Government urged to cancel BTEC exams amid claims students have been 'forgotten'

5 January 2021, 14:27 | Updated: 5 January 2021, 14:31

By Megan White

The Government has been urged to cancel BTEC exams set to take place this week amid claims students have been "forgotten."

The Government has said students taking exams "should attend as scheduled" this month - and awarding body Pearson has said BTEC will go ahead despite the closure of schools and colleges.

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".

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

Read more: Third national lockdown for England begins amid soaring Covid cases

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham has called on the Government to reverse its decision, and said it "cannot be fair" for BTEC students to sit exams when the academic equivalent has been scrapped.

He said it was "further contradictory advice" to make students go into schools when the new Government lockdown closes educational settings.

The mayor told LBC's Shelagh Fogarty: "It's as if the same rules don't apply to vocational students as apply to academic students.

“They’re often forgotten, aren’t they – there was no mention of them in the Prime Minister’s statement last night, and the position as I understand it is that exams scheduled to go ahead this week will still go ahead.

“I’ve got real concerns about that – this is 130,000 kids or so kids nationally, they’ll be in empty colleges, all of their worries about going into college.

“Why should they be treated differently from people sitting GCSEs or A-Levels?

“It doesn’t seem fair to me.

Read more: Businesses to receive £9k grants as part of £4.6bn lockdown package

“And actually, here in Greater Manchester, many of those young people have already spent more time out of college than elsewhere because of the higher number of cases that we’ve had.

“There just can’t be a level playing field here.

“So I would call on the Government today to reconsider and withdraw this advice that BTECs should go ahead this week.

“I just cannot see how it can be fair to them, given the treatment of academic students, but actually here in Greater Manchester I can’t see how it’s a level playing field for our students.”

Mr Burnham added: “We’ve been told now that it’s not safe for people to go into schools – we were told it was safe at the weekend and then clearly last night, the opposite decision was taken that people shouldn’t be mixing now in any social setting and certainly not in an eduational setting.

“And yet, this now appears to be further contradictory advice.

“Imagine if you’re one of those young people, worried anyway because you’ve spent a long time out of college this year, particularly in some of the more deprived parts of the country where we’ve had higher numbers of cases.

“Now you’ve got to go into college tomorrow, an empty college, with all of the risks that poses and how that might make you feel and do an exam for which you don’t feel fully prepared because of the time you’ve lost in terms of teaching?

“That isn’t fair treatment of those young people as far as I’m concerned.

“If the rule is now that it’s not safe to be in an educational setting, that should apply to those BTEC students as well, and that’s why I’m calling on the Government to reconsider.”

The Association of Colleges (AoC) and the National Union of Students (NUS) are both calling 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) has 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.

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.

Salsabil Elmegri, the NUS's vice-president of further education, said: "The Government now urgently needs to provide clarity for students, especially Btec students.

"Furthermore, it is clearly unsafe, unfair and unworkable to make students take exams this month and alternative arrangements should be put in place as soon as possible."

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."