In communications with the News Letter commencing November 2015 The Parental Alliance for Choice in Education have expressed concern about the minister’s complete failure to appreciate the consequences of adopting a lettered grading system at odds with the numbered system developed by the English examination boards.
In particular, I criticised the minister’s decision to, in effect, issue an edict forbidding schools from entering Northern Ireland pupils for English examination board A-Levels in the three sciences. According to the edict,
Mr O’Dowd’s decision to forbid schools was based on the tiny differential in the number of marks awarded to the assessment of practical skills in the sciences.
Our suggestion that we simply allow our pupils to “double enter” was met with complete silence from the minister and CCEA.
Now the inevitable has happened and the English awarding bodies have withdrawn entirely from a decades-old relationship with Northern Ireland. “Ourselves alone” comes to mind.
Any intelligent person who has followed the debate about Northern Ireland cutting itself off from the grading scale used by English examining boards should have seen this latest and extremely serious debacle coming.
However, unionist politicians, charged with holding Mr O’Dowd to account, have clearly failed to appreciate the wider consequences of the minister’s break with the “parity” principle as it applies to education.
The characteristic ease with which the minister has dealt with questions on GCSE grading can be traced to the fact that the questions present few real challenges. In particular, why has the education committee not called CCEA before them to question why (given their very generous salaries) they haven’t already developed an algorithm for converting numbered to lettered grades? This most obvious of questions has not even been posed.
The DUP dropped the ball by failing in their core duty as a unionist party to maintain parity with the rest of the UK in not identifying the danger and bringing the issue to the Executive as a cross-cutting matter. They are the only political party who can fix this.
The First Minister must now make an unmistakable promise that if the electorate give the DUP top spot her party will take the education portfolio as first choice following the May elections, and reverse Mr O’Dowd’s policy, thereby ensuring that the children of Northern Ireland are not left behind.
Arlene Foster must take charge and put civil servants on notice to prepare the necessary administrative arrangements in anticipation of a unionist education minister which only she can provide.
• Stephen Elliott is chair of The Parental Alliance for Choice in Education