Issue 120 | September 2021

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After almost two years of disruption caused by Covid, we hope that you have managed to get a decent break over the summer. And, as we enter the new academic year, we wish you every success as you deal with the endless challenges presented to an underfunded and perpetually changing FE sector.  


On 15 September, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, ‘reshuffled’ his cabinet and made changes to other ministerial posts, including at the Department for Education (DfE), which were as follows:

  • Nadim Zahawi, the former Vaccines Minister, replaced Gavin Williamson as Secretary of State for Education. Mr Zahawi served as thePrime Minister’s apprenticeships adviser in 2016 and so can claim to have had some level of prior involvement with the FE and skills sector.
  • Michelle Donelan, the former Minister for Universities was appointed as Minister of State for Further and Higher Education. Ms Donelan is the first to hold the joint ministerial brief since Labour’s Bill Rammell in 2008 and will be the first Minister for FE and HE who will attend Cabinet meetings.
  • Gillian Keegan, the former Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, was promoted to the post of Minister of State in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). She was replaced by Alex Burghart, who was appointed Minister for FE and Skills.
  • Robin Walker was appointed Minister for Schools, replacing Nick Gibb.
  • Baroness Barron has replaced Baroness Berridge (try saying that after a few pints) as Minister for Academies.
  • Vicky Ford, previously the Minister of State for Children and Families, was appointed as Minister of State at the Foreign Office Minister and was replaced by Will Quince.

In order to help deal with the current shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers, on 25 September the DfE announced that cash from the £2.5 billion National Skills Fund will be used to establish new Skills Bootcamps. The new Skills Bootcamps will offer free and flexible training courses for up to 16 weeks to enable up to 3,000 people to obtain the qualifications and licenses needed to become HGV drivers (including the additional qualifications needed for transporting fuel). An additional 1,000 new drivers will be trained as HGV drivers using funding provided through the Adult Education Budget (AEB). The DfE is also in discussion with IfATE in respect of increasing funding for the Large Goods Vehicle Driver Apprenticeships to enable more people to obtain HGV licences through the apprenticeship programme. In addition, the DfE is working with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to use MoD examiners to help with clearing the backlog of around 54,000 applications for HGV tests that have been delayed due to Covid.


On 1 September the DfE and Home Office jointly announced that Afghan refugees who assisted the British armed forces in Afghanistan as interpreters and in other roles, and who have relocated to the UK under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) will, along with their families, be able to access free English language courses (including those run in FE colleges) as part of the government’s ‘Operation Warm Welcome’ initiative. The government says that it is also funding 300 university scholarships and providing £12 million for additional school places and English language support for families. In addition, the ESFA has confirmed that Afghan refugees covered by ARAP will be eligible for free 19+ education and training courses. Only Afghans arriving under the ARAP scheme will be eligible to access this support.


GCSEs and A-Levels

In 2019 (and in the years prior to that) GCSEs and A-Level grades awarded in external examinations were ‘standardised’ (or ‘norm-referenced). This means that the ‘raw’ grades awarded to individual students were used to produce a normal curve of distribution and the final grade awarded to individual students was determined by their position on the normal curve for the cohort in that year.

In 2020 GCSE and A-Level exams were cancelled due to the Covid and replaced by teacher assessed grades (TAGs). The standardisation of TAGs in all four UK nations was meant to be achieved through the use of an algorithm designed (in a hurry) for that purpose. However, when the algorithms were applied to the ‘raw’ TAGs, it resulted in a large number of students’ grades being standardised downwards below that predicted by their teachers. In many cases this was by one grade, and in some cases by two grades, although some TAGs were standardised upwards. The lowering of students’ grades was followed by a veritable tsunami of outrage and complaints from students, their parents and their teachers.

The result was that one by one, each UK nation abandoned their algorithms, education ministers apologised to students and grades determined by the algorithm were scrapped and replaced by those that had been awarded by teachers (although students were allowed to retain the grade determined by the algorithm if this was higher than the TAG). England was the last to make the U-turn, which was called a ‘debacle’. This was accompanied by a frenzy of media criticism which undoubtedly contributed to Mr Williamson’s eventual removal as Education Secretary. However, the abandonment of any form of standardisation of grades had another consequence. In each UK nation, the grades awarded through TAGs in 2020 were significantly higher than those awarded in the previous year. In England, average A-Level grades were 12% higher than in 2019 and average GCSE grades were 9% higher. This was an annual rate of increase described by some as ‘statistically improbable’.

