Education Minister, John O’Dowd, has signalled the way forward for evaluation across the primary and post-primary sector as well as the future for GCSE and A-Level qualifications here.
The Minister’s announcement follows the publication of a report on evaluation and assessment in our education system carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and published in December. It is also informed by the consultation, late last year, on the future of GCSEs and A-Levels.
Following his announcement to the Assembly, the Minister said: “In my time as Education Minister there has been a strong focus on the areas of evaluation and assessment in schools. This has been driven partly by our desire to drive further improvements in the educational attainment of our young people; partly by the need to support teachers in their important work; and partly by the changes happening to qualifications in England and Wales.
“To help inform my decisions on the way forward I commissioned two reviews, one carried out by the OECD into evaluation and assessment and one into the future of GCSE and A-Level qualifications here, led by CCEA and informed by a wide range of stakeholders.
“I am now in a position to announce how I wish to proceed on these important issues. My decisions are based on extensive work and consultation and represent a direction of travel that is in the best interests of our children and young people.”
Turning first to qualifications, the Minister announced that he had accepted all 49 recommendations of the CCEA review. Among the most significant of the decisions was his move to allow local schools to deliver their courses in either linear or modular form – a choice that will no longer exist in England or Wales.
Mr O’Dowd said: “I do not intend to restrict schools here to qualifications offered by CCEA or WJEC; schools will continue to be free to choose exam specifications from other awarding organisations provided those organisations can satisfy us that they meet the requirements of our curriculum. The one exception to this will be qualifications in English at GCSE, which will only be considered valid if they include, as an integral part of the award, the assessment of speaking and listening.
“I have also decided to retain the current grading system of A*-G rather than move to the alternative of bands from 1 to 9 as proposed in England. Nevertheless, I intend to keep this under review to ensure that no pupil is disadvantaged.”
Turning to assessment, the Minister highlighted the potential benefits of having a locally developed assessment at the start of the academic year in primary school, as noted in the OECD report. He has decided that Computer Based Assessment (CBA) should continue, however, on a voluntary basis in the short-term.
Mr O’Dowd said: “The practice of having this sort of universal, formative assessment in primary school, mapped to our own curriculum and delivered at the start of the academic year, is noted with approval by the OECD, so the policy is sound. But it follows that a sound policy is no good if its implementation is not up to scratch. Therefore our challenge is not to walk away but to move forward and address these issues head on.
“Until I am absolutely satisfied that the system works for schools, I will not be ‘specifying’ the current NILA and NINA tools. In other words, schools will not be legally obliged to use them. However I do hope that they will choose voluntarily to use them – and to continue to share their experiences so that CCEA, C2k and others can continually improve the service they offer to schools.”
On assessment at the end of Key Stages 1 to 3, the Minister said: “I want officials to continue their engagement with teachers and their representatives to discuss and develop the practice of pupil assessment within the context of the agreed Levels of Progression.
“Given this ongoing commitment to dialogue, I would ask teachers’ unions to reconsider the need for continued industrial action in opposition to assessment arrangements that have been acknowledged at an international level as being ‘sound and congruent with European practice’.”
Continuing, the Minister added “I have asked my officials to undertake further work on a potential basket of performance measures, both for schools and the system overall. We want to explore whether we can come up with an approach that would allow us to draw more sophisticated conclusions about the quality of our system than are possible from looking purely at exam results or assessment outcomes. I want to involve teachers and school leaders in that work.
“The challenge of measuring the wider value of schooling is one that is being grappled with in many countries – and with varying degrees of success. However, we have already shown ourselves to be capable of coming up with approaches to assessment and school improvement that are among the best in the world and I think we are up to that challenge.”
In conclusion, the Minister thanked all those who had contributed to the work on shaping the future of assessment and qualifications and said: “There has been much work and discussion in recent months and years on the form assessment and qualifications should take in the future. I believe the decisions I have taken today provide a strong basis on which to proceed. I believe they will help school staff tailor their teaching to the individual needs of the child; will ensure pupils, parents, employers and Further and Higher Education institutions across these islands can have confidence in our qualifications; and above all will ensure our young people are able to fulfil their potential during their time at school.”