Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 27 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:

‘We’ve only just begun.’ The Chancellor’s comments in his Spending Review about the economic crisis have made many of the headlines this week. In fact, it’s been a week of big news headlines with the release of the government’s Winter Plan, announcements about arrangements over Christmas, news of who’s in the latest tiers, and cliff edge talks about Brexit transition.

But it’s the Spending Review that’s been the big story for many – particularly in education – and which kicks off this week’s summary. 

It may have been a slimmed-down settlement, let alone a slimmed-down speech (30 minutes rather than the usual 60), but given the context, if was always going to be a difficult occasion. ‘The Chancellor claimed to be ‘delivering on the priorities of the British people,’ and the CBI commended him for ‘laying the foundations for a brighter economic future’ but others have been disappointed. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Lecturers (ASCL) expressed ‘deep disappointment’ at the pay freeze for teachers, and the same phrase was used by Sarah Brown, campaigner for global education and wife of former PM Gordon Brown, in a tweet about the cut to the overseas aid budget.

So mixed reactions inevitably and arguably more to come when as the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) put it, the government’s fiscal policies in response to the virus, let alone Brexit, begin to be realised. For the moment, as the OBR acknowledged, ‘the economic outlook remains highly uncertain,’ so much so that they postulated three different economic scenarios: an upside, a downside and a central model, all largely dependent on future management of both the virus and Brexit. 

Three sets of economic figures stand out from these scenarios. First, and critically for many families, unemployment, which the OBR project could hit 7.5% at its peak in Quarter 2 next year before falling back to 4.4% by 2025. A downside scenario would see it peak at 11% in early 2022. Second, growth, down by 11.3% this year, the largest annual drop since the Great Frost of 1709 in the OBR’s words, before steadily rising by 5.5% next year, 6.6% the year after, but not returning to pre-virus levels until late 2022 and remaining pallid for some time. And third, government borrowing, running at £394bn this year, the highest recorded level in peacetime and needing to be paid down at some point. 

So what about the education bits in the Review, many of which, such as the schools funding settlement, the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, and the various training components had already been announced previously, but where other details were added. 

Among the detail was a 3.8% increase in departmental spending, ‘the fastest growth rate in 15 years’ apparently, which will see the DFE budget rise to £76.4bn next year. It includes the commitment of £1.8bn to improve school buildings and £1.5bn for college buildings and facilities. Other details see £300m being set aside for new school places for special educational needs pupils, £22m to help mentor new teachers and funding over the next year for the national tutoring programme and for holiday food programmes/school meals and activities. FE and skills was promised £291m, for 16-19 programmes; £162m for wave 2 and 3 T levels, along with £83m to help providers cope with the increase in 16-19-year-olds; National Skills Fund money for higher-tech level courses; and further support for Project Kickstart and other schemes announced under the Plan for Jobs. And for apprenticeships, there will be ‘improvements to the system’ including the transfer of unspent levy funds to SMEs, and the testing out of more flexible approaches in some sectors along with an increase in the minimum wage for many apprentices.

The main disappointment for many will be the freeze on wages, ‘paused’ for a year. The Chancellor claimed that other measures such as the increase in the National Living Wage would see some 2m public sector workers benefitting but many teachers and essential workers will be upset. Higher ed is also likely to be disappointed. There was a welcome commitment to more research funding and to consider a possible future alternative to Erasmus + but as WonkHE noted, nothing on current finances, response to Augar or other current policy activity. 

And three other things to look out for. First, as worries about unemployment continue to rise, the government is re-inventing the Restart scheme, investing £2.9bn into a 3-year programme of job support, which will commence next year. Second, according to the National Infrastructure Strategy, we’re likely to see a ‘refreshed’ Industrial Strategy also next year, and third, the English Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper is not forgotten and should equally emerge next year. 

There is as usual some excellent reporting on the Spending Review. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has its regular helpful ‘morning after’ analysis here. The Resolution Foundation, with its stark suggestion that ‘the Covid crisis is on track to reduce average pay packets by £1,200 a year by 2025 compared to pre-pandemic forecasts,’ equally has a valuable analysis available here. The Times EdFE Week, Schools Week and the Association of Colleges are among the websites with helpful summaries for education-specific details.