Because of the continuing pandemic, in March this year the former Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced that algorithms would not be used to standardise grades and that instead students’ exam results would be based solely on TAGs. In England, teachers would determine students grades following guidance set by the DfE supplemented by further guidance given by Ofqual. This guidance specified the range of evidence teachers were required to use to determine the grades they awarded. These included student performance in internally set exams, coursework and portfolios. Teachers were told that students should only be graded on the subject matter they had been taught and that students should be given an advance notice of any questions to be included in any internal exams set. Awarding organisations (AOs) also produced criteria to help teachers mark students’ internal exam performance. Marks awarded by teachers would be checked by their school or college for consistency, and a sample of marking was also checked by AOs for quality-assurance purposes. Although the official guidance on producing TAGs was mandatory, each school or college was allowed the flexibility to develop its own policy on how the guidance would be applied. This flexibility led to concerns that some students might be penalised because, for example, their teacher might not know them well enough to give them an accurate grade, or that teachers might have a subconscious bias in their expectations of certain groups of students.

A-Level and GCSE exam results were published in August this year, and grades awarded were again found to be much higher than those in 2020. Detailed analysis by Ofqual of the results revealed the following:

  • 45% of the grades awarded at A-Level in 2021 were A or A*, up from a previous record high of 39% in 2020. In independent schools the number of A or A* grades awarded rose to more than 70%.
  • The proportion of top GCSE grades awarded (grade 7 and above) rose to 30% in 2021 from a record high of 26% in 2020, although total pass grades (grade 4 and above) increased by only 1% to 77% in 2021 from to 76% in 2020. Again, independent schools saw the biggest increase in top grades with 61% of results awarded at grade 7 and above.

GCSE grades achieved are predominantly a concern for secondary schools. But they are also a concern for colleges. This is because students aged 17 and 18 who do not hold a minimum GCSE grade 4 pass in English and mathematics pass are required to retake these subjects in addition to their college course as a condition of funding. In 2021, 39% of retake students aged 16 and 17 in England achieved grade 4 pass or above in mathematics compared with 33% in 2020, and 43% achieved at least a grade 4 in English, compared with 42% in 2020.

BTEC and other VTQs

BTEC and other Vocational and Technical Qualification (VTQ) results were awarded in line with Ofqual’s Vocational and Technical Qualifications Contingency Regulatory Framework (VCRF). BTEC qualifications are modular with around 60% of the overall grade based on student performance in units completed. The other 40% based on external assessment (including exams). The pandemic affected students’ ability to complete both their internally assessed units and their external assessments. Instead, students completing their VTQ course in summer 2021 received a qualification-level teacher assessed grade (QTAG). Detailed analysis of 2021 BTEC and other VTQ results and detailed data tables for VTQ results for the period April to June 2021 can be found on the Ofqual website.

Summarising the results for 2021, Ofqual said that although there was evidence of a slight increase in the number of top grades (e.g. Distinction), there were no substantial changes to grade distributions across Level 2 and 3 VTQs compared to 2020. There was no evidence of teacher bias in the way QTAGs were awarded.


Given that students missed so much teaching during the pandemic, some critics have accused teachers of ‘gaming the system’ and that in the case of A-Levels and GCSEs, this has resulted in ‘Weimar’ levels of grade inflation. But other observers point to the mandatory framework for TAGs set by the DfE, Ofqual and the quality assurance checks conducted by AOs. They also say that the exceptional circumstances caused by Covid means that comparisons of grades with other years are meaningless.

DfE ministers have now made it clear that they want to see the resumption of external exams next year. However, the distortion to grades caused by Covid is likely to continue well past 2022. Assuming that external exams are reintroduced next year, the students taking them will have already faced two years of major disruption to their studies. It will therefore prove difficult, and probably unfair, to award students taking exams in 2022 lower grades than those awarded to students in 2020 and 2021 without disadvantaging them further. This has prompted a debate on how grade ‘normality’ could be restored.

GCSEs and A-Levels

In July, Ofqual launched a consultation on possible changes to how A-Levels and GCSEs should be assessed in 2022. The consultation closed in August, but the outcome of the consultation, including a decision on how exams will be graded, is apparently unlikely to be known before October.

One proposal is that a new top grade for A-Level, A** could be introduced. However, Ofqual says that it accepts that this would probably cause ‘anxiety and uncertainty’ for students. And if grade inflation occurs again in 2022, should an A*** or even an A**** grade be introduced in subsequent years? Another suggestion gaining traction is that a total reset might be achieved if the current letter-based A-Level grading system was to be replaced by a numerical grading system, similar to that used for GCSEs.

