Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 12 June 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?

Important stories across the board this week:

For schools, the government decision to drop plans for all primary children to be back in school before the end of the summer term has generated sharp divisions; the Telegraph even suggesting they may not be back until well into September. For FE, proposals for skills recovery packages have started to be published as the government gears up for its own big announcements. And for HE, a more nuanced picture on how students view their experience both current and future has emerged with some important survey results released this week. 

Here’s a look at some of the details:

The dropping of plans on wider primary school attendance was formally announced to MPs by the Education Secretary on Tuesday afternoon, but in truth it had been deemed impossible by many from the start. Just over half (52%) of primary schools had taken on extra pupils last week and the figure was rising, but given the issues over social distancing and other capacity and health concerns, the Education Secretary acknowledged that ‘a cautious, phased approach’ was now the most sensible course of action to take – hence the change in plan. 

The decision has divided opinion. The Chancellor described it as ‘a tragedy’; former Education Secretary David Blunkett labelled it ‘a betrayal of young lives’; and there was much talk in the media of ‘a lost generation’. Others argued that it simply wasn’t possible for schools to be able to guarantee safe access for all pupils as proposed by government. Parents have been left divided. 

Among the concerns, two stand out: First – and one raised in Parliament by Rob Halfon, the Chair of the Education Committee – is whether it will lead to a new era of educational inequality; a widening of the attainment gap, as highlighted in a report from the Education Endowment Foundation last week and reinforced in a new report from the Social Mobility Commission this week. And the other concern, raised by the Children’s Commissioner and other children’s organisations, is about the social and emotional impact on children and families, many of whom are already under pressure.  In PM Questions this week, the Leader of the Opposition called for a national plan on school reopening with immediate support for summer holiday learning. The PM said plans are under development and that the Education Secretary would present some details next week, but 2m distancing remains a big issue. The National Education Union has a starter for ten including smaller class sizes, support over the summer for families, and changes to exam assessment.

In summary, as things now stand, primary schools that can open up for more children before the end of term are still being encouraged to do so, while secondary schools are due to put in place limited face-to-face provision for small groups of Year 10 and 12 pupils from next week. Pressure is also building for interim support measures such as summer schools, dedicated tutorial systems, and getting the free laptop system moving. In addition, work on next summer’s exams continues: ‘we are working with Ofqual and the exam boards on our approach to these’, the Education Secretary told MPs. Ofqual is due to release a consultation on this in the next few weeks (as the Education Committee heard the day after). 

Next, getting the economy moving again where this week the Business Secretary announced the creation of five business groups – including one focusing on skills and apprenticeships. They come as we await major set-piece speeches in a few weeks’ time on economic recovery plans from the PM and Chancellor. The context for this continues to look bleak. This week it was the turn of the OECD to add its perspective and it wasn’t pretty: an 11.5% fall in GDP, high unemployment, and a substantial fiscal deficit in a worst-case scenario. A slow recovery in the best case. 

Training and skills assume a major importance in such a context and the FE sector is not short of solutions. This week the body representing independent training providers called for an £8bn + skills training package. It argued for a big chunk of this to go on apprenticeships including in the form of wage subsidies for young apprentices and another big chunk on adult skills programmes – current ones rather than new, high profile ones in its view. This aligns with some of the thinking set out in a ‘recovery’ letter to the PM this week from the CBI, where job creation, skills hubs and flexing of the apprenticeship levy were among the proposals. The Institute of Directors called for similar kickstart measures as it released its latest Confidence Tracker this week.  Broadly, a consensus on skills recovery principles is taking shape, incorporating a youth training guarantee, strengthened apprenticeship support, a green new deal, subsidised L3 and 4 provision, adult re-skilling programmes, specialist job centres, and a volunteer scheme.   

And so to those university student surveys which this week have come from Unite Students,  StudentCrowdand the HE Policy institute/Advance HE. There’s been no lack of interest in trying to winkle out what plans students might have for the coming academic year, let alone what they think of things generally, not all of which have been helpful, but these latest surveys add an important dose of reality.

The major annual Student Academic Experience Survey published by HEPI/Advance HE is described by Wonkhe as ‘one of the best sources of information we have about the student experience’ and this latest version lives up to its billing. The headline messages have been neatly summarised by HEPI director Nick Hillman. The big headline has been the increase in the number of students reporting that their experience has been positive, a lot of it down to the improved quality of assessment and feedback. There are flipsides of course, value for money, wellbeing, and a less favourable experience reported by some minority students for example, but overall, at a time of great uncertainty, it’s good to see the university experience still valued by so many. 