Away from the Spending Review, the education week started with Education Questions in the House of Commons where next summer’s exams, latest school attendance figures, IT resources and the scrapping of the Union Learning Fund were among the questions raised. Later in the week, the Public Accounts Committee heard witness evidence from the ESFA on colleges’ financial stability.

Elsewhere, the university sector published a report on racial harassment in higher education with twelve recommendations; the FT had an interesting comment piece on the challenges facing the sector; and UCAS dropped one of its initial proposals for reforming the admissions system. The Collab GroupLearning and Work Institute, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) and the Campaign for Learning all had reports on different aspects of FE and skills. The National Apprenticeship Awards and National Teaching Awards were held. Schools in England reported a drop in latest average attendance figures, down from 83% the previous week to 78% as of last Thursday – largely due to instances of self-isolation – while Directors of Children’s Services reported an increase in elective home education.

And, a reminder if one were needed of how important colleges can be to their community. Middlesbrough College has launched a venture producing Christmas hampers for vulnerable residents who can’t get out. Last year, as witnessed on BBC Breakfast, Oldham College students brought tears to a lonely pensioner by sharing carols with him. It still does, bring tears.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Covid fears prompt 38% rise in parents home educating.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Collapse in secondary school attendance warning.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Chancellor announces new funding for skills.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Exams 2020: No evidence poorer pupils disadvantaged, concludes Ofqual. (Thursday)
  • ‘UK digital watchdog planned to check Big Tech.’ (Friday)


  • 2020 Spending Review. The Treasury published its 2020 Spending Review, setting out the current economic context along with full details of the government’s public spending plans and individual departmental settlements for 2021/22.
  • Chancellor’s speech. The Chancellor outlined some worrying economic figures in his Spending Review speech to MPs but indicated that his three priorities were ‘creating jobs, growing the economy, increasing pride in the places we call home’ as he announced public spending plans for the coming year.
  • The view from here. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) published its regular accompanying report on the UK economy suggesting that things remain ‘highly uncertain’ and setting out a number of different future scenarios covering debt, growth and unemployment with recovery still some way off in each case.
  • The morning after. The Institute for Fiscal Studies provided its regular ‘morning after’ analysis of the Spending Review with some helpful summaries and presentations, highlighting the enormity of the economic challenges ahead as well as raising questions about some of the announcements such as the pay pause and the bits missing such the lack of future commitment to Universal Credit levels. 
  • More morning after analysis. The Resolution Foundation highlighted the Covid effect in its analysis of the Spending Review suggesting that we face a ‘long, hard squeeze’ on finances for years to come with some tough decisions ahead.
  • Infrastructure plans. The government published its National Infrastructure Strategy alongside its Spending Settlement, promising a ‘renaissance’ in its approach, with a new Infrastructure Bank, new forms of investment, new partnerships, and a focus on economic recovery, levelling up and green growth.
  • Covid-19 Winter Plan. The Prime Minister announced the government’s Covid-19 Winter Plan based on 3 objectives (keeping the R rate down, managing back to normal, minimising the wider impact) with a commitment to safeguard and maintain education services.
  • Another Winter Plan. The New Economics Foundation called for a targeted furlough guarantee, a committed living wage, and a reskilling programme to help create more jobs as part of a Winter Plan to support incomes and communities.
  • Act Now. The Business Secretary wrote to businesses in the professional services sector urging them to ‘Act Now’ if they hadn’t already on matters such as visas, data protection and recognition of qualifications, with the Brexit transition stage due to end in just over a month. 
  • New taskforce. The government set up a new taskforce to be run by the City of London Corporation, to kick off next year and to look at how to improve socio-economic diversity at senior levels in UK financial and professional services with a final report due by November 2022.
  • A better care system. The Children’s Commissioner for England outlined the case for a better care system given the pressures it’s under, calling among other things for focusing on what works, recognising the importance of families, greater investment, and providing children with stability. 
  • The changing face of early childhood. The Nuffield Foundation published a new report looking into how family life was changing and in particular the lives of the under-5s indicating that people are having children later in life and having fewer, mothers still do most of the childcare, the quality of parental relationships matter to children, and Covid-19 is adding to family worries.

