Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 22 May 2020

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?

A glance down the General News column gives a strong clue as to the main news items this week with labour market concerns, particularly among the young, mental health worries and home working/learning all featuring prominently. The schools re-opening debate, meanwhile, continues with some scientific advice and news evidence making a universal opening on 1 June currently seem unlikely.

Nor does it end there. In a hectic week, MPs have debated the Immigration Bill, the government has published its post-Brexit trade and tariff proposals, the Education Committee has begun its Inquiry into the effects of the pandemic on education, the Sutton Trust has highlighted further woes in the apprenticeship system, and concerns about the impact on disadvantaged pupils being off school for so long have been further highlighted in a survey from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Oh, and Cambridge University’s plans to shift to online lectures only for the coming academic year; with small scale tutorials remaining, has added to the coverage. 

A week in other words where key themes continue to emerge strongly. This week we focus on just one – the challenges facing young people. Essentially there are three.

The first of these is the dire state of the job market both currently and potentially for some time to come, with young people facing opportunity, pay and career shortfalls. It’s a topic that’s been addressed by a number of reports this week. The Resolution Foundation for example, suggested that a third of 18-24-year olds have either been furloughed or lost their jobs altogether. In their words: ‘young people are in the eye of the storm.’ The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) which had an interesting analysis of the labour market added that firms had largely stopped posting vacancies by the time lockdown kicked in two months ago. Health and social care jobs were beginning to emerge, but these required considerable training and were not without risk. 

As to what to do, the Labour Party is apparently looking at proposing a new Green Army of young workers, the OECD want better careers support, while employment ‘experts’ who contributed to the Learning and Work Institute paper this week on ‘Getting Britain Back to Work’ favoured a Youth Guarantee. It’s going to take concerted political effort to re-ignite the youth employment market post-pandemic.

The second issue confronting young people concerns students, particularly those considering a university place this year and those graduating. Again, the week has seen a swathe of reports on each. For those facing decisions about whether to take up a place this year or not, pressure is growing for a nationally co-ordinated approach to university re-opening rather than a piecemeal one that would leave prospective students uncertain as to which institution was offering what. Wonkhe and the University and College Union have been leading the charge on this with Mark Leach, editor at Wonkhe, arguing in a comment piece that the need for a national plan was ‘blindingly obvious.’ 

Many of these students have enough concerns on their plate already about how their exams will be graded this summer to be faced with more uncertainty about whether they’ll have lectures or not, what campus facilities will be available or not and so on. As a report for the University and College Union (UCU) highlighted, faced with uncertainty many students may simply just defer.

As for those graduating this summer, they like young people transitioning into work, face a very difficult labour market. That was put into perspective this week by new research from the Institute of Student Employers. This pointed to not only a considerable fall in internships and placements but a reduction (12%) in graduate jobs. Even more depressingly, 31% of employer respondents indicated they were delaying start dates while 14% were unable to say what their future recruitment requirements might be. Without graduation ceremonies and end of term events and now uncertain employment prospects, it was as the FT put it ‘a lousy time to graduate.’

This takes on to the third issue in this overview for young people and that’s the mental toll it’s taking on them, the so-called scarring effect. This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week and the education world has been doing its bit highlighting the impressive activities and support now available in many schools, colleges, and universities. At the start of the week, over 30 supportive organisations wrote to the government calling for a more co-ordinated approach and a national campaign to support young people facing mental health difficulties. The challenge was put into perspective by a report from the Prince’s Trust this week in which 69% of the 16-25-year-olds surveyed said that they felt that their life was now on hold and 33% felt that everything they had worked for was now going to waste. They deserve better.

