The full details are yet to be announced, but the decision to cancel A-level and GCSE exams in favour of teacher-assessed grades is to be welcomed. Hopefully, the government has reflected and learned the lessons from last year.
However, an area that requires urgent attention is that of vocational routes and apprenticeships. These routes are more complex as they have far more awarding bodies and qualifications, as well as considerations around professional competence.
Last year we witnessed colleagues who taught GCSEs and A levels agonise over grading and ranking systems. It was emotional and stressful for all involved. That being said, in May these colleagues were able to make peace with their decision making and move on, at least to a degree.
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The picture was not the same for others who taught vocational subjects: they found themselves on endless webinars and working to different rules and guidance from numerous awarding bodies and qualifications.
Vocational learners (and their teachers) had to keep going long after the summer. As a sector, we put our learners first and did everything to ensure that they did not suffer, including through the financial problems of delayed apprentice achievements without any funding for catch-up tuition.
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The net result for East Coast College was that 380 learners and 110 apprentices had to delay and will now achieve their qualifications in the current academic year. This would be typical around the country.
Despite reassurance from ministers and the government that no learner will be disadvantaged, last year’s experience tells us that there is a lot to do to ensure that this doesn’t happen.
Since the announcement of the new lockdown, we have already had numerous teachers, apprentices and learners asking how they will be impacted. The sad truth is that we do not know.
Our college has 300 learners studying A levels compared with 700 apprentices and 1,200 learners studying vocational and technical qualifications. The decision to allow assessments to take place may prove helpful but it has not been fully thought through: how can a learner do practical assessments without practising the skills first? Competence is not an area that can be, or should be, based on teacher-estimated grades.
Our college, like many, has been prioritising the delivery of practical skills, but this third lockdown comes earlier in the academic year and, as a result, there may not be sufficient evidence for estimated grades (where permissible).
Awarding bodies and Ofqual need to think very carefully about how to apply rules at this stage of an academic year without making too many assumptions. The guidance and rules need to be clearly and urgently communicated to the sector, including aligning processes for agreeing and ratifying adaptations and deadlines for submissions of evidence. A consistent subject area approach to any delays and adaptations by all awarding organisations would also be welcomed, in order to provide standardisation and clarity.
The decision to not consider teachers a high priority for vaccination will inevitably mean that there will be delays and disadvantages for the learners who are involved in VTQs and apprenticeships.
The government needs to urgently rethink its stance and the conflict it is creating by saying that schools and colleges are safe but stopping face-to-face delivery without addressing the need to make practical delivery possible faster through vaccinations.
Once again, as an FE sector, we find that traditional vocational education is last in line, but perhaps as the government unlocks, they should now make it first.
Paul Padda is the deputy principal of East Coast College