Issue 128 | May 2022

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The State Opening of Parliament took place on 10 May. Prince Charles delivered the Queen’s Speech, in which 38 Bills of Parliament were announced. Two of these were Bills that affect education provision in England. These are:

The Schools Bill. The background briefing note says that the bill’s aims are to:

  • Support more schools to become academies by removing barriers to conversion for faith schools and grammar schools, and to bring schools into the academy sector where this is requested by local authorities.
  • Implement a direct National Funding Formula, so that each mainstream school will be allocated funding on the same basis, wherever it is in the country.
  • Strengthen statutory school attendance requirements to make the roles and responsibilities of schools and parents clearer and require schools to publish an attendance policy.
  • Establish ‘children not in school’ registers and place a duty on local authorities to identify children who are not receiving a safe or suitable full-time education.
  • Improve safeguarding by making registration requirements for independent educational institutions more robust, enhancing enforcement, and working with Ofsted to expand investigatory powers.
  • Strengthen the current teacher misconduct regime to include more educational institutions (g. further education which is not currently covered), increase powers to investigate individuals who commit misconduct and enact appropriate regulatory discipline procedures.

The Higher Education Bill: The background briefing note says that the Bill’s aims are to:

  • Ensure people are supported to get the skills they need throughout their life via the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, which will provide a new and flexible way of providing loan support for post-18 study. Individuals will be able to access a loan entitlement to help them pay for the equivalent of four years of post-18 education that they can use over their lifetime for a range of studies, including shorter and technical courses.
  • Fulfil the manifesto commitment to tackle uncontrolled growth of low-quality courses.
  • Set minimum qualification requirements for a person living in England to be eligible to get student loan support to enter HE, and to control numbers of students entering HE at specific providers in England.
  • Ensure that appropriate fee limits can be applied more flexibly to higher education study within the Lifelong Loan Entitlement and to regulate fees more effectively.

There were no new policies for further education in the Queen’s speech, other than the extension of the current Teacher Misconduct Scheme to FE (see below).


The Schools Bill includes proposals to ‘strengthen the current Teacher Misconduct Regime to include more educational institutions’. The Teacher Regulation Agency (TRA) can currently only act in respect of misconduct against teachers in schools, academies, sixth form colleges, certain forms of youth accommodation and children’s homes. However, following the response to a consultation held in February, the DfE confirmed that TRA would have its powers extended to post-16 education and training ‘when a suitable legislative opportunity becomes available’. The Schools Bill provides this opportunity and after enactment all post-16 teachers, assessors, tutors and lecturers will be in scope of the TRA regulations. All FE colleges, special post-16 institutions and ITPs will have a legal duty to decide whether to refer cases of ‘serious misconduct’ for the TRA to investigate. TRA guidance defines ‘serious misconduct’ as including ‘unacceptable professional conduct’, ‘conduct that may bring the profession into disrepute’ or ‘conviction, at any time, of a relevant offence’. On receiving a referral to the TRA, a professional conduct panel is formed to examine the case and make a recommendation on whether or not to issue a prohibition order. If a prohibition order is issued, the individual concerned will be banned from teaching, usually for life, and they will be placed on the ‘prohibited list’ for employers, local authorities and teacher supply agencies.


On 28 April, after 11 months of fierce debate in both Houses of Parliament, the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill was enacted as law. The government says that the new Act ‘underpins the transformation of post-16 education and skills as set out in the Skills for Jobs White Paper and will help level up and drive growth across the whole country. Employers will be placed at the heart of the skills system so that the training on offer meets the needs of local areas and people ‘no longer have to leave their hometowns to find a good job’.

The Act gives the Secretary of State for Education in England new legal powers over the FE colleges, ITPs and other providers. These include the power to:

  • Require college governing bodies to review and publish how well their education and training offer is meeting local skills needs.
  • Use the intervention system where colleges are deemed to be failing to deliver their new statutory responsibility to secure good outcomes for the local economies and communities they serve.
  • Designate and remove the designation of the Employer Representative Bodies (ERBs) responsible for developing Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs), and to introduce statutory guidance to ERBs specifying who they should consult with and what should go in to their LSIPs.
  • Introduce an official register of approved post-16 training providers along with new conditions for registration, and to restrict access to public funding to providers not on that list.

