Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 17 July 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:

End of term for many this week but some hefty developments to take us there. 

They include a buzz of activity around higher technical qualifications (HTQs as we’ll get to know them) following last week’s speech by the Education Secretary; a new conditional support scheme for universities; a clutch of student survey results; a long-awaited report on managing college finances; the Annual Report and Accounts from both Ofsted and the Standards and Testing Agency; projections on future pupil numbers; and a new report on home schooling from the National Foundation for Educational Research. 

We’ve also had a couple of important Parliamentary Committee Reports. One on the issue of refunding, student tuition fees (or not) and the other last week from the Education Committee on this summer’s exam grades. The latter Committee has also continued its detailed inquiry into the impact of the pandemic on education, this week calling in the Universities Minister to review things there. 

Further afield, it’s been another big week for the UK’s economy with more depressing sets of statistics from the Office for National Statistics, reinforced by the latest quarterly recruitment survey from the British Chambers of Commerce. In summary, hours worked, wages, vacancies and numbers on payrolls were all down over the last quarter. There’s still worrying talk about unemployment spiking later this year, but some light can be seen perhaps from the fact that as the ONS put it ‘the rate of decline slowed into June’ and the economy did pick up slightly in May, still below hopes at 1.8% but in the right direction. The Office for Budget Responsibility meanwhile published a pretty grim set of modelled forecasts on UK future finances pointing to the biggest drop in GDP for 300 years, debt and unemployment remaining high, and the economy not returning to its pre-crisis size for at least a couple of years. £60bn worth of tax rises per decade was one of the doses of medicine proposed here for restoring some health to the economy. 

And lest we forget, this week has also seen launch of  the UK’s ‘new start: let’s get going’ publicity campaign around Brexit as we head into the final months of the transition agreement. And with perfect timing, the government has laid out further details about its points-based immigration system with important information on which occupations qualify for the skilled worker route. The Home Office reckons it’ll send out ‘a positive message to the rest of the world about the kind of country Britain wants to be.’

Here’s a quick run through some of the main sector headlines starting with those developments around higher-tech provision.

The higher technical provision mantra repeated by the Education Secretary in his SMF speech last week is critical to a government that needs to tap into a highly skilled pool of technicians if it is to revive the economy and open up opportunity in some of its key constituencies. The government has therefore moved quickly this week to set the wheels in motion with an implementation plan for ‘a new system of approved, high-quality qualifications linked to employer-led standards’ coupled with remit instructions for the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) to get on with planning and approving said L4/5 qualifications. The details build on Damian Hinds’ Battersea December 2018 speech and subsequent consultation, but there’s an air of purpose about it all now. The aim is to launch an approval process this autumn with digital qualifications first up followed by those in Construction, Health, and Science next year. Approved providers, universities, colleges or Institutes of Technology would prepare for first teaching from autumn 2022. Oh, and there would be a big publicity campaign, something that’s been missing in action for L4/5 qualifications so far.  

Before we leave higher levels, the government has responded to calls for further support for HE with the creation of a new intervention and support regime, rather ominously termed a Restructuring Regime. In practical terms, it is offering help and support with repayable loans on a case by case basis through a Restructuring Board, but with a review of an institution’s provision, quality, efficiency, governance and student protection as part of the bargain. Many will view this warily. The Times Higher has a helpful assessment of it all here.

For FE, away from HTQs, the review into the oversight of college finances has finally appeared – it was completed last October. The review by Dame Mary Ney followed a couple of high-profile cases last year – let alone continuing concern about the financial robustness of the sector – and comes ahead of a further National Audit Office report on colleges finances and a reforming White Paper, both due out this autumn. A lot could be said about the long-term squeeze on this sector and the effect this has had, let alone the number of bodies and accountability lines involved in college performance. But we are where we are, and there are hopes that the government’s reborn enthusiasm for higher-level skills may result in some much-needed investment. For the moment, Dame Mary has proposed some natural improvements around forward planning, data collection, governance training and the relationship between the FE Commissioner and the ESFA. The government will collect more info on the impact of Covid-19 on colleges over the coming month, but a lot now hinges on the promised White Paper.  

