The Government has failed to consider BTEC and vocational examinations in its decision making
The Tories and their complacency have left thousands of students in a state of limbo as they performed yet another major policy U-turn, this time on exams. Yet despite this, many students have fallen through the net and remain ignored.
The Prime Minister announced last Monday that not only would schools be closed, a contradiction to his previous claim on The Andrew Marr Show 24 hours earlier, but that A-levels and GCSE examinations would be cancelled for summer 2021.
This announcement, however, made absolutely no provision for vocational qualifications and BTECs. With over 135,000 students due to take BTEC and vocational exams this month this is a real concern for students up and down the country and in my constituency.
In total, 1 million students sit BTECs in the United Kingdom, with a further 250,000 going onto higher education. It is currently the fastest-growing route into university and something that needs championing further in our political discourse. They are vital qualifications for upskilling our workforce and supporting individuals, businesses and the economy to flourish and grow.
Yet, despite their importance, the Government has chosen to allow individual colleges the discretion to cancel vocational and technical examinations. By refusing to take a Government decision, Boris Johnson is forcing colleges and students into an impossible position.
One person got in touch with my office to say that their son is “in tears” and “feeling sick”, as he is being “forced to choose between his vulnerable family members health,” and his “potential university place.”
With a potential ‘lost generation’ of young people as a result of coronavirus and the economic fallout we are experiencing, it is unacceptable to treat young people like this. This treatment compounds serious mental health and education issues further. Because of students’ worries about their BTEC and vocational exams, I have spoken directly with the Principal of Bolton College, Bill Webster. The college has taken the difficult yet, in my opinion, correct decision to cancel BTEC examinations for this coming week and the immediate future on the grounds of public health concerns.
Bolton College is still yet to receive reassurance from the Government that this was, firstly, the correct decision, and secondly, that provisions will be in place to rerun the exams. Again, this is unacceptable, leaving students in a state of limbo and unsure of how and when they will be assessed.
The repeated dither and delay from both the Secretary of State and Prime Minister have meant that throughout the pandemic there has been no clear directive as to whether BTEC and vocational exams would go ahead and the college has had to act with its students’ best interest at heart – something the Government should also move to consider immediately and in the future.
BTEC students are once again being held in contempt by the Government. The Cabinet remains wedded to the academic “gold standard” of pre-19 qualifications, A-levels, and collectively refuses to value the significance of alternative qualifications and therefore the students themselves.
The Government has done nothing to ensure these exams could go ahead safely or fairly, with no support for the colleges facing additional costs of making exam halls COVID-secure and no support for students who have missed out on teaching due to self-isolation and time away from college. Indecision has been a central theme of Boris Johnson’s Government and the Department for Education under Williamson. In contrast, Labour’s Keir Starmer and Toby Perkins were clear, the exams should be cancelled and replaced with a fair system of grading akin to that of Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs), developed in collaboration with colleges. Instead, in the absence of Government leadership, some students are taking exams with no central support, while others have had exams cancelled and are now being left in the dark about what happens next.
Our BTEC students need the support of the Government to thrive in their future careers and to access higher education, instead this Conservative Government is holding them back.