The top headlines from the week:

  • ‘Concerns over delays to DfE’s free laptops scheme (Monday).
  • ‘Coronavirus: Plan dropped for all primary pupils back in school (Tuesday).
  • ‘Anxiety over next year’s exams, MPs told’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘More students say university not value for money’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Coronavirus: school in September part-time if 2m distancing’ (Friday).


  • Economic tightrope: The OECD published its latest economic outlook suggesting global economies were on a tightrope depending on whether a 2ndwave of the virus returned and painting a pretty bleak picture for the UK of a contracting economy, rising unemployment and only gradual recovery at best. 
  • Recovery roundtables:The Business Secretary held the first of the government’s five new working group sessions designed to bring leading business and academic figures together to help plan getting the economy moving and growth and jobs growing over the coming months.
  • Job protection data:The Treasury published official data on the UK job protection and furlough schemes for up to the end of May.
  • Future Tech:The Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, launched the government’s Future Tech Trade Strategy pointing to a growing digital trade network, a Tech Exporting Academy and opportunities for global trade and investment. 
  • Recovery Plan: The CBI set out its proposals for an economic recovery in a letter to the PM calling for a big focus on jobs and skills through Skills Hubs and New Jobs programmes along with investment in the green economy and other kickstart measures.
  • Business Confidence: The Institute of Directors released its latest Confidence Tracker showing business leaders’ overall confidence in the economy slightly up but investment and hiring intentions down.
  • Social Mobility: The Social Mobility Commission examined how many of its proposals had been acted on over the last seven years, concluding that only a quarter had, calling as a result for a new core unit to be set up at the heart of government to drive forward improvements in social mobility.
  • Brexit stocktake:The UK in a Changing Europe think tank published an update on Brexit negotiations with the date for a decision on any extension to the transition looming, raising concerns about the impact of a no-deal and the need for more time to deal with trade, security and immigration issues. 
  • Mental health worries: The Institute for fiscal Studies published new analysis of the impact of lockdown on mental health during the first two months indicating that not only had it precipitated a deterioration in levels of mental health but also heightened mental health inequalities generally.
  • Return to spender: The Resolution Foundation reported on the effects of the pandemic on living standards, suggesting that while falls in income may have been spread across all groups, falls in spending hadn’t leaving low-income families facing the biggest drops in living standards. 
  • Jobs worry: The FT highlighted the latest data from JobisJob, the online recruitment website, which showed resilience in some sectors such as healthcare and technology but a sharp drop in retail and hospitality and concerns about a steep rise in unemployment as furloughing drew to a close.
  • At risk: The TUC published a new briefing highlighting issues facing the employment prospects of young people, often because they work in key risk sectors like hospitality and the arts, and calling on the government to offer a job guarantee scheme.
  • Good work: The Institute for the Future of Work reported on the future of work post-pandemic making the case for so-called Good Work, a model of work that supports good health and encourages cooperation, to be at the centre of public policy in the future. 
  • More Good Work: The RSA updated its earlier major report on Good Work to reflect the current pandemic listing among other things 8 ideas including work councils, a workers’ data covenant and personal learning accounts, that could form the basis of a new social contract for good work. 
  • First 1001 days: Children’s organisations and mental health charities called on the government not to forget families and babies in any plans for rebuilding society post-pandemic as a new survey revealed current anxieties were often being transmitted to the very young.

More specifically ...


  • School opening update: The Education Secretary confirmed in a Statement to MPs that government plans to have all primary school pupils back before the end of the summer term were being dropped and that government was working on a more extended back to school plan.
  • 10-point recovery plan: The National Education Union (NEU) issued its own 10-point education recovery plan calling among other things for ex-teachers to be brought in to create small classes, primary SATs to go, and changes to be made for 2021 exam assessment.
  • School places: The government published latest stats on primary and secondary school choices for this year showing offers on preferred choices up slightly for secondary but down slightly for primary.
  • Education Committee Inquiry: The Education Committee hosted its latest virtual witness session looking into the effects of the pandemic on education with exam and disadvantage issues heading the topics discussed.
  • Response to Education Committee: The Sutton Trust issued its response to the Education Committee’s Inquiry into the impact of the pandemic on education, listing 18 recommendations including holding summer schools for disadvantaged pupils, focusing the apprenticeship levy on young people, and moving towards post-qualification applications for university.
  • 2020 exam entries: Ofqual published provisional data on this summer’s exam entries showing GCSE entries up slightly mainly in EBacc subjects such as Combined Science, History and Spanish, and A’ level subject entries down slightly, in both cases reflecting the changing demographics of each age cohort.
  • Exam grades: Ofqual wrote to this year’s GCSE and A’ level candidates reminding them of the work going on to ensure they receive timely and assured grading this year as the closing date loomed for schools and colleges to submit their grade profiles to exam boards.
  • Online accreditation: The government reported back on its 2019 consultation on developing an accreditation scheme for online learning providers, confirming that it plans to create an inspection-based Quality Assurance Body this August and launch a voluntary, ‘low cost’ Accreditation Scheme from this September.
  • Early Career teachers: The government announced the rollout from this September of its programme of professional support for teachers in their first two years of teaching.


