Pupils were left distraught after schools were plunged into the chaotic situation of cancelling exams on just 30 minutes notice after ministers u-turned over the decision to let BTEC exams go-ahead last night.
A last-minute change meant that schools and colleges in England will now be allowed to decide whether they want to run vocational exams due to take place this month.
Ministers faced calls to cancel Btec exams scheduled for this week amid concerns over students’ safety and fairness in the wake of new restrictions.
Gavin Williamson is due to give an update on A-level and GCSE examinations today.
The Department for Education (DfE) has said schools and colleges can continue with the January exam series “where they judge it right to do so”.
But that situation became a farce on Wednesday morning with pupils given just hours of notice on if their exams schedules today would go ahead.
One teacher told the Mirror: “We have exams going on today with a very small number of pupils, a school 15 minutes down the road has cancelled them.
“It is chaos and bad for pupils – the reality is schools aren’t in the position to make this decision about safety, that is a decision for Gavin Williamson.
“If I dodged my marking I’d be sacked, but the Education Secretary seems to consider the decision making part of his job entirely voluntary.”
Hundreds of pupils took to Twitter last night to share their anxieties about sitting an exam after spending hours worrying about it it was safe to attend or even going ahead.
One student told ITV’s Paul Brand: “It’s nearly 4am and I haven’t slept. The anxiety around these exams has raised my stress levels beyond their maximum limit. This is unfair and pure evil. These exams NEED to get cancelled.”
Another student told the Mirror: “Turned up after no sleep to be told they weren’t going to hold the exam – a trip on the bus exposing myself and now my family to the virus? For what?”
The Association of Colleges (AoC) has said the Government’s response risks “more uncertainty” for students and “more problems” in the months to come.
Organisations representing college leaders and students called on the Government to cancel the January exam series which begins this week, adding that it seemed “impossible” that they could go ahead.
On Tuesday, a DfE spokeswoman 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.”
She added: “We will continue to work with Ofqual, awarding organisations and other stakeholders to discuss the next steps and provide more detail on the way forward, including ensuring other students have a way to progress with as little disruption as possible.”
Boris Johnson has said pushing ahead with all exams this summer “as normal” would not be possible, and he added that the Education Secretary would work with Ofqual to put in place “alternative arrangements”.
But despite this change in policy towards summer exams, the DfE has not cancelled vocational exams – which include Btec exams – this month.
The AoC and the National Union of Students (NUS) have both called for the exams to be scrapped, as they say it is unsafe to make students sit the tests.
David Hughes, chief executive of the AoC, said: “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: “Every college leader has been spending all day trying to weigh up the pros and cons of cancelling or going ahead.
“They were hoping that the Government would be decisive, but that has not happened, and students will have to look locally for the leadership and certainty they seek.
“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.”
In a letter to the skills minister Gillian Keegan on Tuesday, Mr Hughes said it was “simply untenable” to ask college staff and students to ignore the stay at home message in order to sit exams.
He said: “It is patently not safe for them and their families, even with the best mitigations a college can put in place. To go ahead with this exam series now would also be unfair on students.
“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.”
The different treatment of students taking vocational qualifications in January compared with their peers sitting general qualifications in the summer felt “wrong and hard to defend”, he added.
BTEC examiner Pearson said they would ensure students who could not sit an exam physically would not be disadvantaged.
Cindy Rampersaud, senior vice president for BTEC and apprenticeships at Pearson, said: “We are working closely with the DfE and Ofqual on all of this and we will share more detail with you in the coming days.
“We appreciate this must be a very difficult time for you. We hope that this update provides you with some clarity and reassurance that you will not be disadvantaged whichever decision is made by your school or college regarding exams. Please contact your school or college to find out what decision they have made regarding exams this January.”