Review of 2021: From Aristotle to Peppa Pig

Download a TEFS 2022 calendar here.

By the end of 2020, most people were exhausted by lockdowns and economic misery.  Yet, the government in London entered 2021 recovering from their party hangovers and stumbled into the New Year. For the rest of us, 2021 ended exactly where 2020 left off. Christmas was as good as cancelled and the pandemic raced across the UK and the rest of the world.  But also in 2021, many lives were saved by the lockdowns and vaccine roll out that eclipsed efforts of the past. We are the first humans in history to know in detail what caused it and how to deal with it. That is the triumph of human endeavour.  But could we deal with climate change by applying our knowledge for the common good?  The year showed there is more to be done to come to terms with global issues that transcend the interests of the ‘nation state’. The old order will have to be tackled, and only education and free transfer of technology and ideas can achieve this.  Yet we are beset by leaders who seem confused and ill-educated on many things.  The dubious attitude of Peppa Pig is favoured over rational thought. The old elite guard of private school and Oxbridge educated still dominates; concerned more about re-election than re-education. However, young people are more aware than ever and want to see more done.  There is a smell of radical change in the air as confidence and trust in a government, steeped in the old order, dissipates. ‘Levelling up what’ was a good question. We must instead harness all the talent we possess and make real efforts to raise fairness and equality of opportunity.  Education can do this, but not if it is a two-track system favouring the better off.

January:  The 2020 hangover

We all entered 2021 with a feeling of tiredness and resignation.  The big news in January was a response to at least some of the Augar recommendations. The emphasis was on technical education and skills with little about universities. However, it promised the “introduction of minimum entry requirements to higher education institutions” that was, and still is, ominous. 

Most teaching was online at all levels and dealing with examinations being cancelled for 2021 was looming. The then Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, cancelled them in England early on as TEFS called for a radical overhaul of the system in England, citing the very different approaches in Scotland and Ireland. The prospect of moving to post qualification admissions to university seemed a bridge too far and was likely to create utter chaos.  In the meantime, the decision by the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, to cut student hardship support funding in the summer of 2020 was coming home to roost. Student numbers had held up but now problems were mounting for those with fewer advantages. Universities wrote to Williamson to plead for support for their students with poor access online. This did not provoke action immediately and when it did it was too late.

February: The cavalry arrives late

The government finally woke up to the reality that students were struggling in the lockdown. Another £50 million was added to the student support fund. However, they only offset cuts made in the summer of 2020 and would be too late coming or many later in the term.  TEFS again pushed for a student task force to be set up with some urgency.  The government response was to look specifically at support for international students. Again, a move that was coming very late. 

Another late move was the emergence of a herculean task managing the ‘examination’ process for the summer of 2021. However, Education Secretary Williamson could expect Ofqual to be better prepared and less forgiving this time around. Meanwhile, there has been considerable noise made about the confirmation of James Wharton (aka Lord Wharton of Yarm) as Chair of the Office for Students. The blatant conflict of interest as a Tory peer, retaining the conservative whip, and no experience in education did not deter the government. Later TEFS likened him to the equivalent of a ‘political commissar’ reporting to the government.

Always late or better late than never with student support   February 02, 2021

Why a student support task force is needed February 05, 2021

Gamekeeper and poacher (between them) at the Office for Students  February 12, 2021

Taskforce for international student support launched  February 19, 2021

The next labour of Ofqual is announced  February 26, 2021

March: Beware the Ides

The start of the month brought the announcement of what had been one of the leakiest budgets on record.  While on the one hand it was protecting jobs, the strategy was one of support for business first with “investment led recovery”. There was nothing new for students and universities on offer. TEFS concluded that the support aimed at the better off “intentionally drives a social wedge between the advantaged and disadvantaged in a way they will reverberate for a generation”.

Ofqual’s troubles were only beginning as the Education Committee investigated the plans. Grade inflation and the possibility of a widen attainment gap were looming as ‘algorithms’ had not gone away. They now lurked in schools in different forms and were a recipe for chaos. This was not confined to examinations in schools. Universities watched in horror as a reorganisation of research and funding cuts were also looming.

Meanwhile, a well tried and tested method of social division using selection for grammar schools was being criticised in Northern Ireland with the release of a report by the UNESCO Centre. The idea of academic selection for schools was being comprehensively demolished.

