Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 11 December 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:

Nearly there, at the end of term that is, but plenty still going on. Here’s this week’s roll call.

In Westminster, the Education Committee hosted a witness session with the Minister and Ofqual's Chief Exec about next summer’s exams where the issue of how best to level up remained a hot topic. The Work and Pensions Committee, along with members of the Education Committee, heard from the Children’s Commissioner for England and headteachers about the impact of the pandemic on children and their development. The Education Secretary outlined in a Written Statement to MPs, which types of courses would qualify for funded training for adults from next April. And Nick Gibb designated the last Friday of term as an inset day for schools so that they could complete contact tracing by Christmas Eve and thereby get a ‘proper break,’ although the late decision left some teachers unimpressed.

Elsewhere, MPs discussed school closures and next summer’s exams in a Westminster Hall debate triggered by petitions raised by students. And talking of exams, Ofqual launched a rapid consultation to establish the principles to be used in providing advanced information on some topics and support materials as promised last week by the Education Secretary. And Scotland, which had already abandoned its National 5 exams for next summer, announced it was ditching its Higher and Advanced Higher exams next summer as well in favour of teacher judgements. Too much lost learning time seems to have been the problem here.

Away from Westminster, the week has seen another batch of reports and releases. Some, like the assorted surveys into the mental health of university students this term, and the reports from the Rowntree Foundation and Social Market Foundation on the challenges facing deprived families, are sharp reminders of real challenges. Others, such as the results of the latest global performance tests for young people and a report from the Behavioural Insights Team into how best to encourage people to take up technical education, offer more hope. 

One of the big stories of the week has been those global performance tests known as the TIMMS or Trends in International Maths and Science Study. They’re taken every four years by pupils in Years 5 and 9 (so broadly 9/10 and 13/14-year olds) and England has participated in the exercise for nearly a quarter of a century. Sixty-four countries and systems took part in these latest tests, which were conducted in the first half of 2019, and according to the report put together by the team at UCL Institute of Education, pupils in England did pretty well in all bar secondary science.  

The high point was maths, where the performance at primary level was described as ‘the highest of any TIMSS cycle.’ Specifically, we were ranked 8th at primary level, one place behind Northern Ireland, and 13th at secondary level, down a couple of places from our position last time round, but where performance has remained ‘relatively stable since 2007.’ 

For science, although we were 12th at primary level, up three places on last time, there was a blip at secondary level, where we dropped to 14th from 8th last time, the lowest position in 25 years. Nobody is quite sure why, but the report suggests two avenues worth exploring: the shift to sampling rather than testing at Key Stage 2 and the shoving of science into Year 9 to allow for more time for English and maths in Years 10 and 11. 

Overall, familiar test winners such as Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan topped the TIMMS charts along with Russia and Japan but as indicated, the performance of pupils in England deserves recognition and the Schools Minister was quick to praise them and their teachers. 

The report went on to make a few other salient points such as the importance of orderly school environments and positive behaviour in helping develop learning, the importance too of CPD for teachers especially in the use of technology in the classroom as highlighted in a report by the NFER this week and continuing concerns about attainment gaps, particularly among the disadvantaged. There was also an interesting aside about homework: anything between half an hour and an hour per subject per week helps, but there’s not much return on anything over an hour.

Either way, hard pressed teachers might want to underline in red the report’s conclusion: ‘we must not lose sight of the fact that pupils in England consistently perform significantly above the TIMSS centre point in both subjects and in both cohorts.’ A welcome high note to take towards the end of term.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Ofsted: ‘Precautions’ mean January inspections are safe.’ (Monday)
  • ‘England’s children decline ‘significantly’ in science test.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Students depressed and living in a bubble of one.’ (Wednesday)
  • ‘Rapid Covid tests for London, Essex and Kent schools.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Covid testing of students finds few positive cases.’ (Friday)