BTECs and VTQs

Following an earlier consultation, Ofqual has confirmed that all 2022 VTQ exams will go ahead. To take account of the impact of the Covid on students’ earlier learning, Ofqual also has confirmed that AOs will be allowed to adapt external assessments. For example, AOs will be allowed to defer assessments until later in the academic year if it can be shown that students need more time to develop the skills required. In addition, students who are mid-way through their course will be able to carry forward their QTAGs from this year and will not be required to sit an exam or other external assessment in 2022. However, no change to course content will be allowed, and any adaptations to external assessments have to be agreed in advance with Ofqual and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE).


A-Levels and demand for places at university

Applications for university places are up by at least 8% and more than 508,000 new students of all ages, including almost 40% (272,000) of all 18-year-olds, have been offered a university place. However, the increase in the number of students obtaining the top grades at A-Level means that more applicants have met the entry criteria set by universities for places which, in turn, means that many courses are now oversubscribed. Some universities are attempting to address this by offering students financial incentives to delay taking up their place. For example, Bristol University is offering a rent reduction of up to £7,000 plus a £3,600 bursary if those meeting the grades required for courses in life sciences, biological sciences and economics are prepared to defer their place for a year. At the other end of the spectrum, concerns have been expressed that some students may have been accepted onto courses that they are not capable of coping with, or that applicants from disadvantaged background will be squeezed out of places at the more prestigious institutions. More statistical data on 2021 university applications can be found on the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) website.

GCSEs and demand for post-16 places in colleges and schools

A demographic increase in the numbers of 16-18-year-olds, combined with a fall in the numbers in this age group taking apprenticeships has resulted in more young people applying to take college courses. The Association of Colleges (AoC) has estimated that the growth in enrolments last year meant that there were at least an additional 20,000 unfunded students in colleges in that year. The increased numbers of students achieving higher grades in GCSEs this year has resulted in a further surge in college enrolments, including a large increase in the numbers of students now meeting the requirements for entry to Level 3 courses. This trend is likely to continue into the future, with a recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) report forecasting that there will be an extra 200,000 16-18-year-olds in England by 2030.

Funding the increased demand for 16-18 places in colleges and schools

To help address this in the short-term, a new £83 million Post-16 Capacity Fund has been launched to ensure colleges can accommodate an expected demographic increase in 16-18-year-olds in the period to 2022/23. Sixth form colleges, 16-19 academies, 16-19 free schools, including University Technical Colleges (UTCs), and general FE colleges (GFEs) are in scope of applying for funding, but only those based in areas where it can be shown that a demographic increase has taken place. Independent training providers (ITPs) and school sixth forms have been excluded from applying. The Post-16 Capacity fund is in addition to the £1.5 billion being provided to help build more classroom space and technical teaching facilities. Of this £1.5 billion, £200 million was allocated to FE colleges via the Further Education Capital Allocation in 2020. The rest will be, or already has been, allocated through:

The government also made available an extra £291 million of core funding in the November 2020 Spending Review to maintain the base funding rate per 16-18 student in FE and sixth-forms at £4,188.

In the medium to longer term, it is likely that much more 16-18 funding will be required. A recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies entitled ‘Further Education and Sixth Form Spending in England’ says that at least an extra £570 million will be required to fund the projected growth in 16-18 numbers in 2022/23. And a report published last month by the AoC entitled ‘Forecasting 16 to 18 education growth to 2030’ uses ONS data that predicts that there will be additional 90,000 young people aged 16-18 looking for places in FE by 2024/5, rising to an additional 200,000 by the end of the decade, to argue for more funding.

However, the prospect of any further core funding for FE could in be doubt. This is because on 7 September the DfE (along with other government departments) was asked by the Treasury to find savings of at least 5% to help fund extra spending on health and social care and to reduce government borrowing in

the wake of Covid. The DfE’s budget in the current year is £89.6 billion and a cut of 5% would equate to a budget reduction of around £4.5 billion next year. FE’s share of the DfE budget is around 6% and the cut, if implemented proportionately, would mean a budget reduction of around £270 million.

To make matters worse, earlier this month (September) the government has announced in its plans for increasing funding for health and social care that, from April 2022, national insurance (NI) contributions from both employees and employers will increase by 1.25%. Schools will be refunded the extra cost of their extra employer contributions (as will other public sector employers), but colleges will have to bear the full cost of the increase because they are technically classified by the ONS as private sector organisations.


