Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 24 February 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:

Back to business and to a week of some big picture thinking.

Sir Keir Starmer set out his priorities for a future Labour government while Tony Blair and William Hague sketched out what was needed to become ‘a technological superpower.’ Education received honourable mentions in both. Elsewhere UK businesses gave a thumbs up to the prospect of shorter working week and the economy received a boost ahead of the Spring Budget. Perhaps some good news at last.

Links to most stories below, but first a run through the top education-related top stories of the week.

  • Strike action. ‘Formal talks’ is now the phrase of the moment as the government seeks to end the current wave of public sector strikes. Nurses have been offered them and now teachers where recent meetings with officials have been described as ‘polite but meandering.’ The next few days look to be important. The NEU, whose National Executive meets tomorrow, is prepared to recommend a pause to next week’s strike action if the government can come up with ‘a serious proposal.’  Serious proposals are what the NASUWT and NAHT are also looking for. A big hurdle remains this year’s pay award let alone the general 3% suggested by government this week for next year’s pay.  

  • On a mission. Six weeks after Rishi Sunak listed his five priorities of the year, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer used a major speech this week to outline the five ‘missions’ that will guide a future ‘mission-led’ Labour government. Education was one of the five under the banner of extending opportunities with generic references to raising standards, reforming childcare and preparing young people for work. The other four included: economic growth, clean energy, safer streets and a reformed NHS. Challenged over a lack of detail about the ‘how,’ Sir Keir said that this would be added over the coming months, ‘filling up the columns that hold up the pledges with specific details’ as he put it. This process is intended to start on Monday with a speech on the economy.

  • Also on a mission. Two other people on a mission this week have been Tony Blair and William Hague who co-authored a major report calling for ‘A New National Purpose.’ They key to this they argued was embracing technology. Everyone else is, the UK must do the same. But it requires some ‘radical’ restructuring first. The two ex-party leaders set out ten leading reforms needed. These included a lot on data, AI, reconstituted central government and global relationships. However, education featured prominently with references to research, universities, future skills and ‘a new edtech-training fund to improve teachers’ confidence and incentives to adopt innovation as part of learning.’ But the biggest problem as they acknowledged is being able to rise above political differences ‘to create a new national purpose.’

  • Same pay, shorter week. UK businesses that trialled a 4-day week over the second half of last year have given the concept the thumbs up according to a report published this week. “The results,” they said, “have been resoundingly positive.” Employee stress down, wellbeing up, recruitment and retention improved and no loss to productivity, even an increase in some cases. 92% of the pilot businesses, which ranged from healthcare services to a fish-and-chip shop, intend to continue the experiment, according to the 4 Day Week Campaign. Yet how far Thursdays become the new Friday remains to be seen. As the HR experts, CIPD noted, it won’t work for everyone and will take time to accommodate. As they explained: “Our recent research found just one in three companies expect it to be the reality for most UK workers in the next ten years.”

More specifically ...

  • ‘Overcrowded specialist schools: We’re teaching in cupboards.’ (Monday).
  • ‘Ofsted inspection support staff to strike for 12 days.’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘NEU ‘prepared’ to consider strikes pause.’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Colleges ask for £400m as ‘perfect financial storm’ hits.’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Labour says government has created ‘perfect storm’ in England’s teaching workforce.’ (Friday).


  • Starmer speech. The Labour leader Keir Starmer outlined in a keynote speech five ‘national missions’ covering the economy, NHS, crime, energy and education that he argued would ‘help Britain get its future back’ and form the basis for a future Labour government.
  • 4-Day Week. The team monitoring the piloting of the 4-day working week in the UK reported on the results from its trial in the second half of last year, suggesting it was ‘a resounding success’ with improvements in employee wellbeing and in recruitment and retention, leaving 56 of the 61 participating companies planning to continue the scheme.
  • Public sector performance. The Institute for Government published its latest report into the state of public services, looking at nine areas in particular including schools where it suggested teacher training numbers were at ‘crisis levels,’ concluding that overall the government’s strikes strategy along with winter challenges and post-pandemic catch-up have meant public services won’t return to pre-pandemic levels before the next general election.
  • National Purpose. Former Party Leaders Tony Blair and William Hague came together to set out what they called ‘a new national purpose’ for the UK, calling in a new report for a digital revolution built around embracing technology, from government to education.
  • Budget briefing. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) outlined the extent and impact of the cost-of-living crisis in a new pre-Budget report pointing among other things to the impact of inflation on poorer households, gaps in earning, and ‘the cliff edges’ faced by many households, particularly those on benefits.
  • Budget calls. The British Chambers of Commerce listed staff recruitment, energy costs and regulation as key concerns among members, calling on the government to consider affordable childcare to ease recruitment pressures along with greater green investment in the forthcoming Budget.
  • Getting Britain working. The Resolution Foundation reported on the current debate around economic inactivity arguing that to increase labour force participation, the government needed to focus its efforts on supporting mothers, those with disabilities and some older workers in work rather than trying to get retirees to ‘unretire.’  
  • Cost-of-living. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported on how financial pressures were affecting people in Britain with fuel debt seen as the biggest cause of worry and anxiety and more adults compared to last year reporting borrowing money or resorting to credit.
  • Vulnerable adolescents. The Public Accounts Committee published the results of its Inquiry into the support available for vulnerable adolescents, pointing to a lack of strategic leadership and ownership within government and gaps in local data, calling among other things for the DfE to clarify its role and for government to report back on its progress towards access to services for young people.

