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Plans to reform exams 'could see results devalued'

By Anna Maguire

Confusion around changes to GCSEs and A-Levels could lead to the devaluing of school-leavers' qualifications, it has been warned.

A raft of proposed reforms will see more maths and IT qualifications at GCSE and a programme of vocational subjects from the age of 14, if they are rubber-stamped.

Long-term proposals could also see the qualifications renamed, and GCSEs paired with an alternative qualification or scrapped altogether within a decade.

Such a proposal – which is put forward in a Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) review of the qualifications' system – would also raise questions over the validity of the current school leaving age.

While the proposals have been described as evolution rather than revolution, there are concerns that wider confusion over the changes could devalue the qualifications in the eyes of employers and education institutions across the UK and the Republic.

Around 38% of young people here study at higher education institutions in England, Scotland or Wales.

UUP MLA and vice-chair of the Assembly's education committee, Danny Kinahan, said changes could not be introduced without measures benchmarking their quality.

The issue of the qualifications' portability also dominated yesterday's debate.

"For this party to support any change it must be clearly demonstrated that any revised qualifications continue to be of a high standard and are portable throughout the UK and beyond," Mervyn Storey, DUP chair of the education committee, said.

Mr Kinahan echoed concerns voiced by TUV MLA Jim Allister that an unintentional consequence of change could be the perception that Northern Ireland is maintaining a less rigorous exams system.

"I would be concerned that there will be confusion and we end up with a system that's nothing to everyone... that is devalued. We need to find benchmarks," Mr Kinahan said.

Education Minister John O'Dowd has insisted that there is no evidence that changes in England will ensure a more rigorous exams system.

While CCEA's extensive review emphasises the importance of the transferability of local qualifications, the minister's proposals are light on details of how this will be ensured.

Mr O'Dowd (right) insisted that portability issues "can and will be resolved".

"Portability may be very comforting, but we want to see a system where our exams system is being held up by others," Mr O'Dowd.

Echoing other union chiefs, Avril Hall Callaghan, general secretary of the Ulster Teachers' Union, said portability would not be a concern if the issue is handled properly.

Mr O'Dowd commissioned the CCEA review on the back of landmark reforms announced by Westminster Education Secretary Michael Gove – which have seen modular exams scrapped.

Mr O'Dowd and his Welsh counterpart have previously expressed frustration that Mr Gove announced extensive changes without consulting them.

"I have not given up on the three-country model... but I suspect others have," Mr O'Dowd added.

"We should not be thinking if we are changing, we are at sea on our own.

"I do not believe GCSEs and A-Levels are fundamentally flawed that they require an overhaul at this stage."

However, there may be a shift away from the academic approach to a more workplace-friendly curriculum.

Mr O'Dowd revealed that he would like to see the development of ICT skills teaching in primary schools and funded leave for teachers to visit workplaces.

Teaching union chiefs welcomed the minister's approach.

"We need the involvement of teachers and teaching unions in this process.

"The minister has done that to date," Ms Hall Callaghan added.

A public consultation on the proposals closes on December 20.

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