Schools and colleges in England will be given the flexibility 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.
But 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”.
The Association of Colleges (AoC) has said the Government’s response risks “more uncertainty” for students and “more problems” in the months to come.
On Monday night, the DfE said vocational exams in England would continue as planned in January and students taking exams “should attend as scheduled”.
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.
Cabinet Minister Michael Gove has suggested that end-of-year exams for students in the summer could be abolished in favour of alternative styles of assessment following the new lockdown in England.
With the Government acknowledging that exams will not be able to go ahead as planned in the summer, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will address the Commons on Wednesday to update MPs on how pupils will be assessed.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), told the BBC Breakfast programme on Tuesday that there may be a lot of young people who are assuming they should not go to college to sit their vocational exam this month amid the lockdown.
He said: “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.”
Pearson, which runs the Btec exams, said on Tuesday morning that the DfE had said that vocational exams would go ahead in January as planned.
A statement from Pearson on Twitter said: “We are working with them urgently to understand the implications of this and will share any updates as soon as we have them.”