Exam reform takes shape

michael-gove John-O-Dowd-2010 Northern Ireland’s exams review is continuing after Education Secretary Michael Gove decided to retain GCSEs. Local decisions are expected after the summer.

The future shape of Northern Ireland’s GCSE and A-levels is likely to be outlined in the autumn, after Education Minister John O’Dowd considers the report of a review of qualifications. His decisions will be influenced by Education Secretary Michael Gove’s announcement that GCSEs will be retained in England.

“I am quite clear that I want a suite of qualifications that are robust, fair and portable,” John O’Dowd stated after Gove’s announcement. “They must be credible in the eyes of employers and other education providers, including universities, while ensuring our learners are not disadvantaged against their peers across these islands.”

Education is a devolved matter but Northern Ireland, England and Wales have shared the same school examinations system since 1951.

The A-level has existed since that date and was supplemented by the AS and A2 in 2000. GCSEs were introduced by the Thatcher Government in 1986, as a replacement for O-levels.

Last September, Michael Gove announced that GCSEs in England would be replaced by a new qualification: the English baccalaureate.

Gove claimed that the current system needed to be changed as standards were falling and becoming less rigorous. His Lib Dem coalition partners recognised the need for reform (as did Labour) but said that his plans could lead to a two-tier system of qualifications. Teaching unions and the qualifications regulator Ofqual were critical during the consultation process and ministers decided to change course.

“My idea that we end the competition between exam boards to offer GCSEs in core academic qualifications and have just one, wholly new, exam in each subject was just one reform too many at this time,” Gove told the House of Commons.

A-levels and GCSEs will become linear again, rather than modular, as schools and universities complained that the courses were becoming too segmented. Reformed GCSEs, to be taught from 2015 onwards, will be universal qualifications but would “no longer set an artificial cap on how much pupils can achieve by forcing students to choose between higher and foundation tiers.”

League tables (in both England and Northern Ireland) rank schools according to how many children achieve a C pass in five GCSEs, including English and maths. Gove concluded that this was a “deceptively simple measure” and two new measures were announced:

• the percentage of pupils reaching an attainment threshold in English and maths; and

• an average point score showing how pupils progress between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4.

John O’Dowd was disappointed that Gove had not consulted with him or Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews but was “not against change if it makes sense.”

He commissioned a fundamental review of GCSEs and A-levels last October, which will report in June. This is being undertaken by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment. The Department of Education is also running a consultation on potential short-term changes to A-levels, which started in December and concludes on 8 March.

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