On 3 September, following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation (JCVI), the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England issued guidance on the vaccination of 12-17-year-olds. The guidance says that following groups should offered two doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine:

  • 12–15-year-olds who are at increased risk of hospitalisation from Covid. These include those with:
    • Severe neuro-disabilities
    • Immunosuppression
    • Downs Syndrome
    • Severe learning disabilities
    • Haematological malignancy
    • Sickle cell disease
    • Type 1 diabetes
    • Congenital heart disease.
  • 12–17-year-olds who are household contacts of people of any age who are immunosuppressed.
  • Those turning 18 within the next three months.

The guidance goes on to say that 12-17-year-olds not covered by the categories above, and not vaccinated in earlier phases of the programme, should be offered a single dose of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine. The guidance says further advice will be provided on second doses for this group once more data has been analysed. This is expected later in the autumn for 16-17-year-olds and in the spring for 12-15-year-olds. Health workers will carry out the vaccinations onsite in schools and colleges.

With reference to the likely take-up of the vaccination offer by children aged under 18, research was carried out between 14th and 21st May (before the guidance was published), involving more than 27,000 pupils and students aged between 9 and 17 from 180 schools in 4 English counties, The research findings published by the Lancet, revealed that only 50% would opt-in to take the vaccination, while 37% were undecided, and 13% would opt-out. The research also found that respondents who were younger and/or spent more time on social media and/or attended schools in deprived areas and/or who had already caught Covid in the past, were more likely to opt out of having the vaccine.


Meanwhile, letters have been sent by ‘Lawyers for Liberty’ to some head teachers and principals threatening legal action against schools and colleges who are ‘…positively promoting and encouraging the Covid 19 vaccination for children aged 12 years and over, without parental consent, parent consultation, a health and safety assessment or a full risk analysis…’ The letter goes on to say that ‘…if a parent communicates to you that their child is not to be included in the vaccination programme or does not provide consent, then that decision must be respected, without any further consequences for the child, including direct or indirect discrimination or coercion. Failure to do so may result in possible legal claims against you personally and for your school’.

School and college leaders have also been targeted by hoax Covid vaccine consent letters, which aim to spread anti-vaccine messages to parents in England. Head teachers have been sent a ‘consent checklist’, under a fake NHS logo, along with a letter telling them to share this with parents. However, the checklist includes a series of false statements about the risks of vaccinations for young people, including claims that the vaccines may cause strokes, blindness, deafness, clotting, anaphylaxis and cardiovascular disorders.


The latest DfE Covid-19 operational guidance for FE providers was published on 27 August. The guidance says that all FE and sixth form colleges (but not ITPs and adult community learning providers), should offer students two on-site lateral flow tests three to five days apart on their return to college, after which students and staff should test themselves twice weekly at home until the end of September.

However, earlier this month the DfE published its Covid-19 Response: Autumn and Winter Plan’ which says that the asymptomatic testing of FE students should continue for the rest of the autumn term. Following the publication of the plan, the DfE wrote to colleges to confirm that staff and students will need to continue testing at home until the end of term and that colleges should also retain an asymptomatic on-site testing facility so they can offer tests to students who are unable to test themselves at home. Under-18s will not need to self-isolate if they are a close contact of a positive case but are strongly advised to take a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test and will need to isolate if the test result comes back positive.


The DfE has also published an updated contingency framework for colleges for managing future Covid outbreaks. The framework specifies new case thresholds which, if breached, could prompt college managers to impose additional Covid related controls. Examples of the thresholds for FE and sixth form colleges include if five or more students and/or staff or 10% of students who have mixed closely test positive within ten days. However, the thresholds are not mandatory and the extra control measures can be applied at the discretion of college managers, but the DfE makes it clear in the guidance that, at the very least, breach of the thresholds should be used as a trigger for seeking public health advice as well as reviewing and testing hygiene and ventilation measures already in place in the college.


Last month, the DfE announced that £25 million would be made available to provide all schools, colleges and other state-funded education settings (but not ITPs) in England with carbon dioxide monitors to help improve ventilation and to suppress the spread of Covid. The DfE says that the monitors will be made available following a procurement process and that all schools and colleges can expected to receive at least partial allocations during the autumn term. The final number of monitors to be allocated will be subject to the outcome of the procurement process with the numbers allocated to each education setting being determined by the size of the school or college estate. This is expected to be around one monitor for every two classrooms, but the DfE says the monitors will be portable so they can be moved around as needed.