The Act also provides the required legislation for:

  • The reform of the current student loans system, so that from 2025 people can access a flexible lifelong loan entitlement for four years of post-18 education for modular and full qualifications at Levels 4 to 6.
  • The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) to be given statutory powers to approve and withdraw approval for vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs), ‘to extend employer-led reforms and to create a high-quality unified skills system’.
  • Making it a criminal offence to provide, arrange or advertise essay mill services (where students pay others to write projects, essays, dissertations and even sit online exams for them) to any student taking a post-16 qualification at institutions in England including universities, FE and sixth form colleges and school sixth forms. One in seven university and college students are said to have used the services of ‘essay mills’ but since the majority of those providing the service are either based in or registered with a website abroad, it will be interesting to see how far this element of the legislation can be enforced. For an example of how essay mills work, an interesting article on the subject can be found here.
  • Prioritising skills provision to support jobs and firms in the green economy.
  • Making it a legal requirement that all pupils meet providers of technical education so that they understand the range of career routes and training options available to them post-16, such as apprenticeships, T-Levels and traineeships offered by FE colleges and ITPs, and not just traditional post-16 academic options.

ERBs in eight trailblazer areas across the country produced LSIPs that will help (and if necessary, force) local colleges to offer training that meets the needs of local employers and communities. The first LSIPs were published last month (see here for details of the areas and organisations involved and copies of the plans). On 3 May the DfE announced that £20.9 million has been allocated to help establish LSIPs in a further 38 areas across England. These include 10 Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs), the Greater London Authority (GLA) and 27 Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) areas. Local ERBs have been invited to express an interest in becoming the designated ERB for a specific LSIP area. The relevant details for those wishing to apply include the following:

  • ERBs must be fully independent of government and not a public authority or be undertaking any of the functions of a public authority.
  • Each designated ERB will be able to apply for up to £550,000 to support the development, implementation and review of their LSIP for their area, which must be spent by March 2025.
  • Upon becoming a designated ERB, £50,000 start-up funding will be made available immediately, which will later be deducted from the final agreed funding allocation.
  • Designated ERBs will not fund or commission skills provision. The responsibility for this will remain with the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and bodies with devolved powers (e.g. MCAs).
  • The geographical area an LSIP will cover will be largely based upon the areas that providers and other relevant stakeholders currently operate across, including the GLA, MCAs and existing LEP areas. The exception to this is the south-east region which will be divided into three separate LSIP areas.

The deadline for applications to become a designated ERB is 6 June. The DfE says it expects to be able to make decisions on designated ERBs from early autumn 2022 onwards and it is intended that most LSIP areas of England have a designated ERB by summer 2023. The DfE also says that a new Local Skills Improvement Fund will be introduced in 2023/24 to ‘help providers to collaborate and collectively respond to the skills priorities in their LSIP’.


This year, students will be taking externally assessed exams for the first time since the pandemic began.  With specific reference to GCSEs and A-Level exams this summer:

  • Exams will begin on 16 May and will finish at the end of June. This is longer than usual, because for some subjects with multiple papers there is a minimum 10-day gap between exams to help ensure that if a student should become ill with Covid they won’t miss all of their exams in that subject.
  • If students are unwell they can be given special consideration. In cases where students are unwell and/or have a high temperature on the day of an exam, the advice from the UK Health Security Agency is to stay at home. Should this be the case, the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) has a procedure whereby schools and colleges can submit a form on the student’s behalf to request ‘special consideration’ from the relevant exam board.
  • Grades will be awarded through external marking rather than teacher assessed grades (TAGs). However, exam boards will be more lenient in deciding the boundaries between different grades. Exam results in 2022 are expected to be higher than in 2019, but not as high as in 2021. Exam boards will compare exam results in 2019 (which was the last year when external exams were sat) with TAGs awarded in 2021 and will set 2022 grades at around the mid-point between the two. Further details on the grading process can be found here.
  • Adaptations have been made to this year’s exams to take account of the impact of the pandemic on students’ learning. For example, curriculum content has been reduced and students have been given more information about what they should revise. Where appropriate, they will also be allowed to use support materials, such as formulae sheets for maths.
  • Results days: A-level results will be released on Thursday 18th August and GCSE results will be released on Thursday 25th August.
  • Vocational and Technical Qualifications (VTQs). VTQs that are similar to GCSEs and A- Levels, in that they are used for progression to higher levels of study (such as BTECs), will be awarded on or before GCSE and A-Level results day. Other types of qualifications such as Functional Skills Qualifications, and those that are not tied to an academic year will continue to be awarded throughout the year.

