Backtrack part 2: BTECs and other vocational exams cancelled from next month

Written BTEC and other vocational exams planned for February and March should not go ahead, the education secretary has said.

But students taking competency-based assessment including apprenticeships can continue with “protective measures put in place”.

Gavin Williamson outlined the plans in a letter to Ofqual’s interim chief regulator Simon Lebus this morning before justifying the action during a hearing with the education select committee.

It follows a chaotic start to the spring term which saw the closure of schools and colleges to most students, the government insisting that all January vocational and technical qualification (VTQ) exams should still go ahead before backtracking and placing the decision in the hands of college leaders.

Williamson’s letter explained that given the disruption, it is “no longer viable” for written VTQ exams scheduled in February and March to go ahead.

However, where these assessments enable a student to “demonstrate the proficiency required to enter directly into employment, are needed  to  complete  an  apprenticeship, or assessments are available ‘on-demand’ such as functional skills or English as a Second Language (ESOL)”, they should “continue to proceed with protective measures put in place to ensure they are conducted in line with PHE measures”.

“This is to ensure these students can continue to progress fairly with their studies or into employment  and  employers  are assured that students have reached the necessary level of occupational skill,” the letter added.

MPs on the education select committee this morning questioned why the DfE allowed all VTQ exams to go ahead in January but not in February and March.

Williamson did not give a clear answer regarding written exams, but said: “With a lot of technical and vocational qualifications there is almost a license to practice that many youngsters have to have. If they are not able to gain and demonstrate that competency level in the area they are working in it can often create a barrier for them to enter the place of work.

“We took the decision that it would be best to have a permissive approach where we were able to let colleges make those decisions that they know their students best.”

He added that “about a third of colleges” chose to continue with VTQ exams in January.

The Department for Education’s permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood then stepped in to explain the reason for allowing written exams to go ahead in January but not over the next two months.

“The reason for that was because got quite strong views, not all pointing in the same direction, from the sector themselves,” she said.

“Some were saying the children are ready to sit the exams and we want to enable them to do that and others saying they should be cancelled.

“The permissive approach allowed those who wanted to sit them to go ahead and others not to.

“I think it is different when you look forward to February and March where you have got the ability to plan and you do not have the same situation of children literally being on the point of taking a qualification as the decision was taken.”

Ofqual’s upcoming consultation on summer exam replacements is expected to put forward proposals for awarding grades to VTQ learners unable to sit their assessments.

Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes said: “The decision to cancel written exams in February and March is a good one, but so is the priority given to ensuring that assessments can go ahead when safe for students taking competency-based assessment including apprenticeships.

“The letters helpfully highlight the challenge of completing college-based programmes in areas key to economic recovery such as construction and where students need to to practise their skills before taking assessment.

“Those students will need to return to college at the earliest opportunity, once it is safe to do so, to complete their training and be ready for the assessment which unlocks job opportunities.”

Toby Perkins, Labour’s shadow apprenticeships and lifelong learning minister, said: “Labour has called for BTEC and other vocational exams to be cancelled, so it’s welcome that the government finally has bowed to the inevitable and cancelled February and March assessments.

“Sadly, Gavin Williamson’s U-turn has come too late for thousands of worried learners, alongside school and college staff who were placed in an incredibly difficult situation over whether to go ahead with January exams.

“The government’s indecision has now created a divide between those students who did January exams and others, creating further confusion for students and colleges. Gavin Williamson must urgently set out how these qualifications will be awarded and stop treating BTEC and vocational students as an afterthought.”

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