Since mid-2013, the reform of GCE and GCSE qualifications in England and Wales has diverged from the pattern of reform of these qualifications in Northern Ireland. In England, it is a case of revolution driven by former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s belief that qualifications should be overwhelmingly examination-based rather than earned through coursework and continuous assessment. Northern Ireland has very much stayed on the path of evolution.
Education Minister John O’Dowd ordered the CCEA to carry out a fundamental review of GCSEs and A-levels in September 2013, and consulted the public on the review’s findings. Very little of a fundamental nature is set to change.
However, although the review did not come down on the side of radical reform of GCSEs and A-levels, it did produce some 49 recommendations and the Minister indicated that he was prepared to implement all of them. In a statement to the Assembly last March, John O’Dowd argued that in general terms his approach to reform of qualifications would be guided by expert advice, international best practice and what was in the best interests of Northern Ireland’s students. Specifically, he pointed to the fact that he would not be following Gove’s decoupling of the AS and A2 components of GCE A-level. While the proposed decoupling fitted with Gove’s philosophy of courses having tough exams at the end of the course only, O’Dowd pointed to the advantage that pupils gained from registering AS scores, giving universities a predictor of future attainment, which in turn helped pupils to get early offers of university places.
Similarly, the Minister indicated that he would be retaining the current approach to GCSE English where there is at present an emphasis on skills as well as knowledge. This decision followed on the foot of discussions with employers who wanted to see school-leavers presenting to the workforce not only with reading and writing ability, but broader communications skills including speaking and listening.
Also, unlike in England and Wales, Minister O’Dowd announced in September 2014 that he would be retaining the ‘practical’ assessment element of all A-level science qualifications. Despite the official confidence expressed in the existing system of GCE and GCSE qualifications in Northern Ireland, the door has been left open for schools to choose for themselves exam specifications from other awarding organisations provided that the requirements of the Northern Ireland curriculum are met. This approach, O’Dowd reflects, is because there is “value in ensuring schools have access to as wide a choice of qualifications as possible” which he hopes will help “maintain an open qualifications market for schools.”
Indeed, ensuring the portability of Northern Ireland’s GCSE and A-level qualifications is a key concern as divergence with England and Wales continues, and is the subject of a number of the CCEA expert group recommendations.
Another important proposal is that high quality non-general and vocational qualifications should be made available to all 14-18 year old learners in Northern Ireland including those whose needs are not met by GCSEs and A-levels. This emphasis on valuing vocational alongside academic learning is reflected further in the Department for Employment and Learning’s review of youth training which aims to establish a baccalaureate-style flexible professional and technical award at Level 2, largely delivered in the workplace. This will equate to five GCSEs grades A*-C, including maths and English.
Northern Ireland’s qualification system continues to evolve and change in line with the Executive’s overall social and economic policy priorities but is making steady progress rather than blazing a trail.