The main headlines

The top headlines from the week:

  • ‘Coronavirus: Better off children studying more than poorer pupils.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Coronavirus: youth mental health needs recovery plan.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Cambridge cancels face-to-face lectures until 2021.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Unions chief: lack of planning risks chaotic opening of schools.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Councils throw 1 June schools re-opening plan into doubt.’ (Friday)


  • Labour market data.The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published labour market data for the first quarter of this year showing unemployment starting to rise and a big jump in the number seeking unemployment benefits
  • Labour market openings. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined job recruitment data, noting a drop in job postings although some increase in those in health and social care
  • Labour market effects. The Resolution Foundation published new analysis on how the pandemic was affecting different groups of workers with those at each end of the age spectrum, 18-24 year olds and those in their early 60’s, suffering the most in terms of jobs, opportunities and pay 
  • Labour market clouds. CIPD and the Adecco Group published their latest Labour Market Outlook pointing to a significant downturn in net employment for over the next few months with hiring rates and pay expectations both low
  • Labour market realities.The Centre for Labour and Social Studies issued its latest analysis of the UK labour market suggesting that the furlough scheme had not prevented people from worrying about their futures, with 6m fearing job loss within the next six months, calling among other things for a green industrial policy and a new job youth creation programme
  • Green Army. The Guardian reported that Labour was drawing up plans to develop a ‘green army’ of people, particularly among the young whose jobs might have disappeared under Covid-19, to be trained to work in green industries
  • Inside the Black Box.The IPPR think tank published a new paper from some leading economists arguing that while we’re unlikely to see a V-shaped economic recovery, public debt should remain manageable and steady recovery possible
  • Young people in lockdown.The Prince’s Trust reported on how the lockdown was affecting young people, 16-25 year olds and especially the disadvantaged, noting that 49% reckon it will now be harder to get a job, 69% feel their life is on hold and 33% feel that everything they’ve worked for is going to waste
  • Mental health matters. 30 support organisations penned an open letter to government expressing concerns about the effect of the pandemic on the mental health of young people, calling for emergency funding linked to a national campaign able to support children and families
  • Happy at Home. The Chartered Management Institute reported on its survey of home working finding 75% of managers currently working from home, keen to continue it in some form into the future, particularly those with caring responsibilities
  • Culture taskforce. The Culture Secretary announced the names and remit of the new Culture Taskforce, one of five set up by the government to help structure sector plans post-pandemic covering in this case sport, leisure, and the arts 

More specifically ...


  • Home learning.The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported on its Nuffield funded research into the impact of home learning, highlighting significant issues of inequality, with children from more advantaged families spending much more time in learning activities (75 minutes a day more) than those from less advantaged backgrounds.
  • Getting the site ready.The government published further guidelines on getting school premises ready ahead of any re-opening, adding details on cleaning procedures, ventilation (‘where possible all occupied room windows should be open’) and water systems.
  • ASCL position on school re-opening. The Association of School and College Leaders confirmed it was broadly prepared to support the re-opening of schools from 1 June following last week’s meeting with scientific advisers and officials but urged the government to allow schools that might need it more prep time and greater flexibilities over scheduling.
  • NASUWT Survey.The NASUWT union published the results of its survey of members about school re-opening indicating over 90% of teachers surveyed remaining concerned, with many confused over government guidelines.
  • Family Fund.The government pledged a further £10m into the Family Fund, a Fund that helps low income families raising disabled or seriously ill children in England.
  • Children’s services. Children’s charities, including Barnardo’s and the NSPCC, highlighted the growing pressure facing local councils over the provision of children’s social care pointing to ‘a toxic cocktail of cuts and rising demand’.
  • School reports.The government provided rudimentary guidance for schools on what to include in reports to parents during the lockdown.
  • Next year’s exams. Professor Lee Elliot Major in a comment piece in the ‘i’ newspaper, called for next year’s exams to be slimmed down, given that full teaching is unlikely to return for some time, and to use the opportunity to shift away from terminal memory-based exams.
  • School to work transition in times of crisis. Professor Ingrid Schoon and Anthony Mann looked at how best to help young people into work during times of crisis outlining three lessons learnt from the 2008 economic crash including: having focused career guidance; the use of targeted interventions; and ensuring strong relationships between education and the labour market.
  • National Schools Sports Week.Youth Sport Trust announced it was working with Sky Sports to provide its National School Sport Week set for the end of June 2020 to take place at home via remote activities and virtual challenges.