More specifically ...


  • Teachers’ pay. The government published its evidence to the Pay Review Body looking into teachers’ pay for 2023/24 stressing its continued commitment to the £30,000 starting salary and improved pay progression especially for early career teachers while recommending a 3% pay award for experienced teachers.
  • Unproductive tasks. Teacher Tapp reported on the sorts of unproductive tasks/mundane forms of workload that many teachers have to endure, with primary teachers citing paperwork and displays and secondary teachers pointing to paperwork, marking and assessment as the government indicated it was prepared to look at workloads as part of the discussions on ending the current strikes.
  • School attendance. The Children’s Commissioner’s office called for extended support and wider alternative provision as it submitted its evidence to the Education Committee Inquiry looking into persistent absence, noting that during the first two terms of 2021/22, 818,000 children had been persistently absent for reasons other than just illness.
  • Absence rates so far. FFT Education Datalab crunched the figures on school absence rates for the first half of this term suggesting trends were slightly better than the equivalent period last year and notably better since the bouts of illnesses reported at the end of last term
  • Anti-Bullying. The Education Endowment Foundation and Youth Endowment Fund invited secondary schools in England to take part in a trial of the ‘Grassroots’ programme which sees ‘well-connected’ KS 3 pupils work with fellow pupils to reduce bullying, absence and behavioural issues, promising an evaluation report in a couple of years.
  • Catch-up. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published further details on the progress of young learners as they have moved through from Yr 1 to Yr 3 post lockdown, noting that many Yr 2 pupils remained behind on reading while the disadvantage gap remained stubbornly high.
  • Art and design. Ofsted published a new subject review, looking on this occasion at art and design, and pointing to the importance of context, different domains and pedagogical considerations as well as highlighting a list of features such as varied classroom activities that make for high-quality provision.
  • Financial education. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Financial Education for Young People called for financial education in schools to be beefed up with more support, resources, training for teachers and monitoring by Ofsted as it issued a new report highlighting the lack of awareness of its place in the curriculum.
  • Child Literacy. MPs debated children’s literacy and school libraries ahead of next week’s World Book Day with an appeal to improve investment, support, and library access especially for children in disadvantaged areas.
  • Grammar schools. The BBC reported that although some progress had been made in opening up access to less wealthy families, many grammar schools still remain the preserve of the better-off.
  • Free school meals. The Mayor of London announced that free school meals would be provided for all primary school children in London for one year (Sept 2023 – Sept 2024) to help families with the cost-of-living.


  • College finances. The Association of Colleges (AoC) raised concerns about the financial health of colleges in a letter to the Education Secretary pointing to ‘a perfect financial storm’ of factors including uncertain enrolment trends and rising energy, exam and other costs, and calling for an inflation level increase in funding rates.
  • Dual professionals. The Lifelong Education Commission in conjunction with the Chartered Institution for FE reported on the role of ‘dual professionals’ – staff who can combine industry expertise with high-quality teaching – calling for better support, incentives and recognition of their role in light of the current importance attached to advanced technical skills.
  • T level training. The government published a commissioned report into the second phase of the T level Professional Development Programme (TLPD,) concluding that it was ‘broadly the correct model’ of support although there was a need for more practical examples, greater peer networking and as the rollout progresses, more specific training.
  • Apprenticeship Levy. Mark Cameron, CEO of the 5% Club, called for greater clarity around the funding in the apprenticeship levy, pointing to the six proposals put forward in a recent paper with City and Guilds including broadening out the levy and using underspends to address labour market shortages, that could help transform levy funding in future.
  • Global engagement. The AoC published its latest Global Engagement Report covering 2021/22, quantifying the work of colleges in this area and calling for their own ‘Turing Scheme’ to support such activity.
  • Future skills coalition. The AoC, AELP and City and Guilds confirmed plans for their first major campaigning activity intended to highlight the role of the FE sector in providing for the country’s skills needs, with a panel event in Parliament set for next week.


  • Horizon Europe. Leading university figures from the Russell Group and elsewhere expressed dismay as the government’s latest accounting report showed money that had been set aside for Horizon Europe but as yet unused, was being returned to the Treasury.
  • Staff-Student relationships. The Office for Students proposed requiring HE providers in England maintain a register of personal relationships between staff and students with ‘enforceable obligations around training, guidance and support, as part of ‘a new condition of registration’ launched for consultation this week
  • Nursing training. The MillionPlus Group called for a rethink on the requirements around placements for nursing training in a new briefing, arguing that this along with better support, investment and greater involvement from HEIs in NHS workforce planning could help reduce recruitment issues for nursing.