  • Human Rights. The government announced it was setting up an expert group to look into how the Human Rights Act was working 20 years on, with a report back due next summer.
  • Business impact. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported on how businesses have been faring under the pandemic with some such as chemists surviving better than say furniture store owners and camping sites faring better than holiday resorts, indicating a mixed picture which may not become fully clear for quite a while yet.
  • Supporting self-isolation. The Resolution Foundation called in a new report for more help and support for those having to self-isolate suggesting that the current statutory sick pay rates are far too low and don’t encompass everyone, proposing instead a going rate paid through furlough and self-employment schemes.
  • Living Wage. The Low Pay Commission published its latest report and recommendations to government for the National Living Wage (NLW) from next April, proposing a 2.2% increase to £8.91 for adults and 3.6% increase in the apprenticeship rate.
  • Support for the vulnerable. The Children’s Minister announced an extension of the support for vulnerable families as part of the ‘See, Hear, Respond’ charities programme as well as proposals for a National Centre for Family Hubs and Services.
  • Going short.The Social Market Foundation published a new report showing that a number of children and families have gone short of food this year as a result of the pandemic and its associated impact, with 3m facing some form of food deprivation in the six months that followed the first lockdown, calling in response for the National Food Strategy to be implemented and uplifted benefit payments to continue. 
  • Levels of Deprivation. The Rowntree Foundation published a new report in its ‘Destitution in the UK’ series pointing to ‘a rising tide of destitution’ that was evident before the pandemic but now made worse by it, calling for targeted support and in particular continuation of the weekly Universal Credit uplift to help the growing numbers of families identified.
  • Frontline Fatigue. The RSA published a new survey on Key Workers, taken during the latest lockdown and showing among other things that many, especially NHS and care workers face burnout, teachers worry about catching the virus at work, and retail workers feel the least financially secure.
  • Wake up call.  IPPR North published its annual report on the State of the North of England, pointing to those in the North facing significant pay gaps, poorer job opportunities, lower qualification levels and poorer life expectancy compared to the rest of England and presenting the report as ‘an urgent wakeup call’.
  • Older workers. The FT followed up a recent report from the Centre for Ageing Better by outlining some of the issues facing workers over 50 made redundant and often facing difficulties getting back into employment. 
  • Coping with the pandemic. The government published data from its commissioned study into the impact of the pandemic on adult lives looking at features like volunteering, social cohesion and loneliness, all of which appear to have featured as the lockdown progressed. 
  • Access denied. The Children’s Commissioner for England raised concerns in a new report about the application of end-to-end encryption proposed by tech companies arguing that this could compromise children’s safety and wellbeing and calling for the government to take a stronger line on such matters through its delayed online harms legislation.
  • Children’s Social Care. Ahead of an expected report from government, the Children’s Commissioner for England surveyed children and young people for their views with many wanting to be treated as individuals with choices and freedoms. 

More specifically ...


  • Exams 2021. Ofqual launched a quickfire consultation on the principles to be applied when providing advance information and support materials for candidates for next summer’s GCSE and A’ level exams, with further details due by the end of next month. 
  • Trends in maths and science. The latest Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMMS) which records the performance of 10 and 14 year olds across 64 nations including the UK and taken in 2019, showed pupils in England performing strongly in maths but less well in science among 14-year-olds.
  • Insights from TIMMS. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) examined TIMMS data to highlight the lack of training and support for primary teachers looking to incorporate technology into maths, noting that despite the performance, England lagged behind other countries when it came to using technology in primary maths.
  • Keeping children safe. The government launched consultation on new statutory guidance for KCSIE (Keeping children safe in education) aimed at updating and clarifying roles and responsibilities and improving the management of reports of abuse of children and of allegations made against staff.
  • Tutoring scheme. Labour raised questions about the National Tutoring Programme suggesting that not many on free school meals would get the support needed and that many mentors wouldn’t be in place until next spring.
  • Cracking the Code. Ofqual published the computer code that was used to support exam boards in the awarding of calculated grades this summer as it continues to make data used this summer more widely available for analysis.
  • Operational procedures. Ofsted outlined arrangements for the resumption next month of its monitoring visits of schools focusing on those requiring improvement or judged as inadequate. 
  • ITE Inspections. Ofsted confirmed that it would be undertaking full, graded inspections of Initial Teacher Education (ITE) from next April.
  • Early years workforce. The Education Policy Institute examined the issue of graduate employment in the early years workforce suggesting that highly qualified staff and the time spent in effective early years, can bolster children’s attainment through primary years.
  • Pre-school learning. Researchers at John Moores University reported on the importance of pre-school learning, formal and informal, and how for example parent-child letter-sound interactions can help shape maths and reading attainment in Year 1.
  • Missing a beat. The Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) reported on the dire state of music provision in schools arising out of the pandemic calling for a refreshed National Plan for Music Education, continued funding for Music Education Hubs and wider support generally.


