Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 29 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?

How different will education be in the coming months? What will be the new normal? This week we look at how things may be shaping up in different parts of the education system post-pandemic as early years and primary schools prepare to host some year groups from next week. 

For schools, the new normal, physically at least, can be gleaned from the series of guidance documents issued by the government in recent days: smaller classes, controlled pupil movement, racks of sanitiser. And for secondary schools, some specific face-to-face support along with continued remote provision. On a personal level, one headteacher described in the Times Ed this week how different his life had become s measuring out classroom spaces, checking alcohol percentages in hand sanitisers and so on. No doubt it’s the same for school caretakers and other support staff as well, all of whom deserve a round of applause. 

Some pressure points remain for schools, such as eating arrangements (‘work out arrangements for lunch so that children from different groups don’t mix,’) provision for vulnerable pupils and procedures at the school gates, but the government is hoping that its guidance will lead to a gradual return and a settled state for many schools. 

Two big questions stand out at present: Will many pupils turn up, and will pupils – and it should be said teachers, parents, and others – find it easy to adapt? Speaking to the Education Committee this week, Nick Gibb, the School Standards Minister, said it was "difficult to say" if all primary children would be back in school before the end of the summer term, and some of the unions still have concerns about the meeting of their five proposed ‘safety’ tests. Writing on the Conservative website this week, Paul Goodman suggested a slow return at first, likely to gather pace in the coming days. We therefore wait to see on that. As to the second question on how easy it will be to adapt to the new normal, it may take time, but as Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL put it, teachers will do their best to reassure pupils and as other countries have shown, children and their teachers have proven to be very adaptable, though it may feel strange at first. 

Two final pointers. First, Helen Russell’s postcard from Denmark in Thursday’s Guardian, describing how Denmark has started to return to normal, offers an interesting insight: ‘Denmark’s schools started off with a two-metre social distancing rule, but this has now been reduced to one metre and dropped entirely for kindergarteners'. And second, for those who want more details both on the position here and in other countries, there’s a helpful summary on the BBC website here.

Next FE, where the plight of Generation COVID, those young people seeking jobs, training, and opportunities of any sort, is being increasingly highlighted. Colleges and training providers are not short of ideas. In recent weeks, the Association of Colleges has proposed a 'Youth Guarantee', offering a guaranteed place in college or training for young people, while the Association of Employment and Learning Providers has called for support packages for apprenticeships and adult learning. 

Three more reports this week have added their voice and perhaps given us a sense of what may lie ahead. First, the RSA launched its ‘Year of Stabilisation’ programme; a package of measures designed to reskill the country and get the economy growing in the short to medium term. Its ten measures included proposals for subsidised training, structured volunteering, a focus on the green economy, and closing the digital divide along with a 3-day shift system aligned to school re-opening for helping people back to work. Second, a group of leading commentators supporting young people proposed the creation of a 'National Youth Corps', modelled perhaps on the original US version and guaranteeing 16-25-year-olds the opportunity of work and training with mentoring and provision of the minimum wage. And third, the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance, in a similar vein, called for more vocational training for young people and job guarantees, but funded from a wealth tax. As recent weeks have shown, there’s no shortage of ideas and some core themes such youth guarantees, volunteering schemes, subsidised training programmes, community agendas, and a re-focusing on economic and social needs, are beginning to take hold.    

So, on to higher education, which has been grappling with the prospect of an uncertain future for some time. This week former BBC Newsnight contributor Chris Cook provided an excellent analysis of the issues facing the sector. Some of the figures referred to in the article – for example, Manchester University indicating a worst case scenario of losing out on £270m in just one year if recruitment and research funding took a dive – raise significant questions about the current business model. As the article concluded, 'Institutions, at this moment, do not know what a sustainable business looks like for the 2021-22 academic year; they will only get a clear sense of what September looks like in August'.

The Times Higher has also been doing its own bit, looking at how some universities abroad are preparing for a potentially different academic year, some more gradual than others, but all keen to open up in some form from this autumn. Most highlight the importance of the student experience as a key factor in attracting students and are therefore placing great emphasis on first-year students to ensure as much of that experience as possible is there from the start. 

In summary, while schools may start to re-open in the coming weeks and young people transitioning to employment or training may find support packages coming through in the coming months, universities fear it may be some time before the government recognises their needs. 

The main headlines

The top headlines from the week:

  • ‘Virus could be here for a year so schools must re-open, says education secretary.’ (Monday).
  • ‘Secondary school students to be kept two-metres apart, says DfE.’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Uncertainty dogs UK universities ahead of new academic year.’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘PM: 1 June school openings will go ahead.’ (Thursday).
  • ‘UK economy shows early signs of improvement from lockdown low.’ (Friday).


