Exams 2021: What you need to know on vocational exams

Some vocational qualifications will require more varied adaptations owing to the different qualification types, says the Department for Education

Kate Parker

Exams 2021: What happens with vocational qualifications

Vocational and technical qualifications in 2021 will be adapted “to ensure parity between general and vocational qualifications,” the Department for Education has announced today. 

Announcing its plans for exams and assessment next summer, the DfE said some vocational qualifications would require more varied adaptations, owing to the different qualification types.

Tes understands that vocational and technical exam boards are currently working through different qualifications to see if some of the "optional aspects" can be removed and to ensure that they are in line with the range of announcements on GCSEs and A levels. 


GCSE grades 2020: What the data really tells us

More: Mr Williamson, why the silence on January exams?

Need to know: More generous grading used in 2021 exams


Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Exams are the best way of giving young people the opportunity to show what they can do, which is why it’s so important they take place next summer. 

“But this isn’t business as usual. I know students are facing unprecedented disruption to their learning. That’s why exams will be different next year, taking exceptional steps to ensure they are as fair as possible.

“I am determined to support students, parents and teachers in these unprecedented times, and I hope measures like more generous grading and advance notice of some topic areas will give young people the clarity and confidence they need to achieve every success.”

Exams 2021: the new measures 

New measures set to be introduced next year include: 

  • more generous grading than usual, in line with national outcomes from 2020, so students this year are not disadvantaged;
  • students receiving advance notice of some topic areas covered in GCSE, AS and A levels to focus revision; 
  • exam aids – such as formula sheets – provided in some exams, giving students more confidence and reducing the amount of information they need to memorise;
  • additional exams to give students a second chance to sit a paper if the main exams or assessments are missed because of illness or self-isolation; and
  • a new expert group to look at differential learning and monitor the variation in the impact of the pandemic on students across the country.

The government also confirmed that routine graded Ofsted inspections will remain suspended until the Easter term – and that performance tables would not be published. 

'No simple solution'

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “There is no simple solution that the government could implement to ensure that exams are fair for everyone in 2021, but the range of adaptations announced today will help make things fairer. There is an urgency on this because over 50,000 students will sit BTEC and other technical exams in January and all students want certainty about how assessments and grades will be carried out as soon as possible. We will continue to work with Ofqual, the DfE and awarding bodies to ensure that students taking vocational and technical qualifications are equally supported through this year.

"The biggest challenge is the differential impact of the disruption to students. We know that some communities have been harder hit than others, particularly disadvantaged groups. The negative impact of lost learning has already been felt and extra ‘catch-up’ support will not fully compensate this. The creation of an expert group to look at this is helpful, but teachers and centres are in the best position to measure the direct consequences this will have."

Differential impact across the country

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said: “Today’s proposals introduce some welcome flexibilities to the 2021 exam series that will benefit all students. However, we remain concerned about the differential impact that Covid has had on young people in different parts of the country.

"We are pleased to see that an expert group is being assembled to look at this issue, as we must do everything we can to ensure that students are not disadvantaged simply because of how affected they have been by the virus. More thought also needs to go into university admissions, to ensure that students in England are not disadvantaged because they are sitting exams next year, unlike their peers in other parts of the UK”.

Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, said: “FAB welcomes the fact that ministers have listened to concerns about how to ensure a fairer system of exams and assessments next year. With exams going ahead, and so much teaching time already lost, workable contingency plans and special considerations for students affected by the pandemic have to be put in place. The crucial next step will be to ensure that experts in awarding organisations, including the wider sector, are really able to shape and influence the detailed plans. That should include those niche AOs that deliver an array of vocational assessments being consulted, as well as the large exam boards. 

“We welcome parity in the treatment of general qualifications and vocational qualifications. However, we also need to remember that a one size fits all approach for academic qualifications next summer does not simply read across to vocational and technical qualifications. Adapting these qualifications is more complicated and resource intensive than GCSEs and A Levels. We look forward, therefore, to working with Ofqual and the Department for Education in recognition of this point.” 

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 18/1

A one-stop shop for teachers who want to know what impact the ongoing pandemic will have on their working lives
Tes Reporter 18 Jan 2021