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Technical and Vocational Exams

Volume 687: debated on Monday 18 January 2021

What steps he is taking to support students (a) preparing for and (b) taking vocational exams during the covid-19 outbreak. (910842)

What steps his Department is taking to support students to sit their (a) technical and (b) vocational exams in 2021. (910856)

Students due to undergo assessments in 2020-21 deserve the opportunity to progress successfully on to the next stage of their lives. That is why, alongside Ofqual, the Government are currently consulting on the alternative arrangements needed for vocational and technical examinations due to take place from April onwards. In the meantime, we are investing over £400 million to support access to remote education and, having already delivered 700,000 laptops and tablets to schools up and down the country, we are now rolling out the programme to 16 to 19 year-olds in colleges. The majority of FE providers will be invited to order their devices by the end of January.

As my hon. Friend will know, schools and colleges—for instance, Havering college in my constituency—were asked to make their own decisions about whether or not students should sit vocational exams in January, meaning that some exams went ahead while others were cancelled. What measures are the Government taking to ensure that students will not be unfairly disadvantaged, whether they were able to sit their exams or not?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question because it gives me the opportunity to make one thing absolutely clear to the House: no student will be disadvantaged by their decision either to sit their January assessment or to defer it. That means that, for those learners requiring a licence to practise, which can be fulfilled only through practical assessment, that assessment can go ahead, and, indeed, many did. Launched on Friday, Ofqual’s consultation is seeking views on what the alternative arrangements should be and how those alternative arrangements will ensure fairness for all learners and give everybody the opportunity to progress on to their next stage.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for those replies. It is very important that the students and apprentices taking technical and vocational exams are not overlooked. Will she assure the House that the work of making alternative arrangements for them will be given a high priority and the necessary resources; that these arrangements will be conveyed quickly; that priority will be given to returning to buildings when on-site assessments are a key part of a course; and that exam support services will be available to colleges as well as to schools?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I could not agree more about the importance of ensuring vocational and technical qualification students are treated fairly and not disadvantaged compared with their peers. We have been working at pace with Ofqual to ensure appropriate arrangements are in place specifically for vocational and technical qualification learners, and the joint consultation we published on Friday seeks views specifically on those qualifications. As soon as possible, we will prioritise safe attendance for those students who need to attend on site in order to prepare for practical assessments, where it is impossible for that training to take place remotely. I can confirm that the exam support service is indeed available to colleges as well as schools.

I pay tribute to everyone in the further education sector, and particularly those college leaders who have been left with very difficult decisions to make this January because of the BTEC exam fiasco. The Government’s farcical approach to those exams has left college leaders to show leadership and concern for pupil and teacher safety, in the absence of any from the Government. As the question from the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) has just exposed, we now have students and colleges on different tracks to the same exams. It is all so unnecessary. How many more vocational students must suffer as a result of the Secretary of State’s inability to make the right decisions at the right time?

I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to everyone in the further education sector. They have done an amazing job in keeping learning going, whether remotely—they have been absolutely outstanding in that area—or by preparing colleges to take students.

Learners up and down the country have faced unprecedented challenges this year. For those who have worked so hard over recent months preparing for their January exams, particularly those who require a practical licence to practise, it is right that we allow them the opportunity to progress, because no alternative arrangements are capable of being put in place for those types of exams. Schools and colleges are best placed to know whether they are in a position to deliver the January exams and what mix of students they have, which is why in the light of rapidly evolving public health advice, we took the decision to give them the final say on whether proceeding with January exams was right for their learners. I am sure the hon. Gentleman, and indeed the whole House, will join me in wishing those learners all the very best for their results.