Schools and colleges are reporting that they are facing multiple challenges in holding exams this year. The two main problems they say they are facing are:

  • Student anxiety and stress. The results of a survey conducted by the Association of School and Colleges Leaders (ASCL) published on 11 May says that over 80% of the school and college leaders who responded say that the level of stress and anxiety among exam students this year is considerably higher than in pre-pandemic years. They report that some students are asking to be allowed to sit their exams in a separate room, be given extra time, use a laptop or other word processor and be allowed to take supervised rest breaks throughout their exam. Most school and college leaders say they do not have the capacity or staff resources to accommodate all the requests being made.
  • Invigilation. School and college leaders have also reported an acute shortage of invigilators. There are numerous reasons for this, which include the following:
  • Some schools and colleges may have left it too late to recruit invigilators because, following the cancellation of summer exams in 2020 and 2021, they believed that exams would not go ahead this year either.
  • Fewer invigilators are returning to oversee exams this year because they are worried about Covid or have moved on to other work.
  • Students with anxiety are asking to take exams in separate rooms and/or under other conditions to relieve their anxiety.

Schools and colleges are responding to the shortage of invigilators by diverting teachers and support staff from their normal work to undertake invigilation duties and in some cases by asking parents for help. The JCQ has also responded by relaxing invigilation rules. For example, normally one invigilator for a maximum of 30 candidates is required be present in written exams, but this requirement has been changed to allow one invigilator for a maximum of 40 candidates. Teachers are also being allowed to invigilate exams in their own subjects, which is not normally permitted. Schools and colleges have also been advised that they can delay exams or split students into groups if they cannot find enough invigilators. To try to alleviate the shortage, the National Association of Examinations Officers (NAEO) has developed an invigilator vacancy and recruitment section of the ‘Exams Office’ website to assist schools and colleges to find invigilators, and for those interested in becoming an invigilator to apply.


On 10 May, Ofqual and the Department for Education (DfE) published the latest details on how GCSE, A-Level and VTQ examinations and assessments will be conducted next year (2023). In the publication, the DfE and Ofqual says that the intention is to return to pre-pandemic assessment arrangements as quickly as possible since, says the DfE and Ofqual, ‘they are the best and fairest way of assessing what students know and can do’. Information given in the publication includes the following:

  • There will be no content reduction or adaptations. As mentioned above, this year’s exams have been adapted to take account of the disruption to students’ learning caused by Covid.
  • Grading in 2023 will be informed by students’ exam outcomes in 2022.
  • There will be a consultation on whether the extended exam period should be retained. The DfE has asked Ofqual to consult on whether the current extended exam period should be retained for 2023.
  • Adaptations for vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) that were introduced for 2022 will not be retained in 2023. This year, awarding organisations (AOs) are allowed to decide which adaptations were appropriate for their qualifications in line with Ofqual’s vocational and technical qualifications contingency regulatory framework.

On 11 May, the DfE published a provisional list of 160 Level 3 Qualifications that are deemed to overlap with T-levels and will therefore have their public funding withdrawn in 2024. The move follows a review of Level 3 qualifications carried out as part of the government’s plan to rationalise post-16 qualifications in England in order to reduce the numbers of similar qualifications and make progression routes more comprehensible for students and employers. The government’s plan was initially to establish just three main post-16 Level 3 qualification routes, these being A-Levels, T-Levels and apprenticeships. However, DfE guidance for AOs and providers on the changes seems to suggest a relaxation of this position.

The most controversial element of the change is the planned withdrawal of funding from most BTEC qualifications (and other applied general qualifications). Last year, around 66,000 students completed one of 150 Level 3 BTEC qualifications. BTEC Level 3 courses on the DfE’s provisional list to be defunded in 2024 include courses in Health and Social Care, Computer Science, and Engineering, which have been very popular with students. Also, an equalities impact assessment produced by the DfE last July shows that 27% of Level 3 BTEC students came from disadvantaged backgrounds and concerns have been expressed that the decision to defund BTEC courses will affect these students disproportionately.