For schools, the question of attainment gaps remains live. Radio 4 investigated the issue this week and NFER published further concerns in a report this week about the impact of lost schooling, particularly for exam groups. It’s an issue that the Education Committee has been deeply concerned about, and at the end of last week it published the First Report from the inquiry into effects of the pandemic on education – in this case on the issue of calculated grades for this summer’s exam candidates. A lot of work has gone into to ensuring that the outcomes end up being, in Ofqual’s words, ‘the fairest possible in the circumstances’, but the Committee was concerned some could lose out and put down strong markers around the three core principles of fairness, transparency and accessibility. A good summary of the issues can be found on the HE Policy Institute website in a briefing by Dennis Sherwood and Rob Cuthbert. We’re likely to hear a lot more about all of these matters as results days loom.  

For a more futuristic picture on learning, it’s worth looking at Big Education’s ‘Learning from Lockdown’ site where ideas abound about how to use the current crisis to change the way we look at education in schools. Peter Hyman, the Co-Director, neatly characterised the emerging themes as ‘hope and fear.’ And for an inspector’s eye view of schools and colleges, Ofsted’s Annual Report and Accounts for 2019-20, published this week, covers the first – not quite complete year because of Covid-19 – inspections under the new framework. Broadly, most of those inspected appear ‘satisfied,’ with satisfaction ratings generally in the 80/90 per cent, but we’ll perhaps know more when Ofsted publishes its promised evaluation report later this year.

The top headlines from the week:

  • UK universities: no automatic tuition fee refunds, say MPs.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Half of exam year UK pupils given no school work since March, study finds.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘COVID fears putting off Chinese students from UK.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘No Plan B for exams if schools disrupted in the autumn.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Ministers urged to overhaul early years services in England.’ (Friday)


  • Immigration arrangements. The government set out more details on its points-based system including the going rate for skilled workers, which occupations were and were not eligible for the skilled worker route and which occupations would qualify for the Health and Care visa, with full listings in detailed Annexes.
  • Future finances. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) published its latest assessment of UK public finances, modelling three different scenarios but pointing overall to a major (10%) fall in output, massive rise in borrowing and an unemployment rate of around 9%, with government measures seen as helping to limit at least some of the long-term scarring. 
  • Where’s the money? The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) reported on the Chancellor’s recent Plan for Jobs suggesting that much of the funding indicated comes from underspends and reprioritising from other projects.
  • The truth will out. The Resolution Foundation questioned the presentation of some of the labour market statistics suggesting that the current figures used can be confusing and misleading and that looking at some of the additional data such as total hours worked can be more illuminating. 
  • Labour market overview. The Office for National Statistics provided its latest set of figures for the UK labour market with pay, wages and vacancies all down as the effects of the pandemic continued to hit, albeit with unemployment still high but slowing.
  • Q2 recruitment outlook. The British Chambers of Commerce and Totaljobs published their latest report on the labour market with 29% of businesses surveyed expected to decrease the size of their workforce over the next three months, 12% expecting to increase it and 59% expecting it to remain the same.
  • Fund Design. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) outlined the options facing the government as it set about designing a new UK Shared Prosperity Fund to take the place of the current European Structural Fund which provides valuable resources to regions for priorities like digital investment and skills training.
  • Ofsted Annual Report. Ofsted published its Annual Report and Accounts for the year ending March 2020 covering over 3,000 school inspections and 200 FE inspections pointing to high levels of satisfaction ratings but equally a slight increase in complaints following the introduction of a new inspection framework. 
  • Save Our Education. Save the Children reported on the alarming effect the pandemic was having on the health, welfare and futures of many young people and their families across the world as millions missed out on schools, calling for a new post-Covid international education action plan.
  • Children’s health. Former Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom was confirmed as leading a review into children’s health, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds and particularly during the first 1001 days of a child’s life, with a report due early next year.
  • Best beginnings. The Children’s Commissioner for England raised concerns that the pandemic was having a devasting effect on many families especially the most disadvantaged and called for a new wide-ranging early years investment plan including Children and Family Hubs, a workforce strategy and extended childcare.
  • Don’t forget older workers. The innovation foundation Nesta praised the Chancellor for the work being done in government to support workers especially younger people at risk of unemployment but highlighted the importance of older (55+) workers who make up the main body of employees and often lack digital and other future-based skills.
  • Save our Manufacturing.Liam Byrne MP, the TUC and motor organisations called on the government to provide flexible financing and support skills training as part of a campaign launched in the Midlands to support motor trades and save manufacturing generally.
  • Nursery closures.The Labour Party highlighted what it called a crisis in childcare and nurseries, calling on the government to provide urgent funding for this sector amid fears that many could go out of business.

