Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 23 October 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:

Half term arrives this weekend for many schools and colleges with much of the UK in further lockdown, Labour MPs calling for a national jobs summit amid fears of ‘rocketing’ youth unemployment, SAGE talkingof ‘a lost generation’ of young people and the Chancellor curtailing the Spending Review. A worrying time all round.

On a more positive note, colleges felt the love and in some cases swayed to the music as part of the latest ‘Love Our Colleges’ Week, Universities UK set out a new positive Vision for universities as contributors to national recovery and the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) forecast a boom in student numbers in parts of England at least. 

In other news, the Education Committee took evidence from Nick Gibb, the Scottish Affairs Committee heard from Scottish student unions about their experiences under lockdown as some media headlines honed in on unruly behaviour and Labour hosted but lost an Opposition Day debate on extending free school meals over the holiday period. Elsewhere, Ofqual published minutes of Board meetings during the build-up to and aftermath of this summer’s exams. It also set out expectations ahead of the autumn series of exams. Schools faced their new duty of providing remote learning for students having to self-isolate, Ofsted published reports from its first interim visits to colleges, the CBI published an important report on learning for the future, and Sir Michael Wilshaw returned briefly to the classroom as a cover teacher: As he said: ‘you don’t suddenly lose it, do you?’ No student was available for comment.

Let’s start this week’s round-up with the positives, starting with colleges.

The latest ‘Love Our Colleges’ Week came with the political winds continuing to veer behind the college sector. ‘We are in a potential golden age for further education’ declared the Chair of the Education Committee as MPs hastened to add their voices of support for their local colleges in a Westminster Hall debate on the matter.

 It hasn’t always been thus; years of funding cuts, policy switchbacks and political indifference have left the sector in a pretty deflated state, the disregarded middle child of the education system, ignored in government education statements as college leaders reminded us this week. But things are perhaps changing. A major White Paper is on the cards, although its ambitions may be clipped by a limited Spending Review and the twin challenges of Brexit and Covid are fuelling a national demand for a high-quality skills training system These and belated political recognition of the voting power of a technician class, have all added to the sense of positive expectations around FE at the moment. Anyone in doubt should read the report this week from the CBI on the demand for future learning: ‘ Nine in ten workers will need some form of reskilling by 2030, this is an issue that affects everyone,’ it begins.

Not that this week’s celebrations were about big announcements. These may come with next week’s independent Commission report on the College of the Future let alone future government spending commitments but it was a week to stop and recognise just how important the college sector actually is. ‘Just like schools and universities, hospitals and doctor’s surgeries, trains and buses, bin collectors and park keepers, colleges are a vital part of the fabric of our lives, ‘as David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges put it.    

Colleges haven’t been the only ones displaying their credentials this week, the university sector has also been setting out a new vision for life beyond Covid and Brexit: ‘We will support the country through the current crisis and play a central role in driving recovery.’ 

Universities have found life difficult recently facing enormous funding and strategic difficulties arising out of both Covid and Brexit and a college sector seemingly more in favour. This Vision from Universities UK, however, argues for a collaborative approach with FE, particularly around higher technical skills, while focusing on the sector’s obvious research and international strengths. Key recommendations include: a more flexible funding and regulatory approach for higher-level technical skills, greater local knowledge creation and research activity, targeted maintenance grants, no return to student numbers caps, developing an ambitious international agenda, and supporting green recovery and healthcare programmes. The Vision is presented as shared and conditional, important caveats.

The Vision comes as student numbers are set to increase over the next 15 years in England at least and more particularly in London and the South East. That is according to evidence from the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) which bases it on an increase in the number of 18-year-olds and of participation rates, though not for other parts of the UK. The subtext is that any attempt to cap numbers would be seen to be denying opportunities and restricting access. The Commons Library Service, which also reported on student numbers this week, is charier when it comes to numbers of part-time, mature and overseas students but it’s a positive outlook all the same.

Finally, in limiting this year’s Spending Review to a one-year settlement, the Chancellor may have disappointed some Conservative MPs including the Prime Minister who was hoping to use it as a big bang re-launch moment, but his latest changes to the Job Support Scheme have pleased many.  The Scheme which takes over from the furlough scheme next month now accepts that government has to stump up more to cover wage costs and so take the heat off employers trying to retain staff. It also doubles the grant for the self-employed and provides cash grants for certain sectors struggling to survive in Tier 2 areas. Some groups still miss out but in the words of the Chambers of Commerce, ‘it’s a significant improvement in business support.’  Good to end the week on a positive.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Autumn resits will have ‘generosity of 2020 grades.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Pupils sent home in half of England’s secondary schools.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Universities accused of pressurising staff to work on campus.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Lockdown made life worse for 2 in 5 children, NHS report says.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Qualifications reform: government announces next steps.’ (Friday)


