Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 13 November 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:

A hectic week but at least it started with some good news on a vaccine. 

For education, the news has been rather less uplifting with a summary report from Ofsted highlighting the downsides of the pandemic for many children –‘lockdown children forget how to use a knife and fork’ as the BBC headline put it, the latest labour market data raising further worries about youth unemployment, and continuing agonising over next summer’s exams in England as the Welsh government cancelled theirs.

In other related news this week, the Home Secretary announced the Immigration Bill, had been approved; the DfE issued ‘travelling home for Christmas’ instructions for university students and launched a Call for Evidence on qualifications for post-16-year-olds; while the Education Committee questioned Ofsted and reported on the outcomes emerging so far from its Inquiry into this summer’s exams. 

Elsewhere, the Education Policy Institute set out its views on next summer’s exams, a careful balance of options depending on whether they do or don’t go ahead, and Hodder Education/School Dashpublished worrying data on attainment gaps among primary pupils in England following lockdown. The Treasury reported a good start to the Kickstart Scheme; the Careers and Enterprise Company published its annual report; and the Social Market Foundation called for sustained investment for adult education. Over in HE, UCAS burst in on the university admissions debate with a couple of ‘radical’ thoughts on a PQA post-qualification application system, while Universities UK published their proposals for a new system. Tortoise held a ‘digital think-in’ on university admissions; the Learning and Work Institute looked at how to close the jobs gap; and former NUS President Aaron Porter looked back on the student tuition fee protests ten years on, reflecting that: “we have been left with a system that is both more expensive for the state and for the individuals who go through it”.

A lot to take in therefore, so here are a few details on the top three stories, starting with those reports from Ofsted. Their initial reports in September had given us an early glimpse into how things were going in education and care settings. These latest reports provide, in the Chief Inspector’s words, "a much clearer picture".

The headline message is that the impact on children and young people seems to be falling in one of three ways. There are those with ‘good support structures’ who appear to be coping well, others who are grappling with wider problems, and then there is ‘the majority,’ who have slipped back. Inevitably this latter group, struggling to concentrate in class, lacking physical fitness, displaying symptoms of mental unease, falling behind, and for some very young children, unable to perform basic functions, has attracted the most attention, and remains a worry for the future. There are also worries that some of these young people are out of sight, out of mind.

The reports also highlight the challenges involved in ‘fire-fighting,’ basically trying to provide a Covid secure learning environment as rules and guidelines continue to evolve. Home learning remains ‘patchy,’ budgets and staff absences are a worry for all providers, and social media use – particularly by some groups – can be a pain to manage, but senior leaders everywhere are showing ‘remarkable resilience.’ 

Ofsted will publish a further set of reports next month and we wait to hear whether routine inspections will commence early next year; plenty of strong views remain on this. For the moment, what is clear, as the Chief Inspector underlined, is the importance of learning provision remaining open and providing the support, routine and hope that so many children and young people need.  

Next, youth unemployment, a concern that has been building for some time and given added urgency with the latest data from the Office for National Statistics. This showed a 17% increase in unemployment for 16-24-year-olds over the last quarter, July-September, compared to the start of the year. It meant 602,000 young people were unemployed in the July-September period, an increase of over 100,000 – largely young men. The UK youth unemployment rate at 12.3% is at least better than the EU average of 16.1%, but comes as the Institute of Student Employers reports a drop in graduate recruitment. Overall, redundancies in the last quarter hit a new high, and the latest lockdown fuels concerns all round as this week’s GDP figures indicated.

Currently, three points stand out. First, that as the Resolution Foundation pointed out recently, a big problem is that the jobs that are available are not in the occupations that people are currently looking at; hospitality and leisure industries for example. Second, as the IES point out, increased participation in education and training has helped offset a rise in youth unemployment, but in turn requires proper funding as the Association of Colleges stressed this week. And third, as most commentators acknowledge, while the unemployment trends may not be as bad as originally forecast, they won’t improve until business confidence and demand pick up, with government needing to play a key role in helping this along. This week’s news from the Treasury about the burgeoning of the Kickback Scheme offers a hopeful sign. The Institute of Employment Studies (IES) has an excellent summary of it all here.

Third, and finally among the big stories this week, exams. This week the Education Committee reported on its findings so far from its Inquiry into this summer’s exams. It’s not complete yet because it’s still waiting for papers from the Education Secretary which has left the committee a bit miffed. Some key messages emerge however, including about the importance of an independent regulator, the need for greater clarity and transparency on decision making, and the importance of all parties talking to each other. And that’s before the Office for Statistics Regulation completes its report into that algorithm.

The Committee goes on to say that in their view ‘exams must go ahead in 2021’ with robust contingency planning in place. Education Ministers, indeed the Prime Minister, have been saying the same for some time, despite the position taken in Scotland and now this week, Wales. The think tank, the Education Policy Institute, offered their thoughts this week, in effect a Plan A and Plan B option. Debate at the moment appears to be around whether there should be a reduction in the number of exams, the potential for greater choice, standards over time procedures, how or whether to allow for lost learning time, and contingency arrangements. The government has said it will make some announcement before the end of the month, but the longer it all goes on, the more tense things become. 

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Heads back university admissions shake-up as UCAS sets out ‘radical’ options.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Lockdown children forgot how to use knife and fork.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Universities to oversee student exodus for Christmas.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Shocking decline in primary pupils’ attainment after lockdown.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Vice-Chancellors back University offers after A’ level results.’ (Friday)


  • Immigration Bill. The Home Secretary announced that the Bill to end free movement for EU citizens to the UK from I January 2021 had now passed all stages in Parliament, paving the way for a points-based system 
  • Citizenship rights. The independent think tank Bright Blue examined attitudes towards UK citizenship rights, pointing to public support for it to be easier for migrants who work in key frontline services such as health and social care and other areas of skill demand 
  • Foreign investment. The Prime Minister announced the creation of an Office for Investment, to be based in the Dept for International Trade, with the aim of attracting foreign investment post-Brexit 
  • Paying for Covid. The Resolution Foundation and Standard Life published a hefty new report on repairing the nation’s finances, urging the government to consider among other things a Health and Social Care Levy, a Pandemics Profit Levy and £40bn worth of tax measures, including for capital gains and corporation tax. 
  • Latest employment figures. The Office for National Statistics published labour market figures for the UK for the latest quarter up to September 2020, showing a notable rise in the unemployment rate and in redundancies with particular worries about a drop in the employment rate for 16-24-year-olds.
  • Autumn LMO Outlook. The CIPD and Adecco Group published their latest Labour Market Outlook (LMO) for the quarter before the latest lockdown, indicating a ‘modest’ improvement in recruitment, a slightly better picture on employer redundancy plans, and an increase in applications for job vacancies 
  • Green Jobs Taskforce. The government launched a Green Jobs Taskforce, jointly chaired by the Skills and Energy Ministers respectively, with the aim of creating 2m green jobs by 2030 as part of a reset toward a high-skill, low-carbon economy.
  • Green New Deal. Labour launched its Green New Deal, calling on the government to bring forward a £30bn investment package that would retrain workers and create 400,000 new jobs in the green economy.
  • Supporting new ventures.The Resolution Foundation announced the launch of a new Workertech Innovation Fund, supported by leading charities and social investors, aimed at providing those on low wages and poor employment prospects with funding, training and support in setting up new ventures.
  • The story so far. Ofsted reported on its latest round of visits to education and social care providers suggesting a clearer picture was now emerging with some young people coping well, some grappling with wider challenges and some falling back, reinforcing the importance of keeping schools and colleges open.
  • Children in care. The Children’s Commissioner published a series of reports highlighting the plight of children in care, often overlooked, facing unstable conditions and variable care, and with private providers seeking to profit. 
  • Rashford’s goal. The government announced a winter support package for disadvantaged families which will see free meals for children over the holidays extended through next year as part of the Holiday Activities and Food programme.
  • Cultural survival. The government announced a second wave of grants from its Culture Recovery Fund supporting places of culture and heritage, with over 160 sites and venues receiving funds this time round, ranging from Durham Cathedral to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. 
  • New pods. Worldwide web founder Sir Tim Berners Lee announced the next stage in his vision of user-controlled data using his Solid platform to create online storage entities, controlled by users rather than organisations, and known as Personal Online Data Stores (Pods).
  • Junk food adverts.The government launched consultation on proposals to ban adverts promoting food high in sugar, fat and salt, as part of its campaign on childhood obesity.
  • Personal debt. The debt charity Step Change published the results of a new survey completed in September showing a massive increase in the number of people, often young and vulnerable, affected by the virus and experiencing financial difficulties.

More specifically ...


  • Education Committee on exams. The Education Committee reported on the findings from its inquiry into the 2020 summer exams, calling on the Education Secretary to release relevant papers, noting the concerns identified by Ofqual ahead of the exams but querying its lack of ‘independence’ in not raising them, and supporting the call for exams to go ahead this summer.
  • Summer 2021 exams. The Education Policy Institute outlined a range of options for if next summer’s exams go ahead (allow more choice/accept grade inflation,) if they don’t go ahead (standard benchmark assessments,) and what’s needed to help students who’ve missed out on schooling (more catch-up support/funding). 
  • Exams in Wales. The Education Minister in Wales announced that external exams for GCSE, AS and A’ level next summer would be scrapped in favour of managed assessments, including some externally set and marked under teacher supervision, with the position on vocational assessments yet to be determined. 
  • Summer 2020 exams. Ofqual published a batch of interactive visualisations illustrating grade distributions and centre variability across England for this summer’s GCSE and A’ level exam results. 
  • Ofsted reports. Ofsted published the findings from its latest round of school visits completed in October to see how schools were coping with the pandemic, showing a mixed picture on attendance, some modification of the curriculum, different approaches to remote learning, and pupils generally happy to be back.
  • SEND provision. Ofsted published the findings from its visits during October to local area special needs provision, indicating that many families and children were finding the pandemic unsettling with the restrictions generating anxieties and not all services available but equally with good case study evidence of relationships strengthening and some agencies working together.
  • Early years inspections. Ofsted announced a ‘more flexible and proportionate’ approach to its inspections of early years providers when inspections resume, with a focus on a more risk-based approach.
  • Lockdown loss. Hodder Education and School Dash published new evidence of attainment gaps among primary school children in England arising out of the lockdown with test data showing younger and deprived pupils struggling the most.
  • Setting fees. Ofqual published the outcome of its consultation on awarding organisation fee setting along with updated guidance to accompany new arrangements due in from 18 January 2021, that should see greater clarity and transparency on such fees and how they are calculated. 
  • Curriculum balance. Andreas Schleicher, Director at the OECD for Education and Skills, highlighted in a new blog the challenges involved in teaching the next generation about preparing for an uncertain world, noting from a recent (2018) survey that young people were aware of issues such as gender equality, migration and climate change but not of pandemics and international conflicts.


  • Latest Covid secure guidance. The government published updated guidance for FE in light of the latest lockdown, broadly building on existing guidance but adding some details on sport, placements, teaching and possible mitigation measures to ensure safety rules were observed where possible.
  • Kickstart kicks in. The Treasury reported that over 19,000 job placements for young people had been created so far under the Kickback Scheme which runs to December 2021 and provides six-month government subsidised placements and support for young people.
  • Careers report. The Careers and Enterprise Company published its latest annual report pointing to the importance of developing Career Hubs, Compass+, the Gatsby benchmarks and employer and adviser networks as part of the response to the pandemic and the need for continuing strong careers guidance.
  • Ofsted reports. Ofsted published the findings from its latest round of FE visits completed in October, showing providers in varying degrees modifying their approaches to fit in with both practical and remote learning requirements, concerns growing about costs and recruitment for some courses, and some worries about assessment especially for apprentices.
  • Qualification consultation. The government launched a further call for evidence on L2 and below qualifications, excluding GCSEs, looking to hear views about coherence, choice and progression opportunities, as well as the case for a Transition programme, digital and essential core skills.
  • L3 and below learners. The government provided further background detail to its call for evidence on L2 and below by reporting on which students studied L3 and below qualifications and how they performed, indicating many lacked prior attainment and came from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Post-16 pathways. The government published experimental data on progression pathways for learners on L3 and below qualifications, suggesting six typical pathways through from mainly NEET (15%) to successful entry after 2/3 years into employment (35%). 
  • How do others do it? The government published a commissioned report, produced as part of the series of papers supporting the L2 call for evidence and looking at how eight other countries support progression from L2 with a link to occupations a key factor and many flexing their courses to meet market needs.
  • Industry placements. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) published latest guidance for providers on industry placements supported through the Capacity and Delivery Fund (CDF) which will see the funding rate gradually reduce over the next few years and a shift towards L3 provision.
  • College numbers. The Association of Colleges (AoC) called on the government to release unused apprenticeship funds to help them provide for a surge in numbers of young people enrolled in colleges, anxious to develop the skills they need for when the economy and jobs pick up.
  • Learning lessons. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) with support from the FE Trust for Leadership (FETL) looked at what lessons could be learned from the first lockdown as a guide to future planning, citing the importance of leadership, support for mental health and better use of technology.
  • Adult education. The Social Market Foundation published a new report highlighting the importance of adult education particularly now and for those on low incomes, calling for new 3-year investment in the service and the use of learner accounts to encourage participation.
  • The Skills Agenda. World Skills UK published a collection of essays on the role of skills in the country’s economic recovery using case study evidence and current activity to highlight developments.
  • Stakeholder Survey. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education launched its latest annual survey of views from stakeholders about its work, and due to complete by 9 December.
  • Edge and Ashoka. The Edge Foundation announced a new strategic partnership with Ashoka, the global network of social entrepreneurs dedicated to ‘changemaking’ and skills development in young people.


  • Home for Christmas. The government set out arrangements for university students to be able to return home safely for Christmas with the week from 3 Dec being set aside for staggered departures, all learning to be online from 9 Dec, support to be in place for those remaining and the whole thing backed up by rapid result Covid testing where necessary.
  • Fair admissions. Universities UK published the outcomes of its Fair Admissions review recommending a shift towards a post-qualification system (PQA) by 2023, the scrapping of conditional unconditional offers and a new Code of Practice to ensure fair behaviour all round.
  • University admissions developments.UCAS revealed that it was working on and would shortly publish, ‘two new radical options’ for reforming the system for university admissions, based on post-qualification applications (PQA) with applications in one scenario submitted after known results and the start of the university year pushed back to January.
  • Seeking a new Chair. Peter Riddell, Commissioner for Public Appointments, criticised the approach being taken for appointing a new Chair of the Office of Students, suggesting that the recruitment panel was too close to government and lacked anyone with recent HE experience. 
  • Don’t cut fees. The Russell Group released a new paper urging the government not to adopt a tuition fee cut in any forthcoming response to the Augar review and calling for ‘a cast-iron guarantee’ that any funding shortfall would be met.
  • Student recruitment. The Institute of Student Employers highlighted three trends from its latest recruitment survey including a drop in recruitment, greater use of online recruitment techniques, and continuing unpredictability in recruitment patterns running well into next year.
  • Doctoral degrees.UK Research Innovation (UKRI) reported on how it had been supporting students in completing their doctoral degrees using extensions and some funding support and encouraging those in the early stages of research to talk to their supervisors to ensure they could complete on time. 
  • International students. The Times Higher reported on comments from Sir Steve Smith, the UK’s international education champion, suggesting that the model of international education would change in the coming years -more hybrid – but the UK target of 600,000 international students by 2030 remained viable.
  • Gender pay gap. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) examined the gender pay gap at university and among graduates indicating that it can be difficult for females to catch-up and that income return measures should recognise the fact.
  • Advance HE survey. Advance HE published the results of its student engagement survey undertaken with undergraduates between Feb-June this year and indicating a relatively positive picture with engagement with staff even improving during lockdown, and living away from campus being no barrier.
  • Unite survey. Unite Students, who deal with student accommodation, published the results of a survey on how students had been coping this term, reporting that although their first year hadn’t been as expected, over 80% valued the experience and 93% intended to stay the course.
  • Security costs. The Tab highlighted how much some universities were paying in terms of increased security this year, not always for the most positive of reasons. 
  • Ten years on. Aaron Porter, who was NUS President at the time of the big fees’ demos ten years ago this month, reflected in a comment piece on Wonkhe on the nature of the protests and the (largely negative) impact on politics and university and student finances consequently.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Every week now is spent thinking I can’t wait until this week is over. The number of times I’m hearing Groundhog Day referenced in any given scenario is striking, glad it’s not just me” | @JenWilliamsMEN
  • “England - hold your nerve. Don't scrap the exams. The alternatives are all worse. End” | @teacherhead
  • “Some belated sense from Ex Google CEO Eric Schmidt “The concept of social networks, broadly speaking, as amplifiers for idiots and crazy people is not what we expected” | @BobHarrisonEdu
  • “Returning university students must show ‘refined’ behaviour"| @jim_dickinson
  • “Staff who work from home after pandemic 'should pay more tax' | @guardianmoney
  • “Eating chocolate and drinking red wine could help prevent ageing, according to a study” | @Independent

 Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “If we get to the White House, I’m going to continue to teach" – Dr Jill Biden expresses a wish to continue in the classroom.
  • “Seeing the role everyone had played in supporting the most vulnerable children has been "the greatest moment of my life" – Marcus Rashford as the government relented and agreed to support free meals and activities for poorer children.
  • “The government has no plans to reverse this decision” – the Skills Minister responds to a question on the scrapping of the Union Learning Fund.
  • “When it comes to the immediate jobs outlook, the best that can be said is that the situation is getting worse more slowly” – the CIPD on the
  • latest labour market outlook.
  • “There are two options for reform that could work practically and aim to improve fairness for students, as well as eradicate problems for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds” – UCAS prepares to release options on university admissions reform.
  • “Riddled with holes” – the University and College Union (UCU) appears unimpressed by government guidelines on helping university students get home for Christmas.
  • “Still eminently achievable” – Sir Steve Smith, the UK’s international education champion, on reaching the government target of 600,000 international students by 2030.
  • “It will be important for school inspections to start up again in the new year, but at the right time and in the right way” – Nick Gibb on when routine Ofsted inspections will start up again.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 15.5%. The amount by which the economy grew between July and September but down to 1.1% in September as lockdown loomed, according to latest ONS figures.
  • 4.8%. The UK unemployment rate for the 3 months to September, up from 4.5% in the previous quarter according to the latest ONS statistics.
  • £9.50. The real Living Wage rate for 2020/21, £10.85 in London, a 20p and 10p increase respectively according to the Living Wage Foundation.
  • 19,672. The number of jobs created for young people so far under the Kickback Scheme, according to the Treasury.
  • 12%. The drop in the numbers of graduates recruited in 2019/20, according to the Institute for Student Employers.
  • 89.3%. Pupil attendance rate in state schools in England at the latest census date of last Thursday, up slightly despite 16% of schools having at least one pupil self-isolating, according to latest government figures.
  • £220m. How much the government is putting into its Holiday Activities and Food programme for next year, according to the DWP.
  • 40%. How many people keep schtum about their money problems even from their loved ones, according to Money and Pensions Service.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Petitions Committee debate on University tuition fees. (Monday)
  • Schools and Academies 2020 online Show. (Tues – Friday)
  • Fair Education Alliance Summit. (Tuesday/Wednesday)
  • The Association of Colleges’ FE Summit. (Tues, Wed)
  • NAHT ‘Improving Schools’ report. (Wednesday)

Other stories

  • Commuter silence. It may perhaps be less of a problem on buses and trains in this country where people like to remain silent but in Barcelona, commuters are being asked to button it to avoid spreading any germs. Naturally garrulous Spaniards have not taken kindly to the order as the i newspaper reports here
  • Words of the year. And the pandemic has also had an effect on our language this year with the Collins dictionary reporting ‘lockdown’ as the 2020 Word of the Year. Related words like ‘social distance,’ ‘furlough’ and of course ‘coronavirus’ also feature. Other non-Covid related words/phrases of the year include BLM and Tik-Tok. Details 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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