A-level results day: NI grading system as fair as possible amid pandemic chaos, says former minister Peter Weir

The system for grading A-levels in Northern Ireland in the absence of exams this year is fair “as best it can be” despite pandemic disruption, former education minister Peter Weir has said.

Peter Weir served as education minister from May 2016 to March 2017, and from January 2020 to June 2021
Peter Weir served as education minister from May 2016 to March 2017, and from January 2020 to June 2021

Mr Weir, who was responsible for overseeing the current system during his time as minister, was speaking to the News Letter as A-level students across Northern Ireland wake up today to find out their grades.

He stressed the similarity in approach across Northern Ireland, England and Wales when it comes to exam grades – something he says should ensure a “level playing field” when it comes to competitive university admissions.

With GCSE results due on Thursday, students across the UK face a nervous few days as school-and-teacher-assessed grades are awarded.

Mr Weir, who was replaced as minister by his party colleague Michelle McIlveen during the recent period of DUP upheaval, was asked whether he has confidence in the system in place for A-level students.

“I think we’re in very unusual circumstances but I think, as best as they can be, the results will be fair,” he said.

“I think we don’t have a perfect system because we don’t have perfect conditions. In an ideal world, the conditions would be there so that examinations could take place but the conditions haven’t been there.”

Asked if formal exams would have been a better barometer of students’ progress, Mr Weir said: “If there had been exams this year it would have been very unfair on a range of individuals within the system.”

He explained: “In fact, it might have been unfair across the board because we were in a scenario where we were forced to use remote learning for effectively the second term.

“That would have meant it would have been unfair on everybody.

“And then, in terms of people having been in and out of school there would also have been a differential level of unfairness.”

Mr Weir, who held the education minister post at Stormont on two occasions, continued: “Let’s take an example so, in theory, all the classes were back from September through to December.

“However, what you will have got because of self isolation or indeed people having Covid is some students who will have been entirely uninterrupted from September to December whereas others will have had different periods where they will have had to rely upon remote learning.

“You might end up, for the sake of argument, out of roughly 14 weeks of class you will have had some pupils with no interruption, some with two weeks’ interruption, some who had maybe had six weeks’ interruption.

“There would have been a problem there anyway, but the fact is everyone was off doing remote learning throughout the period into spring. So exams wouldn’t have been a fair assessment this year.”

On the approach of other UK nations, the Strangford MLA said: “There’s been a similar approach taken in England and Wales so it should be very much a level playing field for everybody.”