Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 25 September 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:

Almost six months to the day since the initial lockdown was launched and we’re back facing restrictions again. The announcement set the tone for a rather grim week. ‘Dinner with a few friends, back home by 10.00, perfect middle-aged night out,’ offered one tweeter looking for positives, but in truth, there haven’t been many silver linings this week.

Education however can at least point to some positives. 

For a start, the National Foundation for Educational Research reported on a new upsurge in applications for teacher training, although teacher unions urged caution over long-term trends. Also, it appears that freed from some of the daily stresses of school life, many teachers felt a lot calmer and their wellbeing improved as the lockdown took hold. That at least was one of the conclusions from some Nuffield funded research reported this week. Many teachers found new things to worry about, but as the research put it: ‘For teachers, it seems that while lockdown introduced new sources of stress and uncertainty, the removal of commuting, long working hours and stressful classroom disruption made life less stressful for many.’

In other news, the government confirmed more support for schools and colleges coping with the coronavirus. This included the new NHS COVID app for 16-year-olds and above, a promise of more testing kits if need be; and ensuring teachers were in line among the priority groups for COVID testing, albeit fifth in line. 

As for jobs, there’s been better news here too, as part of the Chancellor’s Job Support Scheme which will help subsidise wages when firms can’t offer full-time work. The scheme – which will kick in as the furlough scheme ends, run for six months and help many workers – has been widely welcomed. ‘An important shot in the arm,’ according to the British Chambers of Commerce, ‘a lifeline’ in the words of the TUC, although not everybody is convinced. The Institute for Fiscal Studies labelled it: ‘a very big change from furlough, less generous, many may lose their jobs’ while the Guardian argued the scheme ‘doesn’t go far enough.’ 

Under the scheme, workers have to be in ‘viable’ jobs and working at least a third of their normal hours, but they can’t be made redundant while on the scheme and the government can claim to be doing its bit by helping pay for hours not worked. Small and medium employers are eligible for the scheme, larger employers, typically those with over 250 employees, will have to prove revenues have been hit by the virus to claim. 

Also this week there’s been strong news around university entry, with UCAS announcing another bumper year for entries despite the pandemic. This has included a new high at this stage for the number of disadvantaged 18-year-olds gaining a place as well as for the number of non-EU students accepted. The proportion of confirmed deferrals has remained broadly similar to last year, 5.7% against the previous year’s 5.4%, so it appears that despite all the difficulties around exam grades and confirming places this year, the demand for higher education remains as high as ever. Also, interestingly, UCAS pointed out that predictions about lower tariff institutions missing out seem not to have materialised. Their numbers may not have materially increased but they haven’t decreased either. They haven’t ‘fallen off a cliff edge’ in UCAS’s words.

Clare Marchant, the chief executive of UCAS, has a good summary of it all on the Wonkhe website here. More analysis will follow in UCAS’s helpful End of Cycle report due in December, but it will be interesting to see whether any of this has any impact on the current work on potential reform of the admissions system.

In other education news this week, the House of Commons Education Committee held a session on adult skills and lifelong learning, looking particularly at the potential for learning accounts and skills funding, which according to one witness needs some £130bn over the next decade. For those needing a bit more context, the Commons’ Library Service published an updated briefing this week on the effect of the coronavirus on the labour market, highlighting the impact on particular age groups. 

Another topic under scrutiny this week has been the concept of a futuristic project research funding agency, based on the much-vaunted US Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, and favoured within parts of Number 10. The Science and Technology Committee dug into the thinking, with the help of both national and international experts. It’s something we’re likely to hear a lot more about in the coming weeks.

Finally, back to universities and a story that’s been running throughout the week about the return of students and a possible link to a rise in infections. In happier times, this used to be known as Volvo week, the week when the family car was loaded up with candles and kettles and headed off to drop any offspring off at their chosen university. Things are of course rather different this year with COVID the villain. According to a poll from YouGov this week, 64% of people surveyed supported allowing university students to return, while 25% were either somewhat or strongly against. Things haven’t been helped by a series of gaudy headlines of students having to self-isolate following a freshers’ event of some sort and there’s even been talk of town v gown following a survey reported by the University and College Union last week indicating that locals were worried about further local lockdowns. Things are likely to remain uneasy for a while. It’s been that sort of week. 

