BTECs: Dismay at DfE decision on January exams 

Students and college leaders urge government to reconsider its decision and cancel January exams, due to start today

Kate Parker

Exams 2021: Pearson has cancelled its IGCSE and IA-level exams this year because of coronavirus disruption

Students and leaders have expressed outrage at the government’s decision to press ahead with January exams, despite the new national lockdown announced last night. 

The Association of Colleges (AoC) estimates that around 135,000 students are due to sit exams in colleges from today, with the exam period lasting three weeks. 

In a statement on Monday evening, prime minister Boris Johnson said that due to the national lockdown, summer exams could not go ahead as planned. However, the Department for Education later confirmed January exams would be happening as normal. 

National lockdown: DfE says January exams will go ahead

More: New delayed January school opening dates

Summer exams: GCSE and A level 2021 exams won't happen 'as normal'

AoC chief executive David Hughes has urged the DfE to cancel the exams, and has this morning written to apprenticeships and skills minister Gillian Keegan, asking her to make an “urgent decision” on the exams. 

He said that asking staff and students to ignore the prime minister’s stay-at-home message was untenable – and that it was not safe for them or their families. 

He added: "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. On top of that, the different treatment of these VTQ [vocational and technical qualifications] students compared with their peers sitting GQs [general qualifications] in the summer feels wrong and hard to defend.

“There is a third pragmatic reason why I think you should cancel these exams; many colleges and schools will struggle to find staff willing to invigilate and manage the sittings. We know that lots of colleges rely on volunteer invigilators, many of whom are retired and therefore vulnerable. College leaders are very reluctant to ask them and their staff to put themselves at risk, and many have already made it clear that they will not invigilate.”

At the time of writing, more than 100,000 people had signed an online petition calling for teacher-predicted grades to replace the exams. 

Meanwhile Loughborough College took matters into its own hands and postponed all exams this week. 

Chair of the Education Select Committee Robert Halfon said students and college staff needed clarity urgently. “Vocational education must not be forgotten about in all of this. Students are supposed to do their exams in January and what we urgently from the government’s statement is clarity.”

Thousands of students took to social media to share their concerns. One student tweeted: “I love the way A-level students get a 4/5 months early announcement about the cancellation of exams, while BTEC students are here stressed about an exam they’re sitting from today! How is this fair?”

Another learner said: “Can’t wait to sit an exam in two days in a room with 60 other people and come home on public transport that hasn’t been cleaned since it was built and then come home to my family with an at-risk person in, but yenno, it’s safe to do so.”

One student tweeted a letter to the education secretary calling the decision “completely abysmal”. 

He wrote:  “Something else that did not come as a surprise is the Department for Education screwing over students 12 hours before their exams are due to start.

“In the prime minister’s statement, it was said that A-level and GCSE exams in the summer were to be postponed. May I ask why the BTEC and other vocational students have been forgotten about? It is completely abysmal that students, like myself, are still at 21:32 hanging in the balance regarding their examinations which are due to start in less than 12 hours.” 


‘An afterthought for this government’

Shadow apprenticeships and lifelong learning minister Toby Perkins tweeted and said: “It will be a huge disappointment to FE students and staff that BTEC exams didn’t even merit a mention in the PMs address to the nation. It’s also astonishing that BTEC exams are not mentioned in the DfE’s published guidance.

“Once again it feels like BTEC students, who have, in many cases, missed lots of practical coursework, are an afterthought for this government. With the PM back-tracking on the position he laid out yesterday on schools, college leaders face running BTEC exams in empty colleges with under-prepared  and worried students. 

“If government hasn’t thought through the implications of running these exams now, and if BTEC students aren’t going to have a fair chance, they should consider cancelling them.”

NUS' vice president for further education Salsabil Elmegri said that the government had already "wasted precious time".

She said: "NUS has been calling on the government to scrap exams for months and we welcome that they finally have listened on A-levels. Btec learners now need the same reassurance and we need a clear plan for fair grading. The government have wasted precious time that could have been used to design effective alternatives to exams and we will scrutinise their plans vigorously and mobilise to prevent a repeat of last year’s omnishambles." 

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

headshot KP

Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateeParker

Latest stories

Covid in schools, GCSEs 2021, teacher safety: LIVE

Coronavirus and schools: LIVE 4/3

A one-stop shop for teachers who want to know what impact the ongoing pandemic will have on their working lives.
Tes Reporter 4 Mar 2021