Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, is facing growing pressure over the schools fiasco and has been forced into a partial climbdown over this month’s vocational BTec exams.
As Williamson prepared to face MPs in the Commons on Wednesday, college leaders and city mayors expressed disbelief that vocational and technical exams were going ahead despite a national lockdown and cancellation of all GCSEs and A-levels in the summer.
The Conservative chair of the Commons education committee, Robert Halfon, denounced the government’s handling of schools as “a huge shambles”, and former Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, added his voice to those criticising the minister, suggesting he should now resign because of his failings.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s World at One, Wilshaw said the education secretary had got a lot of things wrong and should take responsibility for his actions. “He gets other people to resign – permanent secretaries and the head of Ofqual. He has got to take final accountability for what has gone on.”
The latest row to engulf Williamson involved a decision to allow BTec exams for vocational and technical qualifications to go ahead this month, even as schools and colleges were closing their doors to the majority of students and moving studies online as part of a national effort to slow the spread of the new variant of the virus.
After calls from college leaders, Labour and the mayors of Liverpool and Greater Manchester to cancel the exams, the Department for Education (DfE) issued a statement on Tuesday evening offering colleges flexibility to decide for themselves.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC), said the response would “disappoint the thousands of students as well as staff in colleges across the country who have shown how worried they are about sitting exams this month … The risk is that this continues the confusion, leads to more uncertainty for every student and puts thousands of young people and their families at risk as well as the college staff managing the exams.”
He added: “A national decision would have allowed for more fairness for all students across vocational and general qualifications – this compromise does not achieve that and I suspect that will cause more problems over the coming months. We are likely to see many colleges cancelling and some going ahead.”
Labour had earlier called for the exams to be cancelled. Toby Perkins, shadow minister for apprenticeships and lifelong learning, said: “Once again BTec students who have missed out on lots of core practical teaching this year are an afterthought for this government.”
A joint statement by Liverpool mayor, Steve Rotheram, and Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, said: “BTecs are more likely to be studied by those from working-class backgrounds and ethnic minority communities – groups which are already more vulnerable in terms of their life outcomes, including health inequalities. To not treat these students on a par with their peers studying an academic route would be a double injustice.”
There was confusion on the ground among students and teachers. Glyn Potts, head teacher at Newman Roman Catholic college in Oldham, said he had received an email from the DfE confirming that BTec exams would go ahead as planned.
About 80 of his year-11 pupils are supposed to be sitting BTecs in iMedia and sports science. “Why are those considered essential but the exams in summer are not?” he said, adding that the issue was causing “great anxiety” to pupils and parents as well as teachers.
Ben Davis, head of St Ambrose Barlow Roman Catholic high school in Salford, said: “We’ve got children supposed to be doing BTecs in music on Thursday and in PE on Monday – 75 pupils from years 10 and 11 on Monday.
“Reading through the government’s advice, which came through last night at 10.50pm, it’s very clear that only vulnerable children and key worker children should be on site. So there’s something to be reconciled there,” he said.
The statement later issued by the DfE said: “In light of the evolving public health measures, schools and colleges can continue with the vocational and technical exams that are due to take place in January, where they judge it right to do so.
“We understand this is a difficult time but we want to support schools and colleges whose students have worked hard to prepare for assessments and exams where necessary.”
Williamson will tell MPs in a statement to the Commons that he has directed the English exams regulator Ofqual to come up with a contingency plan to replace this year’s GCSEs and A-levels. One of the options under consideration is to hold exams in core subjects such as English and maths at GCSE level, with a single paper sat under exam conditions, and school-assessed grades for other subjects.
Ofqual said it was considering a range of options to ensure the fairest possible outcome. “We know how difficult this must be for students, teachers and lecturers. We wish at all costs to avoid arrangements for this summer’s GCSEs, A-levels and vocational and technical qualifications inflicting further disadvantage on students.”