Awarding organisations (AOs) with qualifications on the provisional list to be defunded can appeal the DfE’s decision. Several are said to be preparing to do so on the basis that the qualifications do not meet the DfE’s published criteria for defunding, which include the following:

  • Is it a technical qualification that overlaps with a T Level that primarily aims to support entry to
    employment in a specific occupational area?
  • Are the outcomes that must be attained by a person taking the qualification similar
    to those set out in an occupational standard covered by a T Level?

A final list of Level 3 qualifications to be defunded is due to be published in September.


The DfE launched a consultation on proposals for the reform of Level 2 and below qualifications (excluding GCSEs, functional skills and essential digital skills qualifications), which opened on 2 March and closed on 27 April. The consultation includes proposals to drastically reduce the number of Level 2 and below qualifications, on the basis that many cover the same or similar subjects. Proposed withdrawal of funding will take place over the period 2024 to 2027. Those Level 2 qualifications and below remaining will be placed into 17 groups made up of four at Entry Level, five at Level 1 and eight at level 2. Qualifications placed in these groups will share common characteristics, such as the occupational area covered. Responses received to the DfE consultation suggest a significant level of opposition from across the sector (including Ofqual). Examples of the responses include the following:

Ofqual’s response: Ofqual’s response to the consultation was published on 3 May. Ofqual says that the DfE’s proposals to reduce the number of qualifications at Level 2 could cause more confusion rather than less. This, says Ofqual, is because:

  • Timing: The implementation of the DfE’s Level 2 and below proposals were originally intended to follow on from the implementation of those at level 3. Under the DfE’s proposals they will now be implemented at the same time. This could result in ‘disjointed progression’, particularly if some of the proposed qualification reforms at Level 2 and below are implemented before those at Level 3.
  • Impact: The impact of the reforms could affect students from the poorest backgrounds since they are the ones who make up a disproportionate number of those taking Level 2 and below qualifications.
  • Qualification groups: The proposed qualification groups are ‘not sufficiently clear or straightforward for students and others to be able to differentiate between’ and it would be better if groups reflected aspects such as the purpose of the qualification, because this would be ‘critical for the assessment designed by AOs’ and would give schools and colleges ‘a clearer basis on which to design associated programmes of study’.

Responses from representatives of colleges and ITPs:

  • The Association of Colleges (AoC) said that the DfE’s proposal to group qualifications for progression separately to qualifications for employment could reduce class sizes, making certain courses unviable. This would particularly impact on students with learning disabilities. (See here).
  • The Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) said that proposals to divide qualifications into groups was ‘overly simplistic’. (See here).
  • The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) said that the DfE consultation was ‘materially flawed in both its approach and its design’. (See here).

Responses from representatives of AOs:

  • The response from the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) challenged the DfE’s argument that there are too many low-value or low-quality qualifications, saying that no substantive evidence had been presented in support of this. Addressing concerns about quality, FAB said if the government thought that quality standards were not being maintained it was a matter for Ofqual, and perhaps the government should instead look more closely at the role of regulators and other enforcement mechanisms.
  • The National Open College Network (NOCN) Chief Executive published an open letter on the NOCN website, which said that DfE claims that there are more than 8,000 Level 2 and below qualifications overstates the number of different qualifications. For example, Functional Skills English Level 1 is a single qualification delivered by 10 different AOs. This is displayed on the Ofqual register as 10 separate qualifications, but in reality, is one qualification.

On 9 May, Ofqual published its 3-year Corporate Plan for the period 2022-2025. Ofqual says that it will:

  • Play a pivotal role in leading and enabling innovation and transformation in assessment and qualifications.
  • Work with AOs to harness the use of technology in assessments.
  • Oversee the reintroduction of exam-based assessment in 2022 in GCSE, A-Level and VTQ qualifications.
  • Work in partnership with IfATE on developing VTQs, including T-Levels, higher technical qualifications (Level 4-6) and apprenticeship end-point assessments (EPAs).
  • Consult on arrangements to secure high-quality qualifications as part of the government’s post-16 qualifications review.
  • Ensure that exams and assessments become more accessible for all students, including students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and students for whom English is an additional language.
  • Build an Interactive Register of Regulated Qualifications .
  • Help all those that take and use qualifications to make informed choices and support a coherent and navigable qualifications market for students, apprentices and employers.

