Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 29 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:

Plenty going on this week. 

Full listing below, but here’s a quick rundown of some of the top stories.

Two new strategic plans were launched – one a long-term plan for Ofsted and the other a set of strategic priorities for the year ahead for the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

The core message from Ofsted’s strategy plan was that it was keen to be seen as ‘a force for improvement,’ particularly in the context of post-pandemic education recovery. Hence the emphasis this time on early years, working as it said with others on ensuring all children ‘get the best possible start.’ 

The plan sets out eight strategic objectives and has some interesting ‘We wills’ among its shopping list of proposed actions over the next five years. These include:

  • Ensuring all schools are inspected by 2025.
  • Looking at how colleges are meeting skill needs.
  • Enhancing inspections of independent schools.
  • Developing a new area SEND inspection framework.
  • Further developing ‘state of the nation’ subject reports.
  • Strengthening the team through a new workforce strategy.

38 ‘We wills’ in all. It doesn’t look like Ofsted will be going anywhere anytime soon.

On to Ofqual which this week released its latest annual survey report into views on qualifications. The survey was conducted by YouGov and was completed at the end of last year. The views cover those of students, parents, teachers, HE institutions, employers, and the general public, and included a separate section this time on last year’s arrangements, when of course exams didn’t go ahead in the traditional way. 

Overall, views about qualifications were ‘broadly consistent’ with those of previous years, albeit with some concern about how far exams such as GCSEs prepare students for the future. A view recently expressed, for instance, in The Times Education Commission interim report. On last year’s arrangements, some unease was expressed about standards and consistency for GCSEs and A levels as well as about what constituted malpractice. And on the wider issue of online exams for GCSEs and A levels, views remained pretty evenly balanced.

Talking of qualifications, which seems to have been one of the big themes of the week, the Education Committee took expert evidence on the post-16 system from leading figures, including David Blunkett and David Willetts. And David Willetts popped up again with a contribution to an important new paper from the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) on L3 qualifications – those qualifications such as BTECs, recently subject to government review and planned withdrawal of funding.

The HEPI paper – a collection of essays from leading education figures – creates a set of powerful voices for the continuation of L3 applied qualifications, including BTECs. As Lord Willetts argued in the foreword to the paper, imagine what outcry there would be if it was the funding for A levels that was being put at risk. 

The issue for government is how comfortably these qualifications can sit alongside the emerging T level programmes. But, as Lord Willetts argued: “BTECs cannot be neatly matched with T Levels. The key is in the name: BTECs are Applied General qualifications which map sectors rather than occupations – which is what T Levels do.” The government has adopted a more flexible approach about which applied general qualifications will survive, and for how long, but as commentators have pointed out, much depends on how successful (or not) T levels prove to be. 

In a similar vein about narrowing options for young people, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) this week examined the impact of establishing minimum entry requirements for entry into higher education. The government is currently consulting on setting such requirements using a grade 4 in GCSE maths and English or two E grade A levels as the baseline.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the Institute concluded that 'this policy would also exclude many who seem able to "engage with and benefit from" their degree, at least based on their performance at university.' They calculated the GCSE English/maths requirements would, for example, have affected 7% of white British undergraduates and 23% of black undergraduates. The NUS dubbed the proposals 'classist, ableist and racist.'

IfS’s view was that if the government wanted to go ahead with its proposals, they should consider using the Augar model of contextualised minimum entry requirements. These are already used for some courses. 

Elsewhere this week, the Lifelong Learning Commission reported on how to boost higher technical qualifications, while the Skills Taskforce for Global Britain argued for ‘a better integrated strategy on skills, and inward investment to attract international firms to more parts of the UK.’ According to their polling, if foreign firms can’t get the skilled workforce they need, they won’t come here. It’s a familiar story.

Briefly and finally, in other news, the Standards and Testing Agency listed the cases where special consideration might apply for this year’s SATs; the Education Policy Institute launched a major national survey of school groups; and the CIPD reported that increased homeworking had helped many firms increase productivity or efficiency. A view it seems not shared by everyone in government.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘More headteachers in England quitting within 5 years of taking the job’ (Monday).
  • ‘Ofsted will step up early-years focus to address lockdown impact’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘1 in 4 poorer pupils could lose out under proposed student loan grade thresholds’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Delivery challenges ahead as Skills Bill finally gains royal assent’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Ban permanent exclusions from English primaries, says ex-children’s tsar' (Friday).