Colleges have been required to submit a daily Educational Settings Status Form to provide the DfE with data covering the impact of Covid on such things as whether the school or college is open, remote education arrangements, the provision of free school meals and staff absences. The DfE currently requires the form to be submitted by 2.00 pm each working day, but has announced that, from 1 October, colleges will be asked to submit the form on a weekly rather than a daily basis.


The DfE has announced that funding will be made available to schools and colleges (but not ITPs) to partially compensate them for money spent from their budgets to help disadvantaged students (defined as those eligible for free school meals) to access the internet during the pandemic. From January 2022, they will be able to retrospectively recover up to £75 per student of the cash they spent in providing this support during the period from 1 September 2021 until 31 December 2021. The DfE says that it anticipates making one-off payments to eligible schools and colleges at the end of March 2022. To be eligible to make a claim, schools and colleges must have experienced disruption to face-to-face education in the period between September and December 2021, and have reported this to the DfE (for example through the Education Setting Status Form- see above). Schools and colleges must also have confirmed with the students’ parents or guardians that they are not able to afford their own internet access. Payments from the fund will be made against evidence provided, including receipts or paid invoices provided.


The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published a report entitled  ‘The Implications of the Covid-19 pandemic for vocational education and training’ which compares the effect of Covid on vocational education and training (VET) provision in member countries and the measures taken by the governments to help ensure continuity of VET provision. Key findings in the report, along with a detailed analysis, cover the extent to which:

  • VET institutions were closed for extended periods.
  • Work-based learning opportunities continued to be provided, particularly for young people.
  • Countries adopted measures to avoid learning losses and help learners obtain their qualification.
  • Distance learning was used and its limitations in delivering VET provision.
  • Employers were encouraged to continue to provide safe work-based learning in some form.
  • Changes to curricula and the organisation of the academic year were introduced.
  • VET assessments or examinations were adjusted to take account of lost learning.

On 1 September, the Ofsted published an updated FE and Skills Inspection Handbook. The handbook provides further guidance for inspection teams and colleges as full onsite inspections are resumed. The updated handbook, amongst many other things, says that:

  • During the planning call with the inspection nominee, the lead inspector will seek to understand the specific impact of Covid on learners, how managers responded to the situation and how the college delivered education and training provision remotely.
  • The quality of remote education and training delivered between March and August 2020 will not impact on judgement of inspectors, but where remote provision remains in place during an inspection, inspectors may observe this, and review materials used. Inspectors do not expect colleges to arrange any remote learning specifically for the inspection.
  • Inspectors will look at how managers and staff have been identifying learning gaps for students and have responded to this in their curriculum planning.
  • When forming judgements on student personal development, inspectors will seek to understand what took place before Covid, what the college has in place currently and what its future plans are. Inspectors recognise that many elements of personal development programmes that were in place before Covid may have been disrupted. Therefore, they will focus on understanding the steps that leaders have taken to mitigate this.
  • Inspectors will consider any external data that may be available. However, they will be mindful of the age and relevance of this data when making judgements.
  • Inspectors will consider how leaders and managers have adapted approaches to safeguarding during the pandemic to make sure that vulnerable learners were prioritised for face-to-face education and that safeguarding procedures remained effective for those receiving remote education.
  • As with the practice before the pandemic, Ofsted will continue to carry out some elements of the inspection or monitoring visit using video or telephone calls, where appropriate.

The DfE has commissioned Ofsted to carry out an evaluation of the 16-19 Tuition Fund. The fund was launched last year with an initial £96 million as part of the government’s education recovery package to combat lost learning caused by Covid. A further £222 million has since been provided to extend the scheme into 2021/22. The cash is intended to fund small group tuition for students aged 16-19 in English, maths and other subjects that have been disrupted by Covid. Students are eligible to receive tuition fund support if they have not previously achieved a GCSE grade 4 in English and/or maths or have a grade 4 or above and are from a disadvantaged background. The aim of the review is to find out how the tuition fund has supported students and impacted on their educational attainment, and how it can be improved in the future. The review will cover both tutoring provided by directly by the college, or through the National Tutoring Programme (NTP). Ofsted published its terms of reference for the review on 22 September.


Skills Bootcamps are currently not subject to Ofsted inspections and on 27 September the DfE confirmed that they will only fall within scope for routine inspections if they become on-going programmes in receipt of regular public funding allocations. However, the DfE has commissioned Ofsted to carry out a review of skills bootcamps that will look into the quality of the education and training delivered by them.


