Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 07 August 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:

Education Eye is back this week with another full bag of education news and updates from across the board. Top of the pile are exams, both this year and next; the continuing issue of schools reopening; free speech in universities; and the onset of the government’s latest economic recovery proposals – including that much talked about meal deal scheme. ‘Nosh for Britain’ as one headline had it.

Exams first, where the release of results in Scotland this week have heralded the start of that other big summer ritual – the traditional exam results season (except of course it’s been far from traditional this year). Scotland, like England, adopted a moderated teacher estimate model for this year’s exams and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) indicated that 96% of estimated grades were adjusted, generally just by one grade, and within that generally down. Overall, the pass rate was up, by 2.9% for National 5, the Scottish equivalent for GCSE, and by 4.1% for Highers, the A’ level equivalent. The Chief Examining Officer declared it ‘a strong set of results’ and one in which ‘everyone should have confidence,’ although debate has continued about how much disadvantaged students have suffered from any drop in grades. 

This has set up a tense scenario for the release of results in England, which start next week, with A’ levels due on Thursday and GCSEs the Thursday after – again using a predicted grades approach subject to standardisation. Ofqual has already suggested that grades will be 2% and 1% higher respectively this year, but inevitable concerns about how far students have been fairly treated have already started to build up. It was one of a number of issues raised this week in a letter to Gavin Williamson from Kate Green, the Shadow Education Secretary. The DfEOfqual and the Association of Colleges have all published useful student guides ahead of next week’s results and everyone is now waiting expectedly.

Next summer’s exams have also been in the news this week, with Ofqual confirming its proposals for some flexing to 2021 GCSE and A’ levels and launching a quick consultation on assessments for vocational and technical qualifications. The proposals for 2021 exams, which largely cover GCSEs, include greater option choices for some GCSE humanities subjects; a reduction in set texts for GCSE English Literature; and the removal of requirements on GCSE fieldwork and science practicals. Not everyone is happy. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) saw it as ‘tinkering at the edges’, while literature experts were alarmed that, for example, option choices could see poetry marginalised. Ofqual acknowledged that the changes were ‘quite modest’, but was concerned to balance the loss of teaching time, confidence in the results, and general fairness all round. Not an easy balancing act. The exact timing of the exams, and whether they’re held a bit later in the term to allow for extra teaching time, has yet to be agreed.   

Now to school reopenings. This week the United Nations reported that by mid-April some 1.58bn children and young people across 200 countries had experienced disruption to their education by the pandemic. It made a planned reopening of schools one of its central recommendations for the future, especially for poorer nations facing alarming education attainment gaps. In England, school opening remains a contentious subject. In a YouGov poll this week, 57% said schools should fully reopen, 25% said they shouldn’t, and 18% were unsure. Ministers remain committed, declaring it ‘a national priority’ and even talking about test hit squads for schools. However, this week’s report by UCL and the London School of Hygiene – forecasting a second, potentially more damaging, COVID-19 spike this winter if test and trace systems fail to operate effectively – has sharpened concerns. The Children’s Commissioner has called for regular testing of pupils and teachers and for education to be prioritised on a ‘first to open, last to close’ basis, with nurseries, followed by primary schools, then secondaries, her order of priorities. Either way, there seems little unanimity on the subject at present and we’re now only three weeks off the start of the new term.

Next, free speech in universities, something that is widely acknowledged as essential to the lifeblood of universities, yet according to Toby Young in The Spectator is ‘in peril’. This week the Policy Exchange think tank published a detailed report on the matter, highlighting what it called some of ‘the chilling effects’ on academic research and teaching, whereby individuals and research projects out of kilter with the current orthodoxy are sidelined. Some of the evidence was disturbing, with promotion blighted and discrimination suspected. Some was softer, not sitting next to certain people at lunch for instance. The report calls for legislation in the form of an Academic Freedom Bill, which would create a Director for Academic Freedom and place increased responsibility on the regulator and universities themselves. Legislation may be the stick that’s needed, but it’s perhaps worth coming back to the point made by Rachel Wolf at the Festival of HE recently, namely that it would help universities if they could reflect on the political interests of the wider electorate a bit more closely.   