Universities, students, and the Budget 2021  March 05, 2021

Education Committee digs deeper as the Ofqual Odyssey begins  March 12, 2021

The science and technology revolution will be forged in the embers of a smoking ruin  March 19, 2021

Testing times for Northern Ireland academic selection  March 26, 2021

April:  The cruellest month to ignore these foolish things

The month began with publication of the final report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED).  It was met with a wave of protest from many incredulous at its conclusions and omissions. There was the complete lack of consideration of Higher Education despite the mounting evidence. Its credibility was lost from the start as Prime Minister’s senior adviser on ethnic minorities, Samuel Kasumu, resigned at once and others said they were misrepresented. This was perhaps not a priority for James Wharton who started at the Office for Students on the first. He publicly stated that his priorities were freedom of speech and white working-class boys.

He was less concerned there was a rise in the numbers of students asking to repeat the year in universities as the pressures mounted on them.  However, although over 75,000 student part-time jobs were lost, TEFS noted that the market had generally held up.

TEFS also marked the passing of Microbiologist Thomas Brock at the age of ninety-five. He should be an example to today’s academic scientists. His priority was teaching. Yet in research, he also he discovered the heat loving bacteria that unlocked the ability to quickly carry out gene amplification using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in use today.  He came from a modest family and was only able to go to university after World War two because of the servicemen’s federal grant commonly known as the ‘G.I. Bill’. There are multiple lessons to be learned from his story.

The end of an era of teaching alongside research: A tribute to Thomas Brock April 30, 2021

Pandemic student employment: Over 75,000 lose jobs but job market survives collapse April 23, 2021

Students return to exam stress: UPDATE April 16, 2021

Office for Students: Meet the new boss………. April 09, 2021

Covering a tangled web of racial bias, poverty, and inequality with whitewash April 02, 2021

May: An unsure start

TEFS migrated to another platform for its postings that continued later in the month.  Northern Ireland came under the spotlight with the release of a highly critical report on the effectiveness of funding designed for improving educational equality and attainment, for Schools. It considered ‘Sure Start’ funding for families and children below school age and further funds for schools. This is something common across the UK. The stark conclusion was that it didn’t work and the underlying reasons for this were very disturbing. The question of funds being diverted to prop up services cut elsewhere was a real one.

Meanwhile, the government in England was concerned with the prospect of pushing through post qualification admission (PQA) to universities despite many reservations. Yet another consultation emerged that only fuelled confusion.

Funding lifeline for disadvantaged students in schools under the spotlight 21st May 2021

Post Qualification Admissions and DfE Consultation… Consultation… Consultation! 27th May 2021

June: Angst is bursting out all over

Brought the annual ritual of consideration of the angst students had been experiencing. An addition was made by the newly formed Student Futures Commission of the UPP Foundation that its inaugural event and released the results of a student survey. Online teaching was not seen as a totally bad thing, but too many could not find badly need jobs during the year to fund their studies.  This was backed up by the release of the results of the report based upon the annual Advance HE, Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) student academic experience survey. Despite the headlines about student dissatisfaction amongst a substantial minority, it seems the majority were in fact somewhat satisfied despite struggling with the lockdown. Unlike previous years, the report did not address the numbers of students in employment and hours worked. Instead, an indication of the overall reliance on job income for finance was shown.  This almost certainly served to hides a crisis in jobs that must have had a severe impact on some unfortunate students.

Unsurprisingly, criticism of Ofqual and the assessment process continued to pile up. The situation staggered from farce to tragedy as the Department for Education tried to prop up an unreliable system the was creaking badly. But the die had been cast earlier in the year with teacher assessments and the government had to brace itself for the inevitable storm ahead.

Student futures are under scrutiny as reality bites 1st June 2021

The government and Ofqual stagger from farce to tragedy 21st June 2021

The student experience 2020/21: Behind the headlines 25th June 2021

July: A peace-offering to this distressed nation of Borrowers not Levellers

The slow progress in reaching educational equality in Scotland came into sharp focus. Reports by the OECD on school education and the Scottish Funding Council on access to Higher Education came fast on the back of a long-awaited OECD report on education in schools. There is a long way to go at every level in fostering equality of opportunity across the educational landscape.