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘One-in-20 pupils at home with lockdown related issues.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Schools to stay open as Johnson announces tougher lockdown restrictions.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Autumn Budget to be scrapped this year.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Christmas lockdown of students not ruled out.’ (Thursday
  • ‘Thousands of UK students isolate as university cases rise.’ (Friday)


  • Statement on COVID restrictions. The Prime Minister outlined to MPs a number of new ‘robust but proportionate’ COVID restrictions such as working from home where possible and the use of face coverings by retail staff, to help stem a worrying growth in infections.
  • COVID app. The government outlined the key features of the new NHS COVID app for those aged 16 and over, explaining how it’s intended to work in school and college settings.
  • Winter Economy Plan. The Chancellor set out a range of measures including a new Jobs Support Scheme, an extension of the temporary VAT reduction to the end of next March for the hospitality and tourism sectors, an extension of business loans, and support for the self-employed, in a Winter Economy Plan.
  • Under new leadership. Sir Keir Starmer put public services including education, especially closing the attainment gap, and skills high up his agenda in his Leader’s Speech to Labour’s virtual Annual Conference.
  • 3Rs recovery plan. Anneliese Dodds, the Shadow Chancellor, used her speech to the Party’s virtual Annual Conference this year to set out her approach to economic recovery based around 3Rs: recover jobs, retrain workers, rebuild business.
  • Labour market impact. The House of Commons Library published an updated briefing on how the coronavirus was affecting the labour market, picking up on the latest unemployment data to point out that certain age groups (younger and older notably) had been most affected.
  • Lockdown costs. The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) offered some thoughts about the potential economic impact if curfews and partial lockdowns happen, suggesting if the latter were to happen, we could see GDP down by 3-5% in Quarter 4 this year.
  • 3 Outlook. The Resolution Foundation provided a summary of how the economy and in particular the labour market might shape up in Quarter 3 this year, examining the conflicting views from the OBR and Bank of England and concluding that things remain uncertain for employment, hopes are high for an improvement in productivity but recovery is likely to remain a hard slog. 
  • Business Brexit concerns. The British Chambers of Commerce outlined business concerns with just under a hundred days to go until the Brexit transition stage ends, pointing to low levels of business preparedness and many questions still unanswered.
  • Council costs. The Institute for Fiscal Studies examined a number of funding scenarios for local councils, suggesting either way a notable funding gap potentially of some £3.3bn over the next five years to be able to maintain services with grant funding, council tax rises and tax-raising powers as possible options.
  • Climate change. The Business Secretary listed four ‘requests’ including committing to clean energy, zero road transport emissions, green finances, and Net Zero by 2050, in a speech at the New York Climate Week Event.
  • Power of the Arts. The government published a commissioned report into how far the arts can help with health and wellbeing, showing a scale of returns with, for example, reducing physical decline and helping social cohesion high up there but with matters like reducing attainment gaps and social inequality low down the scale.
  • Digital connectivity. The Minister for Digital Infrastructure outlined in a Conference speech the work the government was doing on delivering gigabit broadband with a voucher scheme in rural areas along with the commercial rollout of 5G with testbeds across the UK and the creation of a Telecoms Diversification Taskforce.
  • The economy + health = equality.The Health Foundation with the RSA published a new report using case study evidence from the pandemic and elsewhere to demonstrate that economic development and health should not be viewed separately but as mutual foundations of a more equal society. 
  • Manchester follow-up. The Greater Manchester Independent Prosperity Review followed up its 2019 Prosperity Review, revisiting its recommendations in the light of the pandemic and highlighting the importance of health, skills, the environment and business as future devolved priorities.

More specifically ...


  • 5thin line. The Health Secretary confirmed in a statement to Parliament that teachers with symptoms would be 5th in line for COVID testing, behind those working in acute clinical care, care homes, the NHS, and cases of targeted testing.
  • Heading for the classroom. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) investigated the latest figures from UCAS for teacher training suggesting that as in previous recessions, this year’s economic downturn was prompting a significant increase in applications. 
  • Teacher wellbeing under lockdown. New research funded by the Nuffield Foundation examined teacher wellbeing in the early stages of the lockdown suggesting that in many ways, things had improved as work-related anxieties were lifted although new worries such as concerns about the future, emerged. 
  • Fitness lessons. The government launched a range of videos and online resources as part of this week’s National Fitness Day to help schools support children in keeping fit and active within COVID safe guidelines.
  • Maths under lockdown.UCL’s Institute of Education reported on some research into maths provision for Year 7 pupils during lockdown, pointing to a lack of interaction with teachers as a particular downside, indicating a need for some serious catch-up especially for the disadvantaged who may have missed out the most.  