  • Apprenticeship rescue: Leading business groups and regional Mayors outlined a 7-point plan to re-boost the apprenticeship system supported by a long-term Back to Work Fund with funding relief, safety guidelines and improved support.
  • T level rollout: The government announced the latest list of providers approved to offer T levels ranging from accounting to management and administration from September 2022 with the provider pool set to widen from 2023.
  • PAC on UTCs: The Public Accounts Committee published the results of its inquiry into University Technical Colleges (UTCs) taking the government to task for a lack of commitment and poor use of resources and calling on the Dept to come back with clear targets and data on UTCs within three months.
  • AoC on the Autumn series: The Association of Colleges published its response to Ofqual’s consultation on holding an autumn round of exams, acknowledging the case for another round of exams but questioning whether it was in the best interests of students looking to move forward.  
  • Shame and shaming in FE: The FE Trust for Leadership published the second in its revealing series on the challenges of leadership in FE today and the personal toll it can exact, concluding with a number of reflections on how to prepare for leadership, make transparent decisions and leave with dignity. 
  • Recovery package: The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) submitted its thoughts on skills and training ahead of expected government announcements on economic recovery plans in a few weeks, calling for a wage subsidy for apprenticeships, support for traineeships and investment in current adult training programmes.
  • The training we need now: The Policy Exchange think tank published a follow- up collection of essays from leading employers and commentators on skills policy calling for a beefed-up vocation education and training system to emerge from the current pandemic that could help drive recovery forward. 
  • Build back better: The Edge Foundation launched its post-COVID-19 Revival Fund with grants of up to £50,000 available for organisations able to offer learning support and skills training that could make a difference. 
  • Caring through crisis: The Learning and Work Institute highlighted the work of its Driving Change projects supporting colleges working with young carers whose case studies indicated many of the challenges they currently face.
  • Collaboration funding: The government announced that the College Collaboration Fund, a Fund set up earlier this year to help colleges share good practice, while now smaller was open for bids until the end of the month.
  • ETF on the ATS: The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) announced some flexibility to the eligibility criteria for this year’s Advanced Teacher Scheme (ATS) along with bursary options in many cases. 
  • English Language support: The British Council announced a scheme to support 1m English language learners through its My Tutor platform as they prepare for their International English Language proficiency tests during the lockdown.


  • Latest Student Academic Experience Survey: Nick Hillman, director of the HE Policy Institute listed ’10 killer facts’ from HEPI and Advance HE’s latest annual major survey on students’ academic experience, which saw student satisfaction grow though not for all and where value for money remains an issue. 
  • Unite survey: Unite Students, the university accommodation provider, published its latest survey of students and parents as they consider options for this autumn, finding both keen to see the campus and live teaching experience return as soon as it’s safe for this to happen. 
  • Counting the cost: SUMS Consulting reported on its survey of university finance directors painting a fascinating picture of the ups and downs, challenges and costs facing those managing budgets and recommending a continuing focus on data, transparency, collective responsibility and core business.
  • Dear Mr Halfon: Sir Michael Barber, Chair of the Office for Students (OfS) wrote to the Chair of the Education Committee following a recent appearance before the Committee, setting out in more detail what the OfS was doing to support students and higher education generally during the pandemic.
  • Changing the record: Rachel Wolf argued in a telling comment piece on the Wonkhe website that the university sector will need to reflect better voter concerns about what they look for from higher education if it is to curry favour from government in future.
  • International students: Universities UK called on the government to take urgent action to reassure international students coming to study in the UK by highlighting the new 2021 Graduate route and extending the visa application and study rules for Tier 4.
  • More on international students: The Times Higher reported on the case of LSE which is likely to be one of the hardest hit by a drop in international students this year and which may need to look at local recruitment in the interim.
  • Student and staff wellbeing: The government added a section on student and staff wellbeing to its recent guidance on opening up campuses listing where funds and support might be available.
  • Student protection: The Office for Students issued new ‘temporary’ guidance for providers on how it intended to monitor and protect the interests of students during the current pandemic including how they would be taught and assessed. 
  • Helping hand: The Office for Students reported on how universities and colleges were helping this year’s prospective students with advice and guidance at a particularly difficult time highlighting case studies and shared good practice.
  • The QS rankings: The latest annual international rankings from the research group QS which uses research output, international reputation, and staff ratios among its metrics, saw UK universities retain four places in the top ten but drop down the international league with Asian universities continuing to progress.
  • More league tables: The Complete University Guide published its latest (2021) university rankings complete with separate tables covering 70 subjects showing Cambridge still top overall and the top ten remaining much the same.
  • AI places: The government and Office for Students launched their campaign to generate applicants, particularly from underrepresented groups, for their new, funded postgraduate artificial intelligence and data science conversion courses, due to start this autumn.
  • Degree apprenticeships: The Edge Foundation, UVAC and university partners published a new report looking at how to make degree apprenticeships ‘sustainable’ in HE, calling for a distinctive brand and clearer design model.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Almost a week on, I've not heard of anyone seriously contemplating student social bubbles. It was, and still is, absolute twaddle” | @jim_dickinson
  • “I find it strange we campaign for pubs to open, but at the same time, say it's too risky for schools to open before Sept” | @halfon4harlowMP
  • “Ahhh school is finally getting back to normal: I walked into a table so hard I have a huge lump, corrected some full stops and capital letters of pupils who definitely know how to use them, and got asked if I was pregnant (to be clear, I’m definitely not)” | @MrsSpalding
  • “Every school is now three institutions in one. A traditional school. An online school. A community hub contributing to welfare. That’s a lot of work. Being done extremely well and with great agility” | @russellhobby
  • “A French company has been ordered to pay £36,000 in damages to a former employee who suffered from “bore out” because he was not given anything interesting to do” | @Telegraph
  • “I really miss my social life, and I didn’t even have a good one” | @MhairiMcF