As these emerged, the UPP Foundation ‘Students Futures Commission’ submissions closed withthe TEFS response concentrating on time as the basic key resource to be levelled up. The idea being to use time available as the benchmark for equality.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, attempted to expound on his ‘levelling up’ policy in Coventry to very cool reception from an engineering industry audience. He came across as confused and lacking in any clear detailed policy. It was to such an extent that most observers reacted with incredulity as he defined ‘levelling up’ as “the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce – the ketchup of catch-up and that is leadership”.  It was a sign of speeches still to come.

Levelling up: True Blue or just a bit faded? 16th July 2021

Student futures in a divided society 9th July 2021

Focus on education in Scotland: It’s a lang road 2nd July 2021

August: The results were in little doubt

The big news in August was the arrival of the school ‘examination’ results based on teacher assessments from across the UK. The so called ‘grade inflation’ effect of using teachers to assess grades was clear. Yet the old regional disparities where further entrenched as fee-paying schools were awarded more top marks.  With the abandonment of the ‘algorithm’ method to determine grades in 2020, there was already a clear indication that some schools had pushed up their students’ grades whilst others behaved less generously.  The gap between state and other schools was eyewatering. Although the government appeared determined to roll back to a more traditions examination process and less grade inflation for 2022, the damage was already inflicted on students caught in the ‘wrong’ type of school in 2020 and 2021. There were many injustices scattered in the wake of a divisive system and the noise complaining about it was increasing on social media. This will not go away without radical change from the ‘fool’s gold’ standard.

2021 Examinations: From gold standard to fool’s gold 10th August 2021

September: The start of the Fall

Early on, there was the chilly revelation that independent schools were not under the same rules as state schools. None of the independent schools were included in the ‘National Reference Test (NRT) 2021’ carried out by Ofqual and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).  This means that Ofqual won’t be able to explain the private school grades boost. This is used for setting standards and to “support the awarding of GCSEs in England”. But the suspicion that independent schools were ‘gaming the system’ and free to do what they wished, whilst strict surveillance of state schools was holding them back.

In the same vein as ‘privatisation’ TEFS look again at the likelihood of universities turning to the private sector. A combination of reduced fees, lower teaching grants, over-regulation, unsustainable pensions, inflation, and staff costs opens the door to letting in the cold winter chill of privatisation. However, this will simply favour those who can pay.

The expected change of guard at the Department of Education took place and Williamson was finally removed from his position as Secretary of State for Education to be replaced by Nadhim Zahawi. The reshuffling hinted at an early election in 2023 as confidence in the government waned. The appointments consolidated further the hold that independent school and Oxbridge educated graduates have on education policy, except for Michelle Donelan who survived as Higher and Further Education Minister.

Meanwhile in Scotland a report on their examination system emerged from the OECD. Although the rest of the UK tend to ignore OECD reports, they might sit up at the radical proposals to cut back on the number of school examinations.

Proposed radical changes to school examinations putting the ‘cat amongst the pigeons’ 10th September 2021

Are independent schools cheating or ‘gaming the system’? UPDATE: National Reference Test a ‘scandal’ 12th September 2021

Changing the guard at the Department for Education 22nd September 2021

Privatisation storm looms for universities 26th September 2021

October: Time to count up and save for Christmas

The bigest news was reserved to the end of the month with the budget and comprehensive spending review.  As usual, the government had punched holes in it with even more leaks than before. Poised for some announcements related to the Augar Review and Higher Education, TEFS was left with nothing to report other than something will come ‘soon’ from Michelle Donelan. Instead, the skill agenda was high on the education list and more support for Further Education emerged. Something that simply rolled back earlier cuts. The feeling of gloom in universities worsened as they awaited the prospect of cuts in fee income and looked at other revenue streams. TEFS looked at the rising costs for students by considering how catering has moved into private hands. Food for thought indeed.

Earlier October was a very busy month with the party conference season in full swing. The Labour Party conference offered little on higher education policy.  Most media outlets focussed their attention on divisions in the party and this tended to overshadow radical changes and  proposals that will form the basis of a manifesto for an election that may be as early as 2023. But Higher Education, widening access, fairness and effective social mobility were not at the forefront. The assumption was still that the existing policy of no fees would be retained from the 2019 manifesto.  However, the cost is a major issue and should be open to more debate.