More specifically ...


  • Spending Review. The government used its 2020 Spending Review to announce a pay ‘pause’ for many working in schools but did confirm some funding for new school buildings and rebuilds, SEND places, early career mentoring, and continuation of the national tutoring scheme and school meals over next year.
  • Attendance rates..The Education Policy Institute published a November update on its monitoring work on UK school attendance figures showing rates highest in Northern Ireland and Wales but with considerable variability within regions particularly in disadvantaged areas where attendance was lower.
  • Maintaining standards. Ofqual published new research on its work around maintaining standards involving notably the so-called Sawtooth Effect which can happen when exams are reformed and standards may briefly fluctuate, with the current pandemic which is causing variable disruption to learning, an added complication. 
  • Summer 2020 exams. Ofqual published two further research papers on this summer’s exams, one on GCSE/A’ level and the other on vocational assessments, showing that grades awarded in both cases were reliable and not out of line with previous years and that students did not suffer from disadvantage on the basis of their socioeconomic status or particular characteristics.
  • Home Education. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) published the results of its latest annual survey into elective home education in England showing a 38% increase in volume since last year including particularly since the start of this term, much of it, though not all, due to health concerns related to Covid.
  • Flexible working. The government published the final report from its project looking into flexible working in schools, highlighting the importance of senior leadership support as a key factor for schools and the need for clearer understanding but also pointing to continuing barriers and perceptions. 
  • Phonics screening.‘More Than A Score,’ the group that campaigns against the burden of testing young children, reported on the outcomes from its commissioned research among teachers on the latest Phonics Screening Check of 6 and 7-year-olds, arguing that it was putting added pressure on staff and pupils at a difficult time and wouldn’t allow for the different challenges pupils have been facing.
  • Digital divide. Teach First reported on its survey from Teacher Tapp showing schools from the poorest areas struggling to provide access and resources to help pupils with online learning, calling as a result for the government to increase the number of devices for schools and pupils most in need.
  • Strains and stresses. The Institute of Education in a paper funded by the Nuffield Foundation examined evidence from the 2018 Teaching and Learning International Study (TALIS) of teachers across a number of nations, highlighting marking and lesson planning as the two main causes of stress among teachers. 
  • Talented Leaders programme. The government published the results of its evaluation of the Talented Leaders programme which ran for 5 years between 2014 and 2019 and which placed senior leaders in challenging schools, concluding that the recruitment and range of challenges were issues but that the programme had helped both sides.
  • Lab technicians. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published the outcomes of its commissioned report into the pay and conditions of school science technicians, finding that things have hardly improved over recent years and calling for a formal review as a result.
  • Lesson sequencing. The government published case study evidence from Ark Schools showing how they’d gone about arranging learning to best support pupils following lockdown using diagnostic assessment, booster units and designated workbooks. 
  • Flipping stereotypes. Pearson, which has been working with the Fawcett’s Commission on Gender Stereotypes, announced that it was issuing new guidelines for its products and services including for example textbooks and exam questions, that would ‘flip stereotypes’ and aim to remove unconscious bias.