Finally, the start of August has been an important week for the introduction of some of the new stimulus measures announced recently in the Chancellor’s Summer Statement. The most-high profile has been the Chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which got underway on Monday and has attracted a lot of publicity. The House of Commons Library has a briefing on the scheme here while the Guardian –  ‘Let’s not make a meal out of Rishi’ has been one of many to capture the lighter side of it. More seriously, government incentives for employers to take on apprentices and trainees, as well as extra funding for careers support and the job retention bonus, have also now all kicked in. They come as more companies sadly continue to announce redundancies and fears of an unemployment spike grow. As this week’s Bank of England report indicates, unemployment worries look likely to dominate this autumn.

The top headlines from the week:

  • ‘New online learning platform to launch in September.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Testing and tracing key to schools returning, scientists say.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Schools must come before pubs and restaurants in future.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Coronavirus; university may pose risk to young shielders.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Improved schools can challenge grades.’ (Friday)


  • The Great Disrupter. The United Nations described Covid-19 ‘as the greatest disruption of education systems in history,’ pointing to its global impact and calling for the re-opening of schools to be carefully planned, education funding to be protected and new education systems to be reimagined for the future.
  • Earlier but longer. The Bank of England indicated in its latest Monetary Policy Report that UK economic recovery had started earlier than anticipated but that it would take longer than previously expected with unemployment set to hit 7.5% by the end of 2020 and GDP not set to recover until the end of 2021.
  • Small steps. The business group London First reported on the small steps being taken by London firms to return to the office, citing a survey undertaken last week showing that 74% now had a small percentage of their workforce back in but that public transport and child care remained big barriers.
  • Shovel ready. The government confirmed the funding available for over 300 infrastructure projects involving housing, transport and green projects, all intended to help generate jobs, skills training, school buildings and recovery generally.
  • Levelling up? The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined inequality in the UK looking in particular at productivity, earnings and household incomes across the country and finding a mixed picture with housing costs a big factor and inequalities within regions greater than that between regions.
  • Furloughing down. The Resolution Foundation reported on the furlough scheme as it starts to ease down, suggesting that numbers generally were not as high as often claimed and calling for the easing down to be differentiated to reflect varying sector needs.
  • Business Impact Tracker. The British Chambers of Commerce published its latest tracker assessing the impact of the pandemic on business showing things still pretty static with little improvement in cash flow and no great excitement yet about the measures listed in the Chancellor’s recent Summer Statement.
  • Child Poverty 2020. Buttle UK, the organisation that supports families and children out of poverty published a new qualitative assessment of the effect of the pandemic on some of the UK’s most vulnerable families highlighting issues of food poverty, mental health and blighted learning opportunities.
  • Early Years workforce. The Social Mobility Commission raised concerns about the early years' workforce in a newly commissioned report highlighting low pay, high workload and poor progression opportunities and calling for a coherent career strategy and investment to reduce haemorrhaging of the workforce. 
  • Business support. The Local Government Association (LGA) raised concerns about potential funding losses ahead of the closure of three business support schemes at the end of the month.
  • Cybersecurity. The government launched a new review, the third in as many years, into the cybersecurity labour market to examine how businesses and public sector organisations were tackling the issue.
  • Eat Out to Help Out. The government’s new scheme to help revitalise the hospitality industry as part of its Plan for Jobs got underway at the start of the week with over 72,000 eating out establishments across the country participating.

More specifically ...


  • Exam results 2020. Kate Green, the Shadow Education Secretary wrote to the Education Secretary ahead of the forthcoming release of this year’s exam results calling on him to address two issues in particular: ensuring that disadvantaged students received fair treatment and that support would be available for those wishing to appeal.
  • How do I appeal? Ofqual published a guide for students explaining what they can and can’t appeal against this year, urging students to talk to teachers in the first instance.
  • Scottish exam results. The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) published its results for this year’s summer exams based on moderated teacher estimates and showing an increase in both entries and pass rates but raising some questions about how far the system had worked against some students.
  • 2021 exams. Ofqual announced some changes for the 2021 GCSE and A’ level exams following a recent consultation, including a choice of topics in some humanities subjects and English Literature at GCSE and minimum practical activities for A’ Physics but with further discussion needed on whether to push the exam timetable back to allow for more teaching time.
  • Level funding fields? The Education Policy Institute reported on the latest funding allocations for schools arguing that the levelling up process could result in more money being directed to schools in more affluent areas rather than on a needs-based approach.
  • Tuition partners. The National Tutoring Programme (NTP) launched its website with more details on how organisations could become partners, listing a number of eligibility and quality criteria that would need to be met, including having had experience of working with schools, a clear recruitment strategy, and quality training.
  • Schools reopening. The Children’s Commissioner for England set out a list of 10 key principles that should be taken into account to ensure that schools and children are prioritised in any decision on future lockdowns.
  • Taking the pulse. Mumsnet and Starnet published the results of a new survey on schools reopening showing that many families, particularly of younger ones, were keen to see children return to school but that concerns rose when it came to older children although they were also anxious about learning time lost ahead of exams.
  • Building works. The government confirmed the allocation of funding to schools, sixth form colleges and local authorities for approved upgrades and repairs funded partly from the money indicated by the PM in his speech in June.