The Conservative conference was in advance of the long-awaited budget and spending review due later the same month and the proceedings reflected this. The slogan ‘Build Back Better’ morphed to ‘Build Back any word beginning with B’.   There was no indication of policy on university funding, equality or widening access. However, leaked government plans to increase loan repayments were a hot topic and are likely to trigger fierce opposition from students and graduates alike. The emphasis appeared to be on steering students away from universities to be attracted by the ‘skills’ agenda that dominated the education debate. ‘Levelling up’ remained ill-defined and confused. It appeared to be a nebulous regional investment plan backed by a business led education agenda geared to more skills. The realities of rocketing costs, inflation, and a financial crisis for the least advantaged people and families, were swept away as of little consequence. 

Higher education, fees loans, and the Labour conference 2nd October 2021

Skills, Skills, Skills: levelling up and hardship denial at the Conservative conference 9th October 2021

University catering and who pays: Some food for thought 14th October 2021

Budget, Spending Review, leaks, and universities 25th October 2021

The Budget, Skills, and where’s Higher Education? 28th October 2021

November: The heat is on

The main event of the month was the COP26 Conference in Glasgow. It was a time to set aside the injustices in our small island society and look at the wider challenges coming for current and future young people. The outcome was a disappointment for many, but still offered some hope of progress. The final pact decision text was long on ‘recognising’, ‘acknowledging’, ‘noting’ and ‘urging’ and short on ‘actions’.  With less emphasis placed upon education, TEFS concluded that the educational task is greater than many realise, and the global cooperation needed is perhaps beyond the capability and authority of the UN.  The efficient transfer of technology, around the world will require a massive step-change in global access to education. It is the ‘glue’ that will hold everything together. But this must be done in a spirit of equality and fairness to fully use human talent and resources and equally spread the benefits.

With this in mind, TEFS looked at the outcomes from the ‘World Access to Higher Education Day’ the highlighted the universal problems of inequality in access and success in Higher Education.  There is no doubt that for too long universities have acted as magnifiers of existing inequalities in the societies they serve.

TEFS again asked where the governments in the UK were going with Higher Education in the light of more speculation in the media. The answer not come until 2022 and there seemed to be conflict and indecision at the centre of power.  There, the real aim of the skills agenda seemed to be to deter students from university and channel the less well-off into careers at eighteen. This conclusion was amply supported by the roll out of T-levels aimed at replacing A-levels for many students. However, delays and utter confusion were turning post-16 education into a ‘dogs breakfast’.

Where is the government going with Higher Education? 8th November 2021

COP26: Things are getting hotter and it’s time for cool heads 14th November 2021

Post-16 education becoming a ‘dog’s breakfast’ 19th November 2021

A global perspective of equality and fairness in higher education 26th November 2021

UPDATE: More pressure on universities. Targets for access and participation: Passing the buck 27th November 2021

December: It will be all over after Christmas

The onset of December meant that those at the centre of government could plan again for their Christmas parties; after all, Covid hadn’t deterred them in the past. There was no need for them to worry about the ‘levelling up’ white paper as this would also be delayed into the New Year.  With the omicron variant spreading across the UK, there is no need for more bad news about inventing a two-track education system. Augar can wait another year if necessary.  There was of course the problem of supporting ’white working-class boys’. However, the simple way out was to blame universities and ask them to do something about it.  TEFS looked at how educational disadvantage was so deep rooted in early education that universities could hardly do this alone. But the government was intent on cutting support at this level despite the views of Aristotle. Another indication that there was an agenda based upon widening disadvantages as it became clear that only the better off families could pay for student expenses. Accommodation costs were rising fast as the private sector muscled in to make profit. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic was continuing at pace, and this was bad news enough for 2021.  Surely 2022 could not be worse?

White working-class boys and university access: Aspiration or desperation? What is going wrong? 6th December 2021

‘Levelling up’ two years on: Mutated Augar and social engineering of a two-track system 12th December 2021

Student finances: ‘Can’t pay, won’t pay’: Rising accommodation costs and privatisation 12th December 2021

Early educational disadvantage: Aristotle was right 17th December 2021

Merry Christmas and a safe and peaceful New Year 21st December 2021

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