  • Hopeful signs: The FT assessed some of the latest data on the economy and pointed to five indicators – including an increase in job vacancies, more cars on the road, and the normalising of some shopping habits – to suggest that the economy was starting to move.
  • 3 principles, 10 ideas: The RSA outlined a new strategic plan to help build economic and social recovery post-COVID-19, listing 3 principles (direct measures, universal support, capacity building) and 10 ideas (3-day work patterns, skills building, closing the digital divide, moving to a green economy, increased volunteering) that could help support a transitional year of recovery.
  • Contact sport: The government moved a step nearer to a resumption of competitive sport with the issue of ‘Stage 2’ guidance, permitting for example close contact training and tackling when considered safe by clubs and individuals.
  • Project Birch: The FT reported that the Treasury was devising plans to ‘rescue’ companies too important to fail with bespoke loans and other potential schemes. 
  • Family way: The Institute for Fiscal Studies examined how the lockdown was affecting family life and how parents were divvying up their time when it came to childcare, housework and home schooling with mothers often facing the biggest burdens.
  • Coronavirus impact: The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest in its series of surveys on the impact of the coronavirus on people’s lives in this case for the month of April showing, for instance, 80% of adults worried about the impact on their lives; the South West the most neighbourly region; and workers in East Anglia and the East Midlands the least likely to work from home.
  • October Bank Holiday?: The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) looked at the argument for an October Bank Holiday this year, suggesting that it could actually stimulate parts of the economy and could ultimately help home working move to a 4-day week. 
  • The future of the welfare state: The IPPR think tank launched a new research project into the future nature of the welfare state post-Covid -19 incorporating such areas as youth employment, the provision of care and community resilience and outlining five ‘shifts,’ such as moving from individual to collective solutions, needed for the future.
  • Commission on Disability: The Centre for Social Justice announced it was launching a new Commission on Disability, to be chaired by Lord Shinkwin and coming 25 years after the Disability Discrimination Act.
  • Safety first: The government published a new report on Safety Tech indicating that the UK is taking a leading global role in this area with the government preparing to launch a new global Safety First Innovation Network.
  • The missing £4bn: Nesta, the innovation foundation, published a commissioned report into research and development in the UK with the authors suggesting that some regions miss out on the benefits of R&D, potentially to the tune of £4bn, and calling for a significant redressing of the balance through uplifts and regional innovation districts.

More specifically ...


  • Preparing for secondary school re-opening: The government issued guidance for secondary schools to support further opening from 15 June, calling on them to to provide face-to-face support for a quarter of Year 10 and 12 cohorts alongside existing provision where possible.
  • Preparing for early years re-opening: The government followed up its guidance for primary schools with planning details on premises preparation, space management, hygiene, and group settings for early years and childcare settings.
  • In front of the committee: Schools Week reported on evidence given by Nick Gibb, School Standards Minister as he appeared in front of the Education Committee as part of its enquiry into the impact of the pandemic on education. 
  • Summer exams: The New Schools Network which supports the development of free schools, called on Ofqual to clarify how statistical standardisation would operate for schools such as theirs which have limited historical data on which to base pupil exam performance.


  • Generation COVID: Leading figures, many of whom work with young people, called on the government to support the creation of a National Youth Corps, designed to help young people (16-25 years) facing a hugely challenging labour market with guarantees of work, wages, training and mentoring.
  • COVID19 and social mobility: The LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance published a new report highlighting the damaging effects of the pandemic on the prospects of young people, calling for more vocational learning and job guarantees funded by a wealth tax to help prevent 16-25-year olds from being left behind.
  • Levelling up: The FT reported that the government was considering creating a new Northern Powerhouse growth board to help re-energise and drive economic growth and skills in the North of England as part of the government’s earlier levelling up plans.
  • Make a wish: The Edge Foundation invited people to make a wish for what they would want from education following the pandemic, highlighting those from some leading figures as a starter for ten. 
  • Remote EPA: The Institute for Apprenticeships shared some feedback from apprentices on how remote end point assessment (EPA) had worked for them.
  • Our role: Rob Nitsch, Chief Operating Offices for the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, outlined the current work of the Institute in the first of a new series of blogs for the Association of Colleges (AoC).


