Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 21 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:

Another week of turmoil with lots of questions still flying around. The big question surely is who would want to be a young person just now – given the loss of schooling, the disarray over exam results, the scramble for university places and the continuing fears over jobs and future training opportunities? It’s a tough time for many.

As for this week, exam results have once again dominated the news with two big stories, perhaps three if you include the adjustments to the IB results announced earlier, running throughout the week. 

The first of these has been the GCSE results, which arrived, along with the now revised A-level grades, amid continuing debate about this summer’s exams and news of further delays to some results. The Joint Council for Qualifications will be providing full datasets once all the results are in, but for the moment FFT Education Datalab has provided some very useful tables on all the results so far. They show a notable increase in both top grades and in those gaining the benchmark pass of 4 or above (standard C grade in old money, a 5 is between an old C and a B). There have also been notable increases in the pass rates for English and maths, including significant increases for those aged 16 and over, for whom resits in these core subjects are often such a bugbear. With the government able to claim a 2%+ increase in EBacc subject entries as well, there’s some good news around, despite the bitter taste remaining for many. 

That takes us to the second big story of the week, namely the continuing fallout from results so far. The switch to centre-assessed grades – after five days of student angst and media frenzy – has been well documented. And, as the TES argued, may not have been a perfect solution and may pose problems in the future, but was a necessary one. As most people have recognised, it has also thrown huge pressure on some individual students who’ve been left scrambling for places, and on universities trying to manage shifting demand, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies outlined in a briefing this week. Much will now depend on how successfully remaining students are provided with appropriate places. According to one admissions director, ‘it’s gone crazy.’ Confirmation – from the government’s specially created taskforce overseeing university entry – about lifting the cap and providing funding for medical school places and high cost courses, should help, and there’s a general commitment to honour offers already made, where some15,000 could now trade up. However, it remains a hugely difficult logistical – and in some cases financial and emotional – exercise.  

Beyond that we are moving into the recrimination and reflection stage. On recrimination, the Education Secretary remains in the hot seat with school re-openings the next big challenge (see below.) There has been lots of talk about a cabinet reshuffle, but equally suggestions that this may not happen until after Brexit at the end of the year. ‘A distraction’ is the current mantra. Ofqual has also been targeted, but as David Laws has pointed out, scrapping it wouldn’t make things better, ‘exactly the wrong step to take,’ he argued. As for reflection, the CEO of Teach First has called for a new set of design principles for assessment; the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL,) the National Education Union (NEU) and Education Policy Institute have all called for urgent reviews; while the Office for Statistics Regulation has announced a review of statistical modelling used in exams and will report back next month. Arguably, three themes are emerging for future debate: the use of statistical modelling; the undue reliance on exams; and the future of assessment. As Geoff Barton put it: ‘We simply must revolutionise assessment, utilise technology and provide a variety of assessment approaches.’ The FT’s editorial on Tuesday provides a useful starting point for all of this. 

Meanwhile, the next big pressure point looms ever nearer with the reopening of schools in England, now just over a week or so away. The stakes are already high and have been raised by two new reports out this week.

First, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) looked into something that has been worrying a lot of people recently, namely the gulf in learning experience between different groups during the lockdown. There are fears that this will lead to further widening of the attainment gap with progress over the last decade reversed. The Education Endowment Foundation has already attempted to quantify this. In its research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the IfS found a similar picture to that from the Sutton Trust, NFER and others, with better-off children tending to spend more time in educational activities – 75 minutes a day longer to be precise – and having more access to resources than their lesser-off peers. In a second report this week, the Children’s Commissioner for England added more detail on the laptops issue, showing that despite the government’s free laptops scheme, it had hardly touched the sides for disadvantaged families. If levelling up is to mean anything, this issue of the different experiences of home schooling is likely to remain a big topic going into the autumn, and is part of the major inquiry being undertaken by the Commons Education Committee. Its call for evidence on the matter remains open until the end of September. 

