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Current exams system will stay, vows O'Dowd

JOANNE SWEENEY

SCHOOLS in Northern Ireland are to go it alone after Stormont Education Minister John O'Dowd decided against introducing changes to GCSE and A-Levels in line with England and Wales.

The Sinn Fein minister announced that despite the radical changes for schools in Britain next year, the exams system here would remain virtually unchanged – apart from a new one-resit rule for A-Levels.

The news will be welcomed by both students and parents who needed clarification in the light of changes to the English exams.

However, he came under fire from the DUP and SDLP on two other major school assessment systems – the Key Stage Assessment in primary and post-primary schools and the flawed computer based assessment (CBA) in primary schools.

There has been no agreement yet on the future direction of Key Stage assessments and the CBA assessment will still be voluntary for primary schools this autumn.

Yesterday's announcement means that post-primary school principals here can still choose from "an open market" of examination boards for GCSEs and A-Levels (AS and A2 exams), which will include both linear (exams at end of course) and modular assessment (exams after each modules). In another break from the incoming English system, the standard grade range of A*-G will also be retained.

Northern Ireland's A-Level students will also have the opportunity to sit AS exams at the end of their first course year, even though this is to be treated as a standalone exam in England.

Mr O'Dowd also emphasised another break with the English system by stipulating that the "speaking and listening" component of all GCSE English courses must still be carried out, in line with employer needs.

He said he had accepted the recommendations from two major reviews – CCEA's into GCSEs and A-Level qualifications, and the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) Review into evaluation and assessment in schools.

Mr O'Dowd told the Assembly that he had "no intention of acting in a way that will disadvantage our young people wanting to study across these islands".

"I believe my decision to retain the coupling of AS and A2 in a modular A-level has already provided a genuine advantage to those applying for universities in England who value AS marks as indicators of overall performance."

Independent education expert Sir Robert Salisbury said he believed the minister's decision was "reasonable" to take in the short-term, but he felt any permanent changes in English education would impact eventually here.

"I think the minister's approach is reasonable and cautious but these proposed English changes may not yet be fully implemented as there is still a lot of opposition from teachers to them."

However, education committee chair Mervyn Storey accused the minister of "political partial hearing" when it came to the computer-based assessment system.

"I give him credit for his approach on the exams but the CBA system is an utter failure. It's time that it was put right."

Last night SDLP education spokesman Sean Rogers expressed serious concerns about the end of Key Stage Assessment, arguing that assessment is only useful if it informs teaching and learning, and the current Key Stage Assessments fail in this regard.

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education yesterday welcomed the announcement that it and the Southern Education and Library Board should carry out a strategic review in the Craigavon area to consider how best to meet the demand for integrated places.

Your questions answered on the testing situation

Q What is the difference between GCSEs and A-Levels in England and Wales compared to here?

A From 2015, England will offer only GCSEs and A-Levels to students where exams are taken at the end of course. Wales has also introduced some changes, but not as radical as England.

In Northern Ireland, post-primary principals will continue to offer students both linear and modular assessed courses.

Q Explain the proposed exam resit changes?

A For GCSEs, one resit applies currently and that will remain unchanged.

For A-Levels, one resit will apply from September 2016, that is one resit opportunity at AS level and one resit opportunity at A2 level.

Q What does a linear assessed exam mean?

A Linear assessment is when all the units are assessed at the end of the course. The main advantage of this is that it allows teachers more time and flexibility in teaching the core course subjects. The downside for students is a potentially lower mark should they underperform at the end of the course.

Q What is a modular assessed exam?

A In modular the course is split into different units with an exam at the end of each unit.

Q What is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development?

A It is an organisation which analyses national and global trends and advises governments.

 

BACKGROUND

A review of A-Level and GCSE examinations here was undertaken by the Education Department last year following radical new shake-up proposals from Education Secretary Michael Gove. He announced last year that by 2015 GCSEs in England would move from coursework to exams at the end of two years and will be graded from 1 to 9 rather than A* to G, and that A-Levels would only have an exam at the end of two years.

The AS exam would be treated as a standalone exam.

Wales intends to bring in changes to its exams but will opt to retain its modular assessment for GSCEs and A-Levels.

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