The government’s handling of schools has been denounced as a “huge shambles” by a senior Tory MP.
And it came amid anger from students taking BTECs and other vocational and technical courses who were told to turn up for exams as planned this morning despite the national shutdown of schools in response to soaring coronavirus infections and deaths.
The Association of Colleges called on the Department for Education to call off this month’s round of vocational exams, involving around 135,000 young people.
In a letter to skills minister Gillian Keegan, AoC chief executive David Hughes said pressing ahead with the tests was “simply untenable”, warning: “It is patently not safe for them and their families, even with the best mitigations a college can put in place.”
The closure of all primaries and secondaries in England until at least 22 February was announced last night by Boris Johnson less than 36 hours after he went on the television to insist that schools were safe and less than 12 hours after many primaries reopened their doors to children after the Christmas break.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson was today writing to regulator Ofqual to inform them that GCSEs and A-levels must not take place and ask them to draw up alternative arrangements for the award of qualifications this summer, which are expected to rely heavily on teacher assessment.
In a statement to the Commons on Wednesday, he is not expected to set out detailed proposals for alternative means of assessing pupils, which could take the independent regulator some weeks to draw up in consultation with exam boards and other stakeholders.
It is not thought likely that there will be any attempt to repeat the use of a computer algorithm, which sparked chaos last year after it produced results regarded as unfair to many pupils and had to be swiftly replaced by teacher assessments.
Ofqual, which carries out the process independently of ministers to avoid political interference, said: “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 VTQs (vocational and technical qualifications) inflicting further disadvantage on students.
“We are considering a number of options to ensure the fairest possible outcome in the circumstances. We will update as soon as we can.”
Mr Halfon told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour: “I think it’s been a huge shambles. This has got to stop, the government has got to offer a consistent policy that doesn’t change every couple of days, let alone weeks.”
He added: “Parents, teachers, support staff and children have been marched up to the top of the hill, only to be marched down again and enormous pressure has been put on them.
“I feel enormously sorry for parents, teachers and support staff for what has gone on. I’ve been campaigning for schools to be open because I worry about the risks to mental health, loss of learning, well-being, the safeguarding hazards – because we know that children at home sometimes are subject to domestic abuse, online harms and perhaps joining county line gangs.
“What I want now to happen is for the government to use this time to roll out a vaccine programme for teachers and support staff, get the testing regime working, set out an educational route map out of coronavirus and a long-term plan for education and skills.”
In his televised statement putting England into lockdown last night, Boris Johnson said only that it would not be “possible or fair” for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal, adding that Mr Williamson would work with regulator Ofqual to put in place “alternative arrangements”.
But asked directly on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether this meant that the summer 2021 round of GCSEs and A-level exams will not take place, Mr Gove said: “Yes.”
The Cabinet Office minister added: “My own daughter is due to sit A-levels this year, my son due to sit GCSEs – I know how hard students across the country between Years 11 and 13 have been working.
“We will be putting in place alternative arrangements in order to make sure that the hard work that students have put in to acquire knowledge and develop their skills is appropriately assessed, recognised and awarded.
“One of the things about assessment is that it necessarily involves those students doing particular tasks which teachers will assess. Whether or not they are moderated in a particular fashion by particular awarding bodies or others is a delicate process.”