With specific reference to the use of new technology in assessment, Ofqual says that it will:

  • Look into the use of adaptive testing and whether it could be a possible replacement for ‘tiering’ in certain GCSEs. Tiering takes place when schools and colleges have to decide in advance whether to enter a GCSE student into the foundation tier (grades 1 to 5) or higher tier (grades 4 to 9) exams. Ofqual says that computerised adaptive testing that adjusts the difficulty of questions as students go through it could be used to replace GCSE tiering. An adaptive testing pilot is expected to be run by the AQA exam board next year, with around 2500 students from 100 schools and colleges taking part.
  • Look at the feasibility ofusing computer-based objective test questions.
  • Evaluate the risks and benefits of remote invigilation (e.g. allowing a student to sit an exam, test or other assessment at home or in the workplace).

Ofqual also says that it intends to:

  • Evaluate theuse of extra-time in exams for disabled students.
  • Research different ways of identifying potential biasin written tests.
  • Look into how toreduce the impact of the exams system on the environment.

On 12 May, following a 12-week consultation, Ofqual published updated guidance on how to make exams and other assessments as accessible as possible to all students, and in particular those with SEND.  The guidance received strong support from those responding, which included the Autism Education Trust, British Dyslexia Association, National Deaf Children’s Society, National Autistic Society and the Royal National Institute of Blind People. The guidance says that, in their exams and other assessments, AOs should use:

  • Accessible and appropriate language
  • Clear and consistent layout
  • Source material, context, images and colour in ways that do not disadvantage students
  • Reasonable adjustments to make sure disabled students are not disadvantaged.

On 28 April the DfE published ‘experimental data’ showing the change in apprenticeship starts in England in 2020/21 compared with 2019/20. The data is stratified by size of employer. Small employers are defined as those with fewer than 50 employees, medium size employers are defined as those with between 50 and 249 employees, and large employers are defined as those with 250 or more employees, The data shows that in 2020/21:

  • Apprenticeship starts in small employers were 12% higher than in 2019/20. This was the first recorded increase since 2015/16, but still 45% lower than in 2016/17 (before the introduction of the levy), and 9% lower than in 2018/19 (before the pandemic). Small enterprises accounted for 30% of all apprenticeship starts in 2020/21, an increase of 3% on 2019/20.
  • Apprenticeship starts in medium sized employers fell by 5% compared to 2019/20. This means that starts with these employers were 56% lower than before the levy was introduced, and 21% lower than pre-pandemic levels.
  • Apprenticeship starts in large employers were 3% lower compared to 2019/20. Starts in large employers were at their highest level in 2018/19 but have now fallen for two years consecutively. This means that starts in large employers in 2020/21 were 14% lower than before the levy was introduced, and 20% lower than pre-pandemic levels.

The ‘experimental data’ also shows growth and contraction in apprenticeship starts in 2020/21 compared with 2019/20 by broad occupational sector. Extreme examples of the change in starts include the following:

  • Health and Social Care sector starts increased by 18%, accounting for around 25% of all apprenticeship starts in 2020/21.
  • Information and Communication sector starts increased by 16%.
  • Arts and Entertainment sector starts fell by 18%.
  • Manufacturing sector starts contracted fell by 25%.

In the commentary on the data, the DfE said that those industry sectors with a greater proportion of apprenticeship starts at Level 4 and above were more likely to have had an increase in starts, while those with a greater proportion of starts at lower levels were more likely to have seen a contraction.