  • 2021 assessments and exams. Ofqual launched a quick consultation on principles for next summer’s voc and tech assessments, broadly inviting individual awarding bodies to adapt assessments and qualifications where necessary but in line with principles of an extended Extraordinary Regulatory Framework (ERF).
  • Dial-in for help. The government launched a new service for apprentices made redundant or facing the prospect of, offering free guidance, help and support through a new free helpline.
  • Simplifying EQA. The Institute for Apprenticeships confirmed that, following consultation, it would move to a simplified system for external quality assurance (EQA) of apprenticeship end-point assessments with the Office for Students overseeing those for higher-level apprenticeships and Ofqual overseeing the rest.
  • Online learning platform. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) and Ufi Voc Tech Trust announced the creation of a new dedicated post-16 online learning platform which will launch next month and provide core and employability resources for apprentices, trainees and others. 


  • Free speech. The Policy Exchange think tank called for Academic Freedom Champions to be appointed in universities and for a government-appointed Director of Academic Freedom within the Office for Students (OfS) as it published its full survey of staff views on threats to academic freedom.
  • Five things on our minds. Ben Jordan, Head of Policy at UCAS, reported in a blog on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) website how universities were approaching the university entry scramble this year with support for and communication with students all priorities.
  • Civic strength. The University and College Union (UCU) highlighted the importance of universities to their local economy with new commissioned research showing universities supporting one additional local job for every person they directly employ.
  • Mental health challenge. The Office for Students published some initial independent research on the impact of its Mental Health Challenge Competition suggesting some concern about the best forms of access and worries about how far the pandemic might generate higher demand.
  • Accommodation costs. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published a new report on issues of student accommodation including cost, affordability and regulation, many of which have been thrown into the spotlight by the pandemic, calling for greater transparency on costs and application of relevant Codes.
  • Apply early. The Student Loans Company encouraged students about to enter the Clearing system to sort out their finances as soon as possible as loan applications can take up to six weeks.
  • College v university. Former Education Secretary Justine Greening lamented recent policy moves pitching FE against HE in an article in the Times Higher, calling for a levelling up of opportunity and less fixation on graduate earnings to help create a more mobile society.
  • Degree credentials. Jonathan Simons, Head of Education at Public First reflected on the recent Google accredited Career Certificates intended to equate to higher ed qualifications, noting that HE offers more than a route to employment but equally acknowledging that this is what some people may want.
  • The inbetweeners. Jim Dickinson at Wonkhe outlined the importance of the university experience in a new comment piece arguing that it was the in-between bits -the chats, the cups of coffee, the corridor conversations, that helped make the whole thing so unique for people.
  • Made in India. The Times Higher reported on a major new plan for higher education adopted in India which would see student numbers double to 50% by 2035, the restructuring of the system around research, teaching and college provision and top global universities able to operate in the country. 
  • Online learning experiences. Researchers from Lingan University Hong Kong published the results of an interesting survey on the HE Policy institute (HEPI) site looking at how students had found a shift to online learning, finding less than a third happy, with the need for greater support and staff training evident.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Think Scottish exam results are a good example of a government forgetting life isn't lived in the aggregate. Sure, in aggregate, moderated results are fairer than unmoderated results. But not how it feels for anyone, rich or poor, whose results are downgraded” | @stephenkb
  • “The best way to relieve the pressure on GCSE Literature 2021 would have been to restore open book exams, not to make poetry optional. Then students could have read lots of diverse, inclusive poems instead of spending hours memorising quotes” | @KateClanchy1
  • “In the future, when we have to answer the question ‘How did the Covid crisis change education?’ the answer seems likely to be ‘homework’...” | @miss_mcinerney
  • “Unless I've misread the situation, the solution is either teaching in pubs or drinking in schools” | @whatonomy
  • “Will never get over a University employing a student in their comms team who they know also helps run their local confessions page” | @EveAlcock
  • “Got myself a smart watch fitness tracker so I can wear all my self-hatred on my wrist” | @tstarkey1212
  • “Mum, things are more expensive than when you were young - it’s called inflammation” | @MikeArmiger

