Btec exams in February and March should not go ahead, education secretary Gavin Williamson has said.
Writing to Ofqual's chief executive, Simon Lebus, this morning, he said, given the further disruption created by the coronavirus, it was "no longer viable" for most written exams scheduled in February and March – including Btecs and other qualifications included in performance tables – to go ahead.
The government would consult on alternative arrangements, he said. However, the education secretary also said some assessments should go ahead as planned over the coming months: for example, where these assessments enable a student to demonstrate the proficiency required to enter directly into employment, where they are needed to complete an apprenticeship, or where assessments are available "on demand", such as functional skills.
"Where assessment for functional skills qualifications can take place online and where students are ready to take them in the coming weeks, my view is that assessment should continue as planned," said Mr Williamson. "For students who are unable to access assessment in this way, my view is that there should be alternative assessment arrangements put in place following the outcomes of the consultation."
This year's January exam series was originally set to go ahead, despite England entering another national lockdown. Mr Williamson later announced it should be up to individual institutions to decide if it was safe to run the exams.
Coronavirus: The impact on Btecs and other technical qualifications
Looking ahead to the period from April to August, Mr Williamson said this morning that he expected students on Btecs and other vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) used to progress to further study instead of GCSEs and A levels to receive calculated results again this year.
Many VTQs were used for progression to further study instead of, or alongside, GCSEs and A levels, said Mr Williamson, and it was critical that these students were awarded a qualification and could access the same progression opportunities.
He said: "Last year, these qualifications, such as Btecs and Cambridge Nationals and Technicals, received calculated results. It is my expectation that a similar group of qualifications will again, this year, need to have alternative arrangements to examined assessments and that we should use this consultation to seek views on the detail of these arrangements and the qualifications in scope of this approach. These arrangements may need to be different in some cases to those put in place last year to take account of the different circumstances."
Responding to Mr Williamson's letter, Mr Lebus said: "We, of course, share your wish to ensure that learners taking qualifications other than GCSEs, AS and A levels are not disadvantaged compared to their peers."
He added it was "important to note that the alternative arrangements for April 2021 onwards for those qualifications that had calculated results in 2020 will not, in many cases, be the same as those for last year, given the differing circumstances that now apply".
"Given the context, those arrangements must be manageable for teachers and students, promote ongoing educational engagement, ensure that students feel that they have agency over the result they receive and use an evidential basis in generating results," Mr Lebus said. "As well as helping students to progress to the next phase of their education or employment, it is important that VTQs continue to equip students with the appropriate knowledge, skills and understanding, and that the arrangements promote this as far as possible.
"While arrangements for VTQs should be coherent with those for GCSEs, AS and A levels, there will also be appropriate differences, depending on the overall contribution that externally examined components normally make to the overall VTQ result in question. Consistent with the approach agreed when we introduced the Extended ERF [Extraordinary Regulatory Framework] (and indeed the ERF before that), our starting point is that we cannot prescribe a single approach and that we will develop regulatory arrangements which enable awarding organisations to take decisions regarding the most appropriate approach to awarding based on their qualification design and delivery."
He said Ofqual proposed to develop "guiding principles to underpin awarding organisations’ decisions", and would put in place arrangements to support the development of consistent approaches across different awarding organisations, and qualifications, as far as possible.
The challenge of completing college-based programmes
Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes said that the exchange of letters was a "positive step forward" in reaching considered decisions quickly so that students and colleges are clear about education, training and assessment over the next six months.
"It is good to see plans for vocational and technical qualifications, alongside those for A levels and GCSEs, within an overall approach which values all students equally," he 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.
"The biggest challenge the education system faces in all of this is how to take into account the differential lost learning that students have suffered. There are no simple solutions, but we must continue to focus on that as government progresses with these plans for assessment.
"Many students will need catch-up provision and support. Colleges and universities will need to flexibly take lost learning into account in their entry decisions and extra resources will be needed for those who have missed too much hands-on training to be competent in their chosen profession. We look forward to working with the DfE [Department for Education] and Ofqual following the publication of the consultation later this week.”