Btecs: Williamson refuses to u-turn on January exams

The education secretary said it was important students could complete their assessments this month to progress into work opportunities

Julia Belgutay & Kate Parker

The education secretary has spoken in parliament about his plans for exams

The education secretary has said colleges should not feel pressured to offer vocational exams this month - but should be able to continue to do so if they feel that is right. 

Gavin Williamson told parliament today students and staff had worked hard to prepare for the exams. "We want to allow schools and colleges continue to offer them where they feel it is right to do so".


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He said: "No college should feel pressure to offer those [January exams] and we will make sure all students can progress fairly, as we will with VTQs in the summer."

He added it was important to give colleges and providers flexibility, as there were many young people who "will actually need to complete their professional competency qualifications in order to get work and job opportunities". 

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

"There are many students and many colleges that know for their students' future prospects that they need to complete those assessments during this month if they are going to access work and employment opportunities. So no, I am not going to go down the route [...] of taking those opportunities away from them."

Mr Williamson confirmed that GCSE and A level exams will not take place as planned this summer. Mr Williamson said the government would instead put its trust "in teachers, not algorithms". 

Yesterday, the Department for Education said colleges and schools could continue to run the January exam diet, including Btec exams, where they felt it was right to do so. This followed calls from across the education sector and the political spectrum for those exams to be cancelled as the country entered another national lockdown. 

Labour's shadow education secretary Kate Green said Mr Williamson was failing to show leadership on January exams. She told parliament: "He is leaving it simply to schools and colleges to decide what they should do in difficult circumstances."

Conservative MP Peter Aldous said there was "worry, confusion and uncertainty" in colleges and schools, with some deciding to cancel the exams, while others pressing ahead. "They should not have been placed in a position of having to make their own choice whether to go ahead or not. The government should have shown clear leadership so that all students across the country were in the same situation."

'Involve teachers at every stage'

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said that replacing the exams with teacher assessed grades was the best way to ensure all students get the grades they deserve – but that the DfE must involve teachers at "every stage of the implementation of these proposals".

He said: "A model of teacher assessed grades that has not been developed in partnership with teachers will not have the confidence of teachers, parents or students. 

He added that the government's decision on Btec exams was concerning and said:  “The secretary of state also confirmed today that colleges and schools should decide if exams for Btec and other applied qualifications should go ahead this month. We value autonomy in decision making, but that does not extend to decisions about national exams, particularly when it is only for some exams.

"Our bigger concern is that the government is currently proposing to dramatically reduce the number of Btec and other applied general qualifications. To do so would risk disastrous consequences for many thousands of young people and one of our main priorities this year is to get the secretary of state to reconsider these proposals.”

Last night, Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes said: "This response from the government will disappoint the thousands of students as well as staff in colleges across the country who have shown how worried they are about sitting exams this month. The risk is that this continues the confusion, leads to more uncertainty for every student and puts thousands of young people and their families at risk, as well as the college staff managing the exams. It has no message for students in colleges which do cancel for safety reasons and does not reflect the issue of fairness between vocational and technical students with their peers taking A levels and GCSEs." 

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Julia Belgutay & Kate Parker

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