Ben Lowry: We need to examine why NI beat GB in GCSEs

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Pupils in Northern Ireland have far outperformed those of the rest of the UK at GCSE.

The percentage of them getting A*-C grades last week was just over 79%.

The percentage getting the same across the UK as a whole was much lower, at 67%.

This has been hailed by NI politicians, but they have not advanced theories as to why we have done so much better.

I suspect it is partly our traditional education system, and partly our non-traditional one. The traditional aspect is our system of grammar and secondary schools. It is less than ideal, but it is plainly better than England’s disastrous comprehensive model.

An imperfect method of selection by ability at age 11 that led to some social mobility was replaced by a worse system of selection by wealth in which there is almost no mobility.

But there is a non traditional part of the NI exam system that might partly explain our higher GCSEs: coursework.

In 2014 Michael Gove axed it due to his concern about dumbing down and even cheating. Sure enough, the scandal of 25 years of grade inflation in GB is over. John O’Dowd did not reform in NI.

But now we have Theresa May in Downing St and Peter Weir at education in Stormont – both pro grammar. It is to be hoped that Mr Weir’s support for traditional educational now leads to an urgent examination of the different exam approach in GB and NI post the Gove reforms.

Regardless of what we say about our school standards, elite universities will make their own assessment. Anyone who is pro Union should be concerned at any threat to the tradition of NI people going to top GB universities.

Any sceptical mention of the NI-GB results differential will draw the cry that it insults the latest crop of kids. It doesn’t and in any event they already endure comparison between peers, which is gruelling. Pupils who are so inclined compare their results with other NI students, a comparison of like with like.

But if the divergence with GB is maintained, the results of future generations will not be comparable with GB.

In any event, while bright children must be encouraged academically and have their success celebrated, I share the Bob Geldof-Jeremy Clarkson view that there is a thrilling world of opportunity out there for kids who flop in class.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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