Colin Booth, the principal and chief executive of Leeds City College, described the incident as an example of the “phenomenal” commitment of students and teachers to achieving exam success.
Speaking at a meeting of the Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire All Party Parliamentary Group yesterday, he said: “This year we had one group of students who went down with chicken pox and insisted they wanted to take the exam. We had two or three members of staff who volunteered to invigilate the exam.
“We then had to seal the exam papers and mark them up as contaminated so we could send them to the exam board to be marked. The commitment from members of staff is huge.”
Mr Booth said he had no problem with government policy decisions which meant schools were concentrating on maths and English teaching, but added: “As with a lot of decisions, they need thinking through in more detail sometimes.
"The requirement to do GCSEs and the fact there is only one set of GCSEs in May/June every year, means that when Leeds City College does GCSEs we have 3,500 students all sitting an exam at the same time.
“In order to make that possible, we have to train 600 members of staff to be invigilators. The practical consequences of some of the policy decisions are often not thought through in detail.”
Adult education plea
A lack of investment in adult education has created a system where “if you don’t succeed by age 19 then you probably don’t succeed”, the principal of a leading Yorkshire college has warned.
Colin Booth, of Leeds City College, called for a greater value to be placed on technical and professional qualifications, saying the amount the country invested in re-training “has gone down phenomenally” in the last decade.
Speaking at a meeting of the Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire All Party Parliamentary Group yesterday, he said the numbers of young people coming through the education system “would barely scratch the surface of the skills gap” in Leeds.
His call for more investment in adult education was echoed by other speakers at the event, including Wakefield council chief executive Merran McRae and TUC regional secretary Bill Adams.
Ms McRae, who leads the Leeds City Region local enterprise partnership on the issue of skills, called for “lifelong learning” to be seen as “an automatic part of the workplace”.
It comes after a recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report said government funding for 16 to 18-year-olds and for general further education had been cut much more sharply than funding for schools, pre-school or higher education.
Mr Booth said Leeds, like other parts of the country, had a skills gap, though in the city there was more need for people with skills in cyber-security, coding, digital skills and financial services.
He told the meeting at Asda House in Leeds that Â£7.5bn was spent by the Government on educating 15-year-olds while only Â£1bn was spent on educating 25-year-olds, the vast majority in higher education rather than technical or professional skills.
“We have created a system in this country over the past ten years where the amount we invest in adult education has halved over the last ten years.
“We have created a system where really, more recently, if you don’t succeed by age 19 then you probably don’t succeed. We need to reverse that or we will never fill those skills gaps.”
Ms McRae said the main challenges for policy-makers was less around current shortages and more about “future-proofing” for new jobs and skills needed in the coming decades.
She said: “There is an issue with a lot of the content of skills development, right through the school curriculum and onwards, in that the future skills will be much more around analytical thinking, critical thinking and problem solving, and also customer service, emotional intelligence, the very human side, that machines won’t be able to replicate for quite a while, hopefully.
“But we are not teaching that in schools, we are not teaching logical thinking or creativity, we are not teaching emotional intelligence.
“It is still a very knowledge-based curriculum, and whether the older ones among us like it or not, knowledge is actually much more readily available now at a touch of a finger. We really do need to be looking at those softer skills.”
Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman, who chaired the meeting, suggested young people might benefit from developing management skills, which are currently not on any school curriculum.
Earlier this week during a visit to Leeds, Skills Minister Anne Milton said apprenticeship uptake was “creeping back up” in the wake of government reforms, amid suggestions that there is “still a mountain to climb” when it comes to delivering industry needs.