Covid: Schools to decide on Btec exams with many expected to cancel

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Paul Brand

Schools will decide if their pupils will go ahead with Btec exams in England this week as the government shifts its policy in the wake of new national restrictions.

Ministers had been facing growing calls to cancel vocational exams due to concerns over students’ safety regarding the new variant of Covid-19, and fairness.

ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand now reports that more than 130,000 students will be affected by the decision, with many schools expected not to hold the exams.

It is not clear what will take their place.

The government had earlier said students taking exams “should attend as scheduled” this month and awarding body Pearson said Btecs will go ahead despite the closure of schools and colleges.

But organisations representing college leaders and students had called on the government to cancel the January exam series, which begins this week, adding that it seems “impossible” they can go ahead.

Boris Johnson said pushing ahead with all exams this summer “as normal” would not be possible, and he added that the Education Secretary will work with Ofqual to put in place “alternative arrangements”.

  • ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand explains a huge number of futures are at stake

But despite this change in policy towards summer exams, the Department for Education (DfE) had initially said vocational exams in England – which include Btec exams – will continue as planned this month.

The Association of Colleges (AoC) and the National Union of Students (NUS) are both called for the exams to be scrapped as they say it is unsafe to make students go into schools and colleges to do tests.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said it feels “pretty impossible” to run the exams as it will “increase the unfairness” on students who cannot attend.

In a letter to the skills minister Gillian Keegan, David Hughes, chief executive of the AoC, said it was “simply untenable” to ask college staff and students to ignore the stay at home message in order to sit exams.

He said: “It is patently not safe for them and their families, even with the best mitigations a college can put in place. To go ahead with this exam series now would also be unfair on students.

“The stress of the pandemic will undoubtedly affect their performance, probably has affected their preparation, and could lead to results which are potentially very unfair.”

Mr Hughes said that many colleges and schools will struggle to find people willing to invigilate and manage the exams, as many rely on volunteer invigilators who are often retired and vulnerable.”

The different treatment of students taking vocational qualifications in January compared with their peers sitting general qualifications in the summer felt “wrong and hard to defend,” he added.

Cabinet Minister Michael Gove has suggested that end-of-year exams for students in the summer could be abolished in favour of alternative styles of assessment following the new lockdown.

With the Government acknowledging that exams will not be able to go ahead as planned in the summer, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will address the Commons on Wednesday to update MPs on how pupils will be assessed.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, told BBC Breakfast that there may be a lot of young people who are assuming they should not go to college to sit their vocational exam this month amid the lockdown.

He said: “It feels to me pretty impossible that you could be running those exams this week even though we would have wanted them to run, because you are just going to increase the unfairness of some young people being there, some not being there.”

Mr Barton added that they could have helped get the message out to students and colleges that Btecs exams will run and invigilators were needed if the Government had informed them of the decision earlier on.

Pearson, which runs the Btec exams, said on Tuesday morning that the DfE had said that vocational exams will go ahead in January as planned.

A statement from Pearson on Twitter said: “We are working with them urgently to understand the implications of this and will share any updates as soon as we have them.”