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the largest disruption of education ever” – the Secretary General of the UN reflects on the impact of Covid-19 on global education. 
  • “They should be the last places that are locked down, after pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops” – the Children’s Commissioner for England on keeping schools open.
  • “But higher-frequency indicators imply that spending has recovered significantly since the trough in activity in April” – the Bank of England offers some positive news in its latest Monetary Report.
  • “It is an indictment of 21st-century Britain that connections still come before competence” – former Education Secretary Justine Greening on the need to level up educational opportunity.
  • “And you do get the mild impression that strenuous efforts have been made to ask the questions that will give the answers the authors want to see” – Wonkhe’s Jim Dickinson unpicks the latest think tank report on campus free speech.
  • “Expect a bit of wear and tear, especially if students are living there, but also keep an eye out for things like mould, damaged wallpaper and old, dusty carpets”- the Student Hut offers tips on what to look out for in choosing a good student house.
  • “Let’s say 1,000 kids in a school — you could test them in a day” -supporters of the new high-speed Covid test talk up its potential application for schools.
  • “We have decided to implement the majority of the proposals we set out in the consultation document” – Ofqual announces some changes for next summer’s GCSE and A’ level exams.
  • “Regrettably, these plans are essentially a case of ‘too little, too late’” – the National Association of Head Teachers responds to Ofqual’s latest exam plans.
  • “This is a strong set of results and they should feel very proud of their achievements” – Scotland’s Chief Examining Office announces this year’s summer exam results.
  • “Could you therefore confirm what resources government will make to support students who wish to access the appeals process?” – the Shadow Education Secretary calls on the government to ensure support for all is available for next week’s exam results.
  • “When it comes to autumn, winter, how will it be then?” - restaurant owners worry about what will happen once the Eat Out to Help Out scheme finishes. 

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 1.6bn – The number of learners in 190 countries that have had their education disrupted as a result of Covid-19, according to a new report from the UN.
  • 78% – How many London offices surveyed have made their premises Covid secure with 18% still working on it, according to the business group London First.
  • 28,970 – The number of Scottish students accepted for a higher ed place through UCAS so far, up 220 on last year according to UCAS.
  • 35m – How many places in higher education the government in India is looking to create over the next 15 years, according to the Times Higher. 
  • 54% – How many academics would feel happy sitting next to a Leave supporter as opposed to 86% who’d feel happy sitting next to a Remain supporter, according to a survey from the Policy Exchange think tank.
  • 81.1% – The pass rate for this year’s National 5, the Scottish equivalent to the GCSE, up from 78.25 last year, according to the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).
  • 74% – The number of parents surveyed who felt that schools had sufficient procedures in place for children to return, according to a survey from Mumsnet.
  • £7.42 – The average hourly wage for an early years worker in England, according to the Social Mobility Commission.
  • £3.61m – The median pay package for top FTSE Chief Executives last year, according to a new report from the High Pay Centre.
  • 6 hours, 25 minutes – The daily time spent by adults in Britain watching TV or streaming channels during lockdown, according to Ofcom. 
  • 3.3m – The number of hits on the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ restaurant finder site over the last week as the new scheme got under way, according to the government.

Everything else you need to know ...

Other stories

  • Is there anything on telly? According to the latest report from Ofcom on the nation’s viewing habits, adults in Britain spent almost 45 hours a week in front of a screen during the first month of lockdown, an increase of nearly 30% on last year, with subscription streaming services the big winners. Interestingly of the 3m subscribing for the first time, a large chunk came from the older generation, up to 15% for over 65s for instance. This pattern appears to have continued as lockdown has eased, with figures in June showing Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney still the top three subscription services including with older age groups. A link to the report can be found here
  • PRU’s next. The latest venture by the BBC into education drama and documentary takes us into the world of Pupil Referral Units (PRUs.) Apparently, BBC3 and the youth orientated company Fully Focused are planning a scripted comedy following four ‘complex but seemingly self-destructive kids.’ The dialogue is said to be crackling. The Guardian has the story 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.

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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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