Covid: Teachers to decide some vocational grades in Wales

By Will Fyfe
BBC News

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image captionCallum and his fellow students have not been in the workshop since mid-December

Thousands of students taking vocational courses in Wales will now have their grades decided by their teachers.

It comes after A-level, GCSE and vocational students in England were told teachers would decide grades.

English exam boards also oversee some qualifications in Wales.

However Education Minister Kirsty Williams did not include vocational qualifications when she announced GCSE and A-level grades in Wales would be decided by teachers.

But where there are practical, hands-on skills to be tested, such as plumbing and electrics, some of these exams will continue in a Covid-safe way.

The announcement comes as those few college students who have returned to campus this week expressed mixed emotions after months of studying at home.

'Dread' and 'relief'

On Monday some students were allowed to return to college as coronavirus restrictions were slightly eased.

Colleges Wales said those taking practical courses had been unable to practice skills for months due to workshops being closed.

Some students spoke of "dreading" trying to catch up with work while others said returning was a "relief".

On Monday, some school children also returned to class for the first time since before Christmas.

A small number of college students and apprentices also returned to campus.

Students allowed to return include those who need a licence to practice, such as plumbers, electricians and those wanting to work in construction.

Chief executive of Colleges Wales, Iestyn Davies, said while it was encouraging that "often forgotten" college students appeared to have been prioritised by ministers, many had not been able to do parts of their courses due to being unable to access workshops and classrooms.

"Unfortunately it's been inevitable that many of these learners have had their very practical kind of learning disrupted more than those who can study at home, who could be doing their A-levels or GCSEs," he said.

"You can't learn to plumb, or to be an electrician or a welder simply by watching YouTube videos - you have to do it and demonstrate that you're competent and safe."

However, when they returned to the classrooms, students saw differences in the way their courses are carried out, with strict social distancing measures in place.

media captionApprentices miss out as pandemic cuts work

Mr Davies warned that the age profile of most college students made their return to the classroom "a bit more risky in terms of public health".

He said "very specific" social distancing and personal protection measures had been put in place to make the return as safe as possible.

Before Christmas students at Coleg Menai, Anglesey, and Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor, in Gwynedd, could study in "contact groups", also known as bubbles.

Now they have to stay two metres apart from others while at the college and wear face coverings at all times.

Principal Aled Jones-Griffith said: "They can't take it off during the assessments either - so that is a critical difference to what things looked like before Christmas."

Mr Jones-Griffith said his colleges were inviting students back in a "very controlled way" and phoning them the evening before they arrived to check if they had Covid symptoms.

'It's a great relief'

image captionTyler says he is dreading trying to catch up due to the missed practical time

Tyler Hard, 19, went back to Coleg Gwent to restart his welding and fabrication course on Wednesday after months out of college, and said he was now "dreading" catching up.

"Working from home has been difficult," he said.

"I just sit at home and get the emails sent to me for the work and have to just do them at the laptop.

"We haven't done any practical work all year - so it's about getting it all done, or at least as much as we can get down now."

His classmate Callum Gammon, 19, said it was a "great relief" to get back to the workshop and restart the course.

"It has been quite worrying just in case we wouldn't have the time to get the work done," he said.

image captionTeacher Alex Guppy said his students could not do the practical part of their course at home

Alex Guppy, who teaches the course, said while many of his students had been able to practice their skills on their apprenticeships, it was no substitute to being able to learn in college.

"It's massive to get them in, it gets them re-engaged and motivated to get back into the course," he said.

"We need to give them the skills and industry to survive in the workforce."

'School focus irritating'

Education minister Kirsty Williams has said she hopes year 11 and 13 students, due to sit their A-levels and GCSEs, along with those doing "similar qualifications in colleges" would be able to return from 15 March.

Ellie Kidd, 18, is in her first year of a Level 3 Sport NVQ at Coleg Cambria and said the lack of news about vocational courses in government announcements was "frustrating".

image captionEllie Kidd says she is frustrated at a lack of news about vocational courses

"People all over the country have completely different experiences learning at home," said Ellie, who added she has no idea when she will return to college.

"At least in school or college you're all getting the same education and learning the same things, but at home that's not possible for everyone."

Ellie said she hoped there would be clarity for students soon to help them return to face-to-face learning.

"In terms of announcements, I feel like all we normally hear about are GCSEs and A-levels," she said.

"It's quite irritating, because we just wish... we got more vocational course updates too.

"If you've taken a practical course it's because you enjoy the practical parts. Not having that practical element [at home] can make the written work a bit harder for you."

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