I’m feeling pretty hacked off.
I have taught vocational qualifications since 2014, and during that time I have witnessed too many times the elitist attitude against them. But now the government has surpassed itself with its proud, self-gratifying announcement that A-level and GCSE exams will be deferred by three weeks in the summer.
To be fair, I could pick that apart as well. But I advocate for my students and their qualification. So here goes.
I teach health and social care at a sixth-form college. In September, to my delight, we recruited our highest ever number of students – so many that we had to create an extra class. Arguments about “grade inflation” can clear off – even when students have sat exams, they have not always been enrolled on to the correct course for their needs.
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Instead, I took this great news to signify that young people have observed the need for and security of work in the health and social care sector, fuelled in part, I expect, by the pandemic. They haven’t run away, scared of what it might involve. They want to embrace the crisis, because they have seen just how many people are struggling; these young people have empathy, compassion and a drive to make someone’s day just that bit better. They are curious and fascinated by people and the very concept of life.
Lack of consideration for vocational qualifications
So, proud of my new army of soldiers, this year we started delivering the new and updated specification, which includes – duh, duh, duuuhhh! – exams. The very reason the majority of my students didn’t want to do A levels in the first place.
Putting the introduction of exams to a qualification that prided itself on accommodating learners who hate them aside, there is a more pressing issue currently. My students are due to sit two exams in January. In two months’ time.
Now, it could be argued that as these are Year 12 students; they haven’t missed as much learning as their Year 11 and Year 13 peers. Fair point, well made. But it’s not just about education they have missed. They missed an entire major exam series, including the development of revision skills, self-discipline and motivation and psychological preparation. They missed balancing their time to devote to each of their subjects. They missed walking into an exam room, with their futures about to be determined by the contents of a paper booklet and the subjective interpretation of an independent examiner. That’s quite a lot, and should never be underestimated.
When the government cheerily boasted about its thoughtful gesture, it forgot something quite crucial. Not all exams happen in the summer.
Where's the news on January exams?
I eagerly anticipated the news that my students would receive a partial delay to their January exams – I wouldn’t expect three weeks, but some flexibility would be much appreciated and, indeed, required to help prepare them for the gruelling assessments that many of them fear. But as time passed, nothing. Clearly, there would be no budging on this one.
Hmph. We are currently teaching on a rota system – one week in college, one week remote learning. As I’m sure every single person here can relate to, online teaching is not the same as being in the classroom. I cannot begin to estimate how far behind my students may be simply because of this. They may not be behind at all. But I have far fewer opportunities to ascertain that and plan accordingly.
I believe that students who are taking January exams have just as much right to have these temporarily postponed, even if only for a week, to allow for development of skills that could earn them extra marks and potentially a higher grade that they undoubtedly deserve and are capable of. Why has the government not thought about this?
Because it seems to forget that vocational qualifications exist? Because it has so much contempt for a qualification that assesses learning in a different, less traditional but still perfectly valid way? Because it wants further evidence that vocational qualifications are inferior to academic ones?
Whatever the reason, it irritates me so much that yet again, vocational qualifications are being neglected or forced to adapt and work with stricter rules outside of their very core principle. My students work just as hard as their A-level peers, and they deserve recognition for that.
So, Mr Johnson and Mr Williamson, next time you want to earn favour with academic qualifications, spare a thought for vocational students, who will be just as committed, hard-working and successful in their careers. You risk marginalising them, de-valuing their efforts and drive, and implying that they will never be good enough. Give them a fair chance to show that they are outstanding.
The author is a health and social care teacher at a sixth-form college in the East of England