Finally, as we await a Skills/FE White Paper this autumn (possibly), the Times Higher ran an interesting article this week explaining that trying to import the German model of skills training, as the Education Secretary has vowed to do, is not quite as simple as it seems. At the very least, two vital ingredients are needed, which we and other countries trying to do the same often find hard to deliver: a high regard for vocational learning and employer engagement in training. And that’s before we mention the need for investment, not chopping and changing things all the time, and lack of certainty about future skill needs. 

Yes, it’s not easy being a young person at the moment.

The top headlines from the week:

  • ‘A’ levels and GCSEs: U-turn as teacher estimates to be used for exam results.’ (Monday
  • ‘Stats watchdog to launch review into Ofqual’s results algorithm.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Universities demand financial support over A’ level U-turn.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘GCSE results: proportion of entries with highest grades soars.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Coronavirus: what next for apprenticeships?’ (Friday)


  • Review of statistical exam model. The Office for Statistics Regulation announced it would conduct a review of the statistical model used for this summer’s exams and would report back next month.
  • Back to school. The government launched its campaign, which will be reinforced with regular messaging and updates, about a safe to return to school/college in September.
  • Productivity Plans. The government announced the creation of a new Productivity Institute, based at the University of Manchester, with a remit to research into ways in which productivity could be improved including the impact of working from home and the development of new skills.
  • A longer furlough. The German government, faced with unemployment running at just over 6% and an economy not expected to recover until the end of next year, prepared to extend its version of the furlough scheme for a further year.
  • SEISS Mark 2. The government invited applications under its Self Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) for a second and final grant to help the self-employed whose businesses have been affected by the pandemic.
  • Local council budgets. The Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed to a perfect storm of increased demand and reduced income facing English councils, suggesting that while some of the immediate pressure has eased and government funding has helped, they face a funding shortfall of £2bn.
  • Minimum Wage. The Learning and Work Institute and Carnegie Trust published the second in their series of reports looking into the future of the minimum wage showing some of the more vulnerable sectors concerned about any increase in the wage level but equally a belief that an increase could help boost productivity.
  • For better or worse. The Centre for Social Justice think tank highlighted in a new report the importance of stable family structures, suggesting that family breakdowns lead to increased social, educational and welfare problems.
  • Assurance visits. Ofsted outlined further details on its assurance visits for children’s social care providers due to start next month and where it will look at how it’s been for children and young people during the pandemic. 
  • Lockdown depression. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) highlighted the rise in depression during the pandemic, with figures for June showing nearly a doubling of the numbers experiencing some form of depression particularly among 16-39 year olds, females, the disabled and those with money worries.
  • Out of Office. Personnel Today reported on a new survey undertaken for e-learning company Skillcast, showing that among larger employers at least 42% reckoned they could be back at their office desks by the end of this year but 30% reckoned it would be next year.

More specifically ...