Updated Professional Standards: On 4 May the Education and Training Foundation announced the publication of an updated version of its ‘Professional Standards for teachers and trainers in the Further Education and Training sector in England’, which were first published in 2014. The updated standards were developed in consultation with a wide range of organisations and practitioners and, says the ETF, are ‘part of its commitment to supporting the sector, and developing the expertise and professionalism of teachers, trainers and leaders’. The key changes in the updated standards include the following:

  • The sustainability agenda, including climate change and biodiversity.
  • Gender, sexuality, racism, mental health and wellbeing issues, and the need to provide better support and guidance to learners in these areas.
  • The impact of the pandemic on jobs and livelihoods.
  • Online working and learning practices following the pandemic, and their implications for future hybrid work and learning patterns.
  • The need to attract, motivate and retain an effective and highly committed FE and Training sector workforce.

A copy of the latest ETF Professional Standards can be found here.

The FE and Training Conversation: On 16 May, the ETF launched ‘The FE & Training Conversation’. The ETF says that the FE and Training Conversation provides ‘vital research designed to find out what’s important to professionals working across FE vocational teaching and training’ and ‘to understand more about the challenges faced by leaders, teachers, trainers, governors and support staff, as well as their views on the training, resources and support the ETF currently provides’.

DfE asks ETF to return TLDP funds: The DfE has asked the ETF to return up to £7.5 million of the £76 million the DfE gave to the ETF between 2020 and 2024 to deliver a T-Level Professional Development (TLPD) programme, after it was discovered that the ETF had generated an estimated surplus of £9 million doing so. As a result, the DfE has asked the ETF to repay around £2.7 million of the surplus generated in 2019/20 and around £4.8 million from the surplus generated in 2020/21. However, the ETF believes that the maximum it should have to return is £1.5 million and apparently much to the annoyance of the DfE has now sought legal advice on the matter.


Governing bodies are expected to provide ‘support and challenge’ for college senior leaders. However, in recent years, some governing bodies have been accused of perhaps providing too much support not enough challenge. To address this, the Skills and Post-16 Education Act has placed a statutory duty on college governing bodies to closely monitor the performance of their college’s senior leaders and to take a much closer interest in their college’s provision and its stakeholders. They also have a statutory duty to review and publish how well their college’s education and training offer is meeting the needs of local employers and communities. If their college is deemed to be failing in this duty and is not delivering the education and skills provision needed or fails to ensure that their education and training is of a sufficiently high quality, they will be placed in formal intervention. The DfE has allocated £485,000 for a new governor recruitment service to help colleges that have been placed in intervention or are at risk of being placed in intervention in order to strengthen their board membership. The new service will replace the existing ETF ‘Inspiring FE Governance’ programme, which was previously funded by the DfE. On 29 April, the DfE invited bids from organisations to set up and run the new governor recruitment service, the main characteristics of which include the following:

  • The successful bidder will have three years to place at least 137 governors on college boards. To help address concerns that some college governing bodies are predominantly ‘male, pale and stale’, at least 50% of new governors recruited are required to be women and at least 30% must be from black, Asian and other ethnic minority backgrounds.
  • At least 80% of new governors recruited must remain in post for at least six months to be eligible.
  • The new governor recruitment service will normally only be available for colleges referred to it by the DfE, through its territorial teams and via the Further Education Commissioner, although colleges that are experiencing ‘acute difficulties’ can apply directly to the DfE to access the service.

As well as strengthening board membership the DfE is developing new guidance on the appointment of senior leaders and on the new requirements for boards to conduct regular external governance reviews. The DfE is also believed to be considering providing remuneration for board chairs.


Earlier this month, Michelle Donelan, the Minister for HE and FE in England, warned vice-chancellors of universities that are still working remotely of her intention to send teams of inspectors to investigate staff attendance rates. Ms Donelan said that the successful vaccine rollout has meant that ‘students and lecturers will be going to the pub, going out for meals, they’ll be going to parties, going to weddings, probably concerts, so it doesn’t actually make sense that they can’t then be in a lecture theatre’. She went on to say that universities that had not returned to pre-pandemic levels of face-to-face teaching could potentially be fined or prevented from accessing fee income paid through the Student Loans Company.