More specifically ...


  • Getting the grade. The Education Committee highlighted the importance of this summer’s exam grades being not just scrupulously fair but also being seen to be so for all groups of learners as it published an initial report from its detailed inquiry into the effect of Covid-19 on education.
  • Next summer’s exams. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) published their response to Ofqual’s consultation on next summer’s exams supporting the proposal to move the exams back a few weeks but raising concerns that more needs to be done to overcome the disruption to learning by for example increasing the choice in exam questions, and calling in particular for a Plan B just in case. 
  • Pupil numbers. The government released its latest projections for pupil numbers in England based on official population predictions showing a likely notable fall in nursery and primary school numbers over the next ten years and with secondary pupil numbers set to peak in 2024 before gradually slowing to 2030.
  • You have a complaint? Ofsted reported on its recent consultation on dealing with inspection complaints confirming that from September it will implement a new timescale for the release of reports, standardise the five working days system for providers to respond but keep the current arrangements for internal reviews into complaints.
  • Home schooling. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published the results of its latest longitudinal study into home learning suggesting that while most pupils had received some school work during lockdown much of it was in the form of worksheets and almost half of exam pupils had received very little formal learning, calling as a result for targeted support when schools return.
  • Learning from Lockdown. Peter Hyman, Co-Director of Big Education reported on the ‘Learning from Lockdown’ site which now hosts some 70+ blogs and a Playbook of resources, ideas and lessons learned to help build a more positive model of education from out of the current crisis. 
  • Reading during lockdown. The National Literacy Trust published the results of its latest annual survey of reading habits of young people including during lockdown showing more children, especially girls, took to reading during lockdown, enjoying fiction including comedy and adventure.
  • What do parents think? Parentkind, the organisation that works on behalf of parents with schools, reported the results of its third survey of parents’ views during the pandemic showing that parents remain concerned about the loss of schooling for their children and would like to see greater clarity from government and consultation about school reopening. 
  • Moving on to big school.Kirsten Mould at the Education Endowment Foundation outlined some strategies for helping pupils transition from Year 6 to Year 7 given the particular difficulties facing many under lockdown this year. 
  • Free school meals. The government further temporarily extended its free school meal availability to include other income and target groups.