Tweets and posts of note

A collection of stand-out tweets to make you think (or smile):

  • “In the Tic-Toc age will a long attention span be a characteristic valued by employers?” - @Mike_Bostock.
  • “Sheffield school criticised for saying job applicants must be ‘wedded’ to role” -@guardiannews.
  • “Why wasn't salad rationed when I was young? Kids these days have all the luck” -@Samfr.
  • “I can tolerate algebra, maybe even a little calculus. But geometry is where I draw the line.” -@ThePunnyWorld.
  • “How do computers get drunk? They take screenshots” - @Dadsaysjokes.

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “Some of these issues are not going to be fixed within five years”. They will take longer” – Sir Keir Starmer on Labour’s five missions for the future of Britain.
  • “When it comes to our rich and varied literary heritage, the Prime Minister agrees with the BFG that we shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words” – Number 10 weighs in on the airbrushing of Roald Dahl.
  • “I am delighted to take on this role at such an important time in our country for Science Innovation and Technology” – Dame Angela McLean on her appointment as the government’s new Chief Scientific Adviser.
  • “The British people need a new national purpose” – former Party Leaders Tony Blair and William Hague set out a new tech blueprint for the country.
  • “At our core, Labour believes that UK universities are and should be treated as a public good rather than a political battlefield” – Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner shares concerns about the current disputes in HE.
  • “An olive branch with thorns attached” – the NAHT reacts to government proposals for talks on resolving strike action.
  • “Members will be as shocked as I am to learn that three quarters of a million school-aged children in the UK still do not have access to a school library” – MPs debate child literacy.
  • “I'd like to see Sure Start Plus hubs in and around 25 per cent of England's secondary schools by 2027. I think it's achievable and affordable with creative thinking and political will” – the Commission on Young Lives on the need to build on Family Hubs.
  • “Yet what should be a showpiece has declined into a degree of squalor and disorder” – the Policy Exchange think tank reports on the decline of streets around Parliament.
  • “As of 15 March, devices with the app installed will be considered non-compliant with the corporate environment” – the European Commission bans staff from using TikTok on their official devices.

Important numbers

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

  • £5.4bn. The surplus recorded for government finances last month, higher than expected although lower than in January last year, according to latest figures from the ONS.
  • 2.3%. The projected figure for UK CPI inflation by November this year, according to Citigroup.
  • 6%. The average pay deal in the three months to January 2023, a 32-year high according to XpertHR.
  • 92.6%. The attendance rate in schools in England for w/commencing 6 February but with just 24% of pupils attending secondary school on 1 February (strike day,) according to latest government figures.
  • 6% and 9%. The number of sessions missed on average by primary school and secondary school pupils respectively in the first half of this term, down from 9% and 12% respectively this time last year according to FFT Education Datalab.
  • £130m. The cost of extending free school meals to all primary school children in London for next year, according to the London Assembly.
  • 38.3. The number of days last year that children in the Ukraine had to spend underground, according to research from Save the Children.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Education Questions in the House of Commons. (Monday 27 February).
  • Second Reading of the Lifelong Learning Bill. (Monday 27 February).
  • Policy Exchange event ‘Prevent Review: Where Next?’ (Monday 27 February).
  • Education Committee evidence session on ‘child exploitation and county lines.’ (Tuesday 28 February).
  • The PIE Webinar on Hull University’s ‘unique roadmap of international strategy.’ (Tuesday 28 February).
  • UUK International Higher Education Forum. (Tuesday 28 February – Wed 1 March).
  • Secondary School Offer Day. (Wednesday 1 March).
  • AoC ‘Mind the Skills Gap’ campaign Day. (Wednesday 1 March).
  • World Book Day. (Thursday 2 March).
  • Nesta online event ‘Improving children’s outcomes.’ (Thursday 2 March).

Other stories

  • Most borrowed library books. As The Guardian reported this week., 2021/22 was a good year for the author Julia Donaldson. According to the latest data collected from UK libraries, she was not only the most borrowed children’s author but the most borrowed author generally as well. She replaced James Patterson who had topped the list for years. Other top ‘borrowed’ authors included Daisy Meadows, David Walliams and Lee Child. Roald Donald came in at eighth in the list. He was fifth in the children’s top ten. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next year. A link to the list is here.   
  • No early lectures. The Times Higher reported this week on some research that will gladden university student hearts. Or at least those that may still have to get up early for lectures. Researchers at the National University of Singapore apparently monitored attendance data and sleep records of 24,000 students and found what they called ‘concerning associations’ between early morning starts and attendance and learning outcomes. According to the report “universities should consider avoiding mandatory early-morning classes” as they can have a detrimental effect on outcomes. There was no reference to other possible sleep limiting factors. A link to the story in the THES is here.
  • Back to the office. While debate about a 4-day week has captured many headlines this week, debate about working from home rumbles on. Amazon, for instance, has called for employees to spend at least 3 days a week in the office from 1 May. As the boss put it in a circular to staff: “Collaborating and inventing is easier and more effective when we’re in person. The energy and riffing on one another’s ideas happen more freely.”  He went on to argue “that some of the best inventions have had their breakthrough moments from people staying behind in a meeting and working through ideas on a whiteboard, or walking back to an office together on the way back from the meeting, or just popping by a teammate’s office later that day with another thought.”  A  link to the circular 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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