  • University Challenge: Journalist Chris Cook examined the challenges facing UK universities in a detailed analysis on tortoise media, highlighting some of the issues around the current business model and the problems the sector faces as it adjusts to a post-COVID-19 world. 
  • Tackling educational inequality: The Russell Group published a new report outlining a three-pronged approach (institutional responsibility, regulatory incentives, government policy drivers) to tackling educational inequality with Russell Group members committing to five principles of good practice as part of a wider national strategy. 
  • Blended learning: The Times Higher looked at how UK universities are planning to provide teaching, learning and other services in the coming academic years, with blended learning models appearing the most popular as they try to provide as full a student experience as possible.
  • Augar lines: Philip Augar, author of the recent report into post-18 provision, outlined in an article in the Times Higher three ‘principles’ needed for the future of tertiary education, including re-balancing system capacity between FE and HE; building a strong high-technical route; and re-aligning the current HE market model.
  • New Task Force: The government announced the creation of a new time limited taskforce designed to highlight how and where university research and knowledge can help the country and the economy recover from the pandemic.
  • International students: In an article for The Spectator, former Universities Minister Jo Johnson highlighted how damaging a collapse of international student recruitment could be – not just for universities, but for the country generally.
  • University admissions: The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) reported on recent discussions about this year’s university entry, outlining some of the issues and the need for collaborative working, and concluding with a checklist of reflective questions. 
  • Look back and learn: Paul Greatrix, Registrar at the University of Nottingham, looked back on the Wonkhe website at one of the last great crisis facing universities in the early 1980s, finding both similarities and differences in terms of effect, and with some continuing lessons to be learned.
  • Home based: Policy experts from UCAS examined in a blog on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) website whether the pandemic might make university applicants prefer to apply to local universities, concluding from initial evidence that it was too early to say yet.
  • Graduation ceremonies: Exeter University confirmed it was considering holding a postponed ‘traditional’ graduation ceremony for this year’s graduates sometime next year, while preparing to issue degree certificates remotely this year.
  • Fake news: The National Union of Students (NUS) warned students about the emergence of fake Fresher Week tickets and deals currently being targeted at many students. 

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “It's the 3rd time in 8 weeks that DFE education info has come out on a weekend” - @Julian Gravatt
  • “We’re going to be there to comfort them, to get them back into normality and make sure that they’re ok. Because we’re teachers, and that’s what we do” -@educationgovuk
  • “I taught my first ever lesson today where students and I were wearing face masks. I hadn’t realised how much classroom interactions rely on facial expressions” - @independenthead
  • “I'm staring at a little 32 page booklet a uni has sent out via UCAS about itself - and it's quite astonishing how little of what's being "sold" to students in it is not on offer this September” - @jim_dickinson
  • “I’m over Zoom calls now. Would like to be able to speak to people without having to look at my own face” - @katie_s_ashford

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “We will be doing absolutely everything we can to get people back into jobs and I will look at the idea of an apprenticeship guarantee” – the PM tells MPs how anxious the government is to get the economy and jobs moving again.
  • “Plans for the post-war era were not put together in a hurry” – RSA Chief executive Matthew Taylor on the need for careful plans for a post-COVID recovery.
  • “It was penny after penny dropping about things in your institution, you’d not quite realised” – Sir Chris Husbands, Sheffield Hallam quoted in tortoise media about the effects of COVID-19.
  • “To say the sector feels unloved is an understatement” – former Universities Minister Jo Johnson on the HE sector.
  • “The programme must go live before the end of the school and university year in July” – leading commentators call for the setting up of a National Youth Corps.
  • “It is no good saying we are going to let schools do what they want because some schools will do it extremely well and other schools won't” – Sir Michael Wilshaw on schools re-opening.
  • “No-one asks how young people did in their Sats like they do GCSEs, A-levels, degree and technical qualifications" – School Standards Minister Nick Gibb on why Year 5s are not being rushed back.
  • “Children aged 3 to 5 years need 2.3 metres squared per child” – the government issues guidance for early years.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • Over 50% – the drop in the number of online job adverts over March and April, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
  • £280 – how much less a week the average UK household is spending as a result of lockdown, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research.
  • 197 – the number of cars made in the UK in April, according to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.
  • 41% – the number of respondents who reckon their school doesn’t have enough sinks for children to wash their hands in regularly, according to a survey from the National Education Union.
  • 69,000 – how many early years providers have temporarily closed during the pandemic, according to the Local Government Association.
  • 339 – the number of counselling sessions being carried out with children a day, roughly one every five minutes, according to evidence from Childline.
  • 2.3 – how many more hours a day on average mothers spend looking after children than fathers, according to research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. 

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Potential further re-opening of some education settings (Monday).
  • MPs return from the Whitsun recess. (Tuesday).

Other stories

  • Lockdown time. This week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published an interesting report on how we spent the time during the first month of lockdown – the period from the end of March to the end of April. It paints a fascinating picture. Unsurprisingly, we spent less time on travelling and work, and more on gardening, DIY and sleeping – an extra 18 minutes a day in the case of the latter. We also spent 16 minutes a day contacting family and friends, 28 minutes a day reading, and a huge 2 hours 53 minutes a day binging out in front of a TV screen. Some people have had Zoom sessions that long. You can read the full report 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

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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