  • Funded courses.The government published listings of funded courses in subjects like maths, engineering and health and social care available for adults, aged 24 and over needing to gain their first full L3 qualification which will be funded as part of the package of government funded national skills training. 
  • National Skills Fund. The government outlined the current position on the £2.5bn National Skills Fund which is being used to fund listed adult training courses, Skills Bootcamps and more outlined in the Lifetime Skills Guarantee. 
  • Technical nudges. The Behavioural Insights Team examined the issue of how best to address the issue of technical education not being for the likes of me working through a number of perceived barriers and suggesting ways of overcoming these and encouraging more people to take up such provision.
  • Recovering exam costs. The government opened out the process for exam centres to recover eligible exam costs such as exam fees, venue hire and invigilator fees for the period Oct 2020 to March 2021. 
  • Monitoring visits. Ofsted outlined arrangements for its monitoring visits from next month including for new providers, those requiring improvement or with concerns, and as part of evidence gathering for the first T levels, with a range of procedures lined up in each case as part of a gradual return to routine inspections.
  • College governance.The Association of Colleges and College Development Network reported on how college governing boards in England and Scotland had managed governance remotely during the lockdown showing that most had switched successfully to virtual meetings and offering a range of good practice principles to support these while recognising the importance of face-to-face meetings when permitted. 
  • Let’s work together. The Association of Colleges called for a collaborative rather than a competitive post-16 system of provision, arguing that the latter has led to less quality, efficiency and choice and going on to call for a managed system with anchor hubs, a rules-based framework and a single commissioning and regulatory process.
  • Training and Upskilling.The Collab Group called for a new look at compressing the time taken in some cases to gain occupational competence, greater use of modular courses and more flexible licences to practice in support of its recent paper on skills training.
  • The group, born out of last year’s Lifelong Learning Commission and with considerable high-level ex Ministerial and expert support, issued a launch statement calling for a new statutory right to learn, with appropriate backup and support, for every UK citizen throughout their life. 
  • Pandemic scheme. The ECITB (Engineering Construction Industry Training Board) announced a new scheme aimed at providing support, including financial, for trainees, apprentices and graduates unable to undertake/complete their programme due to the pandemic. 


  • Corporate Plan. The Student Loans Company published its Corporate Plan for the next three years focused on process simplification and response, workforce development, and enhanced customer experience.
  • Reasonable shape. The Office for Students (OfS) reported that despite the pandemic, finances in the English HE sector were in ‘reasonable shape’ based on data available in October but that the picture was not uniform and there was still ‘considerable uncertainty’ over the future.
  • Financial worries. The Times Higher reported on emerging concerns that a number of universities, potentially forty, face financial concerns arising from the pandemic and may struggle to have their accounts, which now have to be submitted by the end of Feb 2021, signed off. 
  • Mental health concerns. The NUS published the results of its latest and third survey into student mental health, completed last month and showing over half of those surveyed saying their mental health has been affected negatively by the pandemic with loneliness, anxiety and depression all visible signs.
  • What do graduates do? Prospects, now part of JISC, published its latest version of graduate destinations looking now at how things are 15 months after graduation, finding over 70% of 2017/18 leavers in a professional level job with the top five jobs hardly changing but clearly a potentially more challenging market this year.
  • Student transfers. The Office for Students published some experimental data on students who changed course or provider between 2012/13 and 2017/18, looking at the numbers, type and characteristics, suggesting that credit transfer remains a particular issue.
  • Graduate wellbeing. The Office for Students examined graduate wellbeing based on the Graduate Outcomes survey taken 15 months after graduation finding much depending on employment outcomes with female and older graduates more satisfied but graduates generally more anxious and less satisfied than the population at large.
  • Green Paper.The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published its first major report on climate change arguing that universities and colleges have a key role to play in helping address environmental issues particularly around research and innovation and through a new National Green Livelihoods Transition Fund.
  • Jobs cut. The Times Higher reported on a recent survey by the international education platform Edvoy showing the extent of job cuts across UK universities between March and September this year, largely linked to financial difficulties arising out of the pandemic and totalling 3.000+
  • Freedom of Speech. Cambridge University adopted a new commitment and code of practice for freedom of speech within the university built around the concept of tolerance to others following an intense debate and series of ballots on amendments.
  • Ten Years On. Aaron Porter, President at the time when the tuition fee Bill was passed through Parliament ten years ago, wrote a fascinating blog on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) website on the political debates and tension surrounding it all.

 Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “I am honoured and delighted to have been confirmed as the @educationgovuk Permanent Secretary” | @SusanAclandHood
  • “That awkward moment when you say goodbye at the end of a meeting and realise you still have two dialogue boxes to navigate” | @j0nhyde
  • “Is there anything more hopelessly passive/aggressive in an email than “happy to jump on a call”?” | @flamingnora
  • “Every week on our reading check-in survey, I ask the students to tell me one good thing, their answers always make me smile. It is one more way to get a peek into how they are doing and what is important to them” | @pernilleripp
  • “Just remembering the time I gave a talk in a uk university, 3 people turned up and 1 fell asleep after 10 min. They then told me there was no money for a hotel and I had to sleep on a camp bed in someone's house. Mid way through the night their dog bit me” | @Duncan_Wilson78
  • “Does anyone else remember the teachers having to wheel in a telly at school?” | @Steve05470007
  • “Beyond Brexit fish jokes, best Brussels gastro joke I heard was when Roy Jenkins visited a Welsh seaside cafe and ordered 20 asparagus tips. Baffled waiter returned after five mins to say restaurant was out of asparagus tips but would Mr Jenkins care for 20 Benson & Hedges?” | @lionelbarber
  • “20yo is home and I have inadvertently insulted my other son by commenting on how nice it is to be cooking for a ‘big boy’ again” | @itsmotherswork

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “If you’re asking people to give up their time, experts to come in and give advice to the secretary of state, you need to give them the space to be able to do that without each of their meetings being a public meeting, and I think that’s very important” – Nick Gibb explains why the new Expert (Exams) Group will meet in private.
  • “I passed 10 O-levels, and I am sure there was not a single teacher in my Knowsley comprehensive school who would have thought that I would do that” – the Skills Minister offers her own experience as MPs debate exams.
  • “I want to find new ways of putting our hands up and saying we are going to help deliver this new economy” – Tony Danker, the new CEO at the CBI resets the path for the organisation.
  • “I don't get to socialise with anyone, as my accommodation - and government - rules are that my bubble is myself” – university students describe the difficulties of life under lockdown.
  • “There was a positive association between pupils spending between 31 and 60 minutes on homework and higher average achievement, but no association when pupils spent more than an hour” – the TIMMS report tackles the issue of homework.
  • “I think they should reduce content by a lot and push back a bit more, but if they get pushed back too much that’s summer gone …” – young people respond to the announcement last week about next summer’s exams.
  • “We have to question why the plan is to mass test children, and there is apparently no consideration of moving to remote learning for the last week of term” – the Association of School and College Leaders respond to the latest plans to mass test secondary school children in London and the South East.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • 0.4%. How much the economy grew in October as recovery struggled with fears that November’s figures may be worse, according to the latest ONS data.
  • 85.5%. Attendance in state-funded schools in England (90% in primary, 81% in secondary) at last week’s census point, up 2% on the week before according to the latest government figures.
  • 66%. The numbers of teachers and nursery staff in a survey angry at a lack of support from government over the pandemic, according to an RSA survey.
  • 80,080. The number of looked after children in England including those in adoption and care leavers for 2019/20, up 2% on last year according to latest official figures.
  • 9m. The number of children who have gone short of food during the pandemic this year, according to survey evidence from the Social Market Foundation. 
  • 68%. The number of primary school teachers in a survey who say music provision is being cut (39% in secondary,) according to the Incorporated Society of Musicians.
  • 90%. The number of 12-year-olds reported as using a messenger app restricted to those aged 13 and above, according to evidence from the Children’s Commissioner.
  • £14.4m. How much Japan is prepared to spend on AI programmes that match two people’s emotional quotient in an effort to stem a decline in the country’s birth rate according to The Times.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Education Committee pre appointment hearing with the government’s preferred candidate for Children’s Commissioner (Tuesday)
  • HEPI Balloon Debate on the right age for academic selection. (Wednesday)
  • Public Accounts Committee Inquiry into free school meals voucher system (Thursday)

Other stories

  • All I want for Christmas. Recent polling for the UK suggests that most people will be planning for a quieter Christmas than normal this year, sticking within the family bubble guidelines. With Christmas parties and socialising restricted, the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) reckon that on average, we’ll spend around £677 per person this Christmas down from £725 last year, largely on gifts and consumables like Christmas dinner. Overall, they suggest Christmas spending this year will be down £3bn, with the entertainment and hospitality industries hit the hardest. A link to their commentary is here
  • Lockdown lives. How much have the lockdowns forced us to change our habits? The headline view is that people are working from home more and commuting less while some are saving more but many others are struggling financially. This week the Office for National Statistics (ONS) put some detail to these headlines by looking at lifestyle changes between March and April this year and September-October. Essentially we seem to have reverted to previous behaviour patterns such a sleeping less and socialising with family more since the national lockdown. A link to the article 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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