Education secretary Gavin Williamson is facing demands for the cancellation of vocational and technical exams due to take place through the rest of January despite the closure of schools and colleges due to the escalating coronavirus crisis.
The government has said students taking exams “should attend as scheduled” this month, and awarding body Pearson has said BTECs will go ahead.
The Association of Colleges said it was “simply untenable” for the exams, involving around 135,000 students in England over the next four weeks, to go ahead as planned, while the National Union of Students said alternative arrangements should be put in place as soon as possible.
There was anger among students who were told to turn up for the first tests at 9am this morning despite the announcement of a national lockdown the previous evening, with reports from local colleges suggesting that some did not attend.
A petition on the parliamentary website calling for the exams to be replaced with teacher-predicted grades had gathered almost 120,000 signatures by the end of Tuesday afternoon.
The general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, said heads and principals were given no advice ahead of Boris Johnson’s announcement at 8pm on Monday on whether the tests were expected to go ahead the following morning.
He said it was “pretty impossible” to envisage the round of exams being completed because of the risk of unfairness to students.
In a letter to skills minister Gillian Keegan, AoC chief executive David Hughes said that it was “patently not safe” for students and their families, even with the best mitigations colleges are able to put in place.
And he said it was wrong for students taking BTECs and other vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) to be treated differently from those due to sit academic GCSEs and A-Levels, which have been cancelled.
“To go ahead with this exam series now would be unfair on students,” wrote Mr Hughes.
“The stress of the pandemic will undoubtedly affect their performance, probably has affected their preparation, and could lead to results which are potentially very unfair.
“On top of that, the different treatment of these VTQ students compared with their peers sitting GQs (general qualifications) in the summer feels wrong and hard to defend.”
Mr Hughes said colleges and schools would struggle to find staff willing to invigilate and manage exams at a time when people have been told to stay at home because of the risk of coronavirus.
Many colleges rely on volunteer invigilators, many of whom are retired and therefore likely to be more vulnerable to the disease, he pointed out.
“College leaders are very reluctant to ask them and their staff to put themselves at risk, and many have already made it clear that they will not invigilate,” said Mr Hughes.
“I recognise that cancelling at this late stage is a difficult decision, but I am certain from the outrage and strength of feeling I heard overnight from college leaders and students, that the decision would be widely welcomed.“
Mr Barton said that students listening to Mr Johnson’s televised address on Monday night might well have thought that they were expected to follow his “stay home” message and not turn up for exams the following morning.
“It feels to me pretty impossible that you could be running those exams this week even though we would have wanted them to run, because you are just going to increase the unfairness of some young people being there, some not being there,” he told BBC Breakfast.
He added: “If the Government had said to us earlier in the day ‘Look, there’s going to be a really big announcement tonight; we can’t tell you because it’s clouded in secrecy but we do want to get the message out that BTECs will run and we need invigilators’, we could, as representatives of school and college leaders, have done everything we could to give some sense of normality to those young people who again today will be feeling that they are being placed on the back foot.”
Salsabil Elmegri, the NUS’s vice-president of further education, said: “The government now urgently needs to provide clarity for students, especially BTEC students.
“Furthermore, it is clearly unsafe, unfair and unworkable to make students take exams this month and alternative arrangements should be put in place as soon as possible.”