  • Revised Job Support Scheme. The Chancellor announced some changes to his Job Support Scheme that broadly shift the wage burden back to government, along with a doubling of grants for the self-employed and backdated cash grants for some sectors in Tier 2 
  • Spending Review. The Chancellor announced that this year’s Spending Review Statement would take place in late November, focus on jobs, infrastructure and tackling Covid-19, and be limited to a one rather than a three-year settlement
  • Time is running out. The government launched a new campaign under the title ‘Time is running out’ to ensure businesses are prepared for the end of the transition period and adoption of new post-Brexit trading arrangements from January 1 2021
  • Alliance for Full Employment. Labour’s, Gordon Brown supported Alliance for Full Employment, raised fears about a looming crisis of youth unemployment calling for a national summit with a focus on the provision of wage subsidies, work experience, job searches and training linked to new jobs to help alleviate the situation
  • Five tests. The British Chambers of Commerce set out five business tests that should be considered ahead of any further Covid restrictions including whether support for business is commensurate with the impact on them
  • Pandemic effect on Europe. The IMF, in a new blog, highlighted some of the effects of the pandemic across a wider Europe pointing to a 7% decline in Europe’s GDP this year and to some 54m jobs being supported by job retention schemes at some point but suggested that with the aid of targeted programmes, reskilling and clear strategies, Europe should be able to pick up next year
  • Improving Opportunities. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Housing and Social Mobility reported on how those on social housing could be helped into employment, calling among other things for employment opportunities to be embedded into local procurement contracts and for greater clarity on such funds as the Shared Prosperity Fund
  • Back home. Loughborough University reported on the growing numbers of young adults moving back or still living at home, suggesting it’s now a ‘normal’ for many into their early 30’s but is adding to the financial pressures on many low-income families where benefit payments are reduced
  • Online Harms. The think tank Demos published the results of its survey into people’s views of online harms with offensive language, hate crimes, trolling and grooming children among the concerns, and with most calling for greater control but with little consensus on how this should be achieved 
  • Losing faith. Cambridge University’s Centre for the Future of Democracy reported on its survey of different age groups on the current state of democracy, finding millennials in particular the most disillusioned group largely because of economic exclusion and inequality with populism boosting youth satisfaction in some parts of the world, albeit temporarily.

More specifically ...


  • Autumn 2020 exams .Ofqual explained how standards would be set for this autumn’s exam series pointing to the use of senior examiner judgements aligned to 2019 grade boundaries and 2020 summer outcomes
  • Out of school settings.The government followed up on its recent consultation by publishing new voluntary guidance for parents, schools and providers of out of school settings like after school clubs, outlining procedures around safeguarding, health, child protection and governance, supported by a 7-step checklist
  • Please Sir. The Education Policy Institute reported on changing trends in the teaching profession in England with the numbers of male teachers particularly in secondary schools continuing to drop but with an increase in the number from BAME backgrounds
  • Where should the money go? The Economics Observatory, which analyses the impact of the coronavirus on the economy, examined the best use of funding and resources in schools, arguing that it would be better to allocate funds such as catch-up monies at individual schools and let them direct it in the best way
  • Education gaps.FFT education datalab examined attainment gaps at Key Stage 4 especially in maths and especially among black Caribbean and mixed white pupils indicating that they were falling behind at GCSE and the gap is widening, suggesting more targeted strategies may be needed
  • Chairing a Board. The National Governance Association (NGA) and partners reported on the important and demanding role played by Chairs of Governors calling for terms of office to be restricted to six years, a pool of experienced Chairs to help with schools in need, and a new recruitment campaign to be held
  • STEM skills. The Nuffield Foundation announced that STEM Learning would take over the running of its Research Placements which provide summer holiday research opportunities for disadvantaged young people
  • The problem with GCSEs. Georgina Chatfield, Programme Manager at the RSA, listed four charges against GCSE in a new blog, including that they set up a third of students to fail, they narrow options, they put pressure on schools and the marking isn’t always accurate
  • Online tutoring. The Education Endowment Foundation reported on its pilot work with partner organisations on the benefits of online tutoring for children affected by school closures, ahead of the formal launch of National Tutoring Programme, suggesting that many such pupils now felt more confident and able to benefit 
  • Remote learning. Laura McInerney pointed to some of the challenges facing schools and families as the government’s new requirement to provide work for self-isolating pupils came into force
  • Food Poverty. Rob Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Committee, outlined a set of four proposals to help tackle child food poverty including securing accurate data, extending free school meals over the holidays during the pandemic, supporting the recent Bill to provide eligible free school breakfasts, and supporting a holiday activities programme 
  • Extending free school meals. The Opposition led a debate on extending free school meals over the holidays, following a campaign led by Marcus Rashford and others, but despite abstentions was unable to win a vote in Parliament
  • Equity in school education. The EU Commission published a hefty 300+ page report comparing how different school systems and structures across the EU affected equity but largely ending up with some familiar policy approaches including investment in primary years, supporting disadvantaged children in their early years, and removing differentiation in school choice and admissions.