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • We do fully intend to bring back all children to school in September, provided the progress we are making continues, which I hope it will” – the PM defends government plans to row back on the wider opening of schools. 
  • “We all owe them a huge debt of gratitude” – Prince Charles thanks teachers and families for keeping learning going through the pandemic.
  • “It cannot be that I go to the swimming pool in the morning and to the restaurant at noon (...) but that the universities in the middle of the city remain closed” – German lecturers call for universities to return to business as normal.
  • “In the past, they (governments) have tended to wake up to the “bottom 50 per cent” problem, tinker about a bit, and then lose interest, which is one reason the landscape has become so complex and opaque” – the Policy Exchange think tank calls for an improved skills training system.
  • “My two years in the role have been two of the best of my life” – Steve Frampton, prepares to hand over the Presidency of the AoC to Sally Dicketts.
  • “We aren’t surprised that the policy has been jettisoned” – ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton reacts to changes to government plans on primary school reopening.
  • “To date, the Department has delivered nearly 50,000 devices and 10,000 4G wireless routers to local authorities distribute to eligible children. Deliveries will continue throughout June” – the government responds to MP’s questions about the distribution of free laptops.
  • “There is a tsunami of anxiety hitting schools about the one million children who are going to be taking their GCSEs and A-levels next year” - Professor Elliot Major highlights concerns about the impact of school dislocation to the Education Committee. 

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 20.4% – How much the UK economy contracted in April, the first full month of lockdown, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
  • 14% – How much UK GDP could fall this year if there’s a second wave of coronavirus, according to a new economic report from the OECD.
  • 8.1% – The increase in the level of mental health in the UK during the first two months of lockdown according to analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
  • 473 – How many UK infrastructure projects have been put on hold during the current pandemic amounting to £6.5bn, according to the FT.
  • 4 – The number of UK universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, UCL) in the top ten of the latest global ranking by QS.
  • 14.6 – Average weekly contact hours for university students this year, up from 13.9 the year before, according to the latest academic survey from HEPI/Advance HE.
  • 14,000 – How many fewer enrolments there might be at UK universities this year from East Asia, according to research from the British Council. 
  • 5,281,745 – The number of GCSE entries this summer, up 2% in line with a rising 16 -year old cohort, according to Ofqual.
  • 0.05% – The number of certified GCSE and A’ level grades challenged during the 2018/19 year with 16% of these changed, according to figures from Ofqual. 
  • 24.7% – How many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds get a good pass in GCSE English and maths compared to 49.9% of all other pupils, according to the Social Mobility Commission.
  • 82.2% – The number of secondary school applicants this year who got their first- choice offer, up slightly, according to latest figures from the government.
  • 52% – The number of primary schools that reopened in the first week to more of the pupils from the government’s list, according to latest government figures.

Everything else you need to know ...

Other stories

  • Which workers have been hardest hit? Researchers at the House of Commons Library service this week looked at which groups of workers had been hardest hit by the shutdown. Unsurprisingly, as bodies like the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation have previously suggested, it’s those who were already at a disadvantage in the labour market before the pandemic struck that have been hardest hit. The research gives some figures to make the point. For example, of workers in shutdown sectors, 57% are women, 50% under age 35, 15% disabled and 15% BAME. Here's a link to the research.

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.

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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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