The Baker Dearing Trust has submitted proposals to the DfE to pilot the establishment of mini-University Technical Colleges (UTCs) within ten schools across England. These will be called ‘UTC sleeves’ which, if agreed by the DfE, will offer provision similar to that of the existing 48 UTCs, but on a smaller scale. For example, each school’s UTC sleeve would have two vocational specialisms that would be open to pupils in the school from age 14. These would run alongside the rest of a school’s academic activities, but with an employer advisory board to help guide the vocational element of the curriculum. The Trust claims to have ten schools willing to take part in the pilot and has suggested that the cost of equipment, facilities and extra staff needed could be met from the £2.5 billion National Skills Fund, arguing that the sleeves would be more cost effective than building new UTCs. However, UTCs as a brand have experienced serious problems, with eleven having been forced to close due to low levels of recruitment, poor financial health and/or poor quality of delivery. In addition, some critics have argued that the UTC sleeves could develop into a sort of referral unit within the school where academically low-performing or problem pupils are sent.


John Edwards has been appointed interim the ESFA Chief Executive. He has most recently been working as the ESFA’s Director of Funding. Mr Edwards replaces Eileen Milner who left the post to take up the role of CEO of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.


College managers and staff are legally required to disclose any financial transactions with organisations and individuals they have a close association with, or which may involve a conflict of interest, and details must be included in the college’s financial reports and accounts for the relevant year. The ESFA has apparently discovered examples of contracts being awarded where individuals with a potential financial or other interest have been involved in the process and/or where this has not been fully disclosed. As a result, on 22 September, the ESFA’s new interim Chief Executive, John Edwards sent a letter to colleges reminding them of their requirement to ensure that related party transactions are properly disclosed and reported. Some colleges registered with the Office for Students (OfS), have apparently also failed to comply with OfS financial statement requirements and the letter reminds them of their statutory obligation to do so.


The DfE has announced the launch of an independent review of the ESFA to ‘…ensure it remains effective into the future’. The review is part of a wider review of ‘arm’s length bodies’. The ESFA is accountable for funding for the FE and skills sector (£65 billion in 2020/21), the regulation of academies, FE colleges, sixth form colleges and ITPs and for the oversight of the National Careers Service, apprenticeships and T-Levels. The review will cover the ESFA’s governance, accountability, areas of success and opportunities for improvement, and will be led by Professor Sir David Bell, Vice Chancellor at the University of Sunderland, supported by a team of civil servants. Review findings are expected to be published next year. 


On 8 September the ESFA published details of how colleges should make their business case to avoid clawback of funding for failing to deliver all of their AEB contract. To be eligible to submit a case, colleges must have delivered less than 90% of their 2020/21 AEB funding allocation and explain why they were unable to deliver more. They must also be able to demonstrate that they had attempted to mitigate the risk of under-delivery and show how the clawback would impact on the college’s financial stability. Business cases have to have been submitted by 7 October, with ESFA decisions expected by 15 November.


Colleges say that they face potential legal action because the ESFA Individual Learner Record (ILR), which colleges have to fill in with a student’s information in order to access funding, requires students to choose either male or female as their sex . This apparently means that those who self-identify as being neither male nor female cannot have their decision respected. This, in turn, could result in the college being in breach of the requirements of the 2010 Equality Act which specifies legal protections for people wishing to change their sex. The provisions in the act for this were reinforced in 2020 by an industrial tribunal judgment in Taylor v Jaguar Land Rover which confirmed the requirement for employers to ensure that workplaces are compliant in respect of recognising non-binary and gender fluid identities.


Following concerns that it may be withdrawn, the ESFA has confirmed that, following an appropriate assessment, additional funding will continue to be provided for individuals identified as having hidden learning needs who enrol apprenticeship programmes. The ESFA says that funding will continue to be provided to meet the costs of putting in place reasonable adjustments, as required in section 20 of the Equality Act 2010 for apprentices who have a learning difficulty or disability defined in Section 15ZA(6) of the Education Act 1996, and amended by section 41 of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009. The latest apprenticeship funding rules (August 2021 to July 2022) can be found here.


Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith has been appointed as the new chair of IfATE, replacing Antony Jenkins who left the role this summer. Baroness McGregor-Smith will serve in the post for a period of five years.


IfATE has confirmed that all of the ten apprenticeship assessment flexibilities and adjustments introduced during the pandemic will continue until the end of 2021. On 1 January 2022 three of these will cease, but seven will be made permanent, because, says IfATE, they represent ‘…an improvement on the arrangements which were in place before Covid-19’.