  • Colleges Week. The Association of Colleges and others led a week of activities, resources and songs to celebrate the work of colleges as part of the latest annual ‘Love Our Colleges’ Week 
  • View from the Secretary of State. Gavin Williamson published a blog on the AoC website to mark ‘Love Our Colleges’ Week, expressing admiration for the work that colleges do and their importance to the country’s economic recovery while underlining the support the government was now providing for colleges
  • MPs debate FE. MPs from across the country praised the contributions of their local college in a Westminster Hall debate designed to highlight the role of FE in helping provide the skills and training needed for the country’s economic recovery post-Covid
  • Helping SMEs.The AoC released new survey data from Opinum showing that small and medium businesses (SMEs) have increasing concerns about future skills gaps among employees and see colleges as major providers of skills training 
  • Post-16 qualifications. The government lined up the next stage of its post-16 qualification programme launching an important consultation intended to further rationalise the offer for young people through grouped qualifications, remove funding for qualifications that overlap with A’ and T levels, open up technical qualifications to adults and promote ‘quality’ standards
  • Learning for Life. The CBI published a new report on adult learning highlighting the importance of future re-skilling where ‘nine in ten workers will need some form of reskilling by 2030,’ putting forward a “range of costed measures including Career Development Accounts (£3.9bn,) Level 2 and 3 grants (£0.5bn,) bitesize provision and conversion of the Apprenticeship Levy into a Skills and Training Levy
  • FE and Skills Strategy. JISC outlined a 3-year strategic programme intended to support FE providers on their ‘digital journey,’ based on a series of key principles and the development of models like the Digital Elevation Model 
  • Save the ULF. The TUC launched a campaign to save the Union Learning Fund (ULF) as the Welsh government confirmed it would continue to support the Wales version of the Fund
  • Applying the levy. The government published a report undertaken by the Learning and Work Institute into how employers applied the apprenticeship levy as well as the use of prior learning, finding employers tending to use the levy to upskill staff especially at higher levels and seeing little incentive in applying prior learning
  • Level 2 and 3 Apprenticeships. The government published a commissioned report into Level 2 and 3 Apprenticeships, examining some of the reasons such as policy changes and the demands of the new standards for a decline in L2 apprenticeships, as well as reporting on strategies for increasing L3 apprenticeship numbers
  • Top Apprenticeship Employers. The government published its new list of the top 100 Apprenticeship employers with the forces coming out on top as the British Army took the top spot and the Navy third with HMRC squeezed in-between
  • Interim visits. Ofsted published reports for the first set of interim visits to various FE providers showing how they were coping with the pandemic and providing for the needs of their students
  • Community of Practice. The Careers and Enterprise Company announced the creation of an FE Community of Practice to help share and develop good practice in careers throughout the college sector. 


  • Research Landscape. The Science Minister praised research work in a webinar for the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) highlighting the importance of the recent ‘Roadmap’ for UK R/D and confirming a review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) would be undertaken once the current round was complete
  • A Vision for Universities. Universities UK set out a new Vision for universities built around the principles of Recovery, Skills, Knowledge and Opportunity with a range of recommendations in each case including modernising the regulatory system around levels 4 and 5, working collaboratively with FE, and maintaining remaining per student funding levels
  • Rising numbers. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) forecast rising demand for higher education over the next 15 years mainly in England and especially in London and the South East with rising numbers of 18-year olds and increases in participation driving the demand
  • More on student numbers. The House of Commons Library reported on the rise in student numbers in England since the fee ‘dip’ in 2012 but suggesting less favourable trends in part-time, mature and overseas students, particularly in the latter case in the light of the pandemic
  • Diversity in postgraduate research. Research England and the Office for Students launched a new funding competition to increase access and participation in postgrad research for BAME groups in English HE
  • Modular interest. Universities UK published new survey evidence showing that most people in need of developing new skills would prefer a modular approach through higher education but are unsure how the system works and how to access funds 
  • Future international partnerships. Universities UK called in a new paper for UK universities to be at the heart of global research and collaboration using case study evidence to recommend a range of collaborative ventures including a global prestige talent scheme.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “This is a mammoth procurement exercise. You cannot just walk into PC World and order 250,000 computers. It does require lead times. It's been one of the biggest procurement exercises in the UK of computers" - Gibb #edselctte” -@SchoolsWeek
  • “Learning for Life sounds so much better than life long learning. Life long learning is fine if you enjoy learning but for millions who don’t enjoy it - or who didn’t enjoy school life long learning feels very daunting” -@AnneMilton
  • “I just want to go to a real conference with bad coffee & pastries & get some pens & a tote bag instead of logging into another webinar” - @amymorgangp
  • “Today a year 7 got out a bottle of ketchup they'd brought from home because "It's chip day and I'm not paying 10p for the tiniest little bit." Properly did me in” -@MrDraperMaths
  • “My son was excited to be told he was having a spy teacher today. Less excited to discover she was just a supply teacher” -@profbeckyallen
  • “Despite not having a teaching timetable this year, last night I had a teaching anxiety dream. Year 7 cover in a food room. Half the class missing on arrival, all with headphones in and none prepared to look at me or sit in their seat. Doesn’t go away!” -@richspencer1979

 Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “In the current environment its essential that we provide certainty. So we’ll be doing that for departments and all of the nations of the United Kingdom by setting budgets for next year, with a total focus on tackling Covid and delivering our Plan for Jobs” – the Chancellor on a trimmed down Spending Review
  • “That is why we will be publishing an exciting and bold white paper this autumn to drive forward real change” – the Education Secretary prepares the ground for the FE White Paper 
  • “It’s going to be my job to ground ministers in reality" – Wes Streeting MP on his new role as Shadow Schools Minister
  • “We must stop stigmatising, judging and pointing fingers" – Marcus Rashford after losing the vote on extending free school meals
  • “I have teachers asking me, ‘I look terrible on camera. What do I do?’” -the THES reports on university staff getting to grips with online learning
  • “it’s the Heineken of adult learning – it gets to people other approaches cannot reach” – the TUC leads a campaign to save the Union Learning Fund
  • “One of the least understood jewels in our public infrastructure’” – the Chief Exec of the AoC on the importance of colleges
  • “To be as fair as we can to those students, we are working with exam boards to carry forward the generosity from summer 2020 grades, the majority of which were based on centre assessment grades” – Ofqual sets out awarding arrangements for this autumn’s exams
  • “I turned up and did the usual: I asked them to listen, and they did” – ex Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw on being back in the classroom for some cover.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 0.5%. The UK CPI inflation rate for September 2020, up from 0.2% for the previous month according to the Office for National Statistics
  • £259.2bn. The increase in public sector net debt between April and September this year, the highest debt to GDP ratio in 60 years according to the ONS
  • 4.9%. How much the economy grew in China between July and September as the country recovered from the pandemic and the economy picked up, according to the country’s central bank
  • £130bn. How much is needed over the next decade for reskilling, according to the CBI
  • 358,000. How many more higher education places are forecast to be needed in England over the next 15 years, according to the HE Policy Institute 
  • £1m+. How much university students in Bristol are holding back in rent money in protest at a lack of provision and support, according to a student campaign group 3.
  • 3.5m. The number of single 20-24-year olds living with their parents, according to research from Loughborough University
  • 4.5%. The number of pupils in state-funded schools in England not in attendance on last Thursday’s ‘census’ day largely because they were self-isolating, according to the latest government figures
  • 57%. How many people in a survey reckon schools and nurseries should be the top priority for staying open, according to YouGov
  • 35.5%. The number of male teachers in secondary schools in England, a steady drop in numbers over the last decade according to the Education Policy Institute
  • 5,000. The number of new Chairs of Governors needed for schools each year, according to the National Governance Association
  • 11,120. The number of chain store outlets that closed in the first half of this year with 5,119 opening, according to a report from PwC.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Commission on the College of the Future launches Final Report (Wednesday)
  • UCAS analysis of 2021 applications as of Oct 15 deadline (Thursday)

Other stories

  • Mental health of young people. Worries about the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of children and young people have been widely discussed for some time with some disturbing stories. This week NHS Digital, working with the Office for National Statistics, NatCen Social Research and the Universities of Cambridge and Exeter, published a major report on the matter. Their findings, based on evidence completed in July, tend to reinforce initial concerns with four in ten 11-16-year olds saying lockdown had made their lives worse and one in six 5-16-year olds identified as having a probable mental disorder. Context and gender appear to matter with household tensions playing a big part and with females appearing more susceptible than males. A link to the full report 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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