  • Apprenticeship survey. The Institute for Apprenticeships reported on its panel survey conducted during April and June focusing largely on the learner experience, suggesting high levels of satisfaction, but some concerns that not everyone was getting the full amount of off-the-job training, nor proper preparation for end-point assessments.
  • Centres of Excellence.WorldSkills UK and NCFE announced the first colleges selected to join the Centre of Excellence scheme which is intended to bring ‘world-class skills training and expertise’ to young people and apprentices.
  • To do list. David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC) listed eleven things that the sector may need to work on at the moment including averting another exams crisis, supporting national skills planning and helping narrow the digital divide.
  • 2021-2025 Strategic Plan. The CITB published a new and more focused Strategic Plan reflecting the current pandemic climate with an emphasis on training including for apprenticeships, working with providers by creating a new pathway between FE and employment, and improving productivity. 
  • A revolutionary White Paper? The Campaign for Learning published the latest in its reform series looking on this occasion on what should go into a ‘revolutionary’ White Paper for post-16 education, with a range of contributors each listing their three top wishes.
  • Working together. Leading vocational and technical bodies agreed to work together with Ofqual to support learners and providers by streamlining communications where possible and adopting consistent approaches.
  • T levels under way. The Skills Minister blogged about the launch of the first wave of T levels acknowledging that it was a difficult time to launch but that they remained ‘an exciting prospect for the future’.
  • Soft launch for T levels. The CIPD reported on the new T levels noting that their launch had come at a difficult time with the pandemic restricting placement opportunities and shifting priorities and with employer awareness still at fairly low levels.
  • Funding T levels 2021-2022. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) set out how T levels from 2021-2022 will be funded building on existing arrangements and using number profiles agreed with providers along with subject-specific requirements. 


  • University entry 2020.UCAS published full details for this year’s university entry at the traditional ’28 days after exam results’ point, showing overall demand up despite the pandemic and notable increases in the numbers of disadvantaged 18-year olds accepted as well as international non-EU students.
  • Campus concerns. The University and College Union (UCU) published the results of its survey by Survation indicating some public concern about a rise in infections as university campuses opened and reaffirming that it’ll monitor things and report publicly if and where outbreaks happen even potentially calling for strike action where necessary.
  • We’ve made plans. Sir Chris Husbands, Vice Chancellor at Sheffield Hallam, outlined in a new blog the extent of planning that had gone into making the university as secure as possible for the return of students and the importance of looking out for each other.
  • Russell Group support. The Russell Group of universities outlined what its members were doing to support students, staff and communities in the face of further COVID developments as it continued to carry out vital research.
  • 2021 entrants. YouthSight and UCAS reported in a blog on the HEPI website on their recent survey of 2021 university aspirants, showing demand for HE still high with many looking to a university degree and experience to help further their careers at a time of great of economic uncertainty.
  • Voting intentions. The HE Policy Institute published the results of a new survey from YouthSight on students’ political allegiances and voting intentions showing majority support for Labour and growing under Keir Starmer with the Conservatives as the next most popular Party but someway down, and interest in political matters generally remaining high among students.
  • Root and branch. The Office for Students (OfS) outlined details for a major review of the National Student Survey (NSS) proposing a two-stage approach looking first at concerns about the burden and impact with a report later this year and then secondly at the wider format and nature of the survey. 
  • State of the Unions. The Adam Smith Institute issued a new report on Student Unions (SUs) highlighting a range of issues including costs, politicisation and lack of representation and calling for budget limitations, greater representation and carving up their functions around social, sports and academic activities.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “And she’s gone. Dropped our eldest @UniofBath today. It was as wonderful and awful as anticipated. Off to lie in a dark corner for a bit” | @lorrainecandy
  • “Gav! Just updating the staff handbook, does COVID need to let me know before 8 o’clock if it’s going to be in that day? | @Newheadteacher
  • “Enterprising nephew (3) has discovered that if you spend the first half-hour of the nursery day coughing, you will be sent home to enjoy the rest of the day watching TV and eating pizza. Without coughing” | @alexmassie
  • “Pickled onion monster munch are an excellent way of making it easier for staff and pupils to remember to social distance” | @Mr_N_Wood
  • “Year 10 class asked me how many followers I have on Twitter today and I said about 5k and one of them knowingly nodded and proclaimed ‘That’s about 20k by Instagram standards. I feel semi cool” | @HughesHaili
  • “I wish I had the kind of life where a 10 pm curfew affected me” | @profbeckyallen
  • “Just bought a face mask for our pet duck. It’s not perfect but it fits the bill” | @tutor2u_graham

 Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “And if we were forced into a new national lockdown, that would threaten not just jobs and livelihoods but the loving human contact on which we all depend” – Boris Johnson announces new ‘proportionate’ COVID restrictions.
  • “If we can encourage people to work from home, we will, but if people need to be in the office, we will work to make it as safe as possible” – Michael Gove on the new COVID restrictions.
  • “People want to see us focused on the here and now” – the Treasury confirms this year’s Autumn Budget is off.
  • “The harder yards are ahead of us” – the governor of the Bank of England surveys the latest economic picture.
  • “These are radical interventions in the UK labour market; policies we have never tried in this country before” – the Chancellor announces his new Jobs Support Scheme.
  • “It is this spirit of agility and collaboration that will help make 2021 a year of growth and renewal” – the CBI responds to the Chancellor’s winter economic plan.
  • “What we need is a national strategy with clear targets to close the education gap at every stage in a child’s development” – Keir Starmer highlights education in his Conference speech.
  • “I hope we won’t have a smaller academic workforce” – Dame Nancy Rothwell, Chair of the Russell Group of universities on planning for the future.
  • “COVID-19 has not dampened the appeal of UK higher education” – UCAS reports on this year’s university entries.
  • “I’m going to make the most of whatever experience I’m given” – one fresher takes a positive view.
  • “Don’t rush into being intimate too early” – a Doctor offers advice to university freshers.
  • “Our feeling is that they should probably be postponed to a later date when circumstances improve” – ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton reflects on when full scale inspections should resume.
  • “We know the kinds of difficulties under which schools are operating” – the Chief Inspector seeks to calm fears ahead of Ofsted’s autumn visits. 
  • “We need Nightingale Schools as well as Nightingale Hospitals and courts” – the NEU calls on the PM to outline what should be in a Plan B.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 1m+ – The number of people who on the first day have downloaded the government’s contact tracing NHS Covid-19 app, according to latest figures.
  • £215M – How much has been paid back to the furlough scheme by employers, a little less than the £3.5bn ‘lost’ fraudulently according to HMRC.
  • 15.6% – The rise in house sales in August helping to protect some 750,000 jobs, according to the Treasury.
  • 40% – The number of people who had never worked from home before the pandemic and now say they want to continue doing so post-pandemic, according to a YouGov survey.
  • 515,650 – The number of students with a confirmed place at university this year, up 4% on last year according to latest figures from UCAS.
  • 64% – How many people strongly or somewhat support students returning to university, according to YouGov.
  • 57% – The number of people who think a reopening of universities will lead to a lockdown in their area, according to a survey from Survation.
  • 442,000 – How many full-time undergraduate students will be eligible for a student loan in 2024/25, up from 400,000 according to the DfE.
  • 1,700 – The number of media articles, features and interviews that appeared about apprenticeships during this year’s National Apprenticeship Week, according to the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA).
  • 1 per 1,000 students – How many boxes of additional test kits schools and colleges can order, according to latest government guidelines. 
  • 87% – The number of pupils in attendance in state-funded schools in England as of last Thursday, down 1% according to the latest government figures.
  • 400,000 – How many pupils are not in school in England because of the pandemic and/or lockdown, according to figures suggested by the Children’s Commissioner.
  • 16% – The increase in teacher training applications this year, according to research from the NFER.

Everything else you need to know ...

Other stories

  • How coronavirus has affected life and society. As we continue to grapple with the effects of the virus, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published an interesting set of ten charts illustrating its impact on different aspects of life and society. While many of the charts deal sadly with mortality and infection rates, others cover the impact on the economy, the high street and family life. Apparently for example under lockdown, homeschooling parents tended to do their own work in the mornings and use the late afternoons and early evenings for homeschooling and other family duties. The charts can be found here
  • Frost on maths. The UK has a second potential winner of the Global Teacher Award following Andria Zafirakou two years ago. This week it was announced that Dr Jamie Frost who teaches maths at Tiffin School and who set up an award-winning website for maths which has proved hugely popular around the globe during the pandemic, has been shortlisted. A link to the site can be found 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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