The three flexibilities being discontinued from 1 January 2022 are as follows:

  • The extension to the length of the end point assessment period.
  • Changes to who sits on assessment panels. This is because ‘…it wasn’t always possible to have an employer sit on a panel as many were furloughed or busy elsewhere’.
  • Allowing other suitable evidence of achievement to be used in place of mandated qualifications.

The seven apprenticeship assessment flexibilities continuing beyond 1 January 2022 are as follows:

  • Remote delivery of assessment (including invigilation).
  • Remote Gateway sign-off.
  • Pauses between elements of end point assessments.
  • Allowing assessment element delivery to take place in any order.
  • Observation in simulated environments can continue to be used instead of observation in workplaces.
  • Assessments can take place outside of usual venues.
  • Assessment exams can be online instead of on paper.

The RoATP has been closed to new applicants (other than those levy paying providers who were training critical workers) since April 2020. The ESFA has now announced that the RoATP has been reopened and that applications for entry on the register can be made by all providers. However, new applicants will only be approved if they can show that they help to fulfil unmet employer demand. And in April 2021, the ESFA announced that the RoATP would be completely refreshed and that all existing providers needed to reapply. Under the new application process, all providers must, amongst other things, be able to demonstrate their experience of managing and delivering training and that they are well established within the sectors in which they intend to deliver training. Updated application guidance for both new and existing providers was published by the ESFA on 20 September.


Euan (son of Tony) Blair’s apprenticeship business start-up ‘Multiverse’ (formerly known as ‘WhiteHat’) has been valued at £646 million after raising a further £95 million earlier this month from US investors. The company now has 400 employees and has placed more than 5,000 apprentices with around 300 employers. Multiverse is said to charge around £1,500 for each apprentice they place with companies and is then paid to provide apprenticeship training with funds received through the apprenticeship levy. Although only formed in 2016, the latest company valuation places Mr Blair’s net worth though his shareholdings at around £162 million, making him even richer than his dad. Mr Blair, who is aged 37 was educated at the London Oratory School and holds a bachelor’s degree in Ancient History from Bristol University and a master’s degree in International Relations from Yale University in the US. He served as an intern in the US Congress before joining Morgan Stanley’s graduate programme in 2008 and stayed in investment banking until, presumably not being slow to recognise an opportunity to make money when he sees it, he co-founded WhiteHat with entrepreneur Sophie Adelman.


One of the roles of the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) is to commission leadership and governance programmes for the FE sector on behalf of the DfE. A tender to deliver the Further Education Chairs training programme, worth up to £600,000 over two years was issued by the ETF in June. The contract, which was previously held by the Oxford Saïd Business School, was awarded to the IoD. The first of the new IoD programmes for corporation chairs will take place this October and will involve a two-and-a-half-day residential course. Full IoD membership, claimed by the IoD to be worth £450 will be included in the programme’s £750 fee. A parallel IoD programme will also be offered for corporation clerks.


Grade inflation has not just been a phenomenon affecting A-Level and GCSEs. Figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). reveals that in 2020, more than one in three (35%) of students received a first-class honours degree (an increase from 28% in 2019, which itself was up by more than 90% on the percentage in 2011). The HESA figures also show that almost four in five students (79%) received either a first or upper second-class honours degree. Degree grades awarded have rocketed upwards particularly since 2010, when the cap on the numbers of places that universities were allowed to offer was lifted and tuition fees of £9,000+ per year were introduced. These fees are paid upfront and directly to the university on behalf of the student by the Student Loans Company with government backed funding, on the problematic assumption that students will eventually repay their loans. Some critics have accused universities of awarding ever higher grades to attract a larger share of the undergraduate market thereby maximising their income from fees. An example of this criticism can be found in a report published by the education thinktank EDSK, entitled ‘Valuable Lessons: How the government can promote a high value HE system’. In the report, Tom Richmond, director of EDSK and a former advisor to DfE ministers, says ‘…the behaviour of some HE institutions has led to a perception among policymakers and politicians that they are more interested in attracting tuition fee income than they are serving their students, local communities and society as a whole’.

The OfS has expressed its own concerns, saying that degree grade inflation has now become a ‘…significant and pressing issue’ and is potentially ‘…undermining national and international confidence in UK degree classifications’. In response, the representative body for HE institutions, Universities UK has asked the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) to support universities in reviewing and improving their degree awarding practices. Areas suggested for helping to control degree grade inflation include the following:

  • More consistent use by universities of recognised standards and frameworks.
  • Increased use of data to assess comparative degree grades awarded across the HE sector.
  • Reviewing the criteria and qualifications required for the appointment of external examiners.
  • Appointing suitably qualified external examiners who also have relevant industry expertise.
  • Improving transparency and consistency in responding to external examiner reports and concerns.
  • Specifying activities that external examiners should expect to undertake and be consulted on when reviewing grades awarded.
  • Establishing an effective training programme for external examiners.

