No college or training provider should feel “pressured” to offer BTEC and other vocational exams this month, Gavin Williamson has said.

In an address to Parliament today, the education secretary said it was “important” to give providers the “flexibility” to offer the assessments as “there are a lot of young people who will need to complete their professional competency qualifications in order to take up work and job opportunities”.

He added that the government wants to ensure this “door is kept open” for the learners, and that leaders of colleges and training providers “will be the ones who are best and most accurately understand the needs of their students”.

Following the new national lockdown announcement on Monday, the Department for Education said that vocational and technical exams, which are being taken by around 135,000 students over the next three weeks, should still go ahead.

The DfE backtracked last night and said leaders could cancel the exams if they wished. It came after various colleges across the country told students their exams had been postponed. Membership organsations, including the Association of Colleges and Federation of Awarding Bodies, said the DfE’s statement caused further confusion for leaders and that the exams should be scrapped altogether.

Williamson addressed the Commons today to announce alternative plans for this summer’s cancelled GCSE and A-level exams and offered the following defence for allowing January assessments to go ahead.

“I know students and staff have worked hard to prepare for the January exams and assessments of vocational and technical qualifications and we want to allow schools and colleges to continue with these assessments where they judge this is right to do so.  

“No college should feel pressured to offer these and we will ensure all students will be able to progress fairly, just as we will with VTQs in the summer.”

After shadow education secretary Kate Green accused Williamson of “failing to show leadership” by leaving the decision to college leaders in these “difficult circumstances”, he added: “It is very important we give colleges, schools and all providers, the flexibility because there are a lot of young people who will need to complete their professional competency qualifications in order to take up work and job opportunities.

“Whether that is those who are doing electrician or gas courses where they have to do practical assessments. We want to ensure the door is kept open for them.

“That is why we have taken the decision to give providers the discretion, because they will be the ones who best and most accurately understand the needs of their students and those who need those qualifications to progress into a job.”

The DfE has said that it is working with Ofqual on arrangements for those students who do not take their planned January exams, as well as for vocational and technical assessments scheduled for February onwards.