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English GCSE exam boards to pull out of Northern Ireland

By Rebecca Black

Published 14/01/2016

Education Minister John O'Dowd
Education Minister John O'Dowd

English exam boards AQA and OCR have announced they are pulling out of the GCSE exam market in Northern Ireland.

It follows Sinn Fein Education Minister John O'Dowd's decision last year to stick with letter grades instead of moving to the numerical grade system being adopted in England.

Stormont's Education Committee chairman Peter Weir described it as a blow to schools, and claims it demonstrates the "folly of the Education Minister’s inflexibility".

Around a quarter of courses taken by pupils in Northern Ireland are taken through the English AQA and OCR exam boards. The remainder sit GCSEs set by Northern Ireland board CCEA.

Last November Education Minister John O'Dowd decided to continue with A*-G grades in Northern Ireland, refusing to move to a numerical results system.

In England, pupils beginning GCSEs in September will receive numerical grades where 9 is the highest grade and 1 the lowest.

The English exam boards were only told of this decision after the official announcement, and not consulted before.

AQA and OCR have said they will not operate two separate grading systems.

As a result, both have decided not to offer any more GCSEs in Northern Ireland.

Mr Weir said the decision by the two largest exam boards in England is disappointing but not surprising.

Chair of the Education Committee at Stormont Peter Weir (DUP)
Chair of the Education Committee at Stormont Peter Weir (DUP)

"It is a direct result of the inflexible approach taken to GCSE grading by John O’Dowd," he said.

"When he announced that the system of GCSE grades in Northern Ireland would not make any adjustment at all to align with the changes to the system in England, and that boards outside of Northern Ireland would have to adjust their grades, he was warned by myself and others that this risked putting schools and pupils in Northern Ireland at a disadvantage.

"In response the Minister told us there was nothing to worry about and all would be well.

"The situation we now have could have been easily resolved by adjustments to our grading system ensuring it was aligned with grades in England.

"That would have allowed portability and transferability for Northern Ireland. The folly of not making that straightforward adjustment is shown today."

In 2015, 25.1% of GCSEs studied by Northern Irish pupils were through the AQA, OCR, Edexcel or WJEC exam boards - which equates to about 43,000 GCSE entries.

Comparatively around 128,000 GCSEs - 74.9% - were taken through the NI Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA).

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