The Financial Times has reported that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, is intending to overhaul student financing in England in his Spending Review ahead of October’s Budget because of concerns that the taxpayer is facing too large a bill for university courses. To help mitigate this, the Chancellor is apparently intending to propose a lowering of the salary level at which graduates start to repay their student loan from the current threshold, set in April this year of £27,295 down to £23,000. The average debt from tuition and maintenance loans in 2020 was around £45,000 and it is assumed that the loans will be repaid to the government with additional interest at 9% of earnings. However, many graduates are failing to reach this threshold and any outstanding debt is written off after 30 years. A House of Commons Library Research Briefing on student loan statistics published on 23 June, says that:

  • Around £17 billion is currently loaned to around 1.3 million students each year.
  • The total current loan debt at the end of March this year was in excess of £141 billion.
  • At 2019/20 prices and growth, by 2050, student loan debt is expected to rise to around £560 billion.
  • At current rates of repayment only around 25% of outstanding loans will be paid in full.
  • A significant amount of student loan debt has been sold to the private sector at a substantial discount.

The DfE has invited universities and colleges offering HE provision to bid for a share of a new £2 million ‘Higher Education Short Course Challenge’ fund. The aim is to help develop new Level 4,5 or 6 courses of between six weeks and a year duration in science, technology, engineering, maths (STEM), healthcare, digital innovation, education, and supporting net zero carbon emissions. When submitting bids, applicants will be required to demonstrate how their courses will benefit learners and add value for employers. The courses will also be used to trial new flexible student loan arrangements to provide financial support for students during their attendance on the programme. A maximum of 20 institutions will be chosen to offer the courses and applicants had until 28 September to submit bids, the outcome of which will be announced in November. Courses are expected to start in September 2022.


The Prevent duty aims to safeguard people from being drawn into, or supporting, terrorism. Universities and colleges have a number of legal obligations under the framework, including developing effective mechanisms to support at-risk individuals and to provide appropriate staff training. The OfS requires all universities and colleges with HE provision to submit data on how they are fulfilling these obligations. The OfS also collects data on external speakers and events approved by an HE institution and not just those that relate to Prevent. This is to provide the OfS with a broader evaluation of whether an institution is complying with the legal duty to ensure freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus. HE institutions are asked to identify the number of external speakers and events that were rejected for Prevent-related reasons. However, if an HE institution reports that that a rejection was for a reason not related to Prevent, curiously the OfS does not ask for further information. On 2 September the OfS published a report on this covering the three years period from 2017 to 2020.


The Times has reported that, in what is proving to be a controversial development, the University of Kent has announced that all students, regardless of the subject they are studying, the year they are in, or if they are an undergraduate or postgraduate, are required to complete a compulsory four-hour online diversity course entitled ‘Expect Respect’, which covers such things as ‘microaggressions’ and ‘preferred pronouns’. The course also covers ‘white privilege’ and includes a quiz in which participants are asked to ‘select societal benefits enjoyed by white people in the UK’. Critics, including some Kent university staff, have described the programme as ‘thought policing’, but a university spokesman said that the course was intended to help ‘…ensure all members of our community are treated with dignity and respect’.


On 29 September, the BFELG published its first impact report. The report, entitled ‘A year of remarkable impact 2020/21’  is introduced by Lord Simon Woolley and covers issues such as the effect of the murder of George Floyd, the declining numbers of senior black staff in FE the sector, and the way a hostile environment had developed that made many fearful about being able to speak freely. The report also covers the BFELG’s open letter, ‘10 Point Plan and accompanying diagnostic assessment designed to help ensure an anti-racist FE system. Many organisations have also committed to the BFELG’s ‘Statement of Commitment’ to anti-racist and diverse recruitment practices in the FE sector.


Having reopened following lockdown, the college training restaurant once again proved to be a popular venue with local residents. The restaurant normally operated on a ‘bookings only’ basis, but one day a regular customer came into the restaurant and having explained that he hadn’t booked, asked the lecturer in charge if she could fit him in for lunch. ‘Well,’ replied the lecturer, ‘As you can see, we are extremely busy today, but would you mind waiting?’. ‘Not at all’, said the customer. ‘Good’ said the lecturer, ‘Could you take this plate of spaghetti bolognaise to table 8 please?’

Alan Birks – September 2021

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