance of the employer voice in appeals over such qualifications. 
  • The Future of Skills. The skills minister gave a major presentation to the Policy Exchange think tank on the subject of skills, running through current developments notably around the reform of qualifications, the importance of apprenticeships, the need for employer responsiveness and the forthcoming Unit for Future Skills.
  • Capital funding. The government announced the latest list of FE colleges to benefit from the FE Capital Transformation Fund, set up two years ago to help upgrade FE facilities and estate and which will see a further £400m available for the 62 colleges listed.
  • National Skills Fund. The government provided a further run through of the National Skills Fund following recent consultation, outlining the qualifications, the funding, and the support now available under the scheme. 
  • Integrating LEPs. The government outlined the transition arrangements and funding available to LEPs as they complete their alignment with local institutions as per the Levelling Up White Paper which will see them continuing to provide strategic economic planning, a strong local employer perspective, and local business leadership with the first integration plans due later this summer. 
  • Apprenticeship reform. The Onward thinktank published a new report on apprenticeships, calling for further reform to strengthen the traditional skills training that forms the core of apprenticeships recommending among other things removing 16-18 apprentices from the Levy system and fully funding them, making it easier for businesses to take on apprentices and encouraging local leadership through a ‘Future Skills Challenge.’
  • Ongoing recovery. Ofsted reported on progress in education recovery across the sector based on a sample of inspections from the first two months of this year, showing providers working hard to close gaps but facing issues of staff shortages, limited work placements, practical skills gaps and unmet high needs. 
  • Construction route. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) published its latest sector review, in this case looking at construction and its work on apprenticeship standards, T levels and higher tech quals, and recommending enhanced employer collaboration in standard setting, supporting greater equality of opportunity, and working with employers on net zero.
  • Centres of Excellence. Worldskills UK invited applications for the third year of its initiative, designed with NCFE, to establish a network of Centres of Excellence to develop and support technical provision, with a further six places available.


  • Quality focus. Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, wrote about how the government’s focus on quality was helping to drive up standards and drive down drop-outs in higher education.
  • On reflection. Nicola Dandridge reflected on her time as chief executive of the OfS highlighting many of the challenges faced in setting up the Office for Students and the new ways of thinking it brought around the priorities of students, quality, access and value for money.
  • Working with schools. The Office for Students (OfS) published a new briefing on how colleges and universities were working with schools to raise attainment as it discussed plans to tackle the issue, building on revised institutional access plans, enhanced partnerships and targeted data as ways forward. 
  • School partnerships. The Russell Group set out its thoughts on working with schools to raise attainment and encourage access to university, recommending the use of better, alternative data on disadvantage such as free school meals, acknowledging different local approaches and adopting a longer-term strategic approach. 
  • 25th QAA published a calendar of conversations, events and publications which will run throughout the year to celebrate its 25th anniversary and focus on the theme of quality, how to define it and what it means in a changing context, with a compendium to be published at the end of the year.
  • Levelling up. Dr Jonathan Grant and Professor Andy Westwood examined the role of universities in levelling up in a blog for the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, arguing that although the term university received little mention in the White Paper, universities can and do support each of the six capitals (physical, human, intangible, financial, social, institutional) listed in the Paper. 
  • Looking to the future. The University of the Arts London (UAL) set out a new ‘social purpose’ strategy, built around three guiding policies intended to develop creative skills and opportunities incorporating, as the Times Higher noted, a big shift to online provision.

Stand-out tweets

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “I was invited to become a Pro Vice Chancellor, but I decided it wasn’t me. As a rule I tend to take a dim view of vice” | @JohhnySRich.
  • “Today, when introducing WWI, a student raised her hand and brought up the death of a certain archduke. Nobody knew his name, so as a hint, I offered that he shares his name with a band. Gentle reader, my students asked if there had perhaps been an Archduke Metallica” | @ChristinaECox.
  • “When I was a young teacher, I used to go out on a Friday night. How on earth did I manage that? Now, I am goosed by 8pm sat on the sofa at home” | @bryngoodman.
  • “Anyone who uses the word "learnings" should not be allowed to work in education” | @C_Hendrick.
  • Translating @taylorswift13 lyrics in class could help engage a new generation of Latin students, according to a Cambridge specialist” | @CallumCMason.
  • “Knock knock." "Who's there?" "To." "To who?" "No, to whom" | @Tesforteachers.