A report published on 12 May by the Office for Students (OfS) reveals that degree inflation is continuing to spiral. In the summer of 2021, almost four in ten (37.9%) university graduates were awarded a first-class honours degree and more than eight in ten (84.4%) were awarded either a first or an upper-second class honours degree. The proportion of graduates achieving a first-class degree has more than doubled since 2011, when 15.8% of graduates were awarded firsts, and the OfS has expressed concerns that the sustained unexplained increase degree grades awarded since then is undermining public confidence. Of particular concern to the OfS is the increase in the numbers of students achieving first-class honours degrees despite entering university with three Ds or lower at A-Level. The OfS has now warned universities that it will use its regulatory powers to intervene where this is deemed necessary, for example, if it is found that that universities are awarding higher grades as a marketing tool to boost their enrolments.


The DfE published a consultation on introducing a system of student number controls for universities and other HE institutions in England.  The consultation opened on 24 February and closed on 6 May. In the consultation, the DfE proposes restoring the cap on the total number of students that each university is allowed to recruit, and/or a cap on the numbers that can be recruited to courses deemed to be providing poor value in terms of job outcomes and graduate salaries. The DfE also proposes setting minimum pre-university entry requirements (e.g. GCSE maths and English and/or minimum A-Level grades) in order for a person to be eligible to apply for a student loan.

The Higher Education Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech on 10 May will if/when enacted, give the Secretary of State for Education in England new powers to take any, or all, of the above steps ‘to tackle uncontrolled growth of low-quality HE courses’. However, Universities UK, which represents UK university vice-chancellors, has expressed strong opposition to the proposals and says that any attempt to cap the number of students going to university is ‘flawed’, would ‘hurt those from disadvantaged backgrounds the most’ and would be ‘counterproductive as the UK looks to upskill and meet the growing need for graduate skills’. UUK also objected to proposal to introduce minimum entry requirements to be eligible for a student loan, saying that such a policy would disproportionately hit poor students and those from ethnic minorities.

This latter assertion by UUK is supported by recent research findings published on 27 April by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IfS). The research found that imposing a minimum GCSE requirement would have a much larger impact on participation of black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani students, than on white British students. The IfS says that imposing minimum GCSE requirements would adversely affect 18% of Bangladeshi and Pakistani students, and 23% of black undergraduates, but only 7% of white British students. The impact would be smaller if the minimum requirement was two Es at A-level. This, says the IfS, would affect only 5% of students who were previously eligible for free school meals (FSM), while a GCSE threshold would affect 23% of students who were previously eligible for FSM. However, the IfS research did find that around 80% of students who entered university without minimum pre-entry qualifications had worse degree outcomes. For example, of those students graduating in 2021, ‘only’ around 40% of those who entered university without the minimum entry qualification requirement achieved a first or upper second-class honours degree, compared with 84.4% of all university students who achieved a first or upper second-class honours degree.

And rather than reducing the numbers going to university, a recent report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change argues that there should be an expansion in the numbers, with proportion of young people who to go to university increasing from the current 50% to 70%.


In the ongoing debate about how to widen participation in HE, there is one group of young people that seem to have been almost wholly forgotten. These are the young people who have grown up in the care system. OfS data published on 31 January, shows that although more than 50% of all young people now go to university, only 6% of care leavers did so. A report produced by the Centre for Social Justice says that care are leavers make up less than 0.1% of the total undergraduate population and this has not changed significantly for at least a decade. It goes on to say that if you were to visit a university, you would be more likely to bump into a student from Cyprus than a student who grew up in a care.

Another report from the thinktank Civitas says that children in care are three times more likely to be excluded from school and, when they leave the care system, they are much more likely to face homelessness, unemployment, teenage pregnancy, and alcohol and drug abuse. Care leavers might make up only 0.1% of the undergraduate population, but they do make up around a quarter of the prison population and a quarter of all rough sleepers. And a report from the Leverhulme Trust published in 2020 entitled, ‘Battling the Odds: Pathways to University from Care’, says that in 2018, of those care leavers who did manage to obtain a university place, 51% seriously considered dropping out because of health problems, money worries, and/or personal and family issues. 38% of care leavers actually did drop out of university, compared with a dropout rate of 6.3% for all undergraduates.