  • FE finances. The government finally published the (Dame Mary) Ney report into the oversight of college finances following a couple of high-profile cases, recommending among other things a better focus on forward planning rather than historical data, greater funding stability, stronger governance, and a closer working relationship between the ESFA and FE Commissioner.
  • Ministerial view.The FE Minister gave her views to MPs on the Ney report endorsing the main points and confirming that the government will collect further data on the financial health of colleges this month ahead of the White Paper this autumn.
  • One year offer for 18/19-year-olds. The government outlined the qualifications (including 350+ L2 and 3 qualifications with clear job outcomes) and funding (including a £400 uplift per learner on current 16-19 rates,) all promised under the Chancellor’s scheme to help 18 and 19-year-olds find jobs or training.
  • Reforming HTE. The government outlined its proposals for reforming Higher Technical Education (HTE) following consultation completed last autumn confirming that along with an FE White Paper and response to Augar it intended to introduce from Sept 2022 a system of approved higher-tech qualifications starting with the Digital route.
  • Response analysis. The government published detailed independent analysis of responses to its consultation last year on high tech qualifications indicating broad support for the overall aims but also the need for close relationships with industry, government investment and an intelligent accountability process.
  • Higher Tech approval process.The government issued the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education with formal notice on managing a national approvals process for higher-tech qualifications.
  • Online learning. Paul Joyce, Deputy Director for FE and Skills at Ofsted, reported on the inspectorate’s review of online learning in FE so far finding a mixed picture with much depending on the training and technology available but many learners especially at higher level adapting well, but all missing ‘live contact’.
  • Apprenticeship Funding. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) published its latest funding guidance on apprenticeships to cover the year August 2020 – August 2021 incorporating the flexibilities and changes announced under the lockdown including criteria for the employer bonus.
  • Apprenticeship guidance. The government updated its guidance on apprenticeship arrangements enabling 19+ apprentices to return to onsite delivery, where safe, and for the functional skill flexibility to be extended to the end of the year.
  • At the umpteenthtime of asking. Julian Gravatt, Assistant Chief Executive at the AoC, reflected on the latest attempt by an Education Secretary to undertake a major reform of FE, arguing that many of the ducks were now in a row including particularly the importance of skills and high tech levels post-COVID.


  • In times of trouble. The government announced a new ‘Restructuring Regime’ for HE providers facing financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic which would see a Restructuring Board recommend intervention ‘support’ on a case by case basis but in return for a business overhaul that could look at course provision, efficiency and student protection.
  • Sharper registration. The Office for Students launched consultation on new arrangements that would allow them to intervene more quickly if issues arose about student protection matters including the provision of teaching and other services.
  • Seeking a refund. The House of Commons Petitions Committee responded formally to a number of petitions from students seeking redress and refunds over a lack of provision in the light of Covid-19, calling on government and lead bodies to provide greater clarity on student rights as well as some financial assistance but ruling out refunds for all.
  • National Student Survey. The Office for Students reported on the initial findings from this year’s National Student Survey which was completed as lockdown was taking effect, showing student satisfaction generally remaining high but some negatives around communication and feedback.
  • Student expectations. Pearson and Wonkhe reported on their survey of how students have been coping with the impact of COVID and what to expect from September with many acknowledging the changing face of learning and the need to adapt, with some interesting comments on how online learning could be improved and on student expectations for the future.
  • PhD students and their futures. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published a paper by a PhD student outlining how PhD students view their future careers with most hoping it will help progress their career in academia though acknowledging it would help to develop wider skills as well just in case.
  • Going through the numbers. The House of Commons Library Service published a new briefing on HE numbers looking at trends over time, acknowledging the recent upward trend in undergraduate numbers but pointing out that numbers for other groups such as p/t students, postgrads and some overseas students were not so healthy. 
  • Local impact. The University and College Union (UCU) published the results of a commissioned YouGov poll of marginal constituencies containing universities, showing how important universities were to local communities, bringing in local jobs, services and investment.
  • Mixed messages. The Times Higher looked at the issue of deferred entries to university this year suggesting that there were mixed messages coming out from different institutions about arrangements for this.
  • The view from here. An updated survey of international students for IDP Education found a slight (5%) increase on the figures in April, in the number of international students prepared to take up an overseas course even if it meant much of it was online.
  • Being, Belonging, Becoming. Catherine Carroll-Meehan of the University of Portsmouth reported on some of the wider reasons why young people are so keen to go to university with a sense of belonging being part of this.
  • Dr Rashford I presume. Manchester University announced it intended to award Marcus Rashford with an honorary doctorate in recognition of his charitable work, especially on child poverty.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “I met the late, much-missed, Sir David Collins in a lift in November 2013 just after the announcement he'd be the first FE commissioner. "Don't worry about me. I'm on zero-hour contract so you won't see much of me" | @JulianGravatt
  • “At my secondary school, 5G was the class where pupils were sent who had little connectivity with the educational highway. It was a place where boys went when they ‘graduated’ from 4G” | @TobyWoody
  • “The "Rooseveltian" additional £5.5bn of capital spending represents an increase of precisely zero this year on Budget plans. Is a reallocation from one set of projects to another” | @PJThe Economist
  • “Soporific tales on Calm, a meditation app, have helped people cope with stress during the pandemic” | @TheEconomist
  • “People are tweeting prime numbers at me. This is a factor I hadn't considered” | @A_Weatherall
  • “Daydreaming at work could carry ‘significant creative benefits’, research suggests” | @Independent