  • GCSE results. Ofqual published the latest full set of results for GCSEs and revised A’ level results. 
  • How’s it all looking now?FFT Education Datalab provided a helpful summary of how revised A’ level grades now look subject by subject as well as a series of charts on GCSE results by subject and by grade. 
  • Exam grade switch. The government acceded to pressure and confirmed that exam grades for A’, AS and GCSE students in England this summer would be based on the higher of either centre assessed or moderated grades. 
  • Ofqual statement. The Chair of Ofqual issued a statement acknowledging the difficulties with this year’s exam results and the recent change of policy on assessment, setting out the position on the use of centre assessed grades.
  • Summer Exams 2020. Ofqual provided an updated summary of the grading process for this summer’s exams including A’ levels, GCSEs and BTECs, following recent policy changes.
  • Exam Review. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) formally wrote to the Education Secretary requesting an urgent independent review into what went wrong with the process of awarding exam grades this summer.
  • Another call for a review. The National Education Union (NEU) also wrote to the Education Secretary calling for not just a review of what went wrong with the exams this year but also for some changes, including reduced content for exams next year and a robust national system of moderated centre assessed grades for the future.
  • Waiting to happen? The Education Policy Institute reflected on what had gone wrong with the processes for this year’s exam results pointing to concerns such as requiring teachers to generate grades without a statistical base, and calling like many for a full independent review to ensure confidence for the future.
  • Autumn series. The Joint Council for Qualifications confirmed the dates for this year’s autumn series of exams which will start on 5 October for A/AS levels and 2 November for GCSEs and will provide opportunities for students who haven’t received a grade this summer or who may want to try for a higher grade.
  • Closing the gap in GCSE English and maths. Teach First called for more support to be given to schools to help close the gap in attainment in GCSE English and maths which is notably wide in some disadvantaged regions. 
  • School matters. The House of Commons Library published a new briefing on school matters, rounding up among other things latest updates on exams, home learning and preparation for the start of term. 
  • Lockdown effect. The Institute for Fiscal Studies examined the impact of the lockdown on different groups of children in some new research funded by Nuffield Foundation, finding significant differences between the richest and poorest households in terms of access, resources and time spent learning. 
  • Open your laptop. The Children’s Commissioner for England reported on the government’s ‘laptop for schools’ initiative, acknowledging that it was an important scheme and had been extended next term but that it still fell well short of what was needed particularly for more disadvantaged families. 


  • Voc grades. Ofqual confirmed that grades for BTECs and Cambridge Nationals were being re-considered by respective awarding bodies in light of the recent policy decision to use internally assessed outcomes, meaning some results could be delayed a little to ensure fairness and consistency all round.
  • SFC Exam Survey. The Sixth Form Colleges Association published a survey, ahead of the policy change on assessment, showing that overall A’ level grades were lower this year than the average for the previous 3 years across a huge range of subjects. 
  • Take 5.The Association of Colleges put forward 5 steps ahead of the U-turn on centre assessed grades, including a rapid technical review and honouring centre assessment grades at grade 4 for 16+ GCSE English and maths resits, to help regain fairness and trust in the exam system.
  • Building works. The government allocated the first chunk of the capital funding, originally announced in the Chancellor’s March Budget and brought forward by the PM in his ‘build back better speech in June, so that colleges could start work on rebuilding and refurbishing buildings and facilities. 
  • Training works. The Resolution Foundation called on the government to make training programmes a core part of its response to any rise in unemployment, citing evidence that showed that those with qualifications are more likely to return to work quicker while those with higher-level qualifications are more likely to receive career progression development.
  • Apprenticeship survey. The Institute for Apprenticeships reported on its recent survey among employers about the impact of the pandemic on apprenticeship activity suggesting some uncertainty particularly among smaller employers about future recruitment levels.
  • Going German. John Morgan at the Times Higher examined the latest government ambitions to replicate a ‘German-style’ vocational system in England, providing a valuable analysis of how the German system operates and the challenges involved in trying to import this.


  • View from the regulator. The Office for Students (OfS) confirmed that following the change to grading procedures this summer, higher education institutions would do all they could to accept students or provide suitable alternatives such as deferred entry.
  • Taskforce announcement. The taskforce set up by the government to oversee entry to university this year following the change in awarding grades, confirmed that the government was lifting the cap on medical school and teacher training places and would provide additional funding support if necessary.
  • Difficult dilemmas. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined the difficulties facing many universities following the U-turn on exam grades leaving some universities grappling with renewed demand and others with declining demand.
  • Customer support. The Student Loans Company highlighted some recent improvements to the student loan repayment process arising out of its more frequent data sharing programme including reducing overpayments and making the balance easier to see.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “No other country hates higher education (for other people’s kids) like they do in the UK” | @Phil_Baty
  • “Higher-tariff universities ‘eat the sandwiches’ of others” | @Annamckie
  • “If you work in UK University Admissions you can have whatever the hell you like for your dinner” | @DrMagennis
  • “The u-turn on A-level results means that this is now a very well qualified year group, about 38% of entries getting A*s or As. Previous highest ever, in almost 70 years of A-levels, was 27%” | @seanjcoughlan
  • “Proud of my younger brother who got his GCSE results today. Although I needed a chart to translate them from ‘old money’ into new!” | @wesstreeting
  • “My dad got a job painting the social distance markings, he can be a bit miserable sometimes but at least you know where you stand with him” | @OFalafel