An Independent Review of Children’s Social Care was set up to analyse the pressure the care system in England is under, and on 22 May the final report of the review was published. The report says that there are currently around 80,000 children and young people in the care system in England. This is an increase of 25% in the last decade, but this is expected to rise to more than 100,000 by 2032 unless further action is taken. To prevent further deterioration in the care provided for looked after children, the report calls for a ‘five-year comprehensive ambitious reform and investment programme’ costed at £2.6 billion ‘to improve the lives of children in care and their families’. The report’s recommendations include the following:

  • Make having been in the care system a ‘protected characteristic, since many who have been in the care system experience discrimination or stigma in their future lives because they have been.
  • Develop a new set of care standards to ensure children continue to receive care up to age 18.
  • Improve the quality of care in children’s homes.
  • Phase out Young Offender Institutions over the next decade, ‘as they are wholly unsuitable for children’.
  • Create ‘Expert Child Protection Practitioners’, who would oversee the work of social workers when there are concerns about the serious harm of a child.
  • Increase support (including financial support) for extended family members such as grandparents, aunts and uncles to look after children who may otherwise go into care.
  • Create a new ‘Lifelong Guardianship Order’ so care leavers can legally join the family of another non-related adult who is important to them.
  • Establish a national recruitment drive to recruit 9,000 new foster carers over the next three years.
  • Allocate £253 million for the professional development of social workers over the next four years.
  • Levy a ‘windfall tax’ on the profits of private children’s care homes to help pay for this.

Earlier this month, carried out research on the main party voting intention of a sample of 505 people in England, stratified by the level of their educational attainment. The composition of the sample was made up as follows:

  • Those with degrees 31%
  • Those with non-degree qualifications 50%
  • Those with no qualifications 19%.

The data below only covers those who said they would vote for a main party (defined as Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat), and not those who said they would vote for a minority party, were undecided or who said they would not vote. The responses reveals that voting intention by level of education attainment was as follows:

  • Those with degrees: Conservative 27%; Labour 41%; Lib Dem 15%
  • Those with non-degree qualifications: Conservative 31%; Labour 41%; Lib Dem 11%
  • Those with no qualifications: Conservative 49%; Labour 27%; Lib Dem 16%.

This seems to suggest that the Conservatives are becoming the party of non-graduates and Labour are becoming the party of graduates. Why, I hear you ask, is this of any relevance to FE and skills?

One answer lies in a recent article in the Spectator by James Kirkup, entitled ‘Education, not class, is Britain’s real political divide’. The Spectator is a Conservative orientated magazine, and the article discusses the tactics the party should use to retain its ‘Red Wall’ seats. It goes on to say that party that is increasingly reliant on non-graduate voters of all ages really should be doing more to support the bits of the education and training system that those voters do use. That means more love and more money for further education and apprenticeships… because one way for the Tories to help keep Hartlepool, and places like it, blue would be to reverse a decade of cuts to the funding of places such as Hartlepool College.

As more and more public money is ploughed into HE student loans, up to 75% of which will never be repaid in full, it will be interesting to see if in the time left for this parliament to run, the Conservative government actually does provide ‘more love and more money for further education and apprenticeships’. Meanwhile, David Hughes the Chief Executive of the AoC has written to Nadhim Zahawi, the Secretary of State for Education in England, pleading for emergency funding to address the ‘unprecedented’ crisis in retention and recruitment of staff caused by real term pay levels in FE that continue to spiral downwards, and the impact this is having on staff workloads and morale. Mr Hughes might be advised to not hold his breath.


Two apprentices were on placement with a local authority Parks and Recreational Services Department. They were working on a landscaping project in a local park and passers-by were mystified to see that one of the apprentices would dig a hole next to a park pathway and the other would follow behind and fill the hole in. When they finished digging one hole and filling it in, they moved along the pathway and dug another hole and filled it in, doing the same thing day in and day out. When their supervisor went to visit them at the park, she was amazed to see them working so hard. The supervisor assured the two apprentices that she was impressed with their effort but said that she couldn’t really understand what they were doing and why they were doing it. Turning to the apprentice digging the holes, she asked, ‘Why are you digging a hole, only to have your partner follow behind and fill it up again?’ The hole digger wiped his brow and sighed, ‘Well, I suppose it does look a bit odd, but there are supposed to be three apprentices working on this project and our mate who plants the trees is off sick’.

Alan Birks – May 2022

As usual, the views and opinions expressed in this newsletter are not necessarily those held by Click.
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