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “The UK is on track to record the largest decline in annual GDP for 300 years” – the Office for Budget Responsibility gets to the point in its latest report on UK finances.
  • “We're launching a major new public information campaign to make sure everyone has the facts they need about the actions we all need to take in order to be ready” – the government launches a final Brexit countdown.
  • “The government will giveth with one hand, and it will taketh away (autonomy) with the other” – Jonathan Simmons considers the government’s new Reconstruction Regime for HE providers.
  • “We do not believe that there should be a universal refund or reimbursement of tuition fees to all university students” – Parliament’s Petitions Committee rules out student refunds for all.
  • “Some students are worried about the ‘YouTube” degree they are getting while paying for face-to-face” – Pearson/Wonkhe report on student expectations for the future.
  • “The principal conclusion of the report, which I endorse, is that government must have a strategic relationship with FE Colleges” – the FE Minister announces the publication of the Ney report into college finances.
  • “I am pleased to report solid performance across the rest of our work” – Ofsted’s Chief Inspector introduces their latest Annual Report.
  • “It is bordering on reckless to have no Plan B when we have literally experienced at first-hand an actual national lockdown” – ASCL worries about a lack of contingency planning for next summer’s exams.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • £192bn – The projected cost of the coronavirus crisis to the UK, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.
  • 1.8% – How much the UK economy grew in May from the previous month disappointing some predictions, according to the Office for National Statistics.
  • £25,600 – How much a skilled worker would need to earn to qualify for the health and care visa under the government’s new points-based immigration system.
  • £731m – How much European Social Fund (ESF) money often used to find jobs is in danger of being lost if not taken up ahead of Brexit, according to the Local Government Association. 
  • 87% – How many university students aid their teaching hours had dropped since lockdown started, according to evidence presented to the Petitions Committee.
  • 74% – How many prospective international students were prepared to take up a place at an overseas institution on time, up from 69% three months ago, according to a survey by IDP Education.
  • 47% – How many UK students expect to be taught online in their first term but decreasing to 14% by term 3 with blended learning emerging, according to a survey from the NUS.
  • 271,900 – The number of apprenticeship starts this academic year up to April 2020 mainly at advanced level, according to latest government figures.
  • 269,000 – How many more people in England should be able to benefit from careers guidance under the extra funding recently announced for the service, according to a Ministerial response in Parliament.
  • £167m – Ofsted’s gross budget for 2020/21, according to its latest Annual Report and Accounts.
  • 16.9% – The number of learners attending schools and colleges towards the end of last week, the same as the previous two weeks according to latest government figures.
  • 1.6bn – How many children globally were out of school at the height of the pandemic, according to Save the Children raising huge concerns about their futures. 
  • 3,210,078 – The predicted number of secondary school pupils in England by 2026, up 207,000 from the current total according to latest government figures
  • 13% – How many parents were not sure they’d send their kids back to school in September, according to a survey by Koru Kids. 

Everything else you need to know ...

Other stories

  • Summer reading. Things have of course been very different this year but summertime remains a time when many people reach out for that book they’ve been meaning to read all year. The media has been full of suitable lists recently and the National Literacy Trust this week offered a helpful listing of books to keep children of all ages engrossed over the summer. In all, 16 books are recommended along with recommendations as to where to read them-in bed, travelling, outside, wherever. The listing can be found on the TES website 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.

And if you find Education Eye useful, please consider donating to help support its publication. EdCentral is a not-for-profit social enterprise company and relies on donations to continue its work.

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.



EdCentral Logo