  • Understanding the science. Edie Playfair, Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) reported on the recent meeting between education leaders and scientific advisers, explaining what was known and where there was still some uncertainty, pointing to the need for careful planning by colleges.
  • Building for the Future. Leading training, skills and policy experts called for urgent action from the government to help get Britain, and especially young people, back to work, proposing among other things a Youth Guarantee and funded back to work support.
  • Apprenticeship matters.The Sutton Trust reported on what effect the pandemic was having on apprenticeships noting that many schemes had stalled and many young people especially from poorer backgrounds were missing out, calling for a new emphasis on young people ahead of its first ever apprenticeship summer school.
  • New starts. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) reminded providers that all new apprenticeship starts should work to the new employer-designed standards rather than existing frameworks from 1 August 2020.
  • Defining vocational education.The Edge Foundation published the third in its series of summaries on vocational education in England highlighting among other things the need for a clearer conception around the special nature of vocational learning and assessment.
  • Recovery package. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) outlined a training and skills recovery framework built around a more sophisticated understanding of different skill needs.
  • Skills Build.The Skills Builder partnership announced the launch of if its new ‘universal’ Skills Builder Framework, a system of designated building blocks enabling individuals to develop a range of skills.
  • Media T level.The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education called for views on the draft outcome content for the T level in media, broadcast, and production, due to be available from 2023.
  • English and maths. The Education and Training Foundation reported on the latest round of OLTA (Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment) programme, highlighting case study evidence used to support high-quality functional skill delivery.


  • Cambridge lectures. Cambridge University outlined plans for formal lectures to be delivered only online for the coming academic year with ‘Michaelmas’ Term exams to take the form of online assessments but with small group seminars and workshops to continue within strict guidelines.
  • Supporting international students. The Office for Students published case study evidence showing ways in which institutions can support international students during the pandemic including supportive hangouts and hardship funds.
  • International students. The Russell Group set out proposals for giving the UK ‘a competitive edge in the international student market’ including further visa reforms such as extending it to 30 months, clarifying global arrangements for recognising online learning, and a beefed up international marketing campaign.
  • Immigration matters. Universities UK outlined its key asks including extending the current arrangements for EU students for a further year and supporting the two-year post study work visa, as the Immigration Bill headed to Parliament for its Second Reading.
  • More questions than answers. Jim Dickinson, Associate Editor at Wonkhe, examined the multifarious challenges facing universities as they prepare for the coming academic year, concluding that a national plan was needed.
  • Would you defer?London Economics reported on its latest survey of prospective student enrolment indicating that some 17% of UK students might defer for a year if their chosen university was not operating normally come September.
  • In front of the Committee.The Office for Students put up media and other coverage of its witness session in front of the Education Committee looking into the impact of the pandemic on education.
  • Student Loans. The Student Loans Co urged full-time undergraduate students in Wales to apply now for their loans for the coming year.
  • Signposting information.The Quality Assurance Agency published a new ‘signpost’ document bringing together advice and guidance on admissions and transitions for HE for the coming academic year.
  • Mental health. Universities UK welcomed Mental Health Awareness Week by adding some new principles to its strategic ‘Stepchange’ framework for mental health, developed 3 years ago with Student Minds to prioritise mental health and wellbeing in higher education.
  • Regulatory matters. Dr Dean Machine reflected in a comment piece on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) website about the recent time-limited regulatory powers. adopted by the Office for Students for during the pandemic, challenging how far they were in the interests of students and questioning some of the premises
  • Taking the Chair.The Russell Group of universities announced that Dame Nancy Rothwell, currently Vice-Chancellor at the University of Manchester, will take over as Chair of the Group of 24 leading universities from this September.
  • Academy of Money.The Open university announced that it had joined forces with Money Saving Expert to host a free six-part course covering all aspects of personal finance. 