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “I still receive emails from universities that assume that our role is to support and fund them, rather than protect the interest of students” – Nicola Dandridge reflects on her time as chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS).
  • “We have too many hidden hierarchies, between educational phases and within educational sectors, which have militated against systematically building the sort of meaningful partnerships between the different institutions of education which we need” – John Blake, Director FOR Fair Access and Participation at the OfS.
  • “Never in my lifetime have I known an economy so hungry for skills” – the skills minister talks skills in a major speech at Policy Exchange.
  • “Our aim is to ensure that students can choose from a variety of high-quality options, of which T Levels, A levels, BTECs and other applied general style qualifications will play their part” – the Education Secretary aims to reassure about BTECs and other applied general qualifications.
  • “In short, apprenticeships are increasingly being used as a training tool for knowledge workers, rather than the alternative to university for technical workers that politicians and the public expect them to be” – the thinktank Onward calls for further reform of the apprenticeship system.
  • “I am immensely proud of what the team has achieved at the ETF with the unstinting support of the AoC, the DfE and other partners and collaborators around the system” -David Russell moves on from the Education and Training Foundation.
  • “Our members tell us that Covid-related disruption has been greater in many schools and colleges over the last few weeks than at any previous point during the pandemic” – the NAHT and ASCL call on the government to rethink the scrapping of free Covid testing as well the publication of this year’s performance tables.
  • “I’m particularly worried about younger children’s development, which, if left unaddressed, could potentially cause problems for primary schools down the line” – Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman on the latest set of education recovery reports.
  • “Of all the capitals that collapsed during COVID-19, social capital was the one that stood tall” – Andy Haldane on learning from the pandemic.
  • “The requirement for the doctor to sign the form in ink has been removed and replaced by the issuer’s name and profession being included in the form as a digital form of authorising” – the government modernises the Dr’s fit note form. 

Important numbers

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

  • 1.3m. The number of people, typically those with caring responsibilities, disabilities or in remote locations, who could benefit from the shift to flexible working, according to research from LinkedIn.
  • 72%. The number of businesses in a survey providing new or better support for people working from home, according to research from CIPD and Simplyhealth.
  • 710. The number of places available on the 2022/23 FE Taking Teaching Further programme, according to the government.
  • 179,000. The number of pupils in state funded schools in England absent from school last Thursday due to Covid, down from 202,000 two weeks before according to latest government estimates.
  • 40 minutes. Typical lunch times for schools that operate below the 32.5-hour week as recommended by the recent white paper, suggesting according to Teacher Tapp that it’s the length of the lunch hour that makes the time difference.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Parliament is in Easter Recess from 1 April until 19 April.

Other stories

  • Tuning in. According to the latest listening figures for the final quarter of last year, the radio remains an important medium for huge numbers of people. Typically, 89% of the population over the age of 15 tune into their selected station each week, largely at home but also while travelling (22%) or at work (14%) and listening to just over 20 hours a week. BBC Radio 2 is the most listened to station across the country with Classic FM and Magic the two most widely listened to non-BBC stations. As the New Statesman, which reported on the story this week, put it: ‘will anything kill the radio star?’ A link to the latest listening figures is here and to the New Statesman
    story is here.
  • Leadership matters. The Leaders Institute recently conducted a survey on leadership in the UK. It made for sobering reading. The armed forces came out best, government leaders worst and education about half way down in rankings about inspiring confidence, loyalty and integrity. Most respondents think more should be done to develop leadership in schools, the workplace and communities. Developing leaders rather than mangers remains, it seems, an important priority. A link to the findings 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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