  • Public Bodies Review. The government launched its new programme of Reviews of Public or Arms’ Length Bodies, applying such principles as efficacy and accountability, all with the aim of seeking efficiencies and cost-savings across government operations.
  • Economic strengths. The Resolution Foundation and Centre for Economic Performance published a new report as part of its 2030 Economic Inquiry, looking at the nature of the UK economy particularly as ‘a services-exporting’ nation, highlighting future trading challenges with the EU and elsewhere and pointing to three areas of UK specialisation (finance and business services, creative industries and pharmaceuticals) that rely heavily on talent and skills.
  • Jobs market. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) offered further thoughts on the current jobs market based on sample vacancy posting and survey data, suggesting a notable increase in vacancies among low-skilled occupations and some re-balancing in the mix of vacancies but no sense of any major upheaval for the labour market generally.
  • Flexi working. The professional body for HR, CIPD, published an update on flexi and hybrid working suggesting that an increase in homeworking had led to an increase in productivity but noting that employers and employees often had different views about how they wanted flexi work to operate, calling as a result for both to work together to develop a system that worked for all.
  • Early Years Workforce. The government published a hefty survey report into the early years workforce, looking especially at recruitment, pay, hours and retention, with much depending n provider type but finding pay often low and hours often high, leading accordingly to issues with recruitment and retention.
  • Health and Prosperity Commission. The IPPR thinktank marked its new Commission on Health and Prosperity by publishing a report examining the relationship between health and the economy and showing a £8bn hit to the UK economy from a post-pandemic fall in workforce numbers, with many leaving for health reasons. 
  • Employment Bill. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation questioned what had happened to the Employment Bill, first announced in 2019 to support workers’ rights in the UK labour market, but which had seemingly failed to materialise.
  • Shared Prosperity Fund. The House of Commons Library Service provided a useful summary of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund which is intended to replace some aspects of previous EU structural funding, which will be delivered via local authorities on a formula basis to support levelling up, including people and skills, but which has faced criticism for falling short in terms of reach and amount.
  • Demonising Prevent. The Policy Exchange thinktank examined the issues around the anti-Prevent campaign in a new report ahead of the forthcoming independent Shawcross review, calling for the UK to follow the European model and set up a dedicated, separate unit under the Home Secretary.
  • Gender Gap. UNESCO published its latest annual gender report on the educational performance of boys and girls across 120 countries showing the gap closing and, in some countries, girls now outperforming boys in core subjects despite biases and stereotypes still applying in some cases.

More specifically ...


  • New 5-year strategy. Ofsted launched a new 5-year strategy built around eight major priorities that will include among other things a focus on early years to help with post-pandemic recovery, ensure all schools are inspected by July 2025, and assess how well colleges are meeting skill needs.
  • Chief inspector’s address. Amanda Spielman, Ofsted chief inspector, addressed this year’s Schools and Academies Show where she outlined some of the priorities in the agency’s latest 5-year strategy and reflected on the recent Schools’ White Paper and SEND Green Paper. 
  • Qualification perceptions. Ofqual published its latest annual survey report on perceptions about qualifications, showing views ‘broadly consistent’ with previous years but with some unease expressed about procedures and consistency for last year’s exam arrangements.
  • SATs Special Considerations. The Standards and Testing Agency set out the cases where special considerations might apply for this year’s SATs, listing five in all including family bereavement in the last year, a recent traumatic indent, a life-changing injury or cases of surgery to the pupil or family member.
  • Exodus of school leaders. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) highlighted concerns about the numbers of school leaders leaving their roles within five years as it submitted evidence to the School Teachers Review Body.
  • School leadership. The government published a research report into trends in school leadership in England between 2010 and 2020 showing an upward trend in leadership roles including that of middle-leadership at least for the first few years, largely biased towards males with heads typically having 18-21 years’ experience before moving into a headship.
  • School Exclusions. The Commission on Young Lives examined school exclusions in a new report, noting that many excluded children were vulnerable and placed at further risk following an exclusion, calling among things for an end to primary school exclusions and stricter signing-off arrangements in secondary.
  • Cyber security. The National Cyber Security Centre rolled out further support for schools in the form of free Mail Check and Web Check services that can help schools protect their servers and websites from common cyber threats. 
  • Natural History GCSE. The government outlined the thinking behind and importance of the new Natural History GCSE, formally announced as part of the DfE’s ‘Climate Change Strategy,’ indicating that the exam, which is being developed by OCR, should be ready by 2025. 
  • Levelling the playing field. The OECD examined how far learner’s socio-economic status affected performance in recent PISA exercises, suggesting that countries such as the UK had helped to minimise the impact by building on such factors as school autonomy, high expectations, adequate resourcing and strong early years programmes. 
  • Early Language Skills. The National Literacy Trust reported on its research into the effects of the lockdown on early language skills in a report commissioned by Paramount, indicating that it had had a detrimental effect on many reception age children whose language and reading skills had fallen behind but that in some households, where parents were able to engage, language skills had improved.
  • Diversity in Drama. The exam board AQA reported that it was adding more diversity to its range of texts for GCSE and A level Drama students, listing four new plays from ethnic minority writers that will be available from this September.
  • Admission Appeals. Parentkind revealed the results of its recent poll on school admissions and appeals showing that the majority of parents were happy with the choice of schools available to them, rated distance to travel and school reputation as the biggest factors in their choices, and were happy for admissions appeals to be held remotely.
  • School Groups Survey. The Education Policy Institute launched a major new survey of school groups such as trusts, federations, and local authority groupings, to determine more about their nature ahead of government plans to move to a fully academized school system.
  • Governance Survey. The National Governance Association launched its latest Annual Members’ Survey which will remain open until 30 May 2022.