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “New Zealand parents drop off children at ‘kiss and go’ zones at school” -@Independent
  • “Online learning cannot just be 'bunging lectures online' says @nicoladandridge”- @CommonsEd
  • “Ministers will make the final decision on whether to press ahead with its schools reopening plan on May 28, a union leader has revealed” - @SchoolsWeek
  • “You’ve got to be really confident you’ll enjoy living with your parents for another year to think deferral is a good idea (plus if lots defer, it may be harder to get the (university) place you really want next year...) -@nickhillman
  • “Texted a friend to say "I miss you & can't wait to give you a big hug again". Except I accidentally sent it to the man doing my car's MOT today. Now staring at my phone, wondering if he'll respond with a discount or a restraining order” _@StewartWood

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “It’s not obvious there’ll be an immediate bounce back” – the Chancellor dashes hopes of a V-shaped recovery.
  • “They’re right, I think, to be opening schools” – Tony Blair on schools re-opening.
  • “We will take up Mr Williamson’s statement that his door is open” – the National Education Union responds to the Education Secretary’s offer of talks on re-opening schools.
  • “Each school year of additional learning increases life income by an average of around 10 per cent’ – The Spectator quotes from research in Germany as it considers school re-opening.
  • “Some areas may want to work faster than others” – the Local Government Association on school re-opening.
  • “Our new points-based system is firmer, fairer, and simpler” – the Home Secretary defends the new Immigration Bill ahead of debate in Parliament.
  • “If there are costs to you in carrying out this service, we understand students may be required to cover these costs, but we would not expect you to make a profit from such a service” – the government issues advice to universities on storing students’ stuff.
  • “Deliveries to schools and Local Authorities will start this month and continue in June” – The School Standards Minister responds to a question in Parliament about when schools are likely to start receiving their free laptops.
  • “The problem is that so much now relies on end-of-year memorisation tests that they warped behaviour in schools” – Professor Lee Elliot Major calls for a rethink on terminal exams.
  • “If you can, get them to stop using digital devices at least an hour before bed” – the government offers advice to parents of secondary pupils.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 69%. The increase in the number of people seeking unemployment benefit last month, according to the latest official figures.
  • 0.8%. The inflation rate for April, the lowest for some time according to latest official figures.
  • 60%. The number of UK imports that will be tariff free post-Brexit, according to the Dept for International Trade.
  • 8m. The number of jobs currently furloughed, according to stats from the Treasury.
  • 49%. How many organisations surveyed reckon they will maintain staffing levels against 22% who said they would decrease them, according to the latest survey from CIPD/Adecco.
  • 1/3. The number of 18-24-year olds (excluding students) who have been furloughed or lost their main job by early May, according to research from the Resolution Foundation.
  • 31%. The number of employers surveyed who said they would be recruiting fewer if any new apprentices in the coming year, according to research from the Sutton Trust.
  • 59%. How many managers want to work from home at least a couple of days a week in future, according to a survey from the Chartered Management Institute.
  • 3.5%. How much of its GDP Germany is intending to spend on R/D, according to an article in the THES (the UK is aiming for 2.4% by 2027).
  • 14%. How many respondents were unable to provide recruitment details for this year, according to a survey from the Institute of Student Employers.
  • 5.8. How many hours a day children from the most advantaged families spend on educational activities compared to 4.5 hours for the less advantaged, according to research from the IfS. 
  • 2.4%. The number of children attending education settings in England on average last week, according to latest figures from government.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Further guidance and information on school re-openings (Thursday).

Other stories

  • Post pandemic. An interesting survey from Politics Home and the House magazine this week on how MPs think the economy and society might shape up post-pandemic. Over 70% (of MPs surveyed) agree that ‘tough spending choices’ lie ahead with 42% reckoning cuts to public services will be needed although most think key workers deserve a pay rise. 65% felt that people would be kinder after the pandemic although this didn’t seem to stretch to politicians. A link to the survey is here

That's it for this week. Watch this space and/or check in with my Twitter stream @stevebesley to make sure you don't miss out on the next issue of Education Eye.

Steve Besley

Education Eye: the latest developments in UK education – all in one place.

Education Eye is compiled by Steve Besley and provides a weekly summary of what's going on in UK education. Its simple format of weekly top stories, news, quotes and tweets is designed to help busy people keep up to speed with all the latest developments'
Steve has spent a lifetime in education, initially in schools and FE and latterly as Head of Policy at Pearson where he ran a national education policy briefing service for many years. Steve is currently providing education policy briefings through EdCentral under the title Education Eye. Steve is a member of the Leaders Institute and a Reader for the Queen's Anniversary Prizes for FE and HE'

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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