  • Spending Review. The government announced a number of measures for FE in its 2020 Spending Review including a Restart programme to help the long-term unemployed, continued funding for Project Kickstart and Plan for Jobs training, additional funding for 16-19-year-old provision and for estate upgrading.
  • Funding rates. The Association of Colleges (AoC) urged the government ahead of the Spending Review, to look at the funding rates for adult courses, which currently fail to cover overhead costs in most cases, calling as a result for adult rates to match those applied to provision for 16-19-year-olds.
  • Autumn series. Ofqual provided provisional figures for exam entries for GCSE English and maths this autumn, traditionally taken by many post-16 students as resits but also this year by younger students in the absence of a summer series, showing a 20% increase in entries largely in maths.
  • Adult learning data. The government published new figures for adult learning in FE this year showing the impact of the lockdown with participation and provisional achievement rates both down.
  • Apprenticeship and Trainee data. The government published final figures on apprenticeships and traineeships in England for this year showing the lockdown effect with starts down 18% on the previous year.
  • Inspection data. Ofsted launched a consultation on some changes to the publication of inspection data including grouping similar types of provider together and introducing more detailed reporting on the quality of provision.
  • Inspection outcomes. Ofsted published provisional data on inspections and outcomes as of 31 August this year showing the proportion of providers inspected and rated as good or outstanding 14% higher than the previous year at 68%, although this varied across type with for instance some new apprenticeship providers yet to make progress in one or more areas.
  • College roles. The Collab Group of Colleges argued in a new report that colleges can play a key role to play in helping support economic recovery, pointing in particular to three forms of contribution: flexible skills training, onsite Jobs Hubs and dedicated employment support. 
  • Demand-led system. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) called for a demand-led funding system with funding following the learner and the role of independent training providers valued as part of a set of proposals for reform of the FE system, in a paper issued ahead of the Spending Review.
  • A new Work Plan. The Learning and Work Institute called in a new report for a £5bn ‘Work and Skills’ initiative for the long-term unemployed incorporating job search support, subsidies and bonuses, and based on the principles of Prevention, Provision and Perseverance.
  • Segmenting the market. The Campaign for Learning published a Discussion Paper on higher-level technical education arguing that an understanding of the different markets involved embracing full and part-time different aged learners and making a number of recommendations to support this approach.
  • Future proofing apprenticeships.The Co-op published a commissioned report looking at apprenticeships in two sectors, food and funerals, and calling for greater flexibility in funding and off-the-job training as well as better mentoring and career progression. 
  • Collab programme. The Collab Group of Colleges announced that it was forming a new partnership with NCFE to help develop the Leadership Programme for aspiring college leaders.
  • Paying up. The University and College Union (UCU) called for its pay 2020/21 pay claim of ‘moving towards restoring pay levels to match inflation since 2009,’ to be honoured as talks got underway on this year’s lecturer’s claim.


  • Tackling racial harassment. Universities UK published the results of its advisory group’s year-long inquiry into tackling racial harassment, recommending a number of practical steps that could be taken quickly including: prioritising a commitment, improving awareness and behaviours, reviewing current policies and establishing agreed reporting procedures.
  • Access monitoring.The Office for Students set out how it was monitoring access and participation plans this year in the context of the pandemic and the five measures it will use including latest data and student submissions.
  • Differential characteristics.The Office for Students published an ’experimental’ release looking at the impact of different student characteristics such as those on free school meals or from a care background, had had successful outcomes, with for example progression rates into high skilled areas appearing lower for the former group.
  • Student support. The Student Loans Company published details of how much it had provided in tuition fees and loans for HE in England this year indicating it had now reached £17.9bn.
  • Pandemic plight.The FT assessed the challenges facing students and universities in UK HE particularly in the context of the pandemic and the current funding model noting a sense of frustration emerging on all sides.
  • Manchester pledges. Manchester University agreed to a rent reduction and to open up further study facilities as part of a new pledge with students following a period of protests 

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “I have a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old doing exams next year. If you cancel the exams they’ll stop working” | @richardvadon
  • “@NickGibbUK in the @HouseofCommons today “There is a broad consensus, including amongst unions and school leaders, that holding exams is the best option for next summer” | @educationgovuk
  • “Ironic that it will be Oxford University that finally allows the country to drop its obsession with PPE” | @DuncanWeldon
  • “My daughter is a first year at University of Manchester in Fallowfield Halls. Out of the blue they got a food parcel for their flat from the group of students who lived there 25 years previously! Amazing gesture of kindness & solidarity - includes Pot Noodles AND Pringles” | @jeffwarburton8
  • “I’m going to miss travelling into London so I can take photographs of the @Ofstednews annual report from a basement toilet this year” | @NickLinford
  • “We’ve noticed at school the amazing lack of sniffles or D&V that’s normally rampant at this time. Must be helped by the increased hygiene?” | @icod
  • “Shout out to everyone who decided to unwind and watch a few episodes of something on Netflix but wasted 90 mins deciding what” | @UnofficialOA
  • “Has COVID 19 forced you to wear glasses and a mask at the same time? If so you may be entitled to condensation” | @Discod1ck