  • Skills and post-16 Act. The Skills Bill became one of the Bills to be passed as Parliament completed its current session, with the new Act enshrining many of the proposals in last year’s Skills for Jobs White Paper, granting employers a key role with the creation of local skills planning, government new intervention powers and FE providers new responsibilities in providing for the range of new qualifications permitted.
  • Priorities for the year ahead. The government issued its annual strategic priorities for the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education for 2022/23, highlighting the importance of the Institute’s work and setting out three core priorities around developing employer-owned standards, foresighting emerging skills, and revamping post-16 qualification provision.
  • Civil service apprenticeships. The government pledged that by 2025, 5% of home civil service recruits would be an apprentice with a year-on-year increase in the number completing their apprenticeship programme, as it published a new Civil Service Apprenticeships Strategy. 
  • L3 options. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published a collection of essays from leading education figures calling for the maintenance of a strong applied L3 qualification route including for BTECs, arguing that these provide a valuable progression pathway for many learners.
  • Skills report. WorldSkills UK’s Skills Taskforce published a new report calling for a big push on foreign investment in UK skills by piloting for example a ‘Rapid Response Fund’ to fund training that could help raise skill levels and attract foreign companies to this country.
  • Pandemic experience. The government published the results of a survey report, conducted last summer, into the experiences of FE learners and apprentices during the pandemic concluding that most were ‘satisfied’ with the teaching and support they’d received during the pandemic, although less so among L3 and above learners and with many finding it difficult to be motivated working from home. 
  • Virtual work experience. Youth Employment UK examined the issue of virtual work experience, looking at what it involves, some of the benefits and how best to get started.


  • Freedom of Speech Bill. The universities minister addressed the Policy Exchange thinktank where she outlined the importance of the HE Freedom of Speech Bill and what it proposed, arguing that it set the ‘right balance’ and confirming that it will now be carried over to the next session of Parliament.
  • Reflections on the minister’s speech. Nick Hillman, director of the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) reflected on the minister’s Freedom of Speech Bill address, suggesting that the grey area in between what’s illegal and what isn’t remained the key challenge for institutions.
  • Impact of minimum eligibility requirements. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined the potential impact of applying minimum eligibility requirements for accessing student loans in future, concluding such a move would hit disadvantaged and ethnic minority students hardest.
  • Supporting Ukrainian students. The Office for Students outlined how it intended to distribute the £4m fund promised by the government to support Ukrainian students this year, proposing to pay the money pro rata on the basis of collated numbers, with half of the money to be paid at the beginning of May.
  • Higher Technical Education. ResPublica’s Lifelong Learning Commission looked at what was needed to boost higher technical provision in this country calling among other things for a new promotion and information campaign along with an improved credit transfer system and flexible Lifelong Loan Entitlement to help strengthen the prestige of the higher tech route.
  • Online testing. The Times Higher reported on data from the online testing platform ProctorU used in the US, UK and Australia, showing a noticeable rise in various forms of cheating last year such as having someone else present during the test and referring to non-permitted resources, raising questions about its future use.
  • Return to the exam hall. The Times Higher also reported on how far universities were returning to in-person assessments this year, finding from a snap survey that it was a pretty mixed picture with a hybrid model emerging.
  • Centre for Climate Change. UCL hosted the launch of a new Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education, located at the Institute of Education and intended to bring together research and resources to create professional development for teachers.

