Belfast Telegraph

Exams system to differ in N Ireland

School principals will still be able to choose how to assess pupils in Northern Ireland in a significant break from proposals for England.

Stormont Education Minister John O'Dowd has decided to offer heads the choice of testing after each module or at the end of two-year courses at GCSE and A-level - similar to the situation at present - while Education Secretary Michael Gove intends to compel schools in England to set examinations at the end of the course as part of radical change which he believes will drive up standards.

Mr O'Dowd said there was an "open market" for English exam boards to offer assessments in Northern Ireland and does not believe his decision will inhibit pupils from applying to study at English universities.

"What I want to ensure is that those awarding bodies that are currently operating within our system... that the qualifications they are setting do not corrupt our curriculum and that the qualifications they are setting are not driven by their commercial needs in the sense that they are operating to a larger market in England than they are operating here."

The choice to allow schools to deliver courses in linear (tested at the end) or modular (tested after each component or module) will no longer exist in England or Wales under plans drawn up by the Education Secretary.

English exam bodies geared up to linear assessment will have to decide whether to operate in Northern Ireland. The only difference from Northern Ireland's curriculum involves offering talking and listening as part of English GCSE, which will not be required in England.

The current grading system of A*-G will be retained in Northern Ireland, rather than alternative bands from 1-9 as proposed in England.

AS levels which make up the first year of A-levels will also be maintained.

Mr O'Dowd told the Stormont devolved Assembly: "I believe we can overcome those matters and discussions (with English exam boards) thusfar have been good.

"I have decided to keep the market open to them, my Welsh counterpart has decided that there will only be modular examinations which may rule out English examination bodies coming into Wales but that is a matter for the Welsh, it is something we will keep a close eye on.

"I have decided to keep the market open at this stage because I believe we can facilitate the awarding bodies.

"If they can work with our curriculum and if they co-operate with our department I can assure them I will co-operate with them."

There are major concerns that the Education Secretary's plans to overhaul GCSEs and A-levels at the same time will "wreck" the English education system, according to Oxford University's head of admissions.

Mike Nicholson suggested secondary schools and universities were worried about the limited evidence available on reforming exams.

He also warned that plans to make AS-levels a standalone qualification will have "tragic consequences" for attempts to increase the numbers of disadvantaged students going to university.

The Association of School and College Leaders union has also said confidence in Mr Gove had been eroded following the decision that only a pupil's first entry for a GCSE exam will count in school league tables.

It said it is "deeply and increasingly concerned" about the changes being made to education, particularly to assessment, exams and school accountability.

Under Westminster reforms, in future teenagers will no longer take modular A-levels with exams throughout, but linear A-levels with exams at the end of the two-year course. AS-levels will be decoupled from A-levels to form a qualification in their own right.

Mr Nicholson has said that there was an "assumption that linearity is good", partly because some universities still operate a system of exams at the end of a three-year degree course. But he added that universities have "managed to cope with modularity", and that students apply for degree courses with different types of qualifications, including the International Baccalaureate, the Cambridge Pre-U and A-levels.

Meanwhile, Mr O'Dowd also told the Assembly today that computer based assessment in primary schools should continue on a voluntary basis, despite previous glitches to the system.

In October 2012, up to 400 primary schools in Northern Ireland had problems with the computer assessment for P4 and P7 pupils. The Department of Education said 180 schools reported problems. A more successful pilot programme was run last autumn.

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 (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), 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 had on."

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