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “I am sorry for the distress this has caused young people and their parents but hope this announcement will now provide the certainty and reassurance they deserve” – the Education Secretary announces the use of centre assessed grades for this summer’s exams.
  • “As the government has made clear, we have full confidence in Ofqual and its leadership in their role as independent regulator” – the DfE says it has made clear its support for Ofqual.
  • “There is an urgent need for the Department for Education to commission an immediate independent review which will rapidly establish exactly what went wrong with the process for awarding grades to A-level and GCSE students this summer, and to publish its findings and recommendations” – ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton calls for a review into what went wrong with exam grades this year. 
  • “I was so hopeless a couple of days ago and now I feel like I can finally breathe again” – an A’ level student gets her assessed grades back. 
  • “I think it's all about making it up to them and saying we understand that you have been messed around over the last week” – a Conservative MP suggests some exam students deserve financial compensation.
  • “The results received by students and the hiatus in education for many across the country means that we will have legacy issues which will, in all likelihood, last a generation” – a headteacher reflects on this summer’s exams saga.
  • “I led the first meeting of our new taskforce and I will hold meetings every day with the sector to resolve these issues” – the Universities Minister leads the charge to sort out university places.
  • “So, let me send a very clear message to the Prime Minister: I don’t just want all children back at school next month, I expect them back at school. No ifs, no buts, no equivocation” – Keir Starmer on reopening schools.
  • “He ran straight in and was delighted to see his entire class,” she said. “I think it’ll take a few weeks for him to settle in” – parents in Scotland on their children returning to school.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 1% – The figure for CPI inflation for the last month, a rise of 0.4% according to the latest official figures.
  • £2.004 trillion – The size of the UK net debt at the end of last month, according to the ONS.
  • 1% – The figure for CPI inflation for the last month, a rise of 0.4% according to the latest official figures.
  • 19.2% – The number of adults experiencing some form of depression during the month of June, up from 9.7% before the pandemic according to the ONS.
  • £2bn – The funding shortfall facing English councils over the coming year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
  • 15,000 – The number of students who were originally rejected but who now meet the conditions of their original offer, according to UCAS. 
  • £200m – The amount of money made available this week for colleges to start repairing and refurbishing their buildings and facilities, according to the DfE.
  • 78.8% – How many GCSE entries this year were graded 4 or above, up from 69.9% the year before, according to official figures.
  • 75 – How many more minutes a day, primary school children from better-off families spent on educational activities during lockdown compared to those from poorer families, according to research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
  • 35,648 – The number of appeals over secondary school places for 2019/20, up on the previous year, with 12,465 for primary school places, down on the previous year, according to figures from the DfE. 
  • 43% – How many parents rely on grandparents for help with childcare, according to a survey by Lloyds Bank.
  • 35m – How many meals have been ‘enjoyed’ during the first two weeks of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, according to figures from the Treasury. 

Everything else you need to know ...

Other stories

  • What if there’s no vaccine? Although the race is on to find a secure vaccine for COVID-19, it’s still unclear how soon, if at all, this will happen. All of which is raising questions about how far life may have to change in the next year or so to accommodate COVID concerns. According to Kings College London and Ipsos Mori who have recently carried out a survey to get people’s views, 49% accept that home-schooling would have to carry on, 88% think employees should be free to choose where they work, 87% would accept local lockdowns and 25% think they could lose their job. A link to the survey is here

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

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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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