English GCSE exam bodies to quit Northern Ireland

From September, pupils in England will move to a numerical results system
From September, pupils in England will move to a numerical results system

The decision of England’s two largest GCSE exam boards to pull out of Northern Ireland is a result of the education minister’s “inflexibility,” Peter Weir has said.

Mr Weir, who chairs the education committee at Stormont, said the OCR and AQA bodies’ decision follows the minister’s refusal to align the province’s grading system with England.

From September, pupils in England will move to numerical results system, with 9 being the highest grade and 1 the lowest. In November last year, minister John O’Dowd announced that Northern Ireland schools, like those in Wales, will retain the A*-G grading system.

Mr Weir described the decision of the examination boards as “disappointing but not surprising”.

The DUP MLA said: “It is a direct result of the inflexible approach taken to GCSE grading by John O’Dowd. When he announced that the system of GCSE grades in Northern Ireland would not make any adjustment at all to align with the changes to the system in England, and that boards outside of Northern Ireland would have to adjust their grades, he was warned by myself and others that this risked putting schools and pupils in Northern Ireland at a disadvantage.”

Although the majority of pupils affected will have their maths and English courses switched to the Northern Ireland CCEA examining body, those schools offering less traditional subjects such as Russian, Latin and Classical Civilisation will no longer be able to do so.

Mr Weir added: “It isn’t worthwhile for these two boards to adjust their system to accommodate Northern Ireland, but as between them they offered around 25 per cent of GCSE courses here it will have a major impact. In effect the rigidity of the minister has left CCEA with a virtual monopoly, and removed choice from schools. Indeed it will leave schools with a major headache to either find replacement courses or reduce choice to their students.

“The DUP had highlighted the dangers long before today’s decision, and had placed a motion on the subject to the Assembly before Christmas. Even at this late hour I appeal to the minister to repair the damage, show common sense and make the necessary changes to help rescue the situation.”

TUV leader Jim Allister has also slammed Mr O’Dowd, saying the decision was part a “malevolent political agenda”.

He said: “While I am dismayed by the news that pupils in Northern Ireland will no longer be able to avail of GCSEs offered by examination boards in Great Britain, this is the disruptive outcome which the minister was warned about when he announced his foolish failure to follow GB GCSE changes on 17 November 2015.

“If he expected the GB Boards to specially mark NI students on an alphabetical basis, while switching to numerical grading in GB, then he was at best naive. I don’t think, however, he expected and hoped for any different outcome than has occurred, as cutting as many ties as he can with GB practice is part of his overriding malevolent political agenda.”

Mr Allister added: “Sadly, once more Sinn Fein - whose decision the DUP could have called in, but didn’t - has brought chaos to education. It does not make sense for students or teachers. Schools now have a much reduced choice. Not only that, but courses which have been taught for years and the resources purchased to teach them have been rendered obsolete.”

However, Mr O’Dowd said the latest development was “not unforeseen”.

“It is very disappointing that some organisations are choosing to put commercial interests ahead of the needs of our young people,” he said.

“I want to reassure pupils and parents that work is well underway to ensure that our young people can continue to access the widest possible range of subjects and courses, including those most relevant to the needs of our economy, to progress on their chosen path in learning or employment. I also want to assure them of my commitment to ensuring that our young people have access to a broad and relevant curriculum, supported by internationally recognised qualifications.”

The minister added: “By the end of the month, schools will be advised on the next steps. In particular, CCEA will be able to advise on arrangements for those pupils who are already working towards qualifications in Maths and English Literature provided by these awarding bodies that have now decided to leave us. Guidance will also be given on the alternatives available to fill gaps that might emerge in the range of GCSEs on offer as a result of those decisions. In many cases, the variation in subject specifications across awarding organisations is not great, and therefore there will be alternative specifications available for pupils to follow.”