Why do we have to repeat ‘and colleges’ to the DfE?

The Department for Education says FE is central to post-Covid recovery. So when it comes to major education announcements, why are colleges not included?

Cath Sezen

Colleges Week: Why do we have to repeat 'and colleges' to the DfE?

Last week, there was a flurry of announcements on summer assessment 2021. It was helpful to have it confirmed that A-levels and GCSEs will be delayed by three weeks until after half term, with the exception of GCSEs in English and maths. 

This was greeted in different ways by colleges. Some were pleased with the delay and the opportunity for extra teaching time. Others felt that the additional time would make little difference considering the current disruption (with staff and students self-isolating and unwell). 

In the virtual AoC office, we rolled our eyes at the line about Year 11s having the opportunity to take at least one exam in English and maths before the summer half term.

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... and colleges

Someone, somewhere at the DfE appeared to have forgotten that colleges, so central to the government’s plan to rebuild a bigger, better economy, teach more 16- to 18-year-olds than schools, and that year-on-year for the past six years have entered 200,000 young people for English and maths GCSEs. 

We sighed again a little later when the DfE tweeted it would be working with schools on the finer details. 

One of the queries that colleges have is how they will manage large GCSE and A-level sittings in summer 2021. It is the same question a number of colleges are asking about the autumn series. 

At least 50 colleges have more than 100 students sitting GCSE English and maths exams in November; some have over 500. This is unprecedented for an autumn series and presents many public health and cost implications. And yet students under condition of funding, 90 per cent of whom are in colleges, are exempt from the DfE support service. 

Moreover, what lessons can we take forward from the November sitting to May and June next year? Then, as in every summer, many colleges will have nearer 800 to 1000 students sitting these exams and some of the most popular A levels, such as maths and psychology.

Another key question on everyone's minds is what the back-up plan might be for students who are self-isolating or ill when it comes to the summer assessment session. We need a plan B.

Tweaks around the edges are enough

Later again, in the early afternoon of Tuesday, to much less media fanfare, came an announcement from Ofqual about vocational and technical qualifications, which are of key importance to college delivery and economic recovery for young people and adults up and down the country. 

The extraordinary extended regulatory framework would be adopted, qualifications will be adapted and awarding organisations will be making contact with providers by 23 October.

Colleges are looking for recognition that they are still completing delayed assessments from summer 2020.  

They also need an understanding that work experience placements are like hen's teeth because employers have staff on furlough, are making redundancies and are concerned about allowing a young person, who might be part of many bubbles (college, home, part-time work), on to the site. 

None of us knows what next spring or summer might bring, but we know there are huge challenges. Colleges are not sure that tweaks around the edges are enough. Perhaps we need to prioritise external assessment for key licence to practise qualifications and rethink how we manage assessment for other vocational and technical qualifications this year.

We need a plan B and we need it now so that colleges can plan to ensure the best possible outcomes for students this year (and possibly next).

Cath Sezen is a senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges

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