College leaders in England have warned that large numbers of students retaking maths and English GCSEs next month could pose a public health risk, as coronavirus infection rates continue to rise in many parts of the country.
Tens of thousands of students, whose GCSEs were cancelled over the summer, are due to sit the exams in further education colleges across the country, including many in high-risk areas where tighter restrictions are already in place to try to reduce transmission.
Colleges have raised concerns about the logistics of bringing together large volumes of students to sit exams. Some are considering closing their campuses to other students on exam days to reduce risks, others say the exams should be postponed.
The Association of Colleges (AOC) has written to education minister Nick Gibb calling for urgent talks. It says colleges in high- and very-high-risk areas of the North West, Yorkshire and West Midlands are reporting a significantly higher number of resits than in previous years, with some having to accommodate more than 500 students.
AOC’s chief executive, David Hughes, wrote: “Colleges will of course apply the social distancing and health measures … to minimise the risks, but for many it will result in the closure of entire campuses to other students on the exam days to manage numbers safely. Controlling entry and exit points will be a particular issue because exams have fixed start and end times.”
He went on: “We have serious concerns about the potential public health risks this presents and would welcome urgent discussion about whether going ahead with this series of exams is the right thing to do.”
Hughes said the recent rapid increase in infections and advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies that all college teaching should move online where possible were worrying college leaders “who want to make the right balance between safety of students and supporting them to take these exams”.
A pass – or level 4 – in GCSE English and maths is critical for student progression to further and higher education, as well as many apprenticeships. Ordinarily, there are around 50,000 resits, but there are expected to be far higher numbers this year as students who were unable to sit their exams due to the pandemic seek to improve on their school-assessed grades. Students will face no additional costs this year, due to the exceptional circumstances.
Alison Arnaud, principal at Hackney and Tower Hamlets, New City College, said the number of resits had gone up from 50-100 in an average year at her college to more than 400 each for English and maths. All students will sit three maths papers and two English.
“It was right to offer these learners the opportunity. Whether the timing is right given where the lockdown is now is not a question I feel qualified to answer, but it concerns me. If the government had really thought about this, this should have been a January thing.” All 32 boroughs in London will move up to the second tier of coronavirus restrictions later this week.
John Callaghan, principal at Solihull College and University Centre, said his college was accommodating 655 resits in maths and 389 in English at a cost of about £50,000. In a normal year he said there would be 20-30 candidates for each. Solihull is also in the high-tier category.
“We are concerned,” he said. “It’s the first time we’ve mixed our ‘bubbles’ and we’ll be bringing different people together.” There have been 30 positive cases out of a total of 8,000 students plus four members of staff .
“We’ve managed our Covid cases really well,” said Callaghan, who acknowledged the November exams could present additional challenges. “At the end of the day we’ve got to do it, so let’s do it in the most responsible, safe way we can.”
The AOC’s letter also raised concerns about digital poverty, which continues to create barriers to learning for students who find themselves working at home, and increased demand for student mental health support, which requires additional investment.
Following the government’s confirmation earlier this week that GCSEs and A-levels will go ahead next summer though three weeks later than usual, Hughes warned there would be even greater logistical challenges because of the numbers of students involved.
“We would hope that transport and site management issues will be easier by that stage, but for colleges there will be very large cohorts of candidates in popular exam subjects and in GCSE English and maths which will need special planning.”
The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.