Stand-out tweets

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Thinking of all the GCSErs out there – just saw my son off for his spoken French ...this year group have been through the absolute pandemic wringer to get here” | @julie_etch
  • “So today was my official first day as a Year 6 teacher. It was a breeze… but probably because the children aren’t back until Wednesday” |@MissBindingYr6
  • “Me: What is the singular of 'sheep?' Y6 child, 8 teaching days before SATs: Goat” | @MrCeeY6
  • “Hi Heads of Department, I have emailed you the timetabling for next year. Please put the name of the teacher next to each class. Remember the Academy formula: HoD gets top sets & 6th form, NQTs get bottom sets, RQTs get behaviour problems, those on support plans get 9Z. Thanks x” | @NewbieSlt
  • “Feel bad, teen boy told me he didn't have to go into school on Monday after DofE at the weekend. I sent him anyway cos he was fine, bit tired but you know 'life' etc. He was the only one who went in. He's just fleeced me for all the crisps in the known universe in reparation” | @Dorastar1
  • “I'm running a Beatles pun contest, and I'm getting Paul McCartney to heyjudicate” | @pauleggleston

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated," – Elon Musk on his bid for ownership of Twitter.
  • “So let me be clear: there is nothing in this legislation which will give anyone the right to harass, intimidate, abuse or promote violence or terrorism” – the universities minister highlights the importance of the HE Freedom of Speech Bill. 
  • “As with health care, the best model is probably blended perhaps with lectures on line and then more interactive discussion of them in person” – former universities minister David Willetts on the current debate about online learning.
  • “A high-risk strategy” – Lord Willetts on proposals to defund BTECs.
  • “This year marks our 30th anniversary. Thirty years of raising standards and improving lives” – Ofsted’s chief inspector heralds the launch of a new 5-year strategy.
  • “They don’t want to do it, they don’t like it” – Katharine Birbalsingh on why girls don’t opt for physics A level.
  • “It's the loneliest job I've ever done" – a primary school head on why he quit.
  • “A glass of wine every day” – a French nun, currently the world’s oldest living person at age 118, explains the key to a long life according to The Independent.

Important numbers

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

  • £18.1bn. The figure for government borrowing last month, the second highest monthly total since records began according to latest figures.
  • 23%. The number of adults who said they’d struggle to pay their usual household bills last month compared to a year ago, according to research from the ONS.
  • 37%. The increase in the number of requests over the last six months for flexible working, according to a survey from CIPD. 
  • 41. The number of universities likely to be hit by a marking and assessment boycott in the coming months as part of an ongoing dispute over pay and conditions, according to UCU.
  • 45. The number of leading UK academics awarded Advanced Grants by the European Research Council, according to the Russell Group.
  • 204,000. The number of apprenticeship starts for the first two quarters of the year, largely in advanced apprenticeships and up 26% on last year according to latest provisional government figures.
  • 32% and 31%. The number of survey respondents agreeing and disagreeing respectively about the use on online exams for GCSEs and A levels, according to Ofqual’s latest survey report.
  • 43%. The number of survey respondents who thought GCSE students should do 3 or more hours of hours of revision on average each day over the Easter holidays, down from previous surveys according to Teacher Tapp.
  • 414. The number of children in England and Wales in custody, according to the NAO.
  • £26,786. The extra amount that school leaders expect to pay on premises energy bills for next financial year, according to a survey from the NAHT.
  • 34. The number of children’s books, owned or borrowed, in households of children aged 0-5, according to a survey last year from the National Literacy Trust.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Local Council Elections (Thursday 5 May).
  • OECD webinar on higher vocational and tertiary education (Thursday 5 May).

Other stories

  • The end of the lunch hour. According to a survey from Branston quoted in The Times this week, the traditional lunch hour, like everything else it seems, is getting smaller – 31 minutes smaller to be precise. Not only that, in the 29 minutes left for the lunch break, nearly 30% of people use the break to answer messages. Fear about being seen to be slacking appears to be the driver behind such behaviour but for the many who work better after a break, cutting back on breaks is counter-productive. A link to the article is here
  • Working as a civil servant. The government has recently stirred up considerable controversy about work practices for public officials. Are they more productive working from home, should they be tied to their desks as Jacob Rees-Mogg has argued, is it ‘Dickensian’ as Nadine Dorries put it, to expect everyone nowadays to be deskbound? Working practices may be changing but so too are knowledge requirements. A list of questions asked in an 1876 Constitutional History exam to work as a Foreign Office clerk was posted on Twitter this week. Typical questions included ‘Give a history of the Star Chamber’ and ‘What were the chief administrative and judicial changes introduced by William the Conqueror?’It’s not known if Jacob Rees-Mogg is interested in adopting such a test but in case, a link to the full list of questions can be found 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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