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “There can by now be no doubt about it – the scientific cavalry is almost here” – the Prime Minister introduces the government’s Covid-19 Winter Plan.
  • “The virus has also exacted a heavy and mounting toll on the public finances” – the Office for Budget Responsibility reports on the country’s economic outlook. 
  • “The spending announced today is secondary to the courage, wisdom, kindness and creativity it unleashes” – the Chancellor acknowledges the human cost as he announces his latest spending plans.
  • “We are in for a pretty austere few years once again, or for some significant tax rises” – the director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies reflects on the Spending Review.
  • “All public sector workers are key workers” – the TUC General Secretary urges the Chancellor not to restrict public sector pay.
  • “Salaries are being supressed, Covid-costs are being left unmet and the needs of the most vulnerable students are being ignored” – the National Association of Head Teachers reacts to the Chancellor’s latest Spending Review.
  • “I've had lots of letters about this, so I have spoken with experts and can assure you that Father Christmas will be packing his sleigh and delivering presents this Christmas!” – the PM allays the fears of a young boy who had written to him worried that Father Christmas might not be able to come this year.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 11.3%. The contraction in the UK economy this year before it starts to rise next year although not reaching pre-virus levels until late 2022, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR.
  • 7.5%. The amount by which unemployment is expected to have peaked in mid-2021 before starting to drop, according to the medium scenario from the OBR.
  • 33%. The increase this year in the number of people over 50 unemployed compared to last year, according to ONS figures quoted in Personnel Today.
  • 8.5%. How much the German economy grew in the third quarter this year, exceeding expectations and generating hope for other European economies, according to Reuters.
  • 108. The number of higher education institutions that have signed up to the rapid testing programme to enable students to return home for Christmas, according to the government’s Winter Plan.
  • 51.9%. The initial participation rate in higher education by age 30 in England in 2018/19, according to latest government figures.
  • 16.5. The average pupil-teacher ratio in England in 2018/19, according to latest government figures.
  • 49.9%. The percentage of pupils in England achieving grade 5 or above in GCSE maths and English this year, according to latest government figures.
  • 78%. The pupil attendance rate for state secondary schools in England at the latest census point last week, down from 83% the week before (87% down from 90% for primary schools,) according to the latest official figures.
  • 75,668. The number of children and young people in England being electively home educated, a 38% increase on last year according to the latest figures from Directors of Children’s Services.
  • 96%. The proportion of Ofsted registered childcare providers rated as good or outstanding at their most recent inspection, according to latest data from Ofsted.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Education Committee witness session on left-behind white pupils. (Tuesday)
  • Pearson and CEY ‘A better future for assessment’ webinar. (Tuesday)
  • Westminster Hall debate on Nurseries and Early Years settings. (Thursday)

Other stories

  • Not sure how it all adds up. In a week in which the Chancellor has presented the latest economic figures for the country, research published this week suggests that we’re not very good at understanding key economic concepts like GDP, deficit and debt. The research comes from the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence which conducted a series of focus groups plus a YouGov survey. It found that while many of us have a reasonable grasp of economic measures that matter to us directly, like inflation and interest rates, when it comes to broader concepts such as unemployment rates and national debt we’re not too sure and sometimes even sceptical. For instance, 70% of us understood the country had a deficit but only 40% could explain what it meant and many were wary of unemployment figures, thinking they were ‘fiddled.’ A link to the report can be found here 
  • More on words of the year. A few weeks ago Collins Dictionary listed its words or phrases of the year and this week the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) published its version; it’s that time of year. Unsurprisingly Covid-19 and its impact, features prominently again in what the OED, in a play on words, calls ‘an unprecedented year.’ So words/phrases like ‘remotely,’ ‘staycation’ ‘circuit breaker,’ ‘support bubble’ and moonshot’ inevitably are all there as are other news generators such as ‘Black Lives Matter.’ A relief to many perhaps is that ‘Brexit’ has dropped rapidly down the list of commonly used words this year. A link to the story 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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