On the 5 January I wrote to Nick Gibb, Minister for School Standards, to express my deep concern about the continuation of BTEC exams during this disruptive period, and about the lack of local access to devices and connectivity necessary for online learning during the lockdown.
You can read my letter in full below:
I write to you about two urgent issues that are affecting many children, young people, and adults in education in West Ham.
The first is access to the laptops and reliable broadband connectivity that are an essential requirement for children, young people, and adults whose only option during the present lockdown is for remote, online learning.
As you know, I wrote to you last year about the particular problems we have with digital exclusion in Newham. I am aware that the Government has disbursed a number of laptops to the council and to Academy Trusts locally, and that several technology companies are making free data available to some learners. However, reports from local schools and colleges, parents, and charities all suggest that the supply of these resources is not meeting the desperate needs of those who must continue their educations in a safe way during the lockdown.
I have been told that the supply of BT wireless dongles has run out, and that in the Autumn Newham’s allocation of laptops was as much as 70% lower than had been requested to meet the very pressing need. This need has, of course, only got more pressing with time, because the disruption to education over the past months has had a cumulative effect. I believe that action to enable current learners to catch up and to engage in work and further study on fair terms with others is more needed than ever.
A further problem affecting many learners in West Ham is digital access for adults taking education courses remotely as a result of the restrictions. Adult education is devolved in London, however the reality is that the Greater London Authority does not have the funding available to provide resources to adult learners, and funding to enable this has not been offered by central Government.
Adult and vocational learning is more important than ever. The enormous disruption caused by the pandemic has shown people that forms of work they thought were secure are in fact not so, and there is a huge need to give people of all ages the opportunity to retrain and learn and to find new ways to support their families after the battering that this crisis has caused their finances.
I do not believe that the level of device and connectivity access provided to enable remote learning is at all sufficient to the needs of learners in West Ham. I would be grateful for more information about the basis for the allocations the Department has made to local areas, the assessments you have made of the adequacy of the existing programmes for enabling all learners to continue their education remotely, and the further actions you plan to take to prevent digital exclusion from damaging the life chances of my constituents.
The second issue, which affects many adult learners as well as young people, is BTEC exams and what will happen to those who were due to take assessments this month but are hugely affected by the new lockdown, coming as it does after many months of disrupted education. This disruption has been more significant for many BTEC courses than for A-level equivalents, because practical teaching has had to take place on a rota basis to enable social distancing, which has inevitably limited the amount of teaching that has been possible.
From what I have heard from local institutions, attendance at this week’s exams so far has been predictably dire, and one large FE College took the unilateral step of simply cancelling them, because they did not think that the advice required on safety and fairness for staff and students alike was in place. Students have heard the thankfully clear public health message to stay at home from the Prime Minister this week, and I believe it is likely that there will be significant demographic inequalities between students who do attend exams under these conditions and those who remain at home.
I fully understand that BTEC courses can offer more flexibility about assessment timings than is normal for GCSEs and A-levels, but this is far from a simple question of rescheduling exams later in the year.
Many BTEC students use earlier assessments to achieve a Pass mark, with a good performance in later assessments essential to achieve a better mark and be competitive with their peers taking A-levels who, as we know, are more likely to be from wealthier backgrounds.
Students from financially secure families may be comfortable remaining in education until they are able to sit exams and maximise their grade and UCAS points. Many in my constituency and elsewhere will not be comfortable waiting, and will sacrifice the higher grades and greater future opportunities they would otherwise have achieved in the hope of providing desperately needed financial support for their families.
I believe it is necessary to cancel the remainder of the BTEC exams over the coming months, and to rapidly establish an alternative method of assessment in the same way that has been done for GCSEs and A-levels. However, I believe it is especially important for BTEC students to be told clearly that they will have an equal opportunity to get a competitive mark in good time. I am concerned that if the Department waits too long to set out a process for BTEC awards, rates of disengagement with learning will be high, especially in communities like mine, and will unfairly blight the life chances of many.